Jointing and mechanical layering

Two sets of joints in Permian eolian sandstone, Canyonlands National Park

Two sets of joints in Permian eolian sandstone, Canyonlands National Park. Two joint sets at high angles are quite common in competent beds.

Jointed Cretaceous sandstone layers, Book Cliffs, Utah

Jointed Cretaceous sandstone layers, Book Cliffs, Utah. Note how the distance between joints is larger in the thick layers.

Joints occur pretty much everywhere in rocks exposed at the surface of the Earth. And they can be pretty important, both during construction activities, intrusion of magma and flow of fluids (groundwater, hydrocarbons, CO2, magma). Joints represent conduits of fluids, particularly in the vertical direction, and are made artificially during fracking (hydraulic fracturing) operations.

Jointed silica-rich layers in green shale, Green River Formation, Utah

Jointed silica-rich layers in green shale, Green River Formation, Utah. Note higher joint spacing in thick layer at the top.

Joints form naturally in a variety of settings, but particularly during exhumation due to pressure release and cooling. Thermal contraction is very important, and it is the stiff layers that fracture most easily. Hence we typically see fractured sandstone or limestone layers between non-fractured or less fractured siltstones or shale layers. Layers that develop different joint patterns define what is called mechanical stratigraphy.

Relationship between layer thickness and joint spacing

Relationship between layer thickness and joint spacing, based on field observations.

Typically, stiff layers develop fractures with a characteristic spacing that depends on layer thickness: The thicker the layer, the farther apart the fractures, as shown in some of these pictures.

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Great stereonet applications

Screendump of Stereonet 3D

Screendump of Stereonet 3D

Stereonet plotting programs are extremely valuable, particularly to those of us that are collecting field data. I have enjoyed using my iPhone app (GeoID) to collect geo-tagged measurements over the last year or two, and being able to easily import data into Stereonet3D is nice. Stereonet3D is written by Nestor Cardozo and Rick Allmendinger, and the last version of this application does most of what I want a stereonet program to do:

3D view of Stereonet3D

3D view of Stereonet3D

•importing data with no hassle
•showing the data in a map/satellite window
•exporting data to kml files for display in GoogleEarth

While Stereonet3D is MacOS software, Rick Allmendinger’s Steronet 9, which is a similar application with many of the same features, comes in Mac, Windows, and Linux versions. The advantage of this is that the same binary file is compatible across all different versions. 

These two programs are closely related, but with certain differences.

Screendump of Stereonet9 (from Rick's website)

Screendump of Stereonet9 (from Rick’s website)

Which one will serve your purpose best is something you have to figure out through a little testing. If you are using it for educational purposes, for example, Stereonet3D’s interactive 3D view may be particularly useful. Try it out!

Stereonet 9 is downloadable from Rick’s programs website, while Stereonet3D is now available from Apples App Store for a nominal fee. Many thanks to these two structural geologists for putting a lot of work into something that we all benefit from!

Link to Stereonet9:

Link to Stereonet3D:

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Structural geology and tectonics

This video point at some basic aspects of structural geology, emphasizing the importance of being able to read information out of structures, and to put this information into a larger-scale tectonic picture.

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San Francisco geology: a diversion from AGU

Serpentinite block at Marshall Beach (SW side of the Golden Gate Bridge). The road with folded chert can be seen on the far (north) side of the bridge.

Serpentinite block at Marshall Beach (SW side of the Golden Gate Bridge). The road with folded chert can be seen on the far (north) side of the bridge.

This year I attended the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco. This meeting does not offer organized field trips the way that GSA and other conferences with a strong focus on geology do. However, nice outcrops can easily be found near the city, and even though I am not particularly familiar with the geology of the area, renting a bike one day before the meeting was a good decision that I recommend to any geologist who is up for some local hard rock geology.

The closest localities are found on the north and south sides of the Golden Gate Bridge. I started at the north side and found the light to be good during the first part of the day there. The southwest side is great in the evening light.

Iron and manganese-rich chert and related sediments at Conzelman Road.

