"I will never kick a rock"

The Marcellus Shale and its natural gas 4-23-20

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The fuss across the river
Stories in Stone
The Columbia County Independent
Dec. 5, 2005
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Perhaps you have heard the term “Marcellus Shale” and perhaps you have not, but you will likely be hearing about it many times in the upcoming years, especially from our western side of the Hudson. New York State geologists have long known the term and now the unit of rock has become very important.

Late last year, it was announced by several researchers that the Marcellus might well yield an enormous, absolutely gargantuan, amount of natural gas. Estimates are always just estimates but people are talking about a two-year national supply of natural gas being recoverable from the Marcellus. That’s a lot and, given the circumstances, even the greenest of you will appreciate the pressure to exploit this resource.
What can rightfully be called a “gas rush” has been triggered, and all over the northeast the search is on. This is bound to be controversial so, before we go too far, let’s get something straight. We are geologists, and one thing we do is to work to keep you from freezing to death in a cave. So, we are not necessarily opposed to all this, but let’s talk about the science of the Marcellus. There is no possible harm in you coming to understanding the geological story that lies beneath your feet.
It all started nearly 400 million years ago when something you might be tempted to call Europe collided with what eventually became North America. You probably, somewhere along the line, learned about plate tectonics. If you remember some of that, then you will understand the following: The plate collision initiated a crustal uplift which, given time, would produce a great New England mountain range called the Acadians. Our focus is on the early stages of that collision. There were mountains, but they were not yet very tall. Critically, there was also developing a nearby deep oceanic basin. At its maximum it might have been thousands of feet deep. It covered what now makes up much of the northeastern United States.
Humans have visited modern versions of such environments. In recent decades we have developed the deep-sea equipment to do so. What was once a great mystery is relatively well known today. It is not the least bit unusual for such a marine basin to be very stagnant. There are few, if any, currents that far down. The rising mountains, nearby to ours, were still so small that they supplied very little sediment to the deep, just a little silt and clay. That’s important.
Raining down from above were bits and pieces of dead organisms and this biological material came to make up a very sizable portion of the Marcellus basin’s sediment. The abyss was so stagnant that whatever oxygen that might have been there was consumed by microbes. Over long periods of time, the resulting stagnant, anoxic seafloor accumulated, thick sequences of organic rich, fine grained sediment. A lot of the biologic matter became the gas methane and that formed the bulk of the natural gas that would be coveted by humans hundreds of millions of years later.
And that is why there is so much interest in the Marcellus. There is no Marcellus on the Eastern side of the Hudson, but if you would like to see the unit; it’s not that far away. Cross the river and take Rte. 32 south, then Rte. 31 south until you reach the intersection with Rte. 209. Go another 3/4’s mile south and there you will see an enormous outcropping of black shale. This is the Mt. Marion Formation which is an eastern equivalent of the main Marcellus
If you visit this site it can be quite an experience, however, to stand along the side of a highway, listen to the traffic, and to realize that this was once the deepest part of the sea. All around you it was once a dark, quiet and cold seafloor.

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

The mists of time 4-5-20

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The shallow tropical Sea
Stories in Stone

The Independent
Nov. 23, 2007
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

It’s the dawn of November 23, 489,007,993 BC. We are the mind’s eyes, the human imagination, and we are drifting eastward over what will someday be the City of Hudson. Down below us is a shallow tropical sea. It should have a name, but it does not. It is not easy to see the expanse of ocean below us. There is just the least bit of a mist down there, just above the water. It’s not the mist of a cool November morning; these are the mists of time and, as always, they obscure.
But there are moments when the mists part and we can see that this ocean is very shallow. There seems to be a light sandy seafloor down there. We descend and find that indeed this is the case. Now we can put a name on this ocean; it is the Potsdam Sea. We get only glimpses of that sea floor and are disappointed to not be able to see anything alive down there. There are active currents and the white quartz sand can be seen to be moving, drifting with the currents. It would seem to be something of a marine desert that we are looking at.
The Potsdam is not our goal on this day; we continue to drift lazily on a course that is just north of east. We are crossing Columbia County as it was during the Cambrian time period. It’s time to learn more about the Cambrian geography. We are the mind’s eye and we can do that very well. We rise up straight into the sky, first miles, then hundreds of miles. Now we can gaze back to the west and survey much of North America as it was back then.
We see endless shallow seas. It would seem that nearly our entire continent is submerged. Across the center of what is today Canada we can see a number of large low islands, but that is all the “landscape” that the Cambrian has given to North America. This is a time of a Greenhouse Earth climate. There are no glaciers anywhere, not even at the poles. The seas have gradually risen up across almost our entire continent. North America is far south of where it is today and it straddles the equator, hence the warmth.

