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Radiolarians Dec 26, 2018

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Stories in Stone
Invasion of the Radiolarians
March 2007
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Mt. Moreno might be considered a nondescript little hill in southwestern Columbia County, it is just not all that noticeable a landscape feature. There is one road that curls around it and you have to know where that is, or you will miss it altogether. There are some very nice views of the Hudson River on this hill but not much else to attract people.
But we are not “people,” we are geologists. If you drive on Mt. Moreno Road along the western fringe of Mt. Moreno, you will notice some pretty nice outcrops here and there. Continue south on Rte. 9G and you will see more. There are stories in these stones and good ones too. It turns out that Mt. Moreno is very well known to New York State’s geological community. It is the site of one of the greatest “infestations” in our region’s history.

   Thick Normanskill sandstones and thin shales

If you do drive past Mt. Moreno, you might decide to pull over and take a look. The rocks are stratified, and they are largely dark, almost black sandstones and shales. This is the Normanskill Formation. But there is more; there are horizons of chert here too. Chert is better known by the word “flint.” Flint is a shiny dark rock which was used by Indians and other stone-age cultures to fashion into stone implements. You have, no doubt, seen some very fine arrowheads and can appreciate the skill that went into making them.
Flint is an extremely fine-grained rock and that’s why it breaks into small curved chips. An experienced craftsman could pound away at the rock and shape it pretty much any way he wanted, and that includes points, hammers, scrapers and axes. But just saying that the rock is fine grained does not do it justice; there must be much more. That’s where we get to our infestation.
Long ago, in fact about 450 million years “long ago,” our Hudson Valley region lay at the bottom of a very deep marine trench. Do you live in the Hudson Valley? It is hard to believe, but right where you are now was probably 20,000 feet, or more, deep, lying at the bottom of the ocean. Take a look out of your window and see the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Imagine very cold temperatures, strange fish and unbelievable high pressures. But mostly imagine it as not being dark as much as completely black. That’s right here, long ago. The time is called, by geologists, the Ordovician.
This marine deep was called the Normanskill basin and it is a very important part of our geological heritage. A land mass, as large as the islands of Japan, was colliding with North America and the crumpling, associated with this collision, helped make the deep basin. There were no fish, but in every other respect, this was a Marianas like trench.
There were volcanoes and probably many of them. Volcanic eruptions produce silica-rich soot, which can rain down on the seas. There waters would thus be very well supplied with silica (SiO2). That is not especially good for most organisms, but it is very good for radiolarians.

Typical radiolarian
If you have never heard of radiolarians, then you are not alone. They are a group of microbes that are mostly unknown to the general public. You might call them protozoa as they are single celled creatures with animal affinities. They are still alive today and they have tiny skeletons composed of silica.
Silica can be hard to find in sea water, it is not very soluble. But after a sizable eruption, the silica content could sky rocket. Those were the good times for our microbes; they had what they needed to make more of themselves. Volcanic eruptions may very well have been followed by enormous population blooms as astronomical numbers of radiolarians appeared.
None of them lived very long and soon, large amounts of silica skeletons were falling to the bottom of our Normanskill Trench. Thick deposits of them piled up in ever thickening accumulations. Radiolarians might have been very small, but hundreds of feet of radiolarian sediments were piling up.
Burial is nearly forever; these deposits have spent almost the entire last half billion years at Mt. Moreno. They have been deeply buried, under an enormous weight of rock for all of that time. What would you look like after a couple of hundred million years of crushing weight? Well, our radiolarians gradually saw that pressure crush them and harden them into that rock we call flint.
So, now you know a lot more about Mt. Moreno than ever before. Do take a look at those shiny flint deposits along the highway. These rocks had a “previous life” as microbes in a very dark cold ocean.
Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

The Killer Trees Dec. 18, 018

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The Killer Trees
The Register Star
April 29, 2010
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Contrary to the stereotypes, most scientists have rich imaginations and we often like to indulge in wild speculations about our fields of research. Most of the time these ideas can be quickly proven wrong, but sometimes we get an off-the-wall idea that is not so easily eliminated, in fact it may start to look pretty good.
Recently an interesting new hypothesis has been introduced that may offer us a chance to better understand the black shales and dark sandstones of the Catskill sequence. The dark appearance of these strata makes them remarkably eye-catching and they loom, dark and menacing, over the landscapes wherever they are exposed. The best local area is along Rt. 209, just south of the Saw Kill.
  Rte. 209 outcrop
Black stratified rocks are often rich in undecayed organic matter; it’s the black of the carbon gives these rocks their color. This generally suggests to the geologist that there were low-oxygen conditions in the sea waters at the time of deposition. Without oxygen, most decay bacteria cannot function, and they soon die. But why low oxygen? That’s where that new hypothesis comes in.
That new idea is sometimes called the “killer tree hypothesis.” Although the term may seem a little too extravagant, it probably isn’t that far off the mark. The story starts during the middle Devonian when the evolution of land plants was really starting to accelerate. By then land plants had been around for quite some time, but they had only managed to evolve into small forms with thin, weak stems. Nothing that could be called a tree had yet appeared. Trees require wood as support tissue. Not surprisingly, when wood did evolve, large, tall land plants soon followed, and the world’s first forests quickly appeared.

