Category Archives: Geomorphology

When did the Greenland ice cap last melt?

The record preserved in cores through the thickest part of the Greenland ice cap goes back only to a little more than 120 thousand years ago, unlike in Antarctica where data are available for 800 ka and potentially further back still. One possible reason for this difference is that a great deal more snow falls on Greenland so the ice builds up more quickly than in Antarctica. Because ice flows under pressure this might imply that older ice on Greenland long flowed to the margins and either melted or calved off as icebergs. So, although it is certain that the Antarctic ice cap has not melted away, at least in the last million years or so, we cannot tell if Greenlandic glaciers did so over the same period of time. Knowing whether or not Greenland might have shed its carapace of ice is important, because if ever does in future the meltwater will add about 7 metres to global sea level: a nightmare scenario for coastal cities, low-lying islands and insurance companies.

Margin of the Greenland ice sheet (view from p...

Edge of the Greenland ice sheet with a large glacier flowing into a fjiord at the East Greenland coas  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One means of judging when Greenland was last free of ice, or at least substantially so, is based on more than a ice few metres thick being opaque to cosmic ‘rays’. Minerals, such as quartz, in rocks bared at the surface to ultra-high energy, cosmogenic neutrons accumulate short-lived isotopes of beryllium and aluminium – 10Be and 26Al with half-lives of 1.4 and 0.7 Ma. Once rocks are buried beneath ice or sediment, the two isotopes decay away and it is possible to estimate the duration of burial from the proportions of the remaining isotopes. After about 5 Ma the cosmogenic isotopes will have decreased to amounts that cannot be measured. Conversely, if the ice had melted away at any time in the past 5 Ma and then returned it should be possible to estimate the timing and duration of exposure of the surface to cosmic ‘rays’. Two groups of researchers have applied cosmogenic-isotope analysis to Greenland. One group (Schaefer, J.G. et al. 2016. Greenland was nearly ice-free for extended periods during the Pleistocene. Nature, v. 540, p. 252-255) focused on bedrock, currently buried beneath 3 km of ice, that drilling for the ice core finally penetrated. The other systematically analysed the cosmogenic isotope content of mineral grains at different depths in North Atlantic seafloor sediment cores, largely supplied from East Greenland since 7.5 Ma ago (Bierman, P.R. et al. 2016. A persistent and dynamic East Greenland Ice Sheet over the past 7.5 million years Nature, v. 540, p. 256-260). As their titles suggest, the two studies had conflicting results.

The glacigenic sediment grains contained no more than 1 atom of 10Be per gram compared with the 5000 to 6000 in grains deposited and exposed to cosmic rays along the shores of Greenland since the end of the last ice age. These results challenge the possibility of any significant deglaciation and exposure of bedrock in the source of seafloor sediment since the Pliocene.  The bedrock from the base of Greenland’s existing ice cap, however, contains up to 25 times more cosmogenic isotopes. The conclusion in that case is that there must have been a protracted, >280 ka, exposure of the rock surface in what is now the deepest ice cover at 1.1 Ma ago at most. Allowing for the likelihood of some persistent glacial cover in what would have been mountainous areas in an otherwise substantially deglaciated Greenland, the results are consistent with about 90% melting suggested by glaciological modelling.

Clearly, some head scratching is going to be needed to reconcile the two approaches. Ironically, the ocean-floor cores were cut directly offshore of the most likely places where patches of residual ice cap may have remained. Glaciers there would have transported rock debris that had remained masked from cosmic rays until shortly before calved icebergs or the glacial fronts melted and supplied sediment to the North Atlantic floor. If indeed the bulk of Greenland became ice free around a million years ago, under purely natural climatic fluctuations, the 2° C estimate for global warming by 2100 could well result in a 75% glacial melt and about 5-6 m rise in global sea level.

Read more about glaciation here and here.