As we continue on our journey east. Now it is a little later in time; we see a lighter, almost pink color on the sea below. This is a different marine setting, a shallower ocean, very hospitable to marine creatures. Its waters are rich in dissolved calcium carbonate and its faunas have used this to manufacture skeletons. This is a carbonate sea, or it might be called a limestone sea.
Florida and the Bahamas are composed of limestone; it’s the bright white rock that you see so commonly down there. The seas of the Bahamas and around Florida are limestone seas; their soft pink sands are typical of such oceans. If you have had the chance to snorkel in such waters, then you will vividly recall the green seaweeds and the colorful tropical fish. It is unforgettable.
But our visit is to the Cambrian. The sea that is now beneath us is called the Stockbridge Sea and those sediments down there will harden into something called the Stockbridge Limestone. We drop down low in the sky and approach the Stockbridge. We gaze down in hopes of seeing a rich marine ecology but are frustrated; the mists of time are thicker here; we can nearly nothing in the water. We do see the aqua color of the sea; we smell the salt and feel the tropical breezes. Occasionally we can make out the vague image of some sort of biological reef, but the image is always so obscure. It is such a shame.
We, the mind’s eyes are now moving forward through time. We travel quickly and soon we reach modern times. We are standing along Route 22 in Canaan. A fine outcropping looms above us. It is the Stockbridge Marble. It used to be limestone, but it was baked during mountain building events, and converted into marble. Baking has produced those mists of time, destroying all the fossils that might have been and blinding us from the images of the ecology that was once here. Again, it is a shame.

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

The Gilboa tree Apr. 9, 2020

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Arbor Day comes early this year
Stories in Stone
The Columbia County Independent
Robert Titus

We devoted our last column to the theory of evolution and the very old age of the Earth. The Darwin Theory has seen many successes since its publication in 1859. Recently news from our own region has given it another one. We would like to report on that today.
The story goes back almost as far as evolution. Back in the autumn of 1869 there was an awful storm which swept through the Catskills. Flooding on Schoharie Creek at the village of Gilboa, saw a lot of bank erosion and uncovered three beautiful fossil tree trunks. They were in Devonian age strata and thus were roughly 380 million years old. That was most exciting; this was the oldest fossil “forest” then known.
But this discovery left a very great mystery. Only the stumps of the trees had been found; what did the foliage look like? Nobody knew, and without foliage, nobody could tell what kind of trees they were. Geologists searched for the foliage but could not find any.
Decades passed and in the early 1920’s excavations began for the Schoharie Reservoir in the village of Gilboa. The village was razed to make way for the reservoir and people still, to this day, resent the destruction of their town. But another great scientific discovery was made. About 200 more tree stumps came to light in a quarry below the new dam. These were more of the “Gilboa trees.”
This time fossil foliage was found, but not attached to the tree trunks. Nobody could be sure that the foliage and the stumps belonged to the same trees. Winifred Goldring, the New York State Paleontologist, thought that they did, and she decided that the Gilboa trees were of a type called tree ferns. She was a fine artist. She drew a reconstruction of the trees as she thought they looked, and her picture became very well known.
But was she right? There were always nagging doubts. Decades passed by, and still nobody could find a specimen of the foliage attached to the rest of the tree. Such things are very rare. But everybody hoped that someday the great discovery would be made.