So, what do trees on land have to do with black colored shales in the ocean? Quite a bit, it turns out. Wood had much to do with our story because it allowed trees to grow so tall that they required deep root systems and that’s when we return to the black shale and the poison sea. Complex root systems help to break up bedrock and they greatly accelerate the rate at which bedrock is weathered into soils. Not surprisingly, deep, well developed soils appeared in the Devonian, possibly for first time in history. This was a major transformation of the landscape. Barren landscapes with thin soils were soon replaced by lush foliage and thick soils as our world’s landscapes turned green and blossomed with plants that grew in deep soils.
All of this led to far more rapid rates of deposition in nearby oceans. Thick soils were easily eroded and provided sediments that glutted nearby streams. The sediments were eventually transported into the nearest ocean which was the Catskill Sea. All of this material was rich in dissolved nutrients, materials such as nitrates and phosphates. When these nutrient rich sediments entered the Catskill Sea, they fertilized the water and that led to the next step in what was now a complex chain of events.
The newly fertilized oceans were ideal for algae; they experienced what is called “algal blooms.” Great population explosions of algae occurred in the shallow, surface waters of the Catskill Sea. While all this was great for the algae it was tragic for just about every other category of marine organisms. As the algae died, they were attacked by decay bacteria. The decay process consumed so much oxygen that the seas soon became oxygen-depleted. With the loss of oxygen, bacteria had in effect poisoned their own habitat. Because they needed oxygen too, their numbers soon plummeted and very soon, all types of animals suffocated in the oxygen depleted sea as well. But the algae just kept on proliferating in the surface waters where there was plenty of oxygen, diffusing in from the air. Soon, large masses of undecayed algal material sank to the floor of the ocean. Almost none of this biological matter ever decayed, consequently the sediments that are found there are very rich in black organic carbon. These would eventually harden into thinly laminated, black shales.
When this happens today in a closed body of water, we refer to it as eutrophication. The Catskill Sea was largely isolated from other deep bodies of water. All these conditions promoted what are called thermally-stratified and stagnant waters. The surface layer was hot while, at depths, the lower strata of water remained cool. Dense mats of floating plants and animals grew upon the warm surface waters. Depth stratification and dense planktonic mats prevented agitation and mixing of the waters, causing stagnant sea floor conditions to develop.
Soon a deep basin with a black mud bottom, devoid of life, appeared. Virtually nothing could live in this sea, except at the surface where there was always plenty of oxygen.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Depths of Depression March. 5, 1998

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Depths of Depression
On the Rocks
The Woodstock Times
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus
Mar. 5, 1998

The sinking of the Titanic is one of the great stories of history. It’s complete with drama, heroism, and even suspense, despite the inevitable ending. Throw in a little romance and no wonder that the current movie has been such a hit. Part of the movie’s success is the allure of the deep. The ocean’s great mysterious abyssal plain retains, even today, a compelling fascination. To scientists, however, equally gripping was the story of the discovery of the sunken liner. You remember it. Intrepid oceanographers, from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, descended to the depths of the ocean’s great abyss in tiny submarines. Powerful headlights shined upon the long unseen sea floor and then upon the wreckage itself. What an incredible moment! The substance of fiction became history.
The depths of the seas had long been shrouded in mystery, and to see actual film from the deep is one of the great achievements of our century, certainly ranking with anything that our space programs have achieved. Much of the abyss is monotonous mud, but there are those many shipwrecks, and a whole exotic ecology of truly wondrous and intriguing animals.
All of this imagery is made even more appealing by the seeming impossibility of traveling to the bottom of the deep sea. Few of us, after all, get invitations from Woods Hole. If you could visit the great abyss, would you leap at the chance, or would you shrink from the real danger of the journey? Would a good movie be enough, or would you have the adventurous streak needed for that perilous trek to the very bottom of the sea? It is dangerous; people have died down there.
Let’s make it easy. We can have you onto the abyss in about half an hour and it will be no more dangerous than a short car ride. Take the Glasco Turnpike east from Woodstock until you approach Mt. Marion. Look for John Carle Road and turn right and head south along it. The path of the road is like that of a sinking ocean liner. First it strays only just a little from its straight path. Then, as if filling up with water, it veers sharply to the left and rapidly descends a steep slope. Near the bottom it lurches sharply to the right and settles, once more, onto a flat floor. And indeed, like a sinking ship, the road has arrived at the bottom of a sea.
There is nothing figurative in our remarkable claim; this is really the bottom of a sea. Or it was. Rising to the right of the road is a cliff of dark black sandstones and shales. These accumulated at the bottom of a deep sea, one that was here nearly 400 million years ago. It can be called the Catskill Sea and the layers of rock you see here were once the muds that made up its bottom.

