Geologic Folds and Intrusions as seen from Space - Remote Sensing Application - Completely Remote Sensing, GIS, and GIP Tutorial -
Geologic Folds and Intrusions as seen from Space

Space imagery is well-suited to recognizing and interpreting types of distortions of layered strata that produce such geologic structures as folds, faults, and fracture sets (joints). The images can also display the structures and deformation associated with intrusions of magma that dome or raise the near surface rocks. Some tectonic structures are so small that we must identify them on the ground. As an example of what lies below the resolutions achieved in Landsat/SPOT-type imagery, consider this photo of a small outcrop exposing crumpled shale layers, that form miniature anticlines and synclines (this same pattern occurs on grander scales such as the major folds of the Appalachians).

Small folds (three distinct anticlines, with two synclines between them, and the left limb of a third syncline) of sedimentary rocks exposed in a road cut.

Anticlines are upfolds (arched upwards) whereas synclines are downfolds (shallow- to steep-sided U shape). In a series of folds anticlines are always next to synclines that in turn are next to anticlines (unless disrupted by faulting).

A group of folds, shown here in color, is at about the same scale as the above outcrop.

A crumpled (folded) assemblage of thin rock layers seen in an outcrop; scale is that of about 20 feet across the scene.

On a somewhat larger ground scale, look next at the folding shown in this outcrop photo of volcanic ash layers in Japan. There is an erosional discontinuity (unconformity) that separates earlier folding in the lower half from folding (above) after later ash flows were deposited.

Folds in volcanic ash in a Japanese deposit; at least two periods of successive folding are evident.

The folds shown above occur in supracrustal rocks, those above what is commonly called the "basement" rocks - those that make up the underlying (generally older) core of a continent (in the craton) and are composed of metamorphic rocks mixed with igneous rocks. At one time, before reaching the present surface, these deeply buried rocks were hot and "soft" (plastic-like). Under those conditions, layers in these crystalline rocks are deformed by squeezing and crumpling of heated units under high pressure as metamorphism proceeds. Here is an example of this type of folding (technically, called ptygmatic); note the hammer for scale. This folding is normally not detectable by space sensors (except those with very high spatial resolution).

Small folds and warps in metamorphic rocks exposed at the surface.

However, larger fold features at regional scales often show obvious patterns of geometric curvature or displacement that stand out in relation (context) to neighboring features, as best displayed in space images covering extensive areas. We used the Waterpocket Fold in the preceding pages of this Section to introduce this idea. Folds that extend over large areas (e.g., a single anticline may be one or more kilometers/miles in width and nearly as high) are quite evident in space imagery. But when seen on the ground, typically only a small part of the arching or downfolding is visible at any local exposure of the folded strata, so that it is usually necessary to measure variations in inclinations (called "dip" by geologists) at separated locations in order to perceive the full nature (as a fold) of such large structures.

Thus the Maryland Highway synclinal fold shown first on page 2-1 and reproduced here is such a case since it has one inclined limb (its western [left] segment) tilted down to the right (east), then an inflection point (rocks horizontal), and a companion limb inclined to the west. Such folds have limb pairs inclined in opposing directions.

Road cut showing a downward bend of sedimentary rock layers; Maryland Interstate 70.

Folds have distinctive appearances when seen from the air or space. Most tend to have maximum arching or downfolding in the center of their structural depressions and then progressively less folding at either end, so that they die out. This diminution is referred to as "pitching". This aerial photo of the Sheep Mountain anticline in Wyoming is illustrative of this effect:

Sheep Mountain anticline.

We saw examples of large folds - both anticlines and synclines - in the Section 1 Exam you may have completed. There, the Folded Appalachians were highlighted. These folds tend to be elongated but do end, and are thus referred to as closed (or pitching) when viewed from above. This image shows the extended ridge effect resulting from folds that can remain continuous (without notable pitching) for tens of kilometers or more - but they ultimately die out or fold around:

Appalachian folds in Pennsylvania.