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Scablands: megaflood hypothesis tempered

Channeled Scablands during flood

Channeled Scablands at the time of a glacial lake outburst flood (credit: Wikipedia)

The eastern side of Washington State in the US includes a vast, barren area that has been scoured virtually free of superficial sediment, including soils. Its landscape is among the most odd in North America, consisting of a network of unusually wide canyons or couleés that incise a regional plateau formed by the Columbia River flood basalts. The now largely dry canyon floors contain immense potholes, megaripples and erratic boulders, together with strangely streamlined hillocks made of residual, windblown loess deposits, which collectively resemble features of normal river beds but at a gargantuan scale. The canyon network emerges from the Rocky Mountains near the city of Spokane, then criss-crosses what had previously been a wide basalt plain to merge with the Columbia River in southern Washington. The couleés are up to 100 km long and reach  100 m in depth.

Dry Falls, WA Français : Les Dry Falls dans l'...

Dry Falls in Grand Colee, Washington state, US, showing typical features of the Channelle Scablands. (credit: Wikipedia)

In the 1920s J. Harlen Bretz suggested that the Channelled Scablands had been formed by a massive flood, a view that met disbelief until his colleague Joseph Pardee discovered that a huge lake of glacial meltwater (Lake Missouala) had formed in the intricate valleys of the Montana Rockies when their outflow into Washington had been blocked by a southward-surging finger of the Cordilleran ice sheet. Lake Missouala is estimated to have been about half the size of modern Lake Michigan (~7700 km2) and up to 610 m deep, reaching a maximum volume of 2100 km3  between 15 to 13 ka ago. Bretz’s idea was vindicated; melting of the ice dam was widely thought to have produced a single vast outburst flood and the removal of approximately 320 km3 of basalt and loess. The later discovery of strandlines, similar to those on a smaller scale in Glen Roy, western Scotland, on the flanks of former lake modified the theory to a series of individual, but still huge outburst flood events. Their magnitudes, estimated by assuming that each filled the coulees to their brim, were thought to be up to 60 km3 per hour, i.e. 100 times greater than the largest recorded historically, that of the Amazon. A recent study tempers the awe long-associated with the Scablands.

Isaac Larsen and Michael Lamb of the University of Massachusetts and the California Institute of Technology examined Moses Couleé, one of the largest, in detail (Larsen, I.J. & Lamb, M.P. 2016. Progressive incision of the Channelled Scablands by outburst floods. Nature, v. 538, p. 229-232; doi;10.1038/nature19817). Terraces in Moses Couleé allow successive topographic profiles of the canyon to be reconstructed, and the flow features on its floor allow water depth during some of the flows to be estimated. Far from being brim-full at any time, except during the first incision, individual discharges of meltwater were probably 5 to 10 times less than those previously suggested. Moreover, the pattern of the Scablands reflects major fracture zones n the Columbia River flood basalts, which suggests that floods followed lines of least resistance and greatest ease of erosion by removal of joint-bound blocks of basalt. Yet the floods still reached a magnitude never recorded for modern ones, and Larsen and Lambs modelling may well apply to the even vaster outburst canyons on Mars, such as Valles Marineris.

See also: Perron, J.T. & Venditti, J.G. 2016, Megafloods downsized. Nature, v. 538, p. 174-175; nature.com/newsandviews

Picture of the month, June 2015

SpheroidalIMG_4815

Spheroidally weathered basalt from Turkey. (credit: Francisco Sousa)

Spheroidal weathering of lavas, easily confused with pillows, is also found in other homogeneous igneous rocks. It develops from rectilinear joint sets along which the groundwater responsible for breakdown of silicates initially moves. Hydration reactions begin along the joints but proceed most quickly at corners so that curved surfaces begin to develop. The concentric  banding that sometimes culminates in almost spherical relics may involve more than just rotting of anhydrous silicates as the reactions involve volume increases that encourage further rock fracturing. Other factors, such as elastic strain release may also encourage the characteristic concentricity Prolonged, intense chemical weathering leaves isolated, rounded corestones surrounded by saprolite, that can form boulder fields when the softer weathered material has been eroded away.