  Mix of black shales and sandstones

It’s a curious thing, but way back then, the Devonian time period, most of New England was rising into a substantial mountain range. These, the Acadian Mountains, would reach heights of maybe 15,000 feet – perhaps even more! As they were rising, however, the crust of the adjacent vicinities, including today’s Hudson Valley, became depressed. Given time, a fairly substantial deep sea was produced. How deep? we don’t know, but it would have reminded you of the depths of the North Atlantic, a still, mud-bottomed, dark and very silent sea floor.
Much of the roadside exposure is thinly bedded, black shale. That was the mud. Those layers piled up slowly over uncounted centuries. Each thin horizon was once the sea floor. With time another and then another thin seam of mud would accumulate. As the weight piled up the mud was squeezed and hardened into shale. The dark sandstones are somewhat different. These were more active influxes of sediment, moments when masses of sand tumbled into the depths.

There were living creatures at the bottom of this sea. It only took us a short time to find fossil shellfish here, small animals that spent their whole lives on this quiet sea bottom. No crashing ocean liners interrupted their lives. Scientists did come and visit them, but not until nearly 400 million years after their deaths.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

A pot hole at Hildene Dec. 6, 2018

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A pothole at Hildene
Windows Through Time

The Register Star

Oct. 22, 2015
Robert and Johanna Titus

It won’t be long before winter sets in, but there is still time to get out and enjoy. Recently we visited “Hildene” the onetime home of Robert Todd Lincoln, oldest son of the president. That’s south of Manchester, Vermont, off of Rte. 7A. Robert Lincoln had a difficult youth. His brothers died young and, of course, his father was assassinated. Later his mother, who had suffered even more, drifted in and out of madness. Still Robert, in his maturity, made a success of himself in business and as a lawyer. Hildene is the spacious home of a successful man. It overlooks the beautiful Batten Kill Valley.
Our interests were not in seeing any geology; we simply wanted to enjoy a historic site. But, geology always seems to follow us around. We are, especially, unable to escape images of the Ice Age. And that is what happened at Hildene. Someone mentioned something called “Robert’s rock” and we asked about that. It turned out to be a mass of bedrock located immediately adjacent to the south side of the mansion. We looked it over and decided that there was nothing much worth writing about.
We are always on the lookout for good topics so this was disappointing. But, just beyond Robert’s rock, was a fine view of the Batten Kill Valley below. We stepped forward a few steps and saw one of those ice age features. It was partially buried and had been partially eroded away, but there it was. It was a pothole. Our picture can’t do it justice to it, but there it is.
Potholes are deep, very circular holes in the bedrock. They are the product of swirling currents of water. The currents flow into an eddy. They carry sand and that acts as an agent of erosion. The water and the sand spin and swirl, and the sand bounces against the wall of rock and abrades it. Over the course of time, if the flow is steady enough, potholes will grow deeper and wider. Each one will, however, always maintain the same shape, a circular hole with a rounded bottom. They can be of any size, large or small. It’s not unusual that, when you find one, you find a lot of them.

                                                              Pot hole has scooped out appearance at back of cliff.