An obvious example of folds that either pitch or extend for some distance are these next group found in the Ouachita Mountains of Oklahoma-Arkansas (the full scene is shown near the bottom of page 6-3). The Ouachitas are an extension of the Southern Appalachians (the fold belt in between is buried under the Mississippi Embayment). The folds range here from those nearly circular to elongate folds plunging in two directions (causing a curvature at each end; thus closing) to areas where the folded units remain parallel for a considerable distance.

The western end of the Ouachita Mountains, a fold belt.

A similar style of folding is displayed in the Sierra Madre Orientale (fold belt) near Monterrey, Mexico, as shown in these two Landsat images. Some structural geologists consider this belt to be an extension of Appalachian folding, but inclined rocks of younger age (early Mesozoic) are present here.

Landsat image showing much of the Sierra Madre Orientale.
Folds in the Sierra Madre Orientale, Coahuila State, Mexico; Landsat 7 ETM+ image.

Next, we take a quick look at classic folds in Iran and northwest Africa. Elsewhere in this Tutorial (e.g., in Section 8 on Radar; Section 17, page 17-3), we describe other examples of folding depicted at regional scales.

The full Landsat scene below covers part of the Zagros Mountains along the southwest coast of Iran by the Persian Gulf. These mountains consist mainly of elongate folds which arch upwards as anticlines and downwards as synclines. The anticlines here make up distinct landforms as high hills with central ridges that taper at either end (a condition referred to as a closed fold [one that pitches]).

Full Landsat MSS image of the Zagros Mountains in southwestern Iran; the blackish, roughly circular patterns mark the outpouring of salt - see below.

A simple analogy is to imagine cutting a watermelon in half through its longest dimension and laying the flat side on the floor. From above it resembles some of these Zagros anticlines. If we cut through it again across the long dimension at the mid-pointer, the exposed cross-section through green outer skin, white rind, and reddish center would appear similar to the folded strata within the anticline seen here eroded to create a cross-sectional view.

An aerial oblique photo showing the Zagros Mountains; note the cross-sectional appearance of an anticline exposed by a stream cut.

These elliptical anticlinal folds in western Iran comprise a belt that is unsurpassed anywhere else in the world for their symmetry, extent and quality of exposure. Here is a more detailed look using a Landsat-7 ETM+ image:

Anticlines in western Iran; Landsat-7 ETM+ 10 m resolution image; note that several anticlines have been breached to expose shale (gray, much dissected) in their central cores.

An unusual phenomenon occurs in parts of the Zagros Mountains. Go up to the first image of this region; note patches of very dark gray material. These show up better in this perspective image made from ASTER and DEM data:

Salt glaciers (dark gray) emanating from anticlines in the Zagros Mountains.

These dark features are outspillings of salt that have been called "salt glaciers". Rock beds composed dominantly of salt (NaCl) can be produced, often in thick layers, in a marine environment in which salinity exceeds a certain value and direct precipitation removes the mineral halite and sometimes other mineral species that make up the class evaporites. As salt beds become more deeply buried, the overburden pressure or pressures associated with folding cause the salt material to flow like a very thick liquid under conditions that produce "plasticity". The salt may be pushed upwards, piercing overlying rocks, making salt domes or diapirs (often excellent traps for gas and oil). The salt may reach the surface and "pour out", moving slowly to make the "salt glaciers" observed here.

Sometimes anticlinal folds form ridges or linear mountains that have widely separated interfold segments (synclines may not be well-formed). An example is this next style of folding that makes up a decollement - a French term that describes the detachment of a sheet of upper crustal rock in which the folds are likened to creases in a slip rug that has been wrinkled. The area shown in this Landsat-1 image is in the Sichuan Basin of central China:

Elongated wrinkle folds in the block of crust that underwent lateral squeezing during tectonic deformation related to movements along bounding strike-slip faults (not in the scene).

Many folds do not stand out as individuals but are a larger part of continuous folding (and faulting) called orogenic belts or, more commonly, fold belts. Even where carefully mapped, the size of such belts is so great that their overall characteristics are often hard to appreciate. This next image (Landsat-2, Band 6) illustrates again the value of large-scale or large region coverage: The Tapa Shan mountain belt in west-central China seems to have split, with the two western branches swerving south and north; such tectonic behaviour is unusual:

Diverging segments of a mountain belt in western China.

