ESCI 322 Field Trip: Mysterious Visitors from the Deep


Photo credit: Hehe Jiang

This blog describes the 3-day field trip that the Fall 2015 ESCI 322 class took to northern California with Professors Cin-Ty Lee & Rajdeep Dasgupta and TA Laura Carter, as told by the undergraduate students: Sofia Avendano, Anthony Foster, Alexandra Homes, Garrett Lynch, Oliver Lucier, Ian Mellor-Crummey, Leila Wahab, Shannon Wang, and Sam Zapp.

Day 1:

Marin Headlands (chert):


Garrett Lynch in front of deformed cherts

This site overlooked San Francisco Bay directly across the Golden Gate Bridge. During the Jurassic period, following Pangaea, the Farallon plate subducted underneath the western North American plate.

At this stop we saw silica-rich cherts on top of ancient oceanic crust. The cherts were once laminated sedimentary deposits formed from diatoms and during subduction were scraped off as part of the accretionary prism. These specific cherts formed near the equator, probably during the Jurassic era. In composition, these cherts are 99% silica, but also contain some iron and manganese. This composition arose as iron and manganese were dispelled from the mid-oceanic ridges and deposited within the silicic ooze that becomes chert. We also noticed fractures filled with quartz in the form of white veins. Over to the right we saw darker, older, green bands, which had not been oxidized.

Marin Headlands (pillow basalts):


Students Oliver Lucier and Sam Zapp looking at a pillow basalt outcrop with Garrett Lynch and Alexandra Holmes looking on from above and TA Laura Carter from below.

The pillow basalts here formed from magma that upwelled due to the divergent boundary at the mid-ocean ridge and was erupted underwater. Zoned phenocrysts of plagioclase feldspar were visible, indicating that they grew intrusively before eruption. The surrounding fine grained matrix was extruded on the seafloor where it cooled quickly. The edge of each pillow featured a glassy rind where the surface of the lava body cooled even quicker with direct contact with the water. Layers of chert were deposited on top of these pillows in a marine setting.


Professor Dasgupta discussing pillow basalts with the students









Tiburon Peninsula (Eclogite, blueschist, and peridotite, boulder outcrops):


Eclogite. Photo credit: Prof Cin-Ty Lee

Here we saw a number of boulder outcrops. Eclogite needs high pressure and high temperature conditions to form, so its presence was indicative of subduction zone setting. Chemically, it is very similar to the pillow basalts we saw earlier at the Marin Headlands, suggesting this may be the protolith. However, the eclogite samples we saw were also enriched in sodium, probably from hydrothermal processes, giving a special form of pyroxene: jadeite. In eclogite, the aluminum in the protolith plagioclase is now held in garnet. As it moved back up through the crust, some of the eclogite retrograded into blueschist, greenschist and amphibolite. The heterogeneity of the metamorphic grade may have been caused by uneven distribution of fluids. The kinetics of retrograde metamorphism can be slow, but the presence of fluids makes retrograde metamorphism occur faster.



Students looking at a peridotite xenolith


The last outcrop we saw here was composed of peridotite. It contained orthopyroxene and olivine, so it would be classified as harzburgite. Peridotites with a much greater amount of orthopyroxene are lherzolite. These peridotite xenoliths had a slightly brown / tan coloring due to the weathering at the Earth’s surface. We also saw some serpentinite—altered peridotite—in the area.




Bolinas Lagoon (San Andreas fault, SEALS!):

We observed a rookery of seals accompanied by a lone sea lion as if he meant, through his presence, to elicit an ironical play upon a Danish children’s story. Abreast of these seals, two shovelers swam, feeding, and one merganser swooped through, low, tantalizing the water.

Point Reyes Visitor Center / Earthquake Museum:

Here we did a short nature walk travelling along the path of the San Andreas fault. We saw a fence that was displaced several feet due to previous movement along the fault, which is evidence of an ongoing right lateral strike slip fault.