Well, we are happy, really happy, to report that the day has come. Last year, in an article published in Nature, one of the most prestigious journals of science, researchers reported the long-sought discovery. In a little quarry in the northeast Catskills and cluster of fossil tree trunks was uncovered. Two of the trunks had foliage still attached.
Take a look at the illustration. Have you ever seen a tree like this? We think not. It is a very primitive tree which is what you would expect to find in something as old as the Devonian. There is no common name for it, so we are stuck calling it by its Latin scientific name – it’s a pseudosporochnalean cladoxylopsid!
This was a very primitive tree. It didn’t have a lot of things you associate with modern trees. There were no fruits or nuts, they didn’t even have seeds. They didn’t have leaves. They had structures that would only remind you of roots; they weren’t the real things. So, what did they have? They are a long slim trunk which had no branches as you would see on modern trees. They did have that foliage. Instead of leaves they had frond-like structures which must have been green and must have photosynthesized. The foliage also displayed spore producing structures. Spores, tiny black dots, were reproductive structures.

Were they ancestral to any modern trees or even related to modern plants? Maybe, or maybe not. There is some speculation that they might have been the ancestors of ferns – or gymnosperms. But it’s just as likely that they were just a strange form of ancient tree.
But they certainly are interesting. And we can take pride that such an important form of fossil has been discovered in our Catskills. They are an interesting testimony to the enormously complex evolutionary history of life that the fossil record presents to us.

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

The Bottom of the Sea 4-3-20

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The bottom of the sea?
The Catskill Geologists
Robert and Johanna Titus
The Mountain Eagle – Jun 16, 2017

We recently portrayed our Catskills as being a petrified delta. That is geologically true, but it is not the full story. Our delta is called the Catskill Delta and it was a big one. Geologists compare it with today’s Ganges River Delta which makes up almost all of the nation of Bangladesh. Take a good look at a map of Asia and see how big that delta is. Then imagine a similarly sized delta right here.
Deltas grow; large amounts of sediment are always carried onto them by their rivers. As they grow they expand (or prograde) into the nearby ocean. That brings delta deposits on top of older marine sediments. That should have happened during the Devonian time period when the Catskill Delta was prograding westward. If there was a Catskill Delta then there should have been a Catskill Sea.

  Manorkill Falls

So, where was this Catskill Sea? The answer is – right here. Whatever location where you bought your copy of the Mountain Eagle was once covered by the Catskill Sea. All of where the Catskills are today was once covered by this ocean. It was not a very deep ocean but it was big, spreading across much of North America.
You can see a fine outcropping of the Catskill Sea sedimentary rocks at Manorkill
Falls. That’s right at the intersection of Rte. 990V and the Prattsville Road. A better place to go is Mine Kill falls, off of Rte. 30, within Mine Kill State Park. You can easily climb down to the bottom of the falls there and poke around, looking for fossils. Pack up the family and do just that. There is good parking and an easy trail that takes you to the falls. When you get there, we would like you to learn some basic geology.


There are two types of rock down there, black shales and dark sandstones. They are all stratified. That is they were deposited in flat layers on the bottom of the Catskill Sea. Eventually those strata hardened into the rocks we see at this picturesque park. Being that this was the bottom of a run-of-the-mill sea, it was populated by just the sorts of creatures we would expect to see on such a sea floor. Those were mostly shellfish invertebrates.
We will only describe the most common ones today. Those are called clams and brachiopods. Take a look at our photo and you will see some very typical examples. We expect that you already know what clams are. They are shellfish that possess two shells. But, so are brachiopods; the two groups might seem to be that same kinds of animals but they are not. Their planes of symmetry are different and that makes them totally unrelated. With brachiopods the planes of symmetry pass down the middle of each shell; with clams the symmetry passes between their two. We hope you can see this in our photo.


Clams are very common today; they are many of what you find when you go shell collecting at a beach. Brachiopods were equally common back in the Devonian time period when the Catskill Sea existed. That seafloor was littered with brachiopods. And, of course, that means that Devonian shales and sandstones are often littered with them as well. Please try to get familiar with brachiopods. You will find them very frequently if you go fossil hunting in our Catskills.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.
Watch for their new book “The Catskills in the Ice Age, 3rd edition.