We have written about potholes a few times. There is a fine one in the creek in Canajoharie, NY. Then there is a mysterious one at Olana, the home of famed Hudson River artist, Frederic Church. That last one has been reported in the scientific literature and we have searched for it, but without success. Most potholes are found on the bedrock floors of river channels and most of them date back to the Ice Age. Most all of them formed at the end of the Ice Age when massive amounts of meltwater were pouring down river channels. Those powerful currents cut into the earth and exposed the bedrock. Those eddies of water then eroded the potholes into the newly exposed bedrock. Over the millennia that followed, those potholes are likely to have slowly gotten larger.
Do you see a problem here? We did. The pothole at Hildene certainly does not lie at the bottom of a river channel. It is high up on the top of a steep hill overlooking the Batten Kill. That looked to be perhaps 500 feet below. So, what is a pothole doing way up there? We pondered this and debated it, and we soon came up with a solution to the problem; that’s what scientists are supposed to do.
We began to see the Batten Kill Valley as is must have been during the final stages of the Ice Age. We saw the valley filled with ice. We imagine that this must be called the Batten Kill glacier. It had advanced down the valley and perhaps reached quite some distance farther south. But, the climate began warming up and that glacier began melting back. All the time massive amounts of meltwater were pouring off of it.
What an image this generated. We stood there, just south of the mansion upon Robert’s rock. It was about 14,500 years ago and we looked up at a large glacier rising above us. It had been very warm recently and that glacier was melting about as quickly as is possible. An enormous flow of dirty water cascaded down in front of us; it was almost a waterfall. It pounded loudly into Robert’s pothole and swirled into a sizable eddy. We looked down and saw the power of that flow. The walls of the pothole were smooth and shiny from its efforts. Then we went and toured the mansion.
Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page, “The Catskill Geologist.”

Reasons for seasons – Why it’s cold Nov. 29, 2018

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The Reasons for Seasons
Stories in Stone
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Our Hudson Valley region summers generally bring wonderful weather with dry air and cool nights. Our autumns are spectacular with their foliage. Our winters are dreadful, and once again it is that time of the year. We stoically accept the onset of another cold season and make do with the holidays as some sort of compensation. Few of us, however, know or even wonder why we must endure this annual season. Do you? Some of you might be able to give a reasonably good explanation for our winter season in terms of the Earth’s orbit about the Sun. Many of you, however, might flub the story; it is, after all, just a bit complex.
But it really doesn’t matter; We, in this column, are not interested in the standard astronomical explanation of winter. We would like to consider a deeper reason, in fact, the real reason it is cold out there right now, and that has less to do with the Earth’s orbit than it does with the what’s right above you, or rather, what is not right above you. Read on:
Even if your astronomy is not very good, most of you can probably run through a quick description of the greenhouse effect, it’s one of the leading environmental fears we face today. Briefly, our world’s industries are burning fossil fuels and pumping out large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide traps solar energy in our atmosphere much the way the glass traps solar energy in a greenhouse. As industrial production of carbon dioxide continues, it may be that the Earth’s climate will warm up with all sorts of unfortunate side effects. Such a fate is sometimes referred to as the “Greenhouse Earth.”
But what if it were the other way around? What if the quantities of carbon dioxide were declining instead of increasing? That gets us to a term which is rarely used – the “Icehouse Earth.” That’s a notion few have been much worried about nowadays, but it actually has happened, and that gets us back to what isn’t above you. In earlier columns we wrote that there were, in the distant past, great mountains towering above our Columbia County region along with most of western New England. These mountains are called, by geologists, the Acadians. They should not be confused with today’s small Berkshires. The Acadians were big; they rose to elevations of tens of thousands of feet and that was right here. That was during the late Devonian time period or about 375 million years ago.
This had been a time when the world was truly a Greenhouse Earth. There was actually 16 times as much carbon dioxide in the early Devonian atmosphere as is today. That greenhouse effect must have been enormous; tropical climates prevailed across the planet. But it was not to last. Here in today’s New England, our rising Acadian Mountains were subject to chemical weathering and erosion. Those processes converted the Acadians into sediment which, eventually, hardened into rocks deposited across the rest of New York State. What is critical here is that the processes of chemical weathering consume carbon dioxide; they take it right out of the atmosphere. As the Acadians weathered away, the amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dropped dramatically, from 16 times as much as today down to merely today’s levels by the end of the Devonian Period, about 360 million years ago. This, as you might guess, resulted in a reversal of the greenhouse effect and quite a cooling of the climate. In fact, there was an early ice age at the end of the Devonian.
There is plenty we don’t understand about this story, but this was a turning point in Earth history. Carbon dioxide would never again be as abundant as it was during the early Devonian. Its levels would rebound again during the age of the dinosaurs and those great monsters certainly must have enjoyed the temporary restoration of the greenhouse warmth. But there simply would never again be so much carbon dioxide, and the climate would slowly deteriorate, with cooling temperatures, especially during the last 60 million years. Winters, which probably had not been much of a problem during the early Devonian, slowly became longer, colder and more distinct from the rest of the year. Thus, what we know as seasons made their appearance. The process has continued right into our time. In reality, even if industrial pollution continues unabated, ours is a time of an Icehouse Earth.
So, were our old Acadian Mountains responsible for winters? Well, that’s a bit of a stretch, but it is fair to say that the many processes that came to produce and then destroy the Acadians were all part of a climate machine that eventually created the Icehouse Earth climate that we can look forward to for the next three or four months.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Read their blogs at “thecatskillgeologist.com.”

