Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Outcrop in the Crystal

It's my 20th post!  This blog post is the first of several that will highlight an outcrop that drove my interest in Maine geology.  If you're looking for the outcrop it's on Rte. 115 on the Gray/ Windham border.  Or check it out on the Sphere app.  

The outcrop told the story of Maine.  The white rock, a granite, bubbled up when Africa's coast collided with our own 450 million years ago, sealing Maine into the Pangeaic interior.  The black basalt resulted from one of the volcanoes that once again cleaved the supercontinent in two when Pangea split.  The glittery schist told the tale of a muddy ocean bottom that predated both two igneous rocks.  But how did the green rock get there?

There were obvious clues.  The parallel stripes of white, green, and sometimes even gray told tales of piling layers.  The fact that these layers took turns with schist, a mudstone altered by heat and pressure, as one scanned the outcrop from left to right suggested that it, too, formed in that muddy sea.  Other facts didn't add up.  The tough rock scored glass.  Most of the usual sedimentary suspects wouldn't do that; unmetamorphosed mudstone and limestone were just too soft.  Their metamorphic progeny, schist and marble would have crumbled as well.  Sandstone, and its postbear quartzite, would do the job, but the look wasn't right.  The rock lacked the granularity of sandstone, and the sugariness of quartzite.

The truth became clearer as I began to research Silurian time, a period between 416 and 444 million years ago, in which the green rock formed.  The ocean bottom that it gathered in was flanked on three sides.  To the north lie North America, to the south, a hunk of land that would become Maine's coast. To the east, Western Europe plugged another opening preventing the flow of currents.  The phlegmatic basin, just south of the equator, became poor in oxygen, but rich in life.  Lacking our usual breath of life, the creatures of the sea resorted to extreme measures - consuming sulfur.  

The chemistry of this bounded sea played an important role in the green rock's formation.  As a coral reef, in an aerated ocean, degrades, it forms limestone, which is composed of the elements calcium, carbon and oxygen.  Our sluggish sea would have produced a similar product, with one small difference: the sulfur consumption exchanges some of the sediment's calcium for a new element - magnesium.  The rock it forms goes by a different name: dolomite.

Even dolomite doesn't have the strength to scratch glass.  The rock would require one final transformation.  As plates moved, the basin grew smaller, and then disappeared.  The formation of Pangea spurred an influx of fluids: some large, like the bulb of magma that formed the white granite, some less immense, like the infusion of quartz and water that flowed through the ancient ocean bottom.  This liquid sought out any channel it could access, including spaces in the schist, and the dolomite.  The schist proved passable, but inert.  The dolomite was reactive.  The heat and chemicals in the flowing fluid released carbon and oxygen from the dolomite (as carbon dioxide).  Some of the quartz stuck around, providing the white layers of the rock.  The green crystals, a mineral called diopside, kept the calcium and magnesium of the dolomite and replaced the CO2 with silicon and oxygen from the quartz.  

The outcrop is a testament of Maine's geological history.  It documented the marine roots and the accordion push-pull of continents.  The green diopside crystal, a fractal of that outcrop, records the deoxygenated ocean bottom in its calcium and magnesium.  It further tells the tale of the pushing and pulling continents in its silicon and oxygen.  The green crystal, a mere fragment of the outcrop, tells the outcrop's entire story.

Bickle, M. J. , H. J. Chapman, J. M. Ferry, D. Rumble, and A. E. Fallick. "Fluid Flow and Diffusion in the Waterville Limestone, South—Central Maine: Constraints from Strontium, Oxygen and Carbon Isotope Profiles." Journal of Petrology 38.11 (1997): 1489-1512. Print.

Ferry, J. M.. "A Comparative Geochemical Study Of Pelitic Schists And Metamorphosed Carbonate Rocks From South-central Maine, USA." Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology 80.1 (1982): 59-72. Print.

Fischer, Dan , Tammy (Yue) Liu, Emily Yip, and Korsen Yu. "The Silurian Period."The Silurian Period. University of California Museum of Paleontology, 5 July 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013. <>.

Hussey, Arthur M., II, 1996, Bedrock geology of the North Windham 7.5' quadrangle, Maine; Maine Geological Survey (Department of Conservation), Open-File Report 96-16, 6 p.

Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel (GEOMAR) (2012, June 7). How does dolomite form?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 8, 2013, from

Wilde, Pat , William Berry, and Mary Quinby-Hunt. "Silurian Oceanography."Marine Sciences Group. University of California, Berkeley, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <>.