Two large, reorganised landscapes

Where tectonic processes proceed quickly it is only to be expected that the land surface undergoes dramatic changes and that big features form. Exactly which processes lay behind very striking landforms may have been worked out long ago; or old ideas from the heyday of geomorphology have perhaps lingered longer than they should. Two tectonically active regions that have a long history of study are the Himalaya and Iceland: one a model of long-lived and rapid uplift driven by collisional tectonics; the other likewise, as a product of extension and rapid build-up of flood basalt flows. Major features of both have been shown to be not quite what they seem.
Substantial parts of the India-Asia collision zone contain broad patches of high, low-relief plateaus separated by deeply incised river gorges. In its eastern parts rise 3 of the largest rivers in SE Asia: the Yangtse; the Mekong and the Salween, which flow roughly parallel to the east and south-east for about 1000 km from their sources in the Tibetan Plateau. Their trajectories partly follow some enormous strike-slip fault that accommodated the relative motion of two continent-bearing plates over the last 50 million years. As well as the crustal thickening that attended the collision, vast amounts of uplifted material have been eroded from the three major gorges. Thickening and unloading have been the key to producing the largest tracts of high land on the planet. Yet between the gorges and their many tributaries in the eastern part of the collision zone are many tracts of high land with only moderate relief rather than sharp ridges. Because the Eurasian plate prior to India’s impact might reasonably be expected to have been only moderately high, if not low lying, and with a mature and muted landscape, a long-lived theory has been that these elevated plateaus are uplifted relics of this former landscape that were dissected by progressively deepening river incision. Much the same idea has been applied to similar mega features, and even coincident peaks in more completely eroded highlands.

Drainage basins of the Yangtse, Mekong and Salween rivers, with low-relief surfaces in buff and cream. Figure 1 in Yang et al. 2015 (credit: Nature)

Drainage basins of the Yangtse, Mekong and Salween rivers, with low-relief surfaces in buff and cream. Figure 1 in Yang et al. 2015 (credit: Nature)

In the India-Asian collision zone the supposedly ‘relic’ plateaus have been used to reconstruct the pre-collision land surface and the degree of bulging it has undergone since. However, the advent of accurate digital terrain elevation data has enabled the modelling of not only the large rivers but also of the tributary streams that make up major drainage. As well as the directional aspects of drainages their along-channel slopes can be analysed (Yong, R. et al. 2015. In situ low-relief landscape formation as a result of river network disruption. Nature, v. 520, p. 526-529). Rong Yang of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and colleagues from the same department and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel have been able to show that matters are far more complex than once believed. The tributary drainages of the Yangtse, Mekong and Salween gorges appear to have been repeatedly been disrupted by the complexities of deformation. One important factor has been drainage capture or piracy, in which drainages with greater energy erode towards the heads of their catchments until they intercept a major drainage in another sub-basin, thereby ‘stealing’ the energy of the water that it carries. The ‘pirate’ stream then erodes more powerfully in its lower reaches, whereas the basin burgled of much of its energy becomes more sluggishly evolving thereafter and increasingly left anomalous high in the regional terrain: it evolves to liken what previously it had been supposed to be – a relic of the pre-collision landscape.
Many of the rivers in Iceland occupy gorges that contain a succession of large waterfalls. Upstream of each is a wide rock terrace, and downstream the gorge is eroded into such a terrace. Much of Iceland is composed of lava flows piled one above another, as befits the only substantial land that straddles a constructive plate margin – the mid-Atlantic Ridge. Being famous also for its substantial ice caps that are relics of one far larger during the last glacial maximum, it has proved irresistible for geomorphologists to assign the gorge-fall-terrace repetition to gradual uplift due to isostatic rebound as the former ice cap melted and unloaded the underlying lithosphere. As relative sea-level fell each river gained more gravitational potential energy to cut back up its channel, which resulted in a succession of upstream migrating waterfalls and gorges below them. Individual lava flows, being highly resistant to abrasion cease to be affected once cut by a gorge; hence the terraces. But it is now possible to establish the date when each terrace first became exposed to cosmic-ray bombardment, using the amount of cosmogenic 3He that has accumulated in the basalts that form the terrace surfaces (Baynes, E.R. et al. 2015. Erosion during extreme flood events dominates Holocene canyon evolution in northeast Iceland. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, doi:10.1073/pnas.1415443112).

