Monday, May 27, 2013

The History of Maine Part 10: Sea Level and the Coastline

Note: This program first aired on May 25, 2013.

We’re spending a few weeks here on the world around us, tracing the deep history of Maine, from its geological genesis to the current day. We left off last week looking at some of the landscape features the glaciers left as they retreated 13,000 years ago here in Maine. That period of deglaciation had another profound impact on the Maine landscape, particularly the one most people know Maine for: the coast.

When we look at the location of the coast line, we are really looking at the edge of the water relative to the elevation of the landscape. If the landform is low, the water can move in, if the land form is high, the water is pushed out. There are two factors here that can change, the amount or volume of the water (the more water there is, the more three dimensional space it takes up, the higher it rises relative to the land, if all things are equal), and the level of the land (this is trickier to get your head around, but just remember that the crust of the Earth is floating, just like a ship at sea—the heavier the boat, the lower it floats. Solid crust floats on the more plastic layers of the Earth below.)

When we look at these two things relative to glaciation, we see the complicated and variable history of Maine’s coastline in the past 13,000 years. When glaciers form, they form from water, generally liquid water that evaporates into the atmosphere and then falls back to Earth in solid form. Where does all that liquid come from? The ocean, so overall we see a drop in global sea level when large continental glaciers form, because so much liquid water is taken up out of the ocean. At the height of the last glacial advance, it is thought that sea levels in our neck of the woods were 300 to 400 feet lower than today as a result of this (a level that would have easily exposed the continental shelf, had it not been covered by ice).

The amount of water isn’t the only thing that can change however, remember, the actual relative level of the land can as well. Remember the ship I mentioned, when it is heavy is floats lower in the water, when it is empty it floats at a higher level. The crust that underlies the state of Maine is like that ship. And what could make the crust heavier than normal? How about 10,000 feet of solid ice? That would do it. The continental glacier was so large and massive, it caused the crust to become less buoyant and float a bit lower on the underlying mantle. The crust was literally depressed into the Earth. As a side note, this is happening today in Antarctica, much of that continent is actually below sea level as a result of the weight of its ice cap.

So that is how the stage was set when the last ice age began to end here in Maine, about 13,000ish years ago. Just like a trampoline with some one sitting on it, the Earth’s crust is deformed by the weight of the glacier, and there was less water in the ocean. That less water in the ocean bit was changing fast though, as the glacier was melting quite rapidly. All of that melt water returned to the ocean, which rose quite rapidly in response. And as the glacial melted, it relived the pressure on the underlying crust, and just like a trampoline when you bounce off it, the crust rebounded. These two events didn’t happen simultaneously though, the glacier melted a great deal faster than the Earth rebounded, which meant, the ocean water easily covered the newly exposed but still depressed landscape of Maine. This event is called the Marine Incursion and at its maximum the coastline was as far inland as Medway, near Baxter State Park. Soon though the Earth’s rebound caught up with the rising ocean, and then some (again, think of our trampoline; a bouncer gets pushed up above the equilibrium level before coming back down). At the height of the crust’s rebound, sea level was much lower than it is today, as the land rose up above the level of the ocean. During this period, about 11,000 years ago, much of the Gulf of Maine, in particular Georges Bank on the edge of the continental shelf, was dry land. Terrestrial fossils, including trees and mammoth tusks have been recovered from Georges Bank, and the Gulf of Maine was a shallow inland sea cut off from the Atlantic Ocean. Soon thereafter though, the rebound eased and even subsided a bit, and the rising ocean caught up. The present day coastline was more or less established in the last few thousand years, as the rapid changes that resulted from deglaciation ended and temporary equilibrium was restored.

Maine has what is called a drowned coastline, and I hope now you can see why. Next week we will look at the third major force that shapes the Maine landscape, us.

D. W. Caldwell Roadside Geology of Maine 1998

Harry Thurston The Atlantic Coast: A Natural History 2011

David L. Kendall Glacier and Granite 1987

The Maine Geological Survey makes its surficial geology map available on line, in a printable 11x17 inch format. It has lots of good info on the results of the last glacial advance and retreat, and it’s free!

Super nerds unite: check out the Maine Ice Age Trail, and you too can tour Hancock and Washington counties looking at gravel pits (I’ve done it, its awesome). also includes an excellent overview of the last ice age in Maine