There is a more or less continuous fold belt, of varying widths, running from Alaska to the tip of South America. The term "Cordillera" can be applied to this general mountain trend. The belt system is formed along the zone of convergence in which the Pacific tectonic plate is subducted near the western edges of the North and South American plates, causing sedimentary rocks along the edge of these plates to crumple (fold) and be lifted up into mountain chains. In South America, the belt makes up the Andes Mountains. In this Landsat image, near Santiago, Chile, the Andes belt has narrowed to less than 120 km, with high plains on either side.

The narrowed Andes fold belt in northern Chile; note that the east side of the Andes is desert-like whereas the Altiplano (high plains) on the west side is heavily forested, with grasslands (but to its west at lower altitudes the rain shadow effect as moisture is precipitated out by orographic rise of air over the mountains; note also the band of vegetation at the lower edge of two alluvial fans, which results from water flowing through the alluvium and emerging to nourish local natural vegetation.

One of the best exposures of a complexly folded mountain belt anywhere occurs in the Atlas Mountain system of northwest Africa. This group is part of the great orogenic belt that includes the Alps, Appenines, the Betic Cordillera (southern Spain), and other chains that we can trace eastward through Turkey into the Zagros Mountains. These belts began to form about 70 million years ago, when the Tethys Ocean (precursor to today's Mediterranean) started to close as the African Plate moved northward against the Eurasian set of plates. The orogeny climaxed in the late Cenozoic period and is still active.

This perspective sketch map of northwest Africa shows the Atlas Mountains in context with the coast of Morocco and the extension into Algeria. Beyond the left end of the map lies the Anti-Atlas segment of this belt. The map includes the Middle Atlas and High Atlas segments, and the Rif mountains east of Tangiers. The mountain chain cuts out moisture coming in from the Atlantic such that this orogenic effect produces the Sahara Desert to the east of these high ranges (much like the coastal mountains, Sierra Nevada, and Cascades do in the United States; rain on the west, rain shadow [dry] on the east).

Map of northwestern Africa.

The Landsat scene below covers part of the Anti-Atlas mountains of southern Morocco. In the upper left is a deformed and metamorphosed core of Precambrian rocks against which the tight disharmonic folds of lower to mid-Paleozoic rocks (center) have been shoved northward along thrusts. The white sinuous band against a fold ridge is a dry stream or wadi.

 Part of a Landsat TM image of the Anti-Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

The Atlas mountain belt was also involved in the major closing phase of the Tethys Sea about 80 million years ago, when the African Plate shoved northward, producing the Alps and other European mountains. A portion of the Anti-Atlas is imaged below using three SWIR bands on Terra's ASTER (see Section 9). Again, the folded structures stand out. The color composite shows various colors associated with rock units: yellow, orange, green, and dark blue denote limestone, sandstone, gypsum, and granite respectively. This is another strong confirmation that IR and thermal remote sensing can distinguish and identify major rock types (where vegetation cover is sparse) with considerable validity.

ASTER image of part of the Anti-Atlas Mountains of North Africa.

The High Atlas has peaks reaching above 4500 m (13000 ft). Here it is seen from space in a Landsat mosaic:

A Landsat TM mosaic of the High Atlas Mountains; prepared by Weldon Beauchamp of Cornell University.

These are photogenic mountains as seen from space. Witness this natural color view made by the SPOT satellite:

Part of the Atlas Belt.

Even more striking is this false color composite Landsat image:

The Anti-Atlas mountains in Morocco.

And, seen again, this time in another SPOT image:

The Anti-Atlas mountains in Algeria.

These are the highest tectonic mountains in Africa and resemble parts of the Alps except that the vegetation is distinctly different. Here is a view taken from Marracech in the south interior of Morocco that typifies the terrain of the Anti-Atlas; below it is a view within the High Atlas segment:

The Anti-Atlas Mountains
View from a valley within the High Atlas Mountains.