Valley of Jökulsá á Fjöllum past Dettifoss, Jö...

Gorge incised in basalt flows, Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, Iceland (credit: Wikipedia)

The British-German team from the University of Edinburgh and Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum, Potsdam worked on terraces of the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, discovering that three terraces formed abruptly in the Holocene, at 9, 5 and 2 ka ago, with no evidence for any gradual erosion by abrasion. Each terrace was cut suddenly, probably aided by the highly jointed nature of the overlying lava flow that would encourage toppling of blocks given sufficient energy. The team suggests that each represents not stages in uplift, but individual megafloods, perhaps caused by catastrophic glacial melting during subglacial eruptions or failures of dams formed by moraines or ice lobes.

Explosive erosion in the Himalaya

As the Yalung-Tsangpo River on the northern flank of the Himalaya approaches  a bend the rotates its flow by almost 180 degrees to become the Brahmaputra it enters one of the world’s largest canyons. Over the 200 km length of the Tsangpo Gorge the river descends two kilometres between peaks that tower 7 km above sea level. Since the area is rising tectonically and as a result of the unloading that attends erosion, for the Tsangpo to have maintained its eastward flow it has been suggested that an average erosion rate of 3 to 5 km per million years was maintained continuously over the last 3 to 5 Ma. However, new information from the sediments downstream of the gorge suggests that much of the gorge’s depth was cut during a series of sudden episodes (Lang, K.A. et al. 2013. Erosion of the Tsangpo Gorge by megafloods, Eastern Himalaya. Geology, v. 41, p. 1003-1006).

English: Map of the Yarlung Tsangpo River wate...

The Yarlung Tsangpo River watershed which drains the north slope of the Himalayas. (credit: Wikipedia)

It has become clear from a series of mountainside terraces that during the Pleistocene glaciers and debris from them often blocked the narrow valleys through which the river flowed along the northern flank of the Himalaya. Each blockage would have impounded enormous lakes upstream of the Tsangpo Gorge, containing up to 800 km3 of water. Failure of the natural dams would have unleashed equally spectacular floods. The researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle examined the valley downstream of the gorge, to find unconsolidated sediments as much as 150 m above the present channel. They have similar grain size distributions to flood deposits laid down some 30 m above the channel by a flood unleashed in 2000 by the failure of a temporary dam caused by a landslide. The difference is that the higher level deposits are densely vegetated and have well-developed soils: they are almost certainly relics of far larger floods in the distant past from the lakes betrayed by the terraces above the Tsangpo Gorge.

By measuring the age of zircons found in the megaflood deposits using the U/Pb methods the team  have been able to show that the sediments were derived mainly from 500 Ma crystalline basement in the Tsangpo Gorge itself rather than from the younger terranes in Tibet. There are four such deposits at separate elevations above the modern river below the gorge. Like the 2000 AD flood deposit, each terrace is capped by landslide debris suggesting that flooding and associated erosion destabilised the steep slopes so characteristic of the region. Because the valleys are so narrow (<200 m at the bottom), each flood would have been extremely deep, flows being of the order of a million cubic metres per second. The huge power would have been capable of moving blocks up to 18 m across with 1 m boulders being carried in suspension. It has been estimated that each of the floods would have been capable of removing material that would otherwise have taken up to 4000 years to erode at present rates of flow.

The Grand Greenland Canyon

One of the properties of radar is that it can pass through hundreds of metres of ice to be scattered by the bedrock beneath and return to the surface with sufficient remaining power to allow measurement of ice depth from the time between transmission of a pulse and that when the scattered energy returns to the antenna. Liquid water simply absorbs the radar energy preventing any return from the subsurface. As far as rocks and soils are concerned, any water in them and the structure of minerals from which they are composed limit penetration and energy return to at most only a few metres. While radar images that result from scattering by the Earth’s solid surface are highly informative about landforms and variations in the surface’s small-scale texture, outside of seismic reflection profiling, only ice-penetrating radar (IPR) approaches the ‘holy grail’ of mapping what lies beneath the surface in 3-D. Unlike seismic surveys it can be achieved from aircraft and is far cheaper to conduct.