A Bump in the Road Nov. 22, 2018

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A Bump in the Road
The Greenville Press
May 5, 2004
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

You might call it a hillock, but it’s hardly more than just a bump in the road. Small as it is, it has been posing problems. If you are driving east, you go up and over the bump and then the road veers to the right without much warning. If you are driving west, pretty much the same thing happens only the road veers to the left on the other side. Westbound drivers seem to have the most trouble. If you know the road then there are no difficulties; you know which way to steer. But if you don’t know the road, then you can have real problems on the other side. If you are going too fast, your car may leave the ground for a moment. When you land you have to brake quickly, and steer as fast as you can to avoid running off the road. And there have been some bad accidents here. Two years ago, a helicopter had to be called in to evacuate a victim.

It’s seems that more people don’t know the road on Friday and Saturday nights, but problems can happen on any day of the week. We are talking about County Route 67, across from the Freehold Airport, about a mile west of the Freehold four corners. That little bump in the road seems to always be having accidents. And, even when there are no accidents, it is common to see dark tire marks in the danger zone. People often just avert serious trouble.
These sorts of problems plague many stretches of highway all across the land, but this one is just a little different. This road hazard is also a geohazard. The word “geohazard” was coined some time ago to describe a geological phenomenon that poses a threat to people. Volcanoes and earthquakes are very good examples. Flood prone stretches of rivers are geohazards and so to are landslide prone slopes. So, how is it that some simple bump in the road constitutes a geohazard?
The answer to that question comes from a general survey of the area. This “bump” measures about five feet in elevation and it stretches about 75 feet or so up and down the road. That’s a reasonably large heap of earth. So, how did it get there? If you look just uphill from my bump you will see a fairly decent little canyon which descends from the hill above. Canyons are normally carved by streams, but this one seems the exception; there is usually only a very little water in it. Spring sees a decent flow and the rest of the year is pretty quiet.

And there hasn’t been much water in it for a long time. This canyon is a paleo-form; it is a landscape relict of the ice age. When we started to notice all this, our bump in the road gradually became a very interesting feature. In our mind’s eyes we were transported back to the end of the Ice Age, to a time when the glaciers were melting away from the Greenville vicinity.

April 3, 12,341 BC, late afternoon – This part of the Catskill Creek Valley is very different from what it looks like today. The ice age is ending, and the last glaciers have just melted away from this the lower part of the valley. Up the valley and in the mountains to the south, there is still a lot of ice and it is melting. Catskill Creek is swollen with all the meltwater. It doesn’t even resemble today’s creek. A complex plexus of intertwined streamlets crisscrosses the valley floor. The waters are all brown with mud. In between the streamlets are many low sandbars. Actually. “mudbars” would be a better term for what is here. The mud is shining in the late afternoon sun.
There is some vegetation, but not what we are used to today. The middle reaches of the slopes above me are littered with small pine and spruce. These trees have been migrating north, following the melting ice; they are quite capable of broadcasting their seeds fast enough to keep up with the melting. Someday, there will be real forests here, but that will not be for decades. Meanwhile, up in the Catskills, the slopes are barren except where ice still prevails.
We are standing just east of our bump in the road. From above us, to the right, is the roar of a great torrent of water pounding out of the hill above. This is a meltwater stream and it is white with foam and very noisy with the power of its flow. After cascading out of the canyon above, its currents “land” on the valley flat. The pounding currents splash down and generate a great spray of water. It catches the sunlight in a beautiful rainbow.
Beyond the water reforms itself into a small stream which flows quickly off into the currents of Catskill Creek. These waters leave behind a growing pile of earth. This is the sediment that our meltwater stream has eroded out of the hill above. The torrents were very capable of carrying this material down to the valley flat, but once the current reached that flat, it slowed down and was unable to transport its sediments much farther. That heap of earth was forming into a fine fan-shaped structure. Thousands of years later when the next geologists would come here, they would call this feature an alluvial fan.