Footprint of a Mountain Range 3-26-20

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Footprints of a Mountain Range
Stories in Stone  – The Columbia County Independent
Oct. 3, 2003
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

We normally pay so little notice of the many rock outcroppings that we pass by in our daily lives. Why should we; they are just rocks? But there is so much to see if you know what to look for. Today we would like to give you a reason to look at rocks and a good one. Columbia County is a landscape that has many geological pasts. One of them shows a history of intense mountain building. That’s curious as there are no real mountains in our area. There are the Berkshires and the Taconics, but they are mostly pretty little hills. How could there ever have been real mountains here?
But there were, and in fact Columbia County was once part of one of the world’s great mountain ranges. Let’s learn how to read the evidence. We will describe what you can see at one good location and then you can look for the same thing in the rocks where you live. Travel to the intersection of Rts. 23 and 9G. Across from the Stuart’s is a fine exposure of rock. Look for horizons of thinly laminated black shale, and thicker bedded black sandstone. All this is a unit of rock called the Normanskill Formation and it dates back about 450 million years to a time called the Ordovician time period. At first these look like nondescript rocks but there is so much more.
Let’s do the fundamentals. These rocks are stratified, and each layer is a moment in time. Back in the Ordovician this location was at was the bottom of the sea and each horizon of rock was, briefly, the sea floor. Sometimes that sea floor was mud and that accounts for the shale. Sometimes it was a sandy bottom and that now makes the sandstone. Touch any layer of rock and you are touching an ancient ocean bottom, literally. We never tire of that notion. Each stratum had its turn and then a depositional event brought a new layer of sediment and created a new sea floor. If you get a chance to scuba dive across the bottom of a sea you will see its floor and you will have the impression that this is something that is, forever and forever, permanent. But our rocks tell a different story; sea floors are ephemeral.
And sea floors are supposed to be under a lot of ocean; what is this one doing on dry land? The question gets worse when you realize that this sea floor was once at the bottom of a very deep submarine trench, perhaps 20,000 feet deep. Clearly there has, since the Ordovician, been a lot of uplift. It gets curiouser and curiouser!
Sea floors, today, are almost always flat. Look over this outcrop and you will find that none of these layers are horizontal. There is more to this story; let’s keep looking. There are four road signs here. The first is a black and white Rte. 23 sign. Just to the east are three yellow road signs; the middle one speaks of a left turn. Take a good look at the strata between the first two signs. Most of the bedding here dips steeply to the east. Clearly something has happened to these once flat-lying strata. They have been tilted. Imagine, for a moment, how much it takes to move, let alone tilt, a great mass of rock. Something very serious happened here and that something was mountain building.
And, there is still more. Halfway between the first two yellow sign look for a sequence of strata that have been sharply folded into a smiley face U. Once again, imagine the energy needed to fold rocks. Keep on walking east and notice that, between the second and third yellow signs that some of the strata have lost their eastward dip and they are nearly vertical. All in all, the rocks don’t just speak to us of folding; they speak of intense deformation.
Uplift, tilting and folding are the hallmarks of mountain building and that’s what happened here, but when? Drive down the road 2.3 miles and you will reach the intersection of Routes 23 and 9. There, on the left, is a fine exposure of gray limestone called the Manlius Limestone. These rocks are younger, about 50 million years younger. They belong to a time called the early Devonian, and that makes them a mere 400 million years old. Take a good look at the lower 20 feet of strata here. These beds are gently dipping to the east, but this deformation is very mild compared to what we saw back down the road. Here there is no folding and no extreme tilting of the rocks; they lie essentially as they were deposited in the Devonian. There has never been a time when these beds were deformed. That tells us a lot.
Obviously, mountain building deformation came after the Ordovician, because those rocks are deformed. But, also, deformation must have been before the Devonian, as those rocks are not deformed. There must have been a great mountain building event between the Ordovician and Devonian and there was. Our mountain building event is called, by geologists, the Taconic Orogeny. This event reached its peak during a time called the Silurian Period and that, of course, is the time between the Ordovician and Devonian. From this location on Rte. 23 look east and, in your mind’s eye, see the profile of the Taconic Mountains that once towered on this horizon. They probably rose 15 or 20 thousand feet into the sky and so they rivaled the Rockys and Andes of today’s world.
But they are all gone, or at least, they are nearly all gone. Only the Berkshires and the Taconics remain. The rest has slowly, and we mean very slowly, eroded away. Look around you, do you see much erosion going on? This is geology and it takes a very long time.
Our story has been about these Rte. 23 outcroppings but remember that we would like you to take what you have learned here and look at the rocks near you. Can you see folding or tilting in the rocks? If so, then you are looking at the same mountain building events. Wherever you are, look up. Above you there once were tens of thousands, of feet of mountain. Now, look at the rocks in your area again. You are looking into the very core of a great mountain range. What we call Columbia County is something that you might find 20,000 feet below the top of Mount Everest. Changes your point of view, doesn’t it?

