This is the third in a series of photographs of Silurian rocks from Clogher Bay. A brief examination of the literature indicates that the rocks in these pictures belong to the Drom Point Formation which has accumulated to a depth of 300 metres and is part of the Dunquin Group of Silurian Period strata in Ireland. The Drom Point and Croagh-marhin Formations consist of shallow-marine, fossiliferous siltstones and very fine to fine grained sandstones.
You don’t have to be a rockhound to be impressed by the spectacular scenery at The Hopewell Rocks. Tall cliffs of sloping red strata rise high above the Bay of Fundy shore, with an abundance of naturally worked shapes, caves, arches, and free-standing pillars of rock called sea stacks. At high tide, people can kayak around the stacks, also known locally as “Flower Pots” because of the groups of full-grown trees that grow on top of them – as they also do right to the cliff edges, with their root systems often clearly visible. At low tide, it is possible to descend a staircase to the ocean floor itself and explore these geological phenomena close up. Viewing time on the seashore is limited by the enormous and potentially dangerous rise and fall of the tides in this narrower northern neck of the Bay, where in some places, and at certain times, the sea can rise by as much as 56 feet.
At one time, about 600 million years ago, this part of Canada’s New Brunswick Province started its life near the Equator. Here it was subjected to uplifting earth movements that incorporated it into the Appalachian Oregon, an ancient mountain chain that now stretches from New Foundland to Florida. By 360 million years ago, the Appalachian building activities had ended and were followed by predominantly erosional processes.
The rocks exposed at Hopewell originated specifically in that part of the Appalachians called the Caledonian Mountains. Erosion by water and wind about 350 million years ago, in the Lower Carboniferous Period, steadily wore down the mountains, creating massive volumes of boulders, stones, gravel, sand and mud. Near the highland areas, flash floods tore through the valleys and canyons, washing away loads of eroded sediment and depositing it as stony and gravelly debris. Further from the highlands, sediment formed alluvial plains with sorted layers of sand and mud. The region covered by these terrestrial deposits in present day Atlantic Canada is called the Maritime Basin.
Over time, the coarser material in the erosion deposits on the flood plain became consolidated and cemented together with finer sand and silt. Because the land lay near the equator, the climate was hot and dry. Iron-bearing minerals became oxidised, and the rocks turned into redbeds. The series of red rock layers is now known as the Hopewell Cape Formation; this is the rock exposed in the cliffs and sea stacks at Hopewell today – eventually brought to its current position by Continental Drift, the tectonic movement of continental crustal plates.
In the first instance, the variably-textured sedimentary strata were deposited in horizontal layers. However, earth movements tilted them to angles between 30 and 45 degrees. The tilting of the rocks caused horizontal cracks to form parallel to the bedding planes, and also vertically at right angles to the strata. These lines of weakness in the rocks have become the points of entry for weathering agents – glaciers, tides, snow, ice, and winds. Erosion by these forces widens the cracks and steadily works away at the softer horizontal strata. The expansion of water as it changes to ice is a significant factor in the enlargement of cracks and crevices, and the breaking up the rock. Sandstone is softer than the conglomerate and easy for waves to wear away. The overall result is that broad columns of rock are carved into the cliff face. Undercutting at the cliff base creates caves and arches. Eventually, some columns are completely separated from the cliff face and become sea-stacks or “flower pots”.
The erosion activities are on-going. Extreme weather events and storms of recent years may accelerate the processes. The cliff face is gradually receding. Sea stacks eventually collapse and new ones are formed. A sea stack can last as little as 100 years or as long as a thousand. However, there is no need to panic about seeing the sights at Hopewell as soon as possible for fear that they will all disappear into the sea – geologists have calculated that there is enough conglomerate in the Hopewell Cape Formation to make “flower pots” for the next 100,000 years.
Chondrites are trace fossils or ichnofossils. They are small branching burrows or tunnels that were made while the sediments were still soft and have subsequently become preserved in the hardened strata. There is a great deal of uncertainty about which organisms created the burrows because no animal has ever been found within them – but they may have been some kind of small marine worm. There is evidence to support the idea that the burrows were formed in sediments with reduced oxygen or none at all.
The trace fossil Chondrites, a highly branched burrow system of unknown endobenthic deposit feeders, occurs in all types of sediment, including those deposited under anaerobic conditions. In some cases, such as the Jurassic Posidonienschiefer Formation of Germany, Chondrites occurs in black, laminated, carbonaceous sediment that was deposited in chemically reducing conditions. In other cases, such as numerous oxic clastic and carbonate units throughout the geologic column, Chondrites typically represents the last trace fossil in a biotutbation sequence. This indicates that the burrow system was produced deep within the sediment in the anaerobic zone below the surficial oxidized zone that was characterized by freely circulating and oxidizing pore waters.
The Chondrites shown in these pictures occurred in Silurian rocks of the Dunquin Group on the Dingle Peninsula in western Ireland. Some were found in beach stones at the northern end of Smerwick Harbour, however, the majority were photographed in Clogher Bay on large boulders and in bedrock.
