Friday, November 3, 2017

Field Photo: Sea Cliffs And Holocene Sea Level Highstand, India West Coast

All along India's coast there are indicators that 4000-6000 years ago sea level was higher than the present level, oscillating between 1-4 meters above present high tide level at different times. Since then, the sea has gradually receded to its present level. As a result, we can observe stranded beach ridges, cemented beach rock and dunes a few hundred meters inland of the present high tide mark. And we can see erosional notches on sea cliffs marking the past high tide level.

I saw these erosional notches in the sea cliffs exposed along the coast near Harnai village in Konkan.

The satellite image shows the location of the sea cliffs.

The picture below shows a sea cliff with an erosional notch (arrow) about 1.5 meters above the high tide level. This is at the Fattegad Fort near Harnai village. Also, notice the rocky platform that has formed at the current tidal level.

This notch can be traced all along the line of sea cliffs in the area. You can see it very clearly on this cliff, a little north of the previous location.

And the picture below shows a close up of the notch. Sea level must have held steady at this level for a few hundred years to have formed such a distinct erosional feature.

Why was sea level higher in the past? It has to do with the ice age and the end of the last glacial phase. The earth has been in the grips of an ice age for the past 2.6 million years. Conditions have cyclically fluctuated between colder glacial phases and warmer interglacial periods. During glacial phases,  growth of polar ice traps sea water. This causes sea levels to be lowered. During warmer interglacial phases, polar ice caps melt and raise sea levels. The last glacial phase lasted between 110 - 12 thousand  years ago.  During this time the sea level was as much as 100 meters lower than today. Large swaths of the continental shelf was land then. The earth then moved into a warmer interglacial phase. As a result of melting polar ice, the sea has been rising steadily for the past 10-11 thousand years, flooding the continental shelf, and culminating in a sea level highstand (maximum) about 4000-6000 years ago. This maximum was about 1-4 meters above the present sea level.

There is evidence scattered all along India's west and east coast (and all over the world) of this Holocene sea level high. For example, there are tidal flat deposits about 1 meter above present sea level along the Porbundar coast in Gujarat. Shells collected from these deposits give an age of about 4000 thousand years. Exposed reefs from Mithapur in Jamnagar district in Gujarat give an age of about 2100 years. Oyster reefs exposed along Saurashtra coast about 2 meters above present sea level are about 2500-3000 years old.

To the south, in Madh Island (Mumbai) and along Konkan coast, there are layers of hardened sand and pebbles, locally known as 'Karal', which occur 2-4 meters above present sea level. These sediments once formed a pebbly beach.  At Kelsi village in Konkan, there are fossil beach ridges a few hundred meters inland of the present high tide mark. I saw these on my recent visit. Along the east coast, there are 4000-6000 year old beach ridges along the Krishna-Godavari coastline. These ridges become younger towards the coast, indicating that the sea has been receding since about 4 thousand years ago.  Along the Baruva-Gandavaram coast in  Andhra Pradesh, sea cliffs have preserved a succession of erosional notches at 4.7 m, 2.3 m and 1.8 m above sea level.

All these features indicate sea level peaked about 4000-6000 thousand years ago and has been falling in fits and starts since. The exact mechanism for this recession of the sea is not well understood.

Scientists have put together data form various localities to come up with a composite sea level curve for the Holocene. The curve below has been drawn up using data from Gujarat and shows sea level rising throughout early and mid Holocene. The late Holocene has seen a lowering of seas.

Source: U.B Mathur 2004

This lowering has now been reversed and the seas are rising again globally, this time induced by anthropogenic global warming as continental glaciers melt and the ocean water expands as it gets warmer. It is estimated that sea level will rise between 0.5 - 1 meter by 2100. In centuries to come, the extent of sea level rise will depend on future warming trends and the extent of melting of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets. If significant portions of these ice sheets melt, sea level will rise by several meters in the next few hundred to couple of thousand years.

And what about the flat rocky platforms seen in the tidal zone below the sea cliffs? How do they form? The likely process involves "water layer leveling" combined with wave erosion. Water layer leveling means the lowering and leveling of the rock surface due to physical and chemical weathering by the action of sea water. Standing pools of water and the continuous wetting and drying conditions in the intertidal zone act to weaken the rock and create a loose surface layer which is then removed by wave action, generating a flat rocky platform.

The picture below shows a wide intertidal rocky platform from Korlai village, south of Alibag town on India's west coast.

India's Konkan coast is beautiful and has interesting geology too. Do visit if you can.


1) Falling Late Holocene Sea-Level Along The Indian Coast- U.B. Mathur, D.K. Pandey, Tej Bahadur 2004

2) Quaternary Sea Level Changes Along Indian Coast - S.S Mehr 1992

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Geology Of India In 220 Tweets

Ok, I am exaggerating.

Last week I hosted the @Geoscitweeps account and tweeted 8 stories about Indian geology. This is an earth sciences focused rotating twitter account curated by science writer Sandhya Ramesh (@sandygrains).  Geologists from all over the world have been volunteering to host the account for a week and tweet about their work. I volunteered for the week beginning October 16 and decided to broadcast some interesting stories about Indian geology.  I had written blog posts about some of the topics, but it still was a challenge to create an engaging  narrative using 20-30 tweets.

