Saturday, February 25, 2017

Field Photos: Western Uplands And Giant Plagioclase Basalts

Last Sunday I visited Chavand fort near the town of Junnar, about 110 km north of Pune. This is a rugged terrain marked by several NW-SE oriented ridges separated by broad U shaped valleys. In the map below the black cross marks the location of Chavand. WGE refers to the Western Ghat Escarpment and KCB refers to the Konkan Coastal Belt. Trekkers familiar with this region will recognize the hill ranges, especially the Bhimashankar range and the Harishchandragad range. And near the town of Junnar is Shivneri fort, birthplace of the Maratha king Shivaji.

Source: Kale et. al, 2016

When Deccan volcanism ended, this region would have been a vast flat- to- gently undulating lava surface. At that time, some 60 million years ago, you could have walked from where Bhimashankar temple now stands to the present location of Harishchandragad along broadly the same elevation without the need to climb down several hundred feet or so into a valley and then climb up again. Over time however, south easterly flowing rivers and tributaries have gouged out grooves within this large plateau, dissecting it into a valley and ridge terrain.

The geomorphology of this region therefore reflects the creation of relief due to removal of material by erosion. This contrasts with other areas like the famous Basin and Range Province in western United States, where parallel faults have moved blocks of crust hundreds of feet to form a system of flat bottomed valleys (grabens) and flat topped ridges (horsts).

The Western Uplands end abruptly along the Western Ghat Escarpment, a sinuous west facing cliff overlooking the Konkan coastal plain. The escarpment is the edge of the Deccan Plateau.

There is another factor that has shaped this landscape. Take a look below at a satellite imagery of this area. The arrows mark fracture systems that have broken this plateau.

Erosion along these zones of weakened rock results in slabs of basalts peeling on rock faces. Over time, the result is a landscape that fragments into mesas, buttes and pinnacles. Chavand is one such mesa. Notice its straight edged polygonal shape suggestive of erosion along fracture planes.

Many of these fracture systems originated in the tensional forces that the western margin of India experienced during rifting and associated Deccan volcanism. After its separation from Madagascar around 88 million years ago, the Indian continent's rifted and the fractured western margin migrated over the Reunion hotspot, an unusually hot area of the mantle. The result, beginning around 68 million years ago was Deccan volcanism. Some of these linear structures, common in the area around Sangamner, are dikes. They are the pipes which brought up magma from deep subsurface chambers to the surface. Continued rifting of the western margin resulted ultimately in crustal blocks subsiding along a series of N-S oriented parallel faults. The Western Ghat Escarpment likely originated as a west facing fault scarp, but it would have been located as much as a 100 km to the west of its present location. Erosion over million of  years has resulted in an eastward retreat of this feature to where it stands now.

Picture below shows how hill ranges have been broken by a fracture system, resulting in isolated pinnacles.

And here is a picture of Chavand.

Recently my friend Vivek Kale and colleagues complied some very interesting geomorphologic, structural and sedimentology data to suggest that these western uplands have experience some tectonic movements during Quaternary times (past 2.58 million years). They emphasize that the Deccan plateau and Western Upland should not be regarded as a monolithic stable crust block. They point to three major fracture systems (F1, F5, F7 in the map below) which have segmented this part of the western upland. The central segment, i.e. the area north of Chavand, roughly between fracture systems F1 and F5 has moved up relative to the blocks to the north and south. The presence of sediments deposited in the Pravara river system and along F1 and some streams to the south  is evidence that the these blocks subsided somewhat, resulting in stretches of streams becoming sediment traps.

Source: Adapted in Kale et. al 2016 from Dole 2000, Dole et. al. 2002, Bondre 2006

These sediments represent deposition over the past 100,000 years or so. At some localities along the Mahalungi river, they have been deformed. Soft sediment deformation structures such as slumping, load structures and sand dykes have been recorded by Dole and colleagues. Such structures are evidence of ground shaking and sediment liquefaction and remobilization during earthquakes.  Also observed at one locality is reverse faulting. The faulting has been inferred to be of Holocene age, as recent as the past 10,000 years.

These structural movements have also disrupted and modified the antecedent drainage of this region. The map above shows several easterly flowing streams (R. Mahaludi, R. Adula, R. Mula, R. Madvi, R. Pushavati) in this region abruptly turning southeast as they intersect NW-SE trending fractures. The yellow overlay on the map indicates sedimentary deposits. The major fracture systems F1, F5, F7 likely reflect faults in the Precambrian continental crust underlying the Deccan volcanics. They have been rejuvenated in Quaternary times and have cut across and caused dislocations of the volcanic pile.