English: Topographic map of Greenland bedrock,...

Greenland’s topography without the ice sheet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was IPR that revealed the scattering of large lakes at the base of the Antarctic ice cap, but a survey of Greenland has revealed something even more astonishing: major drainage systems. These include a vast canyon that meanders beneath the thickest part of the ice towards the island’s north coast (Bamber, J.L. et al. 2013. Palaeofluvial mega-canyon beneath the central Greenland ice sheet. Science, v. 341, p. 997-999). At 750 km long and a maximum depth of 800 m it is comparable with active canyon systems along the Colorado and Nile rivers in the western US and Ethiopia respectively. A less-well publicised feature is ancient leaf-shaped system of buried valleys further south that emerges in a great embayment on West Greenland’s coast near Uummannaq, which may be the catchment of another former river system. In fact much of the data that revealed what appears to be pre-glacial topography dates back to the 1970s, though most was acquired since 2000. The coverage by flight lines varies a great deal, and as more flights are conducted, yet more detail will emerge.

The British, Canadian and Italian discoverers consider that glacial meltwater sinking to the base of the ice cap continues to follow the canyon, perhaps lubricating ice movement. The flatter topography beneath the Antarctic ice cap is not so easy to drain, which probably accounts for the many sub-glacial lakes there whereas none of any significance have been detected in Greenland. The earliest time when Greenland became ice-bound was about 5 Ma ago, so that is the minimum age for the river erosion that carved the canyon

Update on a classic British field site

English: Glacial erratic, Norber One of severa...

Glacial erratic at Norber Brown that sits nicely on a limestone plinth, dues to the erratic’s having protected the limestone underneath from erosion. (credit: Wikipedia)

Few expect Earth scientists to get all sentimental, but they do. My soft spot is for one of the most rewarding and least strenuous geological sites in Britain, Norber Brow near Austwick on the southern edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. As well as the famous glacial erratics of Silurian greywackes perched on Lower Carboniferous limestone, 250 m to the SE by a well-trodden path is the inverse, the Variscan unconformity at the base of the Carboniferous on the very same Silurian formation. I was lucky to be taken there at age 15 by Roy Happs who taught A-level Geology, and it decided my future, there and then.

The erratics don’t just site on the limestone, but are on pedestals up to 30 cm above the surrounding limestone surface as if carefully balanced by Beowulf’s assailant Grendel. Somehow, since the time glacial flow had deposited the Silurian boulders the underlying limestone had been dissolved away; but how fast was that? That is the key to the pace at which limestone pavement, to most general visitors such a stunning and unexpected feature of the Dales, might have formed. And such a delight to hear of its terminology: clints, redolent of the former Viking people of the Dales, that stand proud between deep fissures known as grikes, a suitably ominous term of unknown derivation. Such superbly fractal landforms are, of course, but one part of karst (from the eponymous region of limestone country in Slovenia).

English: Limestone Pavement at Twisleton Scar ...

A classic limestone pavement in the Yorkshire Dales National Park (credit: Wikipedia)

It is really satisfying to discover that a lot of cutting-edge science has recently been aimed at Norber from a substantial review in Earth Pages’ sister journal Geology Today (Wilson, P. et al. 2013. Dating in the Craven Dales. Geology Today, v. 29 (January-February Issue), p. 16-22). The length of time that the Norber erratics have been exposed to cosmic-ray bombardment has been determined from 10Be, 26Al and 36Cl analyses with a precision of ±1000 years to 17.9 ka, shortly after the last glacial maximum (LGM) when warming and glacial melting had just begun in this part of Yorkshire. That might seem to indicate an average of 330 mm of limestone had been dissolved over that period to form the pedestals, i.e. a dissolution rate averaging about 20 micrometres per year, which is extremely rapid, geologically speaking. In 1962 when I was show the site we were told that elsewhere the limestone pavement had formed since the first field systems (Iron Age) were laid out as now useless drystone walls crossed it. Roy Happs somewhat darkly suggested that they had formed since the start of the Industrial Revolution because of acid rain.