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

A very old Earth – 3-19-20

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A very old story
Stories in Stone
Feb. 29, 2008
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Before I (Robert) was lured away by the fame and fortune of writing geology columns I was a professional paleontologist. I published many an article on the ancient life of New York State in professional journals. I speak of this because my science is and has been under assault. The centerpiece of paleontology, like all biology itself, is the great theory of evolution. All of my professional research was founded upon evolutionary theory and the best studies that I ever did were documentations of evolutionary events.
I have, three times, followed a fossil species through sequences of stratified rock and watched as it evolved into a second species. I have not only seen species evolve but I have followed them as they evolved into new ecologies. These studies were the greatest privileges that ever came with my being a scientist. I have seen evolution about as well as anyone, anywhere. That’s not bragging; it’s just the record.
Paleontology is the exploration of life’s distant past. It is nearly heartbreaking that some religious groups oppose my science’s very foundation. Science is not about religion; we steer well clear of the supernatural; ours is the study of the natural world only. We neither oppose, nor support any religion. Some of us practice religions; others, like me, do not.
But we do teach our sciences. Ours is a scientific and technologically advanced society in a competitive world, and it must maintain the highest standards in the teaching of science. There is no place for, say, economics or politics to play a role in classroom science. Likewise, this is no place for any religion to intrude its views. Such notions should be dismissed immediately. Economists and political scientists generally don’t interfere with the teaching of science, but many members of the religious community would if they could.
Young Earth “Creation Science” and its fraternal twin “Intelligent Design” profess that a great supernatural entity (God) created the world and all life on it. Well, fine, many scientists are religious and believe the very same thing. Where science and these particular religious views part company is over the issue of evolution. Was the Earth and life on it created as we see them today, or did they form and then change naturally? Did life change slowly through time, evolving from simple ancestral forms into what we see today?
In recent years serious efforts have been made in Pennsylvania and Kansas to inject Intelligent Design into high school biology programs. I hate to think of the position that many dedicated biology teachers might find themselves in. Should they risk their careers in defiance of religion? Or should they knuckle under? It is a dreadful dilemma.
All this has been portrayed as part of the ongoing “culture wars” but I disagree. Issues like abortion, school prayer and displays of the Ten Commandments and manger scenes are value issues. People of good conscience can come to different views. But science has, I think, always fallen beyond that. We study the natural world as it is, not as we want it to be. We scientists have always determined to steer clear of values as much as possible
This column has found a very considerable body of evidence that, like the rest of the planet Earth, our Hudson Valley has a very venerable geological history. We have, over the last few years, taken many trips into our region’s distant past. We have visited the great deep oceanic abyss that once covered all of Columbia County. Its dark oozy mud is now hardened into the black Normanskill Shale which makes up much of the land along the Hudson. We have also visited the shallow tropical sea that once existed here. Its Helderberg limestones make up all of Becraft Mountain and they are rich in an exotic array of fossils. All those fossil species are now extinct; they were denizens of distant past. At Bash Bish Falls we have watched as great mountains rose to enormous altitudes in what would eventually be the Appalachian realm. Then we saw those mountains slowly weather away. We’ve seen glaciers advance down the Hudson Valley and, after they melted away, we saw Glacial Lake Albany fill most of our valley with icy meltwater. Altogether these historic events took enormous lengths of time: hundreds of millions of years.
If Creationism or Intelligent Design is true, then all of this geological history is horribly misconstrued at best, fraudulent at worst. I and all of my colleagues are seriously deluded people. But I have always tried to tell where you can go and see the evidence for yourself. I hope that many of you have done some of the many field trips that I have described. If so, you can judge for yourself. Our valley and our Earth are very old.
If Creationism or Intelligent Design is true, then science itself is a hoax. Well, keep reading these columns and judge for yourself.
Reach the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Name your poison Mar. 12, 2020

