AT&G - Spotila's active tectonics and geomorphology research


Origin of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, southern Appalachians

Scope:  Great escarpments occur along numerous passive margins and are somewhat of a mystery.  In many ways, they appear as young landforms expected from tectonically active regions, yet generally occur where active mountain building has long since ceased.  Some of these escarpments are thought to have been built by normal passive margin processes; such as flexure associated with sediment loading on the coastal plain and continental shelf, isostasy associated with local erosion and parallel escarpment retreat, or rift-flank uplift.  Others have suggested active faulting as a cause.  Where the Blue Ridge Escarpment of the Appalachians fits in is not certain, however, because its basic "kinematics" (what happened where, when, etc.) of erosional evolution have not been evaluated.  We studied the erosional history of this landform with a 3-fold approach.  First, we explored the erosional kinematics using topography as a proxy for geomorphic evolution.  The idea was to search for signals in digital topography that would correlate and therefore test for the presence of offset peneplains and erosion surfaces, or quantify the differences in maturity or present erosion rate (qualitatively of course!) between domains.  This turned out to be more complicated than first thought, when we started to realize just what other factors (climate, soil type, type of erosional agent, transport vs. supply limited conditions, etc.) influence parameters such as drainage density, hypsometry, and so on.  The second approach was more successful.  This was to look for evidence in the fluvial geomorphology (topographically and geologically) for migration of the asymmetric divide atop the escarpment.  Things like beheaded/underfed stream channels and fluvial deposits on the lip of the escarpment (very well rounded, large cobbles in terraces right at the divide) show that there has likely been migration of the escarpment on the order of 10's of km.  Finally, we mapped out the pattern of exhumation in the area with (U-Th)/He dating.  This revealed a large exhumational (not topographic) bulge in the inner Piedmont.  It suggests that the most exhumation over the past 100 million years or so has been focused to the east of the escarpment, not immediately below it (and certainly not from atop the Blue Ridge upland to the west of the divide).  This exhumation pattern is consistent with flexure and isostatic rebound associated with erosional retreat of an escarpment.  See Spotila et al. (2004) for more details.

Personnel:  Greg Bank (M.S., 2001), with assistance from Bill Henika (VPI), Chuck and Nancy Naeser, Pete Reiners, and Lee Daniels.

Funding:  Geological Society of America student grant, the Byron Cooper scholarship (Virginia Tech) to Greg.

Links  Other folks working on the long-term landscape evolution of the Appalachians including Dave Harbor (Washington and Lee), Frank Pazzaglia (Lehigh), Greg Hancock (William and Mary), and Paul Bierman (U. Vermont).

Below is a shaded DEM (90 m resolution) of the region, with the Blue Ridge escarpment clearly visible.


Below is a slope map from the same DEM.  The slopes along the Blue Ridge escarpment average 24 degrees.  This is quite rugged for a landform along a passive margin.


Below is a geologic map of the escarpment in southern Virginia (shown as blue line).  Note how the escarpment does not correspond to lithology.  This is unique from other major landforms in the southern Appalachians, which are largely lithologically controlled.


Perspective 3-d image of the Blue Ridge Escarpment in Virginia and North Carolina based on digital elevation models.
File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0 

Elevation profile across the Blue Ridge escarpment, illustrating the distance in km along river networks to sea level in either direction.  The top of the escarpment is an asymmetric divide between the Gulf of Mexico drainage on the west and the Atlantic drainage on the east.



The map of apatite helium ages below shows that cooling ages are youngest in the Inner Piedmont (in red), just east of the escarpment.  The interpretation is that this area has experienced greater denudation over the Cenozoic, associated with erosional retreat of the escarpment.  See Spotila et al. (2004) for details on inferred exhumation rates and evolution of this landform.


The helium ages plotted on the elevation profile below again show the younging towards the southeast, or towards the coast.  This pattern has been observed on other great escarpments worldwide (e.g. Brazil, southern Africa).  In fact, the ages we observe are nearly identical in magnitude and pattern to apatite helium ages along the SE Australia great escarpment (Persano et al., 2002).  The pattern of ages there is thought to represent erosional retreat of the escarpment following rifting ~80 Ma.  If the same erosional history has produce the ages along the Blue Ridge escarpment shown below, it implies erosional retreat of the escarpment significantly later than the ~200 Ma rifting event along eastern North America.


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Last updated: 12 January 2005

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