He was pretty much wrong on that score, but cosmogenic dating of the clints shows significant discrepancies between the age of deposition of the erratics and  and the exposure age of the clints. This suggests both chemical dissolution and also periods of frost shattering and gravel removal, perhaps by soil creep. Dating of other materials enlivens the history of local landform development. Another karstic feature is the presence of sinkholes or dolines that are often filled with yellowish silts that show clear textural evidence of being windblown sediments or loess. These aeolian sediments have long been regarded as post-LGM too, but optically stimulated luminescence dating of their quartz grains gives an age split between pre- (27.5 ± 2.6 ka) and post-LGM (16.5 ± 1.7 ka). Some loess elsewhere in Craven district comes out to be as young as 8.2 ka, to tally with evidence from Greenlandic ice cores for a sudden deterioration in North Atlantic seaboard climate during this early time in the Holocene.

Then there are the local caves, renowned in Victorian times for their cave bears and other mammal fossils. One bear skull from Victoria Cave in the Craven area gave a 14C age of 14.6 ± 0.4 ka which statistically coincides with that from a cut-marked horse vertebra. More than likely the bears were turfed out when humans reached Craven, but did they return when humans fled in the face of the Younger Dryas return to frigid-desert conditions? Probably not, as the YD would almost have sterilized what are now the Yorkshire Dales. Even earlier ages of 114 ka from U-Th dating of calcite flowstone that embeds hippo, elephant, rhino and hyena bones in Victoria Cave date to the previous Eemian interglacial. Indeed this speleothem has yielded ages as far back as the limit of the U-Th method (%00 ka). On a solo expedition in 1964 I had the chance to sleep-over in Victoria Cave, but pressed on with goose bumps to the nearby Youth Hostel.

Grand Canyon now the Grand Old Canyon?

Grand Canyon in Winter

Grand Canyon in Winter (credit: Wikipedia)

Among the best known and certainly the most visited topographic feature on the planet, the Grand Canyon resulted from erosion by the Colorado River keeping pace with uplift of the south-central United States. It is the archetype for what is known as antecedent drainage. Since that uplift is still going on, albeit slowly, the Grand Canyon has been assumed to be a relative young landform. By dating the first appearance of debris from the eastern end of the canyon in sediments at its western limit geomorphologists estimated that incision began around 6 Ma ago. Yet a range of other observations present puzzling contradictions. One means of settling the issue is to somehow to date the uplift radiometrically.

A long-used technique is to determine ‘cooling ages’ of crustal rocks exposed by uplift and erosion, exploiting the way in which rock temperature determines whether or not products of radioactive decay cab be preserved intact. One method uses the tracks of defects produced by electrons or helium nuclei from radioactive decay as they pass through various minerals that incorporate high amounts of elements such as uranium. Above a certain temperature the fission tracks anneal and disappear quickly, while below it they accumulate over time. Quantifying that build-up allows the date of cooling below the threshold temperature to be estimated. Similarly, gases produced by radioactive decay of some radioactive isotopes, such as argon from the decay of 40K or helium from uranium and thorium isotopes, can only stay in their host mineral if it remains cooler than a narrow range of temperatures. As rock rises towards the Earth’s surface, it starts out hot at depth but cools by conduction as it get closer to the surface. For the 1.8 km of uplift of the Grand Canyon and the relatively cool nature of the underlying crust, neither the fission-track nor the  40Ar/39Ar cooling-age methods give meaningful results. However, minerals lose helium at temperatures above about 70°C, so a method based on helium accumulation from uranium and thorium isotope decay is a possible means of assessing uplift timing. But there have been plenty of snags to overcome to make this approach reliable. In the case of the Grand Canyon analytical quality and careful sample collection has given a credible result (Flowers, R.M. & Farley, K.A. 2012. Apatite 4He/3He and (U-Th)He evidence for an ancient Grand Canyon. Science , doi 10.1126/science.1229390)