The beach, the cliffs:


Students looking at an unconformity on the beach at Point Reyes. Photo credit: Laura Carter

Along Point Reyes on the Pacific Ocean there was a series of cliffs with igneous outcrops that were the roots of a magma chamber from the Cretaceous next to marine sediments from the Miocene, representing a large unconformity. Here, we could see cross cutting relations in the igneous outcrops where magmas of different compositions interacted. The parental magmas were more basaltic, while the more felsic magmas were much more evolved. The intruding felsic magmas were much more viscous, so they mixed in some places but stayed clearly separate in others, and then froze in place. Mixing of the magmas indicated that the surrounding rock was still magmatic mush when they mingled.

Sharper boundaries between two magmas is also visible. This was likely due to the fact that basalt has a higher melting point, so when it cooled, it contracted and pulled some of the surrounding liquid in. These intrusions occurred further inland from the subduction zone, around 10 km below the surface.

Day 2:

Sedimentary Road Cuts, Ione Formation:

In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, we saw an outcrop on the exposed shoulder of a highway. Sediments had been collected from the Sierra Nevadas and compacted into layers. The layers originated from granodiorite which lost much of its magnesium and iron, leaving behind what became predominantly kaolinite (Al2SiO5). The lower layers of laminated deltaic sediment gave way to cross-bedding features as a fluvial system moved through the area. At the edges of the formation, there was evidence of soft sediment deformation.

Silver Lake:

We also stopped at Silver Lake for lunch. Beside the lake there were these interesting boulders which appeared to contain clasts of petrified wood. Across the lake we saw large lava flows of andesitic magma, now part of an imposing mountainside.


Andesitic lava flows overlooking Silver Lake. Photo credit: Prof Cin-Ty Lee

Mono Lake:

The edge of Mono Lake contains massive collections of tufa deposited in towers. We learned that these tufa deposits are a result of the very alkaline water from the lake mixing with calcium rich spring water from the Sierras, which precipitates calcium carbonate (CaCO3). The tufa deposits become visible and form large columns due to the water level of Mono Lake lowering over time. In the past, the springs feeding Mono Lake were drained to provide water for places like Los Angeles and other urban areas, which made more and more of the tufa deposits visible. Only in recent years has this been slowed and Mono Lake protected.


Tufa towers at Mono Lake. Photo credit: Ian Mellor-Crummey

Day 3:

Long Valley Caldera:

The Long Valley Caldera is in the Basin and Range region, which underwent extension. The Caldera was active 2 million years ago, but the last eruption occurred 700,000 years ago and erupted 700,000 m3 of rhyolite. The eruption style was Plinian, which is very explosive, caused by magma fragmentation, and characterized by fine ash. The ash of the eruption spread throughout the western US. There were also resurgent domes with the same magma composition, but with effusive style eruptions since the magmas had already been degassed.

The youngest lava flows were 7,000 years old.  Under the Basin and Range extension, decompression allows the mantle to cross the solidus, which leads to alkalic basaltic magmatism. Basalts that re-melt the crust fractionate and form rhyolites, so there are both extremes here: basalts and rhyolites. It is still unclear how basalts skip to rhyolites with no intermediate composition.


Glacial moraine in front of the Sierra Nevadas on the edge of Long Valley Caldera

The actual magma body was 10 km below the surface. The magma body builds up pressure, creating fractures, and, when the pressure exceeds the yield stress of the rock above, the system evacuates and the roof collapses. This has left a low, flat ~10 x 20 km area. Fumaroles, where magmatic gases were still escaping due to residual heat, were also visible.

Around the caldera, there were also moraines, large sediment mounds moved by glaciation, visible along the outskirts in front of the Sierras.