Here are the threads:

1) Does India have Cambrian age Burgess Shale type fossils?

2) The Tempo of Deccan Volcanic Eruptions

3) Deccan Lava Flows and Buddhist Caves and Rock Art

4) Piggy Back Basins and Seismic Risk of Himalaya Frontal Ranges

5) Exploring India's Fossil Sites and Paleogeography using the Paleobiology Navigator

6) Which of these Indian Island Chains is Geologically Older? Lakshadweep or Andamans?

7) Evolution of the Western Ghat Escarpment and Coastal Plain.

8) How To Discover Your Inner Geologist When You Go Trekking In The Himalaya

It was really gratifying to see the enthusiastic response by readers from all over the world... and particularly satisfying to see that a large number of Indians began following @Geoscitweeps as news spread that there was Indian geology on the menu.

More Indian geologists need to start writing and talking with the general public about their work. There is certainly an audience out there eager to hear from them. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

#Neatrock Entry For Earth Science Week

SciFri Science Club is hosting a #Neatrock challenge as part of Earth Science Week.

Here are my two entries:

Megascopic #neatrock:

This is a migmatitic gneiss from the Greater Himalayan Sequence, Darma Valley, Kumaon Himalaya. Migmatite means a mixed rock made up of a metamorphic host and a newly formed igneous rock. During continental collision, metamorphic rocks buried to great depths and subject to high temperatures may partially melt to form granite magma. The granitic melt segregates into layers. The resultant rock is composed of the original metamorphic host rock such as a gneiss (dark bands)  and granitic igneous layers (lighter bands). This migmatite formed during the Miocene.

Microscopic #neatrock:

This photomicrograph of a Late Ordovician limestone (Fernvale Limestone) from Georgia, U.S.A.  is close to my heart. It formed an important part of my PhD work.  I have stained the thin section with a Potassium Ferricyanide dye. Calcite containing minor amounts of iron (Ferroan calcite Fe+2) is stained blue. Non Ferroan calcite is unstained.  In the center of the photomicrograph is a non ferroan 'dog tooth' spar. It is a calcite crystal with a shape resembling a canine tooth of a dog.

This calcite has a pendant habit. It is hanging from the underside of a particle, in this case a piece of an echinoid shell. Such pendant crystals precipitate in a vadose zone i.e. above the water table.  In this environment, pore spaces are not completely filled with water. Rather, films of water coat grains and form drips. These drips become saturated with calcium carbonate and calcite precipitates from them.  Just like a larger and more familiar stalactite in a cave! Except that this micro-stalactite in tiny..tiny.

Development of a vadose environment indicates that sedimentation was interrupted by a large sea level fall. The sea bed got exposed to rain and a fresh water aquifer developed in the sedimentary deposits.  A tiny 'dog tooth' spar can tell us a fair bit about sedimentary basin evolution and sea level history.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Geo Week 2017, Pune

 Geo-Week 2017 Pune

Starting October 9th 2017, a week long geo-activity program for the public is going to be held at Raja Ravi Varma Art Gallery, Ghole Road, Pune.

It is being organized by the Center For Education and Research in Geosciences (CERG) along with Fergusson College, Pune. CERG is a citizen outreach initiative taken by students and professionals from the Pune geology community.

Take a look at the poster.

The inaugural talk by Dr. R. Shankar of Mangalore University will be on October 9th at 11.30 am . The topic is Paleoclimate Studies of Lake Sediments from South India. The venue is Raja Ravi Varma Art Gallery.

There is another lecture scheduled on October 14th  at 7.40 pm by Dr. S. N. Rajguru. The topic is Prehistoric Environment of the Mula Mutha River, Pune. This talk will be held at the Amphitheater on Fergusson College campus.

There is also a geology exhibition, art and essay competitions for school children, earth science themed film shows and a workshop on QGIS. The exhibition is at Raja Ravi Varma Art Gallery, while most of the films will be screened at the Amphitheater, Fergusson College. Check the website for schedule details.

Pune geology and science enthusiasts, share this with your friends and do stop by and support this initiative!

Geo-Week 2017, Pune

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Bay Of Bengal Once Touched Sikkim

See this satellite imagery of the Himalaya.  The Indian State of Sikkim occupies the region just east of Darjeeling.

The Siwaliks (green arrows) appear as a forested linear band forming the southernmost hilly terrain of the Himalaya. The hills abut against broad alluvial plains. Rivers traversing the Himalaya carrying enormous sediment load encounter a gentler gradient upon exiting the hilly terrain. A loss of stream power results in sediment being dumped in the channel, so much so, that rivers get chocked on their own sediment. As a result, channels split and bifurcate forming a braided river system. These rivers  also suddenly change course, abandoning their channel and carving out new ones. Such course changes may occur during floods or by tilting of the land by structural movements.  Over time, the deposits of these ever changing rivers coalesce to form cone shape aprons of sediments known as alluvial fans. These rivers like the Kosi and the Tista, which flow transverse to the mountain range, meet an axial river like the Ganga and the Brahmaputra flowing parallel to the mountain front. The axial river flows into the Bay of Bengal.

