This summer, I took a field trip up to Split Rock State Park in northern Minnesota, along the north shore of Lake Superior. While I wrote a little bit about the trip, there is still a bit more to be said and shown.
Part of what makes Split Rock interesting, besides a picturesque lighthouse which I didn’t take many pictures of, is the large blocks of anorthosite. Anorthosite is a rock formed primarily of the mineral anorthite, which is a calcium-rich feldspar, and the mineral zircon—used in U/Pb dating—can be found in anorthosite as well. Its appearance is generally light grey or whitish, and has relatively coarse grains (mm to cm).
Anorthosite is an intrusive igneous rock formed through the crystallization and accumulation of anorthite within a magma body. It is abundant on the Moon, and lunar anorthosites are believed to have accumulated on top of a magma ocean early in lunar history. A relatively dense magma will act as a heavy liquid, and cause the less dense anorthite to float, separating the original magma from the crystallized anorthite. These types of crystallization processes, where the magma becomes separated from crystals it produces, are called fractional crystallization, and can cause the resulting magma to be enriched in some elements or components (such as SiO2). Even with massive basalt flows, fractional crystallization can cause an occasional rhyolite flow as well, but I’ll leave discussion of the rhyolites of the North Shore for another day.
Pictured above is the view from Corundum Point, a large block of anorthosite at Split Rock State Park. Below is a close-up view of some of the anorthosite, as well as a benchmark which has been placed in the anorthosite block [Thanks to Jessica Ball (@tuff_cookie) for giving me the idea of photographing the benchmark]. Despite being far from the ocean, Minnesota is home to National Ocean Survey benchmarks.
The name Corundum Point suggests the presence of corundum—a mineral used in abrasives—and it comes from a mining operation on the site in the early 1900s. However, the point is actually anorthosite, which was much less useful for abrasives. Between the incorrect mineral identification and a fire which burned down the crushing house, the operation was eventually shuttered.
 Mark D. Schmitz, Samuel A Bowring, Trevor R Ireland, “Evaluation of Duluth Complex anorthositic series (AS3) zircon as a U-Pb geochronological standard: new high-precision isotope dilution thermal ionization mass spectrometry results” Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta (2003), 67, p. 3665–3672. DOI: 10.1016/S0016-7037(03)00200-X
Update Upon further study, it appears that the naming convention of Split Rock State Park is to call this point Corundum Point. However, Google Maps displays this point as Split Rock Point, with Corundum Point a few hundred meters to the northeast. Regardless of the arbitrary common name, the benchmarks are on the point to the southwest.
Second, the Joides Resolution blog (the Joides Resolution is an ocean sediment coring vessel) has a series of posts (1, 2, 3) on geologic thin sections. Not surprisingly, the thin sections pictured are from rocks such as gabbros or sheeted dikes, which are expected in oceanic crust and in ophiolites (oceanic crust exposed on land). There’s a great exposure of the Coast Range Ophiolite just west of Patterson, CA, in Del Puerto Canyon, which is described in a recent blog post by Garry Hayes.
Several weeks ago, I took a road trip with some friends across the northern part of South Dakota as part of a ham radio adventure. When we reached northwestern South Dakota, we were having so much fun that we decided to continue into just across the border into Montana.
At the state line between South Dakota and Montana, we found that there was a relatively high point (Capitol Rock) which we could probably access with our vehicle. Capitol Rock is in a national forest, so no permission would be needed to go there. It would be a good place to do ham radio (primary goal), and it would get me close to some rocks (bonus)!
As we drew closer to the summit of the hills, I couldn’t help but think that the rocks looked a lot like the ones in my research area in northeastern Montana, in the Hell Creek region (Hell Creek and Tullock/Fort Union Formations).
Sadly, I didn’t get quite as close to the outcrops as I would have liked (we were on a bit of a schedule), but I did get some pictures and made a few observations.
Here we had flat-lying sedimentary strata, presumably of roughly Cretaceous-Paleogene age (somewhere around 80-50 million years ago, Ma) (introduction to geologic time). These would have been shallow marine or terrestrial sediments from along the western interior seaway, which was on its way out at the end of the Cretaceous (66 Ma, ). I would expect to find some fossils preserved in the sediments, and from those, a fairly accurate date on the strata could be obtained. There may even be some volcanic ash deposits which would allow for direct dating using the U-Pb system or the K-Ar system (Ar/Ar dating) .
At the top of Capitol Rock were several massive units with a slight orange color (probably from oxidized iron). Beneath those were some more finely bedded strata, with bed thicknesses probably around 3-10 cm (eyeball estimation), and displaying some rough texture (popcorn texture?). Underneath those were some fairly easily eroded strata of generally uniform grey color. The image below has these observations annotated.
The ground under my feet for that previous picture was still above average terrain. Here is an additional picture, taken from the south (looking north), which shows that the light-grey sediments are underlain by more yellow-orange units.
Upon returning home, I decided to see what description I could find online of Capitol Rock’s geology. It seems there are a number of different descriptions of it.
Capitol Rock, located in the Long Pines Unit in Montana, is a massive white limestone uplift that resembles the Nation’s capitol building.
