5 March 2013

Documenting doomed outcrops: Scientists’ Cliffs, Maryland

Posted by Callan Bentley

The community of Scientists’ Cliffs in Maryland is a private community that happens to sit on some of the most amazing fossil exposures in the Coastal Plain. The strata in question are part of the Miocene-aged (~14 Ma) Calvert Formation. The Scientists’ Cliffs outcrops are better than the more famous outcrops at Calvert Cliffs State Park, mainly because of easier access. At the park, you have to hike in a good ways. At Scientists’ Cliffs, if you know someone who lives there, they can escort you down to the beach, and it’s a far easier commute.

Peter Vogt, a retired geological oceanographer from the Naval Research Lab (he co-authored This Dynamic Planet, a map every geology lab should have on its wall), lives in Scientists’ Cliffs. Over the years, he’s been very accommodating to Northern Virginia Community College professors and students, allowing them to access these priceless exposures, these glimpses into a bygone world.

But here’s the thing about Scientists’ Cliffs: People live there. People own houses very close to the edge of the cliffs… and the edge of the cliffs gets closer every year. Periodically, big storm events (like Hurricane Isabel) or landslides chew away the cliffs at a higher rate than normal. And every winter, freeze-thaw cycles spall away at the cliffs on a smaller scale… The community is concerned. In the case of two homes, FEMA is going to tear them down and return the sites to nature (this is also true, according to Peter, for eight other houses in Calvert County, but outside the Scientists’ Cliffs community). Elsewhere in Scientists’ Cliffs, the homeowner’s association has electted to install revetments (caged rip-rap buttresses) along much of its coastline where dwellings are perched in precarious positions atop the retreating cliffs. So: Cool for those homeowners! Their investment is protected; their gorgeous cottages with their awesome views can remain “home” for another few decades or a century (and, hey, it’s their property, so I guess they can do what they want with it). However: the “hard stabilization” of these cliffs is a move that’s not so cool for students of sedimentology, paleontology, and historical geology. Peter’s a geoscientist, and a Scientists’ Cliffs homeowner. He “gets” his neighbors’ motivation, but he also knows what’s about to be lost.

That’s where I come in.

Peter called Victor Zabielski, my colleague at the Alexandria campus of NOVA, and let him know what was coming down the ‘pike. Victor knew about my GigaPannery, and suggested that I be brought in to document the site before it was buried beneath rip-rap. We wanted to make it happen a few weeks ago, but weather conspired against us. This past Sunday, we tried again, and everything lined up: low tide, good light (even cloud cover), and (most importantly), Peter had put in hours of work clearing off the outcrop. He removed ivy, scraped the outcrop clean, scrubbed it with a brush, and sloshed it clean with water from the Bay.

I got up at 5am with the baby, and drank a bunch of coffee, and at 7am, I set off with my waterproof boots and my GigaPan EPIC Pro. It was 1.5 hours to Victor’s place in Alexandria, and then another 1.5 out to Peter’s place in Scientists’ Cliffs. We went to work cleaning off the outcrop, shooting GigaPans all the while. I got 8 of them in total, at various distances (and thus resolution of the fossils exposed in the cliff). In another month or two, this collection of GigaPans is going to be the best record of this particular site that will be available to humanity and science until the end of time (or, at least, the end of Scientists’ Cliffs). Every time someone accesses these images, and “explores” the outcrop with them, they will be going back in time, not only to the Miocene (which, hey, is old hat to us geologist types), but also to a time before this shoreline was “stabilized”…

Anyhow, have a look around. There’s tons to be seen here.

Overview (most zoomed-out):

Zoomed in on the left (south) half:

Zoomed in on the right (north) half:

Detailed face #1

Detailed face #2

Detailed face #3

Detailed face #4

Less “polished” outcrop (for comparison):

This outcrop is doomed, but these GigaPans will live forever. This may turn out to be one of the most useful things I’ve accomplished with the M.A.G.I.C. project.