Iron and manganese-rich chert and related sediments at Conzelman Road.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge takes you to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. I  Just after crossing the bridge (west side), go left onto Conzelman Road. As you wind your way up the road there are nice exposures of folded chert layers several places, both before “Battery Spencer” and farther up the road.

Folded chert.

Folded chert, Conzelman Road. Some quite interesting patterns have formed locally due to layer-parallel shear/slip. Flexural slip is an important mechanism during folding of such layered rocks where the mechanical contrast between the chert layers and thinner shale layers is very high.

The cherts are oceanic (pelagic) sediments of the Franciscan Complex, a rather chaotic assemblage of Jurassic-Cretaceous rocks that were crumbled and sheared during accretion onto the N American continental margin in the pre-San Andreas Fault days when this margin was more of a “standard” subduction zone.

Parts of the Franciscan Complex appear as chaotic in the sense that blocks and fragments of different rock types occur together in what is referred to as mélange. There may be both depositional and deformational components to a mélange, but clearly deformation played an important role during the formation of these rocks. Typically blocks of serpentinite, amphibolite, chert and sandstone occur intermixed. Several of these rocks can be seen on the San Francisco (south-west) side of the Golden Gate Bridge along the bluffs of Marshall Beach (Battery to Bluffs Trail). This area is also affected by landslides, which also give the rocks a chaotic (“melangy”) appearance.


Melange, Marshall Beach. Blocks of serpentines are most prominent in the picture.

Ultramafics and serpentinites commonly show nice vein systems, and also nice slickensides. You will find them here as well, as shown in the picture. Once serpentine forms in fractures, the rock easily deforms, and this typically happens repeatedly throughout its lifespan. 

Slickensides formed on slip surface in serpentinite.

Slickensides formed on slip surface in serpentinite.

I am sure there are other nice hard-rock localities around, and feel free to comment on that below. With a car the selection of nice outcrops will of course be significantly larger. Here are a couple of resources if you want more information about the geology of the area:

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Do you sketch in the field?

Normal fault (Bartlett Wash, Utah)

Normal fault (Bartlett Wash, Utah)

Geology is, by nature, a field-based branch of science, and making on-site sketches is the best way to approach an outcrop. Why? Because field sketching sharpens your senses and turns you into a much better observer. It forces you to focus, to make important decisions regarding crucial structures and features, such as cross-cutting relations, sequence boundaries, fault geometry, layer continuity and grain size variations. It makes you discover important details that otherwise might go unnoticed. And it makes the locality stick to your mind.

Student field sketch from Canyonlands, S. Utah.

Student field sketch from Canyonlands, S. Utah.

Students realize this once they are exposed to field sketching during field trips and guided fieldwork. In fact, it is quite amazing to see the change that many, students and professional petroleum geologists alike, go through during a field trip that involves what I find to be a very useful one; to start each new location by making an overview sketch. The first day it seems like hard work. Then the next day – not so bad. By the third day, everyone is enjoying it because they are familiar with the concept and they realize that it works. Sketching is starting to be a fun thing.

Students sketching

Students sketching

Students sketching

Students sketching

Everyone seems to agree on its usefulness, but few if any universities offer a dedicated field-sketching course. Students in Bergen recently decided to do something about this. Through their local geo-student association, they asked for help, and once we had set a date for the course, more than 100 students quickly expressed interest.

Now it is not so easy to go out in the field in November in Bergen, so we put pictures on the screen to practice our skills. The advantage of making sketches in the field is of course that you can move around, check out details, use your hammer, dig, measure things, use your hand lens and so on. But just sketching from a picture is also a good exercise, one that may give you some rewarding surprises every now and then.

Example of a quick sketch

Example of a quick students sketch

If you are a student and want to improve your sketching skills; make at least one quick sketch every day for a few weeks, and you will be amazed by the progress you make. Efficient sketching requires some practice, and you can get much of that at home by sketching from photos.