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Name your poison
On the Rocks
Oct. 24, 1996
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Black sedimentary rocks are occasionally seen in the Hudson Valley. Recently, we described some along Rte. 209, south of Saw Kill. The dark appearance of these strata makes them remarkably eye-catching and, when they make up tall cliffs, they loom, dark and menacing, over the landscapes.
It’s the shiny, jet-black shales that we are talking about. They are often rich in undecayed organic matter; it’s the carbon that makes these rocks black. 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; they die before they can completely destroy the organic matter. But why low oxygen? That takes us back in time.
Back in the early Devonian Period, these shales were accumulating in a deep sea, immediately adjacent to the rising Acadian Mountains of western New England. Thick soils formed on the rapidly weathering mountainsides. The soils were easily and rapidly eroded and provided sediments that were eventually transported into the nearby Catskill Sea. This material was rich in dissolved nutrients, such as nitrates and phosphates. They fertilized the water and that led to the next step in what was to be a complex chain of events.

The fertilized waters were ideal for algae; they experienced algal blooms, great population explosions in the surface waters of the Catskill Sea. A whole ecology became established as dense mats of floating, or planktonic plants and animals grew, somewhat similar to that of today’s Sargasso Sea. While all this was great for the plankton it was deadly for just about every other category of marine organisms. As the plankton died, they were attacked by decay bacteria; the algae bloom led to a bacteria bloom. But the decay process consumed so much oxygen that the seas soon became oxygen depleted. The hapless bacteria had, in effect, poisoned their own habitat, because they needed oxygen too. Their numbers quickly plummeted and very soon, all types of animals, as well, suffocated in the oxygen depleted sea. But the algae just kept on proliferating in the surface waters where there was plenty of oxygen, diffusing in from the air above. Soon, large masses of undecayed biological material were sinking to the floor of the ocean. The climate was tropical, and the nearby coastal lowlands provided lots of vegetation, much of which drifted into the basin, adding more organic matter to the black shales. Almost all of these organics accumulated as thinly laminated, shiny black shales.
Back then, the Catskill Sea was largely isolated from other deep bodies of water; it was nearly surrounded by land or very shallow water. To its east, mountains blocked weather patterns and shielded the basin from most storm activity. All of these conditions promoted what are called stagnant, thermally stratified waters. The sunbaked surface layer was hot, while deeper water remained cool. Depth stratification and a dense planktonic mats combined to prevent agitation and mixing of the waters, causing stagnant seafloor conditions to develop. Virtually nothing could live in this sea, except at the surface where there was always plenty of oxygen. This was truly the poison sea.
Many of the earliest Catskill shales are jet black, and they form the Bakoven Shale at the base of what is called the lower Marcellus Group. As we have seen, they are the record of the Catskill poison seas. The upper beds of the Marcellus Group are similar looking but very different deposits. These are fossiliferous black shales and dark gray sandstones. They sometimes have rich assemblages of brachiopods, clams and even corals. These were still mud-bottomed seas, but they were deposited at times when there was a fairly large amount of oxygen in the water, at least enough to allow marine shellfish to survive and even flourish. These can be fun rocks to poke through as they are occasionally richly fossiliferous, and the preservation of those fossils can be very good.
See the Bakoven Shale on Rte. 23A where it crosses Kaaterskill Creek east of Kiskatom. Go visit that large outcrop along Rte. 209, between Kingston and Saw kill. The far south end is the real poison sea. As you travel upwards and north from those bed you are looking at shallower waters which had more oxygen.