Flowers and Farley from the University of Colorado at Boulder and the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, respectively, produced a result that completely overturns previous conceptions. The western end of the Canyon had been incised to within a few hundred metres of modern depths by 70 Ma ago; more than ten times earlier than previously thought. The eastern end has a more complex history that reveals cooling events in the Neogene as well as an end-Cretaceous initiation of uplift and erosion. Their data are consistent with early incision of the Grand Canyon by a Cretaceous river flowing eastward from the Western Cordillera, with a reversal of flow in the late-Tertiary as uplift of the Colorado Plateau began and western mountains subsided. Whether or not this fits with Cretaceous and later geological history of the SW US, is beyond my ken, but you can bet there will be a storm of comment from US geomorphologists once the paper appears in the print issue of Science.

Greening and changing the land

English: Liverwort Liverworts are small plants...

A very British liverwort mat. Image via Wikipedia

Evidence for the earliest colonisation of the continents by plants is in the form of spores and body fragments from terrestrial sediments of Middle Ordovician age (~470 Ma) (Rubinstein, C.  et al. 2010. Early Middle Ordovician evidence for land plants in Argentina (eastern Gondwana). New Phytologist, v. 188, p. 365-369)suggest that the first vegetation cover involved simple ground-hugging plants that lacked stems of roots, very like the liverworts that I struggle to deter from my gravel drive. Vinegar is the only solution, preferably boiling, but that does not harm their spores and inevitably they re-emerge. Rearranging the gravel, of a pale pink limestone, is one of a very few means of keeping fit that I can bear, and I suppose the liverworts spice that up a little: but I do detest them. Part of their irritation is that they form an impermeable coating to what once was a passable if minor aquifer that channelled rainfall that would otherwise repeat the house-flooding that greeted me within a day of my moving in. So it was with some solemnity that I read a paper on how these damnable organisms transformed the Ordovician continental surface and the geomorphological processes that shaped it (Gibling, M.R. & Davies, N.S 2012. Palaeozoic landscapes shaped by plant evolution. Nature Geocience, v. 5, p. 99-105).

Sedimentologists have shown that rivers of earlier times formed wide tracts of ephemeral braided channels that transported and reworked sands and gravels that were not hampered by any vegetable binding agent. Floods merely accelerated the braiding and spread coarse sediment across valley floors, repeated spates washing out almost of the fines to take them ultimately to the continental shelves: there are few if any relics of Cambrian and older muddy floodplains. Moreover, untrammelled by vegetation any remaining fine material would be picked up by wind, even in humid climates, to meet the same marine fate. Overbank deposits of silts and clays, unsurprisingly, demand banks over or through which floodwater  escapes from defined channels and is then delayed by low gradients away from the main flow, so to deposit the fines carried by its sluggish speed. Except in arid terrains where braided channels are still the rule, in succeeding geological time evidence grows for nowadays familiar channels, meanders with point bars and eroded opposite banks, levées and floodplains on every conceivable scale. Apparently, they became conspicuous in Silurian times and then forming 30% of all fluvial sediments by the Devonian.

Meanwhile, plants were diversifying though evolution of vascular systems that transport sap up supporting structures that emerged in parallel eventually to form trunks and branches. The consequent rise in volume and in area exposed to sunlight and photosynthesis of a plant’s tissues increased the potential to draw CO2 from the air, witnessed by changes in carbon isotopes that show carbon burial rising shortly after the mid-Ordovician from far lower values in earlier times. (Incidentally, it seems likely that such meagre colonisers as early liverworts thrived sufficiently to contribute to the cooling in the Upper Ordovician that led to sporadic glacial episodes).  Preservation of wood in peats – liverworts are not implicated in any kind of fossil-fuel production – helped to maximise carbon burial by the end of the Palaeozoic Era. But trees make logs and, carried by rivers, logjams. By the Upper Carboniferous effects of damming become common in fluvial sediments, which seemed to serve the formation of islands within wide river channels.

