Eroded Gypsum at Knossos

Once upon a time the ancient palace at Knossos on the island of Crete was made of smooth white blocks of gypsum with polished surfaces that gleamed in the sunlight. The effect of weathering over the centuries has stripped away the surface of the building blocks and created rough textures and patterns of sharp edged furrows where acid rain has dissolved the stone as it runs over and down the masonry. The gypsum blocks mimic a phenomenon called rillenkarren found on a larger scale in limestone landscapes all over the world. These erosion patterns in the landscape are known as karst topography. I previously photographed an example of karst topography with rillenkarren in the Queensland outback in Australia near the old mining town of Chillagoe.

Seatown Dissected Mudstone Layers

Coastal mudstone layers eroding into long fingers of rock separated by narrow sinuous channels

The rocks low on the beach at Seatown in Dorset are wearing away in a most peculiar fashion. In an earlier post I showed narrow sinuous channels cutting their way down through the mudstone between tide levels and I wondered how they had formed and what had influenced their shape. These are my thoughts and speculations about the processes contributing to these formations.

At one point along this stretch of shore, the narrow winding channels can be seen dissecting the rock layers into a number of adjoined parallel bars  (a bit like the fingers of a Kit-Kat). So what might be going on?

I have noticed by looking at the cliffs along the western and eastern shores at Seatown that there seems to be a propensity for this kind of medium to naturally form polygonal cracks or fractures once exposed to air and losing moisture. Below are three random examples of fracture patterns in cliff materials.

I think that the same phenomenon is a feature of the exposed layers of mudstone bedrock that outcrop inter-tidally. It is just possible to see the faint lines of these natural cracks in some of the close-up photographs below. Most of these original cracks are obscured because they have become the preferred location for Polydora bristle worms to occupy and create burrows. Although only a few millimetres across, the holes made by burrow-making activity have weakened the fracture lines, widened and extended them. At the same time as this bio-erosion activity is going on, continual swash and backwash by waves, and attrition by rolling gravel and pebbles, has smoothed and lowered the surface by physical destructive processes. (Chemical erosion plays a part too but will need a lot more explanation another time.)

As the combined physical and bio-erosion processes continue, the depressions where the worms burrow increase in size and can join up to form channels.

Once a channel is open, water and hard transported materials like rocks, pebbles gravel, and sand, can move rapidly through the channel in an upshore direction with each wave that breaks on the beach; and in a seaward direction as the water drains back down the shore. This physical action accelerates the erosion of the channels which speedily become deeper and wider to such an extent that they can carve the rock into distinct blocks. Smaller channels can form diagonally, at an angle to the shoreline, as they follow the conjoined outlines of the burrow-filled rock fractures. However the main force of the waves on the beach is perpendicular to the shoreline. This means that the channels formed by chance in that orientation are the ones that are most affected and enhanced by the swash and backwash of the waves.

The images also show the rock on the east Seatown shoreline is composed of alternating almost horizontal layers of pale (carbonate-rich and carbon-poor) mudstone, and darker (carbon–rich and carbonate-poor) mudstone from the Belemnite Marl Member of the Charmouth Mudstone Formation. The uppermost layers being weakened by various erosional processes that have effectively divided them up into strips, erode and break away more easily on the shoreward edge parallel to the shore.

There are more contributing factors to rock erosion on the coastline than I have been able to talk about here and I will explore them further in later posts.

All the photos are shown again below and you can click on any thumbnail to see a larger version of the image in a gallery format

Sinuous Channels at Seatown 1

Sinous channel being eroded in intertidal rock layers

Today I am mostly thinking about the way these seawater drainage channels are being formed in intertidal rock and what factors contribute to their sinuosity. They occur low on the beach at Seatown in Dorset, England, in the calcareous mudstones of the Belemnite Member of the Charmouth Mudstone Formation. More thoughts to follow later on the subject of this coastal erosion process.

Rock Textures at Fall Bay (1)

Limestone rock texture on the coast

The rocks at Fall Bay are arrayed like the riffled pages of a book. Layer after layer of Carboniferous Limestone is sequentially spread out across the west side of the bay. Each layer has an observably different texture; some are bioturbated with bioclasts and fossils such as fragmentary crinoids and corals. The bedding planes of some strata have deeply sculptured surfaces from weathering and bioerosion. Lichens, barnacles and limpets colonise the rocks and take advantage of the meagre shelter offered by cracks, crevices, and solution hollows.