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

Your Godawful geology. Mar. 6, 2020

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Your most Godawful geology
The Catskill Geologists
Robert and Johanna Titus
The Columbia Paper, January 2020

We haven’t properly introduced ourselves, have we? We are Robert and Johanna Titus. We will, from time to time, be writing for The Columbia Paper. One of us, Robert, has worked with editor Parry Teasdale off and on since 1996 and now we are going to resume. We call ourselves “The Catskill Geologists” and that is because we work for a number of newspapers and magazines across the river from you
So, if we are the “Catskill Geologists,” then why are we writing in Columbia County? Good question, and we have been wondering about that ourselves. You see, you folks have some of the most Godawfully difficult geology anywhere that we know of – perhaps just anywhere at all. Take a look at the map we include here. It is the Columbia County part of the New York State Museum’s geological map. Its production was a big event back in the 70’s. That was supervised by then State Museum geologist and our friend, the late Dr. Don Fisher. Maybe you knew Don; after retiring from the museum he opened up a rock and mineral shop in Kinderhook.
Don’s map shows the distribution of the major rock units that make up the bedrock here in Columbia County. If you can’t make sense of the map, don’t worry about it; we just want you to see how difficult it is. One unit, in gray, stretches through the middle of the map from the south center of the county and then on toward the northeast. That’s the Elisaville Formation which is mostly a black shale. You can see outcroppings of it exposed along the Taconic Parkway in the southern part of the county. Look around the map; there are a lot of other rock formations, aren’t there? Each records a moment in geological time. And they all seem to make up a very complex jumble. That’s the Godawful part of all this.

How on Earth did all this come about? Well, we think we know – sort of. We read about this in Don Fisher’s book “The Rise and Fall of the Taconic Mountains,” which was published in 2006 by Black Dome Press. Don’s book recounts the geological history of the county and it is broken up into a number of chapters defined by their plate tectonics. Each tectonic event witnessed North America colliding with another tectonic plate, one was a collision with Africa, two others involved Europe. Columbia County was in the heart of all this. Each collision saw the rise of mountain ranges, here and in western New England. Sediments, eroding off of those new mountains, would be the makings of each new rock unit. All of the county’s rocks, both new and old, were compressed, folded, fractured and metamorphosed in the heat of the collisions. Does this sound Godawful? It is, and that’s what you see on the map, perhaps all you can see!
It only gets worse; hundreds of millions of years later came the Ice Age. Glaciers, thousands of feet thick, flowed down the Hudson Valley and swept across the rest of the continent. You can imagine the complexity of the geology left behind by that event? The two of us don’t have to imagine it; we have seen it and worked with its geology.
Our job at the Columbia Paper will be to explain all his in a fashion that can be understood by you, the average general reader. We think we can do that; we look forward to it.

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

Tafoni: a mystery at Pratt’s Rock Feb. 27, 2020

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A real geological mystery, and at Pratt’s Rock
The Catskill Geologists
The Mountain Eagle May 31, 2019
Robert and Johanna Titus

We were invited to speak at the Pratt Museum recently. Our topic was the glacial geology of the Schoharie Creek Valley. After that, a group of us went to Pratt Rock and climbed up the trail there. We took a good look at Colonel Pratt’s carvings and continued on to see some nice ice age features. But, along the way, we ran across one of those mysteries we have long struggled with.