There are other interesting drainage features in this region. Many streams have stretches with potholes (Nighoj on R. Kukdi), cascades (stretches of R. Pushpavati, R. Mula, R. Ghod, R. Bhama) and entrenched meandering channels (R. Pravara, R. Mula, R. Ghod, R. Vel) all suggesting episodes of increased vigor of stream down cutting. Whether this is a climatic signal (e.g. increase in rainfall will increase water flow and stream erosive power) or is tectonically triggered (e.g. slight uplift and  tilting of land will increase stream gradient, resulting in more vigorous stream flow and down cutting), as Kale and colleagues have recently argued, is an active area of research.

Finally, the giant plagioclase basalts. Plagioclase, which belongs to the feldspar family of minerals, is a major component of basalts. The entire Deccan volcanic lava sequence is subdivided into three subgroups based on geochemical differences. The giant plagioclase basalt lava flows occur predominantly in the lower part of the volcanic sequence. The table on the left (Kale et. al. 2016) shows the geochemical stratigraphy of the Deccan volcanic sequence with the location of the giant plagioclase basalts (GPB). The GPB flows cap individual formations within the Kalsubai Subgroup. This has been  interpreted by many geologists to mean that they mark the final eruptions of a magmatic cycle. Because of their distinctive appearance these GPB flows have proved to be useful as marker horizons in stratrigraphic mapping.

The plagioclase crystals are greater than 1 cm and often have grown to several centimeters long. They are surrounded by a fine grained to glassy matrix. The picture below is a close up of a giant plagioclase basalt, showing tabular plagioclase phenocrysts (arrows).

Geologists agree that these giant crystals grew slowly in magma chambers tens of kilometers deep in the subsurface. These crystals were then brought to the surface by ascending magma, which then cooled rapidly on the surface forming a fine grained to glassy matrix. This two stage crystallization history is the reason for the two distinct grain sizes in this rock.

The picture below shows Chavand fort hill face. The giant plagioclase basalt lava flow makes up the shrubby gentler slope.  These basalts are vesicular (containing pits and holes due to trapped gas bubbles in the lava) and softer and have weathered to form the gentler slopes. The upper harder and more compact basalt forms cliffs.  

There are differing views however on how long these crystals were growing in the subsurface and what that implies for the mode and duration of Deccan eruptions. I"ll leave the details for another post. Meanwhile, here is another picture of the giant plagioclase basalt showing lath shaped plagioclase grains (1) and a rosette of plagioclase phenocrysts (2).

...And a few more pictures of the terrain as seen from the top of Chavand.

A large water tank dug out from the hard basalt

Mesa top grasslands give way to the rugged ranges of the Western Uplands. This is a north facing view with the Harishchandra range at the far end.

A south facing view with the Bhimashankar range with its forested plateaus.

..did I mention it was a pretty steep climb?

Until next time...

Monday, February 20, 2017

Aristotle And Darwin: Why?

A thought provoking passage from The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science by Armand Marie Leroi-

The history of Western thought is littered with teleologists. From fourth-century Attica to twenty-first century Kansas, the Argument from Design has never lost its appeal. Aristotle and Darwin, however, share the most unusual conviction that though the organic world is filled with design there is no designer. But if the designer is dead for whose benefit is design? It's the prosecutor's question: cui bono?

Darwin answered that individuals benefit. Biologists have batted the question about ever since. The answers they've essayed are : memes, genes, individuals, groups, species, some combination or all of the above. Aristotle, however, generally appears to agree with Darwin: organs exist for the sake of the survival and reproduction of individual animals. This is why so much of his biology seems so familiar.

Yet there is a deep difference between Aristotle's teleology and Darwin's adapatationism, one which appears when we follow the chain of explanation that any theory of organic design invites. Why does the elephant have a trunk? To snorkel. Why must it snorkel? Because it's slow and lives in swamps. Why is it slow? Because it's big. Why is it big? To defend itself. Why must it defend itself? Because it wants to survive and reproduce. Why does it want to survive and reproduce? Because..

Because natural selection has designed the elephant to reproduce itself. Darwin gave teleology a mechanistic explanation. He halted the march of whys.

Aristotle was an eternalist. In his cosmos, organic beings were produced by a union of their parents. They in turn by a union of their parents.. continued into infinite regress. Organisms wanted to survive and reproduce so that their "kind" persist for ever. This static world had always existed. He saw divinity in immortality.