By the present day, vegetation has come to dominate all but the most arid river systems. Even in central Australia sturdy gums able only to get water from below ephemeral river beds end up defining the flow regime and stabilising it on low relief plains that would otherwise be ravaged by sheet floods every rainy season. The authors support stratigraphic observations through the use of scaled down models of channels in vegetated areas by the cunning use of alfalfa seeded to sprout during simulated dry conditions then resuming channel flow in a flume tank.

Gilboa Fossils - Gilboa, New York

Fossils tree stumps from Gilboa, New York (Photo credit: Dougtone)

The earliest substantial trees, represented by wood fragments rarely assignable to any particular structure, occur in the Middle Devonian (385-400 Ma). Although some groups can be differentiated, how their encompassing woodland ecosystems looked has been a mystery until recently . Being ‘priitive’ it has been assumed to be very simple, unlike the well-documented forests of the Carboniferous coal swamps. But, once in a while, a site of exceptional preservation is unearthed, one such being a palaeosol that clearly formed on the floor of a Middle Devonian woodland exposed by quarrying in New York state, USA (Stein, W.E. et al. 2012. Surprisingly complex community found in the mid-Devonian fossil forest at Gilboa. Nature, v. 483, p. 78-81). Once backfill accumulated during the quarry’s active life was removed it became possible to plot the arrangement of roots systems of the last trees to live at the site before inundation and preservation.  Together with other plant material found in the ancient soil, the growing sites have been reconstructed to assess the full ecosystem involved. It was a great deal more complex than previously thought possible, with a series of tiers formed by three large tree types: tall, lollipop-like Eospermatopteris; smaller lycopsid-like trees and subsurface propagators related to gymnosperms that sprouted to form an understorey that may have climbed the larger trees in the manner of vines. Its setting was akin to that of modern mangrove swamps – by the sea – subject to sea-level change that inundated, killed and preserved the coastal woodland.

Low-lying Tibet before India-Asia collision

The Tibetan plateau lies between the Himalayan...

The semi-arid Tibetan Plateau from spaceImage via Wikipedia

The vast Tibetan Plateau at an average elevation of 4500 m is a major influence on the climate of Asia, being central to the annual monsoons, as well as one the world’s largest continental tectonic features. When it formed is crucial in palaeoclimatic modelling as well as to geomorphologists and structural geologists. Whether or not it was present before the Indian subcontinent collided with Asia at 50 Ma has been the subject of perennial debate; it could have formed during the more or less continual accretion of terranes to southern Eurasia since the Jurassic Period. A novel approach to timing uplift of Tibet is obviously needed to resolve the controversies, and that may have been achieved (Hetzel, R. et al. 2011. Peneplain formation in southern Tibet predates the India-Asia collision and plateau uplift.  Geology, v.39, p.983-986). North of Lhasa is an area of coincident small plateaus at around 5200-5400 m into which are cut valleys a few hundred metres. It has the hallmarks of a peneplain stripped to the base level of erosion, and developed on Cretaceous granites. The German-Chinese-South African team applied a range of geochronological techniques to date the emplacement of the granites and their cooling history. U/Pb dating shows the granites to have crystallised between 120 to 110 Ma; U-Th/He dating of zircons in them indicate their cooling from 180° to 60°C between 90 and 70 Ma; apatite  U-Th/He and fission-track dating show that the granites experienced surface temperatures by around 55 Ma during a period of erosion at a rate of 200-400 m Ma-1. The clear inference is that an area >10 000 km2 became a peneplain by the end of the Palaeocene, to be unconformably overlain by Eocene continental redbeds.

By the Eocene the northern Lhasa Block had become a low-elevation plain from which a vast amount of sediment had been removed to be deposited elsewhere – Palaeocene and Eocene sediments are not common throughout the whole Tibetan Plateau. This is strong evidence that uplift of the Plateau only began after the India-Asia collision during the Eocene. Despite that and the erosion that would have taken place, much of the peneplain remains; given resistant bedrock peneplains can be very long-lived.