We were first alerted to this particular mystery by Paul Misko, a veteran Catskills hiker. Paul told us of some “very strange structures he had found in Phoenicia. Paul has a real eye for unusual geology, so we paid attention to his “very strange” claim. We saw his Phoenician structures and now we have found more of them at Pratt’s Rock. Take a look at our photo and then climb up the steep incline at Pratts Rock and keep an eye out. Towards the top you will find sizable ledges of sandstone. This is rather commonplace stuff: very typical Catskills bluestone ledges. These ledges are, in essence, the cross sections of a very old streams. It’s, like all rocks in the Catskills, Devonian in age, something a bit less than 400 million years old.
None of this surprised us in the least but that’s where we encountered that mystery. Take another look at our photo and see what you think. See the cluster of closely spaced and very strange cavities just above the hand. Their shapes vary considerably, but they all show a sort of boxy nature and they seem to form an interlocking network. We would like to use the term honeycomb here, but honeycombs show a consistent hexagonal shape; we don’t see that with these. The rock remaining in between these cavities is narrow. The cavities do not penetrate too far into the rock, just a few inches. And there is no reason to think that there is another horizon of these cavities under the ones that are visible. Thus, they appear to be surficial features. Many of these cavities are spaced so close together that they comprise a bigger compound cavity. Whatever it was that formed them was focused.
All in all, this is one of the most puzzling phenomena that we have seen in the Catskills. There is no trouble putting a name on what is here; these structures are called “tafoni.” Each individual cavity is a tafone. And the terminology keeps getting better; when tafoni occur on cliff faces, as here, then it is called lateral or sidewall tafoni. Names are great but putting a name on something is not the same as understanding it.
What are these features? They seem to be chemical weathering phenomena. Somehow, they appeared on the rock surface and grew slowly into their observed shapes, but exactly how? And, also, how is it that they grow in size until they abut each other but do not grow into each other? How do they grow in size without intersecting? Those are very puzzling questions and just naming these things does not provide answers.
Tafoni have been weakly associated with poorly defined stratification on the sides of cliffs and that is the case here: sort of. But that still leaves a lot unsaid. Why does this “association” occur? What are the specifics? Salt is commonly cited as an agent in tafoni development. They are sometimes found on coastal outcroppings, splashed by ocean waves. But there is certainly no source of salt here on a sandstone cliff in Prattsville, and certainly no waves. And, why do only a few Catskill Cliffs display these? That begs the question: what exactly is different about his cliff? Why don’t all cliffs have tafoni? Why isn’t it that none of them do? There must be something here, right in front of our eyes, which we have missed. This is the sort of thing that makes science so much fun.
Do you have any ideas or questions? Have you seen tafoni somewhere?

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

Fossil tree roots in the Catskills feb. 20, 2020

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Fossil tree roots in the Catskills
The Catskill Geologists
Robert and Johnna Titus
The Mountain Eagle, Aug 5, 2017

If you are accustomed to reading our columns then you might like to get out and do some geology on your own. Let’s give you a good project to work on. We are hoping that you might make some discoveries that might help us. We would like you to take a look at our photo. It’s a horizon of reddish Catskill sandstone. It’s a stratified sandstone and, especially at the top, you can see strata that range from a half inch to a full inch in thickness.
That red color, here in the Catskills, tips us off as to what kind of environment these strata formed in. Red is the color of terrestrial deposits. These strata formed on dry land. This was on the floodplains of the Catskill Delta and we have written about it before in this column.


But what is special about these strata are the petrified root systems that were preserved within them. You can see one root system on the far left, another just a little left of center and the third to the right. What a remarkable thing this is; we are looking at the fossilized root systems of three plants that, long ago, grew on the surface of the Catskill Delta. All of the foliage that once rose above the ground is now gone but there are the roots.
These plants were part of what is called the Gilboa forest. That’s the oldest known fossil forest known to science, so these are important. They date back to the Devonian time period and are probably about 380 million years old. Potentially these fossils might tell us something about what early forests were like.
Paleontologists sometimes call these fossils “rhizomorphs.” That roughly translates as “root morphologies” – structures that preserve the forms of ancient plant roots. What kinds of plants were these? Well, that is the important question – we really don’t know. Given the modest size of these root systems we expect that they would be called shrubs, but what kinds of shrubs were they? Again – we do not know.
Shrubs of this sort can be considered to be small trees. Most of the trees that are known to have grown in in the Gilboa forest have well known and easily identifiable root systems. They don’t look like these ones. So – you can see why we are interested in them. These may be something new.
We found these fossils along the dirt road that ascends Mt. Utsayantha in Stamford. We parked our car at the bottom of the hill and walked to its top. We hoped we might find something of interest in one the many outcrops that we found along the way. It’s easier to drive to the top, but you are more likely to find something interesting if you walk. These specimens were in an outcrop that lay about halfway to the top of the mountain.
Well, here is the main point of all this. It seems likely that there may be many more specimens like these scattered perhaps throughout the Catskills. There are only two of us, but there are many more of you. Once you have seen our photo you will have a good idea of what to look for. Once you know what to look for it’s easier to find things. Maybe you can tell us where some more of these are.

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

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