Stand and Deliver: W&M Geology leads the Virginia Geological Field Conference

I spent the front end of Fall Break herding more than 100 geologists across the Blue Ridge at the 47th Virginia Geological Field Conference. It is an annual meeting of academics, professionals, students, and rockhounds that gather to learn about new geological research in the Commonwealth. It was a special trip for me as two of my co-leaders were Megan Flansburg ’15, and Katie Lang ’18.

Simplified geologic map of Albemarle County, Charlottesville, and the surrounding region. Modified from Bailey and Flansburg (2017). Click on the image for a bigger map.

The conference was hosted by Piedmont Virginia Community College, and included a workshop for students on Friday afternoon lead by Professors Karen Layou (Reynolds Community College) and Lynsey LeMay (Thomas Nelson Community College), a reception that was followed by our scientific talk on Friday evening, and the big field trip on Saturday.

Our talk introduced the participants to the geology of the Blue Ridge in the Albemarle/Charlottesville area (pdf), and highlighted our new research findings.

Megan Flansburg (W&M Geology 2015, currently at the University of Texas) showing off the rocks on the 2017 Virginia Geological Field Conference.

Megan discussed layers of meta-arkose sandwiched between metabasalt and greenstone in the Catoctin Formation. For years these arkosic rocks were interpreted to be igneous rocks, but our work demonstrates their sedimentary provenance. Yet the presence of feldspar and quartz rich sediments within a thick package of flood basalts reveals a basement source area that must have stood above the volcanics in the late Precambrian.

My colleague Tom Biggs (U.Va.) talked about the origin of the University metagabbro, a distinctive body of metamorphosed mafic igneous rock that forms a sill, and underlies much of the University of Virginia’s grounds. Tom’s used U-Pb zircon geochronology to determine the age of the University metagabbro. These intrusions formed 568 ± 9 Ma, and are likely the magmatic plumbing system that formed while the Catoctin basalts oozed out over ancient Virginia.

William & Mary senior Katie Lang at Rockfish Gap on the 2017 Virginia Geological Field Conference.

Katie presented some of her results from structural analysis and mapping of the subsurface geology in the Blue Ridge Tunnel beneath Rockfish Gap. This tunnel was engineered by Claudius Crozet in the 1850s, and will hopefully open to the public as a rail-trail in the near future. There is outstanding geology exposed in the tunnel walls, and preserving this resource is a worthy goal.

Here’s the thing about leading a geological field conference – you must stand and deliver, literally. Over the course of the day we took the field conference participants to 8 field stops. As geologists pour off the buses, and queue up at the outcrop – the trip leaders’ job is to impart insight about why the outcrop is important. In total, the 2017 Virginia Geological Field Conference filled 2 buses with spill-over into 2 vans. It was a mob.

The scene at Rockfish Gap, the last stop on the 2017 Virginia Geological Field Conference.

It’s hard to manage a mob.

Megan Flansburg (front) talks through the morning fog to a crowd of eager donut munchers at Stop 1 on the 2017 Virginia Geological Field Conference.

The discussions and questions that arise at the outcrop make the field conference exciting. Not all geologists will agree with your interpretations, so you’ve got to make a case and point out the salient evidence in real time and on the outcrop.

As an undergraduate, thirty years ago, I attended my first field conference – the give and take between geologists discussing the significance of this geologic contact or that structure was fascinating to watch. It demonstrated to me that Geology was not all cut-and-dried, and that there is joy in research and new discovery.

Megan and Katie, both in their formal presentations and in the field, stood and delivered with poise and precision. I’d say they captured the essence of William & Mary’s For the Bold slogan, and I’m fortunate to have witnessed it.

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Special thanks to Larry Tiezzi of Piedmont Virginia Community College for hosting the 2017 VGFC and the photos featured above.  Get the 2017 Virginia Geological Field Conference guidebook (pdf).

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