—Montana Office of Tourism
Capitol Rock, located in the Long Pines land unit in Montana, is a massive white sandstone remnant which originated as a volcanic ash deposit. This unique formation resembles the Nation’s Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
—US Forest Service
Brule Member, White River Formation [ed: Formations are a larger stratigraphic unit, and can include multiple Members] – may only be present at Capitol Rock (SE 1/4 sec. 17; T3S; R.62 E) in the Montana portion of the Sioux District. Located at the base of the Arikaree Formation. Massive pinkish gray, calcium containing, clayey siltstone: nodular claystone: and channel sandstone. Contains abundant vertebrate fossils. Thickness 0-30 ft. The member is composed of massive pink clay, exposed in the badlands just Southeast of Reva Gap, well-bedded, hard pale green sandstones alternation with very pale brownish gray clay.
Weathering causes a tread and riser affect much like a staircase. Both the sandstone and the clay are generally calcareous and Bentonitic. The lower portion of the vertical cliffs in Slim Buttes is generally Brule.
Chadron Member, White River Formation – only located in the southern Long Pines within Montana. Found at the base of the Arikaree formation and beneath the Brule Formation at Capitol [R]ock (SE 1/4 sec. 17 T, 3 S., R. 62 E). Basal conglomerate sandstone overlain by beds 10 to 15 ft
thick of dark gray bentonite and cream colored siltstone. Thickness 0-100 ft.
—Bureau of Land Management
Well, that’s a puzzling bunch of information, isn’t it! Various sources are suggesting limestone, sandstone from volcanic ash, and a mix of sandstone and siltstone. There’s one more source to check, too: the geologic map. Specifically, we’re interested in the Ekalaka 30’x60′ quadrangle from the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology!
In the geologic map (look along the right [eastern] edge, near the “T 19N” mark; Capitol Rock is ~1 km NE of the “Tar” label] we see the Fort Union Formation (informal Ekalaka member) at the base of the hills (i.e., under my feet), which is consistent with observations and the relatively detailed presentation from the BLM. It is also consistent with my experience that the Fort Union Formation is generally yellow-orange (in contrast to the drab, grey of the Hell Creek Formation). Then things get trickier. The rocks right at Capitol Rock are mapped as “Tar”, which is the Tertiary Arikaree Formation.
So, what is the Arikaree Formation? Well, the USGS has this to say:
Arikaree formation: gray sandstone with layers of concretions; contains volcanic ash and, locally, channels filled with conglomerate; known only in southeastern Montana.
I suspect this is all hitting at an important point: mapping is really hard, as is saying the rocks over here are the same as the rocks 40 km away. These difficulties are compounded when different scientists use different terminology, such as when the mapping is done by state geological surveys. The same rocks may change names when a state boundary is passed. Sometimes researchers will use the terminology from one state to apply to the rocks on both sides of the boundary, and then the literature is filled with multiple terminologies for the same rocks. It can also be very difficult to correlate rocks laterally over large distances, especially when there is poor outcrop over those distances (i.e. between buttes).
Here’s my interpretation of what’s going on at Capitol Rock: it is composed of siltstone, sandstone, and altered volcanic ash [still good for U-Pb dating!]. This volcanic ash is high in erionite, an asbestos-like mineral. Naming of the unit could include either the Arikaree Formation, or the Brule Member of the White River Formation. An age of 37–30 Ma seems reasonable.
 Renne, P. R., Deino, A. L., Hilgen, F. J., Kuiper, K. F., Mark, D. F., Mitchell, W. S., III, Morgan, L. E., Mundil, R., Smit, J. (2013) Time Scales of Critical Events Around the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary. Science 339: 684-687, doi: 10.1126/science.1230492.
When purifying a mineral from whole rock, one of the most useful separations is by density. Water, being less dense than most rock, is not especially useful for this. However, lithium metatungstate (LMT, mixed with water) and sodium polytungstate (SPT, also mixed with water) can create denser—albeit more viscous—liquids, with densities approaching 2.9–3.1 g/cm3. These denser liquids are enough to separate feldspar and quartz (<2.7 g/cm3) from zircon, titanite (sphene), and barite (densities >3.5 g/cm3).
Separations are fairly straightforward. A crushed, sieved rock sample is poured into a separatory funnel filled 1/2–2/3 full with the heavy liquid. The slurry is stirred vigorously with a stirring rod, and allowed to settle (it may take a couple hours if the grain size is fine and the liquid viscous). After it settles, the dense minerals should have sunk to the bottom, while the light minerals will float. A filter funnel is then placed under the separatory funnel. When the stopcock is opened, the dense minerals and some of the heavy liquid will pour out the bottom. The stopcock is then closed when the heavy separate has passed through. A second filter funnel is then used to capture the light fraction. With good filtering, the heavy liquid can be reused. The separates can be washed with distilled water and dried.
Heavy liquid separation is often used in combination with magnetic separation to purify minerals for analysis. Depending on the difference in densities being separated, a liquid may need to be fairly precisely calibrated with larger samples of the desired minerals. Sanidine (~2.55 g/cm3) and quartz (~2.65 g/cm3) need a well-calibrated liquid to achieve good separation, while either (or both) of them from zircon can be done with any LMT solution >2.7 g/cm3.