The Siwalik hills were once these type of alluvial fans.  Just as today, during Miocene and Pliocene times, sediment was being deposited in front of the rising Himalayan mountains. Beginning about half a million years ago or so, these ancient alluvial fans were crumpled up and uplifted to form the Siwalik ranges. Active alluvial fan formation shifted southwards to its present locus. This process continues. In a few million years, the present day alluvial fans deposited by rivers like the Kosi and the Teesta will be deformed into a newer mountain range south of the Siwaliks. The Himalaya are growing southwards.

How do we know that the Siwaliks were once alluvial fans? Geologists rely on analogy, comparing the Siwalik sediments with what is accumulating in the present day alluvial fans. They find a striking similarity. Siwaliks are made up of alternations of coarse gravel layers and finer sand and silt layers with characteristic bed orientations and structures like cross beds and rippled sand. The gravel layers are inferred to be the river channel deposits while the finer sand and silt layers are the river bank, levee and floodplain deposits. An important finding made throughout the length of the Siwalik ranges has been the paleo-current directions preserved in the rocks.  Geologists have measured the orientation of bedding and ripple marks and found out that rivers were flowing south and south east i.e. perpendicular to the mountain chain. There is no evidence of an axial river like the Ganga in these Siwalik sediments. The thinking is that such an axial river must have flowed much to the south of the region of deposition of Siwalik sediments.

And what about evidence of a delta? Where did these Miocene and Pliocene rivers meet the sea? The logical geographic place to look for a coast would be towards the east. And in fact, that evidence has come from the Siwalik sediments of West Bengal and Sikkim. In a really interesting paper published recently in Current Science, Suchana Taral, Nandini Kar and Tapan Chakraborty describe sedimentary structures and marine trace fossils from Middle Siwalik sediments exposed along the Gish River and its tributaries in the Tista Valley. Siwalik rocks in the central and western part of the Himalaya show current structures that indicate south flowing rivers. In this easterly location however, the sediments show evidence of being deposited in a wave influenced environment. Sedimentary structures like wave ripple laminations and hummocky-swaley stratification indicate deposition in wave dominated marine bay.  Paleo-current indicators like ripple marks preserved on sandstone surfaces show a south as well as north directed current. This suggests an environment influenced by tides and north directed waves. Associated sediments show indicators of different delta environments like distributary channels, delta mouth bar and delta flood plain deposits.

Apart from current direction indicators, the sediments contain plant fossils indicative of mangrove vegetation and brackish water environments. They also contain trace fossils i.e. impressions and burrows made by creatures moving and disturbing the sediment surface. Cylindrichnus, Chondrites, Rosselia, Taenidium, Skolithos, Planolites are some of trace fossils reported in this study. The assemblage of trace fossils is similar to those reported from marine settings.

All this suggests that during the time of deposition of these Middle Siwalik sediments in Late Miocene-Pliocene times, about 5-10 million years ago, a branch of the Bay of Bengal had invaded as far north as present day Sikkim. Rivers carrying sediment from the Himalaya were debouching them in a delta and a shallow marine bay. The Sikkim Middle Siwalik strata are ancient deformed delta and marine deposits.  

A paleo-geographic reconstruction of this eastern part of these Siwalik depositional environments in shown below.

 Source: Suchana Taral, Nandini Kar and Tapan Chakraborty 2017

The  upper graphic shows the reconstructed delta and marine depositional environment. The lower graphic shows the regional paleo-geography. The pin shows the environmental location of the study area. The yellow rose diagram shows the paleocurrent directions measured in the Siwalik sediments.

Interestingly, some earlier work by geologists has shown that in Late Miocene times the Brahmaputra was flowing along a much more easterly route towards the Bay of Bengal. They used sand thickness and sand/shale ratios from wells drilled in the delta and found lobate sand bodies, which they inferred were brought in by a large river flowing from a ENE source. Their interpretation is shown in the graphic to the left (Uddin A. and Lundberg N. 1998). At the time the Shillong Plateau did not exist. The river flowed into the Bay of Bengal from the Upper Assam valley and through the Sylhet depression in to the Bengal Basin. The uplift of the Shillong Plateau in Pleistocene times forced the Brahmaputra to turn west and wrap itself around the newly emerging uplands.

Since Pliocene times, the tremendous amount of sediment being delivered by Himalayan rivers, coupled with Pleistocene sea level fall, has caused a retreat of this arm of the Bay of Bengal southwards.

In the satellite image below, based on the location of the Sikkim Siwalik deposits and other work on the Bengal Basin paleogeography, I have drawn in brown the coastline as it would have existed 5-10 million years ago. The ancient drainage systems are shown in blue. South directed arrows shows the extent of the growth of the Bengal/Bangladesh alluvial plains and delta and the retreat of the sea since then to its present location.

Pretty amazing finding.