Our journey into the geologic past of Route 67 had offered a view of the formation of our bump in the road and it had also explained the canyon above. Now we could take another look at this whole stretch of the highway. Soon, we would see more ice age canyons. There is a fine one right across from the airport’s “art gallery” building. This one deposited another little bump in the road, but there it is not quite as high and there are no surprising bends in the highway. It causes fewer problems. Then, there is another just short of Storey’s Nursery; the old gray farmhouse was built upon that one. This one is very low, and the road is straight, so it should not be a geohazard.
All in all, it would seem that this stretch of Catskill Creek had more than its share of ice age drainage. We are guessing that the hill which makes up the O’Hara Corners area had a fair amount of ice on it after the rest of the local glaciers had cleared Catskill Creek. As this iced melted our several little canyons were temporarily glutted with meltwater. For a short period of time these canyons were very erosive.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

The President in a Slump Nov. 15, 2018

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Mudslinging in the Hudson Valley
The Vanderbilt and Roosevelt mansions
On the Rocks
Feb. 23, 2007
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

The east bank of the Hudson River was once a very fashionable location where only the very best people lived. Such times and attitudes have faded, but a legacy still remains; along that bank of the river a large number of very fine old houses can be seen. Vanderbilt’s, Livingstons, Roosevelts and other notables may not live there anymore but many of their old homes remain as public parks. Well cared for, these old homes should last a very long time. But just how long is “a very long time?”
To a geologist a very long time is, well, not so long. When we visited The Vanderbilt and Roosevelt homes recently, we noticed that the two had something in common. Both are built upon the same geological foundations and both, eventually, will face the same fates.

Wander around the grounds of the Vanderbilt estate. You will very likely enjoy seeing an abundance of very old and very large ornamental trees. And then there is the house itself, it’s quite a sight too. What you probably won’t notice, at least not right away, is how flat the grounds are. This is no accident; we are looking at the top of a delta that once stuck out into a lake that was here. That delta was part of Glacial Lake Albany, the great ice age lake that once filled the Hudson Valley. Delta tops, more often than not, are flat as a pancake. The fine-grained muds that accumulate upon them settle down in flat sheets. But Glacial Lake Albany is long gone, it drained about 14,000 years ago and that left the delta high and dry. The whole town of Hyde Park is one large dry delta top. That’s what made the Vanderbilt site such a desirable location. The house sits upon a high flat delta top, commanding a very fine view of the river. The Vanderbilt’s couldn’t resist it.

                                                                Vanderbilt mansion – on edge of Hyde Park Delta

All this is the case for the Roosevelt home and many, many others. But scenic though these river view sites are, there are long term hazards. Just in front of both the Roosevelt and Vanderbilt homes are steep, almost vertical slopes. This is not accidental, there is a pattern here and nature is sending out a warning. These steep slopes are the headwalls of what geologists call “slumps.” What has happened here is that large cohesive masses of old lake muck have detached along curved fractures and slid downwards. This is an intermittent phenomenon, it happens occasionally during relatively brief periods of movement and then there is little activity for very long periods of time. The hazard is thus somewhat like that of an earthquake: long periods of quiet, interrupted by moments of destructive activity.

Springwood – The Roosevelt Mansion – on edge of  Hyde Park delta

What triggers a slump? Most likely a period of very wet weather. The old lake sediments become waterlogged and unstable. They become very soft and go through an episode of slumping. By the time that is over, the climate has probably dried out enough to delay further action for another long while.
Wander the grounds of these fine old mansions and you will soon find a number of large semicircular slump features, right at the edges of the old delta. These are places where, long ago, slumps occurred. At the bases of those large semicircles the ground is hummocky. Those are the downhill scars of the old slides. The landscape speaks to us of slumps long past, but it also speaks to us of slumps yet to come. That’s what this column is all about. Someday, probably a very long time from now, the very land beneath these fine old mansions will become wet and unstable. The earth will heave and some or even all of the mansions will collapse. It’s a sad fate for some fine old mansions, but Nature does not discriminate in favor of the wealthy, Nature does not care.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page The Catskill Geologist.”

Druid Rocks Nov. 8, 2018

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Druid’s Rock
Windows Through Time
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

In the season of the summer solstice, Druids, or people who call themselves Druids hold celebrations at Stonehenge in England. Theancient rocks draw large crowds of Pagans and they often act that way; battles with police have been common. Throughout much ofEngland there are many locations where large monoliths rise vertically above the plains. There is little mystery about how these rocks got where they are; they were placed upright thousands of years ago by ancient Celts. Why they were erected is a different question and a bit of a mystery; reasons that have been debated for centuries. The only two things about them that are not mysteries are that they are eye-catching and intriguing, especially the large ones.