In Aristotle's world organic beings don't change and transform into anything else. He never did come around proposing a theory of transmutation or change or evolution. He had some of the raw material to advance such thoughts. His extensive dissections and comparative anatomy had given him an understanding that life is arranged in a hierarchical manner. But, he never thought this could be due to common descent. He was aware that there is variation within each "kind" or genos. Organisms within a genos varied in their eidos or form. He also had a theory of inheritance. Parents passed on their eidos to progeny, often not exactly. Progeny then, occasionally, could be somewhat different from parents.

He didn't take the next step.... That this variation could be selected upon by nature, such that a certain new form becomes more common over generations and some other form disappears. Some people argue that the lack of a fossil record may have been one reason why Aristotle never appreciated that organic beings have changed over time. However, as Leroi describes, Greek travelers and physiologoi (naturalists) from his time had written about fossil sea shells found high on mountains and fish imprints on stone. Theophrastus, his student and protege, describes dug up ivory. Dwarf elephants were among the many remains from the Pleistocene megafaunal fossil beds of Samos, Kos and Tilos islands.

To someone wedded to an unchanging cosmos, this may not have made any difference, Leroi argues.

It would be more than two millennia before Darwin and Wallace put all the pieces together.

Highly Recommended.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Why Is There A "Lost Continent" Underneath Mauritius

Yes, the term "lost continent" brings up visions of a lost world full of fantastic creatures that once existed deep in the earth's past. Or, of a civilization that once was, but was swallowed up by rising seas and which now only remains on the margins of human memory.

The "lost continent" underneath Mauritius is making news. It is more accurate to say that there is continental crust underneath the oceanic lavas of Mauritius. And that continental crust is very old. Geologists found crystals of zircon in young lava that erupted on Mauritius about 5.7 million years ago. The age of the zircon is however Archean in age, between 2.5 billion - 3 billion years. That means the zircon crystal did not form in the young lava, but belongs to the older foundation of the island. They were extracted from this Archean crust by rising molten material and brought to the surface about 5. 7 million years ago.

The crust making up the earth continents is primarily made up of granitic and andesitic rocks and sedimentary cover. This crust is light and thick (30km-40 km) and it sticks above sea level.  On the other hand, the crust making  up the ocean basins is made up of basalt and is denser and thinner (~10 km). So, what is Archean continental crust doing in the middle of the Indian ocean, surrounded by Cretaceous-Cenozoic oceanic basaltic crust?

The answer lies in the way Gondwanaland broke up, or rather the way India broke away from Madagascar about 88 million years ago. This was a continuation of the progressive breakup of Gondwanaland that began in the late Jurassic about 150 million years ago. A large rigid continent need not break into two clean pieces. Very often, the edges splinter. Several smaller fragments of continental crust are left isolated near the edges of the two continents.

The map below shows these continental splinters scattered in the Indian ocean as Madagascar and India broke apart and drifted away from each other.

Source: Lewis D. Ashwal, Michael Wiedenbeck, and Trond H. Torsvik 2017

Mauritius is part of a series of splinters that collectively are called Mauritia. These splinters were part of the Archean continental nucleus that made up Madagascar and the western Dharwar craton in south India.

Here is the interesting part that many news reports haven't touched on. Look closely at the map above. Trace the Carlsberg Ridge southwards. The Indian plate, which is drifting northwards, lies to the east of this ridge and the African/Somali plate to the west. Today, Seychelles and Mauritius is on the African/Somali plate and Chagos and the Laccadives on the Indian plate. But, when the initial separation happened about 84 million years ago, Seychelles and most of Mauritia were on the northerly drifting Indian plate. This is because 84 million years ago, the plate boundary between the Indian and African plates was formed by sea floor spreading in the Mascarene basin.

This is depicted in the  paleo-geographic reconstruction below. At 65 million years, the CIR or Central Indian Ridge is where sea floor spreading is forming the Mascarene basin. Seychelles and Mauritia lie to the east of this ridge on the Indian plate.

Source: Shankar Chatterjee et. al. 2013

Later, beginning around 62 million years ago and continuing up to about 41 million years ago, the loci of sea floor spreading jumped eastwards. The result was the formation of new plate boundaries between the Seychelles and Laxmi Ridge (62 mya) and between Mauritius and Chagos/Laccadives (42 mya).  These "ridge jumps", as they are called, formed the Carlsberg Ridge and  transferred Seychelles and Mauritius on to the African/Somali plate. Continued northward drift of India coupled with sea floor spreading and the formation of new oceanic crust along the Carlsberg Ridge has formed the broad oceanic basin of the Arabian Sea/ Indian ocean.

The process of continental breakup involves extensional forces that stretch and thin the crust. Fault movements cause a subsidence of crustal blocks. Many of the splinters at the edge of major continental margins are such thinned downfaulted blocks. They thus often get submerged under the sea.

Open Access