The picture from which the sketch was made (SW Portugal)

The picture from which the sketch was made (SW Portugal)

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Transtensional folding

Did you know that folds form in transtension? Obviously they can for transpression, because this is the situation where a shear zone is squeezed so that it gets narrower. Transtension is where simple shear, typically in the form of a vertical shear zone with horizontal layers, is acting together with a simultaneous pure shear that widens the zone (extension perpendicular to the zone) and correspondingly shortening the zone in the vertical direction.

Transtension zone with horizontal layers. Folds form and remain oblique to the zone

Transtension zone with horizontal layers. Folds form and remain oblique to the zone

For simple shear, folds nucleate at ca. 45° to the shear zone and rotate toward parallelism with the zone. In transtension, folds form at >45° to the shear zone, and they rotate toward a fixed position (closer to, but still >45°). This fixed position  is the orientation of the divergence vector (or flow apophysis if you like). Hence transtension folds  always form a high angle to the shear zone.

If the pure shear component is strong, only very open folds form (and the rate of fold amplification is slow), but for simple shear-dominated transtension the folds can get tighter (and amplify faster).

Stretched folds

Stretched folds

Constrictional strain is a trademark of transtension, and the constriction causes very strong stretching along the fold hinges. This may be manifested by L-tectonices or boudinaged/veined fold hinges (figure on right).

There are several settings and areas where transtensional folds may be found or expected to be found, particularly in areas of oblique rifting (e.g. the Gulf of California), and in areas of (oblique) orogenic collapse (Norwegian Caledonides and perhaps even Death Valley).

Transtension structures expected at different crustal levels.

Transtension structures expected at different crustal levels. Click for larger picture.

If you want to read more about transtensional folding and examples of where it may apply, there is a new Journal of Structural Geology paper out that goes into this subject in more detail:

Fossen, H., Teyssier, C. & Whitney, D.L. 2013: Transtensional folding. Journal of Structural Geology 56, 89-102.

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SW Portugal Domain: pretty foreland structures

Gently deformed Carboniferous strata. Note anticline.

Gently deformed Carboniferous strata. Note central anticline.

The most amazing folds and accompanying thrust faults can be studied along the coast southward from somewhat south of Sines to the SW tip of Portugal near Sagres and Villa do Bispo, in a part of Portugal belonging to the SW Portugal Domain. I had to return to some of these exposures this summer, and with the good help of Portuguese structural geology professors Rui Dias and Fernando Ornelas Marques I got to explore some really nice sections along this stretch.

Folds are very nicely exposed along the coast

Folds are very nicely exposed along the coast, hear near Almograve. Strain is clearly higher in this picture than in the previous one. Some of the quartz veining is synchronous with the folding, and some is older.

This is a classical thin-skinned foreland system (to the Variscan orogen) where the marine sediments experienced progressive folding and thrusting with a push from the NE. The metamorphic grade is very low, and the rocks are turbidites with repeated sandstone-shale layers of contrasting mechanical contrast.

Competent layers control the folding, and the competent layers are so closely spaced that we have classical multilayer folding. Hence the fold wavelength is much longer than what we would expect from single-layer buckling (the layer thickness is typically at the decimeter to meter scale).


Weak shale layer (black in drawing) flowed ductility during folding together with flexural slip along limbs. Prof. Fernando Marques for scale. Almograve.

The weak shale layers are more mobile than the sandstone layers in the sense that they easily slip and flow. This is particularly obvious in the fold hinges, where shale extrude into the hinge zone (hinge collapse). Flexural flow and flexural slip are important during the formation of these folds, and non-cataclastic granular flow is the main deformation mechanism.


Folded turbidites separated by thrusts. Thrusting followed initial folding and further modified the folds. Geologist is Fernando Marques.

After a certain amount of folding (asymmetric with overall SE-directed vergence), thrusts initiate along weak shalely layers, connecting across more competent units. As a result, folds soon find themselves caught or sandwiched between thrusts, and some of the structures show intricate fold-thrust-cleavage relationships.

You can find a wealth of structures in this area that are hardly mentioned here: Cleavage refraction, intricate vein systems, boudins, refolding, complicated thrust systems and more. And nice beaches and sunsets!

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