Few people know it, but we have some “Druid Rocks” right here in the Catskills and there is some mystery about them as well. The Druid rocks, the ones we speak of today, are found near the site of the old Catskill Mountain House Hotel at North Lake. Back in the days of the hotel, the surrounding forests had many paths that have since been lost to the returning forests. The old pathways led hotel guests past all of the interesting sights of the area and these included many large boulders.
In the hill above the hotel there is a ledge, simply called “third ledge,” which is composed of a rock called puddingstone or conglomerate. The rock is made up of cemented gravel and cobbles. It is a remarkable rock and most fun to examine carefully. Third ledge towers above South Lake and along its edge there are a number of large boulders leaning against the wall. These are the Druid Rocks; the name was given because of their striking similarity with those of the Salisbury Plain. The old trails took people right past those rocks. Back in those days, they would have been much easier to get to and probably easier to explore.
Of course, there is at least one problem here; there were never any Druid cultures in the Catskills. Indians, who did live here, did not erect stone monoliths, at least not these ones. So how did out Druid rocks come to be? The answer most likely takes us back to the Ice Age. During an event called the Grand Gorge advance, about 18,000 years ago, there was a glacier advancing up Kaaterskill Clove. The ice thickened until it got so high that it flooded right out of the clove and expanded across South Mountain. When this sheet of ice got to the north end of South Mountain it plucked loose a large number of boulders and dragged them away. Plucking is a very common glacier behavior; the moving ice sticks to the bedrock and yanks it loose. When all this was well along, a great ledge of rock was created. The glaciers are long gone, but that ledge is still there and so are at least some of the boulders.
Plucking loosened boulders and dragged them off, but if the ice melted quickly enough, boulders could be plucked and left behind. Third ledge was plucked and some of its boulders were left behind. They are the Druid rocks. One, among them, is particularly impressive. It is an enormous rock. It stands almost exactly on end, just like the real Druid rocks of England. There is nothing terribly surprising about this. It’s just luck that left this one on end. Such a thing is unlikely but then, none of the other rocks come in this inclination. As we said, it’s just luck.
But it is also a very impressive rock. Getting there is not all that easy, however. First, go to North-South Lake State Park. At the southwest corner of the South Lake parking lot there is an unmarked entrance to an unmarked dirt path. If you can find it, you can follow its zig-zagging path up the hill, eventually to Druid Rock. From South Lake there is an old carriage trail that leads to the Hotel Kaaterskill site. Part way up the hill there is another path that branches off to the left (east). That path takes you right along the top of the old plucked ledge and eventually, it will lead you to Druid Rock. Big as it is, however, Druid Rock is well hidden in the forest so be patient and there is a real chance you may not find it at all. Half the fun is in the hunting. The very best thing to do is find someone who knows where the rock is and have them lead you to it.
Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Silence of the Limbs – Nov. 1, 2018

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Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus
The Woodstock Times
Nov. 14, 1997

It’s November and the hiking season is winding down. There are still a few relatively mild days, but there are so many fewer reasons to get out now. The foliage with its green is gone and the landscape is for the most part just a dull gray. Darkness comes so early now. Later the snow may draw some of us out on skis or snow shoes, but that is yet to come. For the time being the scenery is uninspiring.
But we have found that there is one outdoors experience which is pretty much confined to this time of year, and it is something that does sometimes draw us out for one last end of the season Catskill hike. It’s not something that we can go and see, nor something that we can hear or feel. Instead it is the very silence of the woods at this time of year.
Each November brings a few days when the skies are a uniform gray, and the gloomy weather patterns seem to settle into complete doldrums. Pick one of those days and hike high up into the Catskills so that you are far away from any road noise. There are usually no planes above our mountains, but if so just wait until they have passed by. Pick a good spot and sit and listen. Not a breath of air stirs, and even if it did a little, there are no leaves to rustle at this time of the year. Once in a while a twig will fall, but these events are scarce and momentary. The forest becomes so completely silent that it is almost unnerving.
In this season of the year there are few animals stirring. The insects are seasonal, and this year’s generation has all died; the next generation sleeps in its egg cases, silently awaiting the spring thaws. The song birds have departed, and most of the ground animals have settled into some burrow for the winter. In short it is mighty quiet up in the mountains at this time of year.
To a geologist there is a special experience here. Silence is unusual in our world, but that is only our world that we are talking about. Today we expect the woods to be noisy with insects, birds and furry animals, but that has not always been the case. Long ago these noise-making creatures did not exist. We are thinking of the Gilboa Forest which long ago presided over our Catskill landscapes.
The Gilboa Forest was a very different sort of woods. There were no furry animals, neither were there birds. There were insects, but they were so primitive that they had not yet evolved the ability to make noise (or even hear it). Noise making is something we take for granted, and probably regard mostly as a nuisance. But we should not forget that it is a relatively complex form of animal behavior and that was something far beyond the abilities of Gilboa’s primitive creatures.
Neither were the trees of Gilboa very noisy. They lacked true leaves and so it is not likely that they would have been able to make much of a rustle. Even on a windy day, the forest of Gilboa must have been a remarkably quiet place. All this silence ended, maybe 300 million years ago, when more advanced insects appeared and began their songs. Eventually birds and other animals followed suit and the world’s forests and jungles became noisy.
So that is what draws us into the mountains at this time of year. It’s a chance to go and experience a form of nature that has been gone for all those 300 million years. We like the western slopes of Hunter Mountain. These face the interior of the Catskills and are shielded from the cacophony of the Hudson Valley. Near Woodstock we would hike up to Overlook Mountain and turn down the yellow trail to Echo Lake. On a real quiet day, the lake’s name should truly be a misnomer. Try it; it’s this year’s one last good excuse for a hike into the mountains.


Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net.   Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Becraft Mountain Oct. 25, 2018

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The Columbia County Catskills
Stories in Stone
Columbia County Independent
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus
Feb. 18, 2005

Columbia County is certainly a nice enough area, but few of you probably would
guess that anything here is really nationally known. Nevertheless, in geology circles, there is one nearby spot that is truly famous. This location is known as the Becraft Hills or, to many geologists, Becraft Mountain. You would be amazed to discover how many geological maps of this site are found in college level geology lab manuals. Every semester thousands of geology students do exercises involving the geology of the Becraft Hills.
And they have been doing them for generations; there is some classical geology here. You can join in; travel south on Rte. 9 from Hudson and look way up above. You will see some stratified rocks, limestones, high up there. You may not be able to tell it, but these strata are inclined to the east.

Continue south and turn east (left) onto Rte. 23. At the intersection of Routes 9 and 23 you are at the southwestern corner of the Becraft Hills. Before you will be an outcropping of gray limestone. That’s typical of the hills and it is part of what makes them remarkable. These limestones are an isolated bit of the Catskills. The limestones, called the Rondout and Manlius Formations, make up the very base of the Catskill sequence west of the Hudson River. They are the very foundations of those Catskills. As we said there is the whole lower Catskill sequence here. The Becraft Hills have several units of black shales as well.

And this stratigraphy speaks to geologists; it tells us that once, long ago, the stratified rocks of the Catskill sequence extended eastward, across the Hudson, and blanketed much or all of Columbia County. How could that be?
The structure tells all; we already saw that the strata on the west side of the Becraft Hills mostly are inclined to the east. Continue east on Rte. 23 and turn left on Fingar Road; make another left on Hiscox Road, and one more left onto Rte. 29 (aka Spook Rock Road). Now to your left (west) you will see some fine strata of limestone. All these beds are dipping to the west. In short, the western strata dip east and the eastern strata dip west (do you follow that?). That gives the Becraft Hills a bowl like structure, something that geologists call a syncline.
That takes us back to a time called the Devonian, a little less than 400 million years ago, when the mountains of western New England were being formed. The mountain building event was called the Acadian Orogeny and it involved a lot of uplifting of all the area’s bedrock (after all you have to have uplift to form mountains).
You also get a great deal of folding of the strata and that is how we formed the Becraft sequence. We should say protected the Becraft sequence. Mountain building uplift should have elevated the Becraft Hills and subjected them to processes of erosion that, in the end, would have destroyed them. Instead the Becraft strata were folded downward into the bottom of that syncline bowl where they were protected from erosion. All across the rest of Columbia County the Catskill sequence eroded away, but not here.
. Geologists sometimes call such an erosional remnant an outlier and, by itself this would make it worth the visit of a geology class, but there is more. The Becraft Hills, it seems, are also shot through with faults. You have heard of the infamous San Andreas Fault and you know how earthquake-prone all of California is. Well, back during the Devonian time period, those nearly 400 million years ago, Columbia County was something of a California-like earthquake zone. Those ancient faults, now long inactive, can be seen and mapped by geologists.
All this is something that geology teachers cannot resist. Every year scores of geology field trips visit the area. Watch, come next spring, for the large vans with school names on their sides. Look for a dozen or so scruffy college age kids happily climbing about on the rocks. These are field trips and they are a real institution among geology departments.
And they have been for a long time. The first geologists started studying here in the 1820’s. A century or so ago the area became a popular location for summer field geology courses. Back then, before cars were available, the relatively large number of geological features in a small area made this a very practical place to teach and learn geology. We wish we could see some of those old horse and buggy field classes. Generations of young geology students cut their teeth on the rocks here. Later, when transport had improved considerably, it became preferred to travel to the American West to do full-fledged field camps.
some geology and a very large number of young geologists still come here. Take the tour yourself.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

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