Dogs Bay is a famously beautiful sandy beach in Connemara on the west coast of Ireland. The beach is actually part of a geomorphological feature known as the Dogs Bay/Gorteen Bay tombolo. A tombolo is a spit or bar of sand or gravel connecting an island to the mainland or another island. In general terms, persistent winds from the southwest have meant that waves meeting the island and wrapping around it, slow down as they converge on the northeast and landward side of the island, where force and speed of the waves decreases and they deposit their load of sediment. Over time the sediments gradually accumulate to such an extent that they rise as a bar above the water. The sediment bank eventually stretches all the way from the island to the mainland, and the connecting bar is termed a tombolo.
The sand has become stabilised by the growth of vegetation; and at the present time is a very special and rare type of habitat known as machair. Machair only forms on calcareous soils. At Dogs Bay the sand is composed mainly of minute fragments of the carbonate skeletons of marine animals such as sea urchins and their spines, sponge spicules, bryozoa, seashells, snails, and most remarkable of all, the intricate microscopic skeletons of one-celled creatures called Foraminifera. Dogs Bay is one of only a few beaches in the world with predominantly Foraminiferan sand.
Machair, and the surface of the Dogs Bay tombolo, is unlike many of the coastal dune systems that I have visited in England, where the dunes are full of peaks and troughs, and where marram grass dominates. Marram is often a major initial factor in the stabilisation of the loose grains. Here, however, a grassland vegetation of low species diversity is encouraged to grow in a moist, cool, windy, oceanic climate on the fairly level and compacted alkaline soil of a mature sand dune system, and grazing by animals is vital to the maintenance of the habitat. Useful information about the features in this area is available from an on-line field guide produced by the Irish Quaternary Association. Click here for details of tombolo formation and machair habitat (pages 13-17).
Arriving at Dogs Bay, it was clear to see the impact of the earlier winter waves. Storms in the first few months of the year had ripped up and washed away the road and the car park at the entrance to the beach. A sign post now lying on the shore showed where it had been. On scrambling down to the beach, a close inspection of the wonderful curve of the dunes at the top of the shore revealed that the leading edges had been sliced away leaving hanging sheets of machair turf and huge clumps of vegetated dune material on the shore. Wooden posts, perhaps fencing from the top of the dunes delineating boundaries and preventing grazing animals from falling over the edge, were lying loose on the beach below, sometimes apparently supporting the dune-top hanging mats of vegetation.
The tombolo is a vulnerable feature of the landscape. It seems that there is a history of natural damage to it in this location. In pictures 4 and 5 of the gallery below, the cross-section through the eroding dune shows a narrow horizontal dark brown band about half way down the vertical surface. This is a richly organic ancient soil level (palaeosol) that is associated with archaeological remains such as shell middens and the remains of a settlement, showing that people in the past used the site and exploited its marine resources to augment their diet. The palaeosol is present at each end of the line of dunes but is absent in the central part. Its absence in this part could indicate that either the dunes at that time in that place were not stabilised by vegetation, or that the centre of the tombolo has been severely eroded in the past and recovered from the damage.
Apparently, about ten years ago, local people feared that the tombolo would be totally breached. Maybe it was at that time that steps were taken to prevent destruction of the spit. It is clear from the presence of rock-filled metal gabion cages on the beach that conservation measures were in place prior to last winter’s storms that battered much of the coastline around Ireland and Britain. However, at the time of my visit on a cold, wet, mostly dull day at the end of March 2014, it was evident that more of these measures might be required in future to prevent further damage.
From the southern sandy shore of Rhossili Beach in Gower, the cliffs tower overhead, bearing the village itself. Sheep with bright red and purple markings nonchalantly graze the craggy upper slopes. Visitors to the Worms Head Causeway are minute figures among the hummocks of a former castle, peering recklessly over the edge to the beach below.
The path down from the village to the beach has been disrupted by last winter’s land slip, and heavy machinery continues to make a new, easier way to the shore. The red earth scars of the recent and many previous movements are visible along the face of the fault-line valley that separates the Carboniferous Limestone Rhossili headland from the greater height of the Old Red Sandstone in Rhossili Down. Boulders litter the beach at this point. Some loose rocks are red sandstones and conglomerates from the Down. Many of the larger boulders are composed of angular limestone fragments (something to do with glaciation I think – maybe till) held together by a crystalline matrix that formed from calcium-rich groundwater percolating between the stones. Some boulders are huge chunks of Black Rock Limestone or similar from the headland and must weigh many tons.
Standing far out on the shore allows a panoramic view of the cliffs, from the soft red soil and erratic turf of the land slip area, along the bare rock exposed strata of the basal third of the cliffs, to the tidal island of Worms Head beyond. The cliff face is scalloped in and out by early quarrying activities. The distinct diagonal arrangement of the dipping rock layers contrasts with the horizontal colour banding caused by the colonisation of the rock surface between tide levels by organisms with different tolerances to exposure.
In places, tidal pools of strangely blue water skirt the pale, barnacle and mussel encrusted rock. Sand ripples like the lans and grooves of massive fingerprints decorate the beach, and create intricate arrangements around isolated boulders, reminding me of Japanese Zen gardens. Rounded smooth limestone pebbles in caves and alcoves bear fossil Sea Lily stems. And everywhere, sharp-edged fragments on the beach are evidence for the continuous weathering of the cliff face where each rock fall is signified by the fresh exposure of frequently orange-coloured stone