Rock Patterns & Textures at Tenby – Part 5

Green and red biofilm encrusting cave walls at Tenby

It was exciting to discover all the caves at South Beach in Tenby. The rock layers of the cliffs, which were originally laid down in horizontal layers at the bottom of ancient seas millions of years ago, have been subsequently pushed on-end by earth movements so that they now lie at very steep angles to the vertical. The waves have worked away in weaker areas between the strata and excavated small caves. I couldn’t wait to see inside them. They were variable in size but larger than I expected. Well worth exploring.

The floors were mainly sand, smoothed by the previous high tide. Sometimes pebbles were piled up against the back wall. I was mostly struck by how different they looked from one cave to the next. Some cave walls were almost polished, smooth, pale grey limestone, revealing irregular streaks of white calcite veining, occasionally with fossils. Others were roughly hewn with multiple broken facets.

Most intriguing of all were the mosaics of bright green and deep red organic encrustations coating some walls. I couldn’t work out the rationale for their seemingly ad hoc distribution. I am not sure what they are. Maybe they are cyanobacterial bio-films rather than encrusting algae – because of the location in which they are growing so high on the shore and away from light.

[There are in fact encrusting dark red forms of alga but these seem to be restricted to low shore situations in shallow water. Identification of these kinds of organisms is difficult, because they are not a distinct taxonomic group but are represented by a variety of different genera; and maybe I need to take some samples for examination under the microscope].

The pale grey Hunts Bay Oolite Subgroup limestone of the most western stretch of South Beach, which has most of the caves, eventually gives way to other rocks further east – like the Caswell Bay Mudstones which are more thinly bedded with a variety of colours and textures, and these house perhaps the largest cave – the last one of note before you reach Castle Beach and Castle Hill that act as a divider between South Beach and North Beach in Tenby.

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Rock Patterns & Textures at Tenby – Part 4

This is the fourth part of the series of rock texture pictures from Tenby. All so far have been from South Beach where the Carboniferous strata range from Hunts Bay Oolite, to High Tor Limestone, to Caswell May Mudstones, and Gully Oolite. Many of these close-up images have shown erosion patterns, caused sometimes biologically and sometimes chemically, or a combination of both. The first four photographs in this post show the fine, and approximately-linear ridges and grooves (click the pictures to enlarge them for a better view), that seem to be restricted to the otherwise smoother, un-pitted, darker patches on the surface of the rock. I am thinking that whereas the pits are probably caused by various effects of bio-erosion or bio-erosion plus solution, the almost microscopic grooves here could be the result of chemical erosion which sometimes occurs from contact with acid rain. If so, these micro grooves and ridges are microrills, and like miniature rillenkarren – a feature of karst topography – and they are evidence for relatively recent erosional activity.

The patterns of grooves and fissures in the four images below, could also be a karstic type of solution feature. I am not sure – but they are certainly intriguing and look to my eye rather like the tough wrinkled hides of elephant or rhinoceros.

COPYRIGHT JESSICA WINDER 2014

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Rock Patterns & Textures at Tenby – Part 3

This is the third in a series about the textures and patterns in rocks belonging to the Carboniferous Period and exposed in the cliffs at Tenby in South Wales. These photographs illustrate that erosion can happen on several size scales on the same rock surface, with tiny erosional pits (measuring in only millimetres and barely visible to the naked eye) superimposed on slightly larger scale pits (measuring in centimetres). [Don’t forget that you can click on a picture to enlarge it and see a description].

The pitted type of erosional surface, as shown in the images above and below, is probably the result of bio-erosion. However, in the red rocks, If I have identified the stratum and understood the textbooks correctly, then the fine erosional pitting is now taking place on top of fracturing and other features that may indicate exposure of the stratum to wave action and weathering an a much earlier geological time period.

Surface texture and pattern like elephant skin in Carboniferous Limestone

COPYRIGHT JESSICA WINDER 2014

All Rights Reserved