It may come as a surprise to read this claim that the Anti-Atlas and Atlas Mountains of northwestern Africa are geologically tied to the Appalachian Mountains of North America. When Africa split from North and South America following the closing of the Iapetus Ocean, part of the rumpled collision area resulting from closure was detached onto the African plate. Here is a map of the Appalachians (shown as elongate black patches) before the Pangaea breakup:

The Appalachians (black stippling) in Pangaea after the Iapetus closure.

We close this page with a look at intrusions that accompany mountain building and related tectonics. One of the classic regions on any continent is the Pilbara craton in northwestern Australia. We will introduce this region to you now but will return to look at geologic scenes from selected areas on page 6-15. The remarkable mosaic below covers much of northwestern Australia, a region of limited vegetation so that the rocks and valley-fill stand out and reveal much of their underlying structure. The mosaic has been divided into left (west) and right (east) halves stacked vertically to fit on the page without much reduction. This is the Western Australian shield, containing mostly Precambrian metasedimentary and metavolcanic rocks, interlaced in places by igneous rocks. At the top of the (right half, lower image) mosaic is the Pilbara block, a leading candidate for the classic expression of an ancient greenstone-granite complex anywhere on Earth.

Part of mosaic west of Pilbara.
Landsat mosaic of western Australia that includes the Pilbara district (at the top in the lower image), a Precambrian greenstone belt intruded by granitic batholiths.

The two halves do not quite match because of copying problems. This annotated sketch map applies to the mosaic.

Map of features in the divided Landsat mosaic.

This next image enlarges the area known as the Pilbara block that contains these remarkably exposed (little vegetative cover) batholiths. In this image is perhaps the best single exposure on a denuded surface with little vegetation of the geologic phenomenon know as "batholiths". These are intrusive igneous rock masses - often 100s of kilometers in dimension - that came as melt into the crust but did not reach the surface (until eventually revealed by downward erosion). Between these giant bodies are metamorphosed rocks containing basalts that are now called "greenstones". This is probably the classic example of an Archean Greenstone Complex, and especially of batholiths, anywhere on Earth.

The Pilbara batholiths.

For further guidance, look at the above Pilbara features in relation to the geologic map of this part of Australia that covers the right half of the sketch map.

Part of the Geologic map of Australia, coinciding with that portion in the above Landsat mosaic.

The granite appears as batholiths, up to a 100 km (62 mi) long. These light rocks are diapiric intrusions into the dark greenstones (metamorphosed basalt). To the south is the Hamersley Range (blue area on the map) and the smaller Opthalmia Range (red), bordered on the south by the Ashburton Trough (left) and the Bangemall basin (right). Low-relief hills mark much of the region. The highest area (1,235 m, 4,051 ft) is in the Hamersley Range.

We witness the radar expression of folding with this look at a SIR-A image of closed structures composed of metasedimentary rocks in the Hamersley Range of northwest Australia.

SIR-A radar image of folds in the Hamersley Range of Australia.

In Namibia in southwest Africa is the Branberg Massif, a 21 by 31 km dome that reaches 2.5 km (1.6 miles) in height. A granite batholith intruded into the sedimentary rocks along its side.

MODIS image of the Branberg Massif in the Namib Desert.

An extension of the Arabian Shield is found in eastern Egypt. The left image below is a radar image of its surface. The same area is shown in a Landsat image on the right. The radar image brings out the fractures and the continuous nature of the crystalline surface. The Landsat image shows this terrain to contain intrusive plutons midst metamorphic rocks.

Nubian Shield intrusives.

On the next page, we look at illustrations of how we can detect faulting from ground offsets and, more subtly, from discontinuities of landforms. Following that, we illustrate the advantages of space imagery in picking out lineaments (usually fractures in the outer crust that may be faults), together with an appraisal of how these can often be misidentified and misinterpreted. We then close this Section with a practical example of how fracture analysis leads to a successful search for a valuable natural commodity water.