Long Valley ignimbrite deposit at Owen’s Gorge. Photo credit: Prof Cin-Ty Lee

Owen’s Gorge:


Long Valley ignimbrite containing pink pumice and granitic lithics

At the base of the gorge, we saw evidence of a huge rhyolitic ignimbrite, which must have erupted over an incredibly short period of time (estimated at around 6 days). There were three different layers denoting sequential eruptions. The lowest layer was more porous, with many lateral fractures and no evidence of compaction, which indicates that the lowest layer cooled before the weight of the next eruption could deform it. The texture of this tuff was friable, easily breakable, and it was more silicic than the upper layers. The first layer was probably an initial pulse of small eruptions right before the large eruption. Weak precursor eruptions tend to have ashfall rates slower than cooling rates.
The middle layer had a very clear fabric with small pumice ejecta elongated and oriented in the same direction, which shows that the layer was compacted. Thus it cooled slower than the layer below. The strain of the rock can be found from the aspect ratio of the elongated clasts, perpendicular to the bedding. This layer was welded ignimbrite, which contained fiamme, and was formed under high temperature and pressure. Jointing occurred after cooling due to contraction.


Long Valley ignimbrite containing pink pumice and granitic lithics


The upper layer was mostly ash with pre-existing metamorphic, Paleozoic clasts caught in the ash (lithics). There were also pink pumice clasts that also have an individual fabric, which probably came from a different eruption, and had elongated vesicles caused by compaction. There was no larger scale fabric because there was not enough overpressure to deform the material, so the last eruption must have cooled quickly.





Panum Crater:


Flow textures in banded obsidian layers

Panum Crater is what remains of a rhyolitic plug-dome volcano. Volcanic eruptions in this area began around 40,000 years ago. Panum Crater itself is approximately dated at 650 years old and is the youngest in the area. The explosion occurred as a magma bubble heated the water table into instant, high-pressure steam. Pumice was the first to be expelled from the volcano, and deposited around the outside of the crater. Following, breccia formed a dome over the crater, followed by lava flows that cooled to obsidian, which dominate the landscape.


Vesicles in the pumice at Panum Crater. Car keys for scale. Photo credit: Prof Raj Dasgupta


Highly zoomed image of the vesicle walls in the Panum Crater flows. Photo credit: Prof Cin-Ty Lee

The rhyolitic eruptions in the crater produced very silicic lava (roughly 76% SiO2), which is highly viscous and created the two main types of rock we saw: pumice and obsidian. The pumice was very low in density and highly vesicular. The vesicles formed from trapped air bubbles, indicating that the lava solidified quickly. Obsidian had little to no bubbles, but is the same composition as pumice. The obsidian cools quickly forming a glass, evidenced by the black rock’s conchoidal fracturing we saw.

A curious sample of rock we found looked like obsidian but had what looked like mud cracks on its surface. This was actually a breadcrust bomb formed from molten lava chunks flung into the air. The outer surface cooled rapidly, but the inside was still molten, so the gases inside continued expanding. This cracked the surface of the rock, causing it to look like the crust of a bread loaf.

Geologically speaking, obsidian never lasts very long. Devitrification causes glass to be more like rock and less like glass, so It is difficult to find glassy obsidian older than 10 thousand years old. The more vesicular the obsidian is, the faster the rate of devitrification since water gets in the vesicles. Thus, the rock samples at Panum were much younger than the samples at other formations we studied.

Basaltic Phreatic Deposit:


Deformation and bedded phreatic ash deposits with Alexandra Homes for scale

On our way from Panum Crater, we stopped to examine an omega-shaped formation on the side of the road. Upon close inspection, we found the rock to be very fine-grained and soft, with cross-bedding evident on the folds. This was formed when a basaltic flow erupted underwater. When basalt hits groundwater, it fragments and becomes very, very fine-grained, creating the soft texture that we observed instead of the texture we saw in previous basalt deposits. The deformation is very similar to soft-sediment deformation, and most likely occurred when the rock was still warm and ductile. Cross-bedding was likely a result of basaltic ash settling in bodies of water nearby, creating the sloped deformation, and cross-bedding typical of river systems.

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