A Geological Mystery at Bears Den
Beautiful landscapes and geological wonders are never far from your door here in Northern Virginia. Today, we took a hike to meet the Appalachian Trail near the border of West Virginia (Fig. 2).
To reach the Bears Den rest area on the Appalachian Trail (see oval area in Fig. 2), we had to follow a winding path along one of the many irregular crests that define the Blue Ridge Mountains (Fig. 3).
Along the way, we noted that the trail followed the top of a deeply eroded landscape, littered with boulders and weathered rocks (Figs. 4 and 5).
We finally reached the rocky point from which Fig. 1 was photographed. A large outcrop crosscut with veins greeted us (Figs. 6-8).
Intersecting joints like those seen in Figs. 7 and 8 occur when rocks that have been deeply buried are exhumed as overlying rocks erode. The upper mantle relaxes and lifts its overburden in a process called isostatic rebound. Rocks thus uplifted are no longer soft but respond like a solid in brittle deformation. What is intriguing about these rocks (whose age we haven’t yet determined) and the joints that permeate them, is the origin of the quartz and feldspar filling the joints.
It’s time to talk about the host rock seen in Figs. 4-8. The west side of the oval outlined in the inset map of Fig. 2 reveals that these are fluvial-to-shoreface sedimentary rocks deposited between 541 and 511 Ma (source: Rock D lists many sources for this interpretation).
An intrusive magma filled joints (Figs. 7 and 8) and heated the country rock to the point of remineralization (Fig. 9), yet sedimentary textures are retained (Fig. 10). What’s going on?
There are some general rules in determining relative geologic age. For example, layered rocks are younger as you ascend in a stack of them. This rule applies to both sedimentary and volcanic rocks, although the contacts aren’t as uniform in the latter. Another rule is that rocks that cut through other rocks (i.e. veins and dikes) are younger than the rocks they invade.
The sedimentary host rocks at Bears Den were deposited where rivers fed coastal deltas and a sandy beach (shore face) about 500 million years ago, long after the granites we see to the east (Fig. 2) were intruded and metamorphosed to become metagranites. In other words, the quartz veins and granitic dikes (Figs. 7-12) did not occur when the older (1600-1000 Ma) igneous rocks were emplaced; these veins and felsic intrusions must be associated with the Taconic orogeny, which started about 440 million years ago. The geologic map (Fig. 2) doesn’t show any evidence of granitic intrusions from this period, which could have filled joints created by isostatic rebound in these rocks.
These sedimentary layers were laid down during the collision that created Pangea, so they would have had to be buried deeply enough to become lithified, exhumed to a sufficiently shallow depth to form joints (a sure sign of brittle failure and thus uplift), then invaded by an undisclosed intrusive magma at a very shallow depth (probably less than 5 miles).
Alternatively, they could have remain buried until the breakup of Pangea, beginning in the Triassic period and progressing in stages. Magmatism has been associated with this event in Northern Virginia.
All of this is plausible, given the immense span of time involved, but…
Where are the rocks?