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The ancient history of the earth under Elachee
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Elachee Nature Science Center natural resource manager Lee Irminger visits a rock outcropping Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, along the Dodd Loop trail. Recently University of North Georgia students and faculty members are conducting a study that includes examining the different rock outcrops around Elachee with the goal of discovering how the rocks were formed and hopefully learn something new about Georgia’s unique geology. - photo by Scott Rogers

If rocks around Elachee Nature Science Center could talk, millions of years of history would be revealed.

Turns out, the earth underneath Elachee would talk about a time when trilobites scuttled around the oceans and fern plants were just starting to emerge around the globe. 

Pterodactyl wouldn’t soar through the skies for another 50 million years. Mr. T-Rex? He wouldn’t start ambling around for another 175 million years, give or take.

A research team from the University of North Georgia aims to be the first to uncover these stories through examining the minerals’ slopes, hues and elemental composition.

“They look odd in the field, but under a microscope, it’s a completely different world,” Katayoun Mobasher, the university’s geology professor, said. “Each one tells us a little bit of the story of Elachee and Georgia.”

Because no one had conducted an in-depth study of Chicopee Woods Nature Preserve’s geology, which surrounds Elachee, Mobasher said she was keen to jump on the task. She gathered a team in the spring of 2019 to look into the nature of the area’s geology through a two-pronged approach.

Jerry Allison, a chemistry professor, and Ana Guimaraes Ferreira, a 2019 graduate, took on the chemistry portion of the research. Mobasher and Matt Palmer, a University of North Georgia senior, focused on the geology side. 

They began collecting data over the spring and summer at several rock outcrops throughout Chicopee Woods. 

Lee Irminger, Elachee’s natural resources manager, helped the team locate the different sites and collect samples. 

Because of the natural flora and fauna, rock hunting isn’t as easy as it sounds.

“Vegetation makes it more exciting because it hides the millions of years of geological history that’s present here,” Irminger said. “The outcrops pop up from the vegetation and soil, they’re a clue as to what’s underground.”

Based off a surface survey, Mobasher said most of the rock outcrops in the area date back to the Paleozoic Era, meaning they can reach up to 251 million years old. 

She said the team will find a more exact age of the outcrops after conducting radiometric dating. 

Geological art

Mobasher and Palmer took sections from the rocks and had them cut into extremely thin slices to fit under a petrographic microscope. This type of microscope is used within optical mineralogy and petrology to closely examine the details of rocks and minerals.

Lately Palmer said he feels as though he’s looking at art when viewing the minerals on a microscopic level.

He compares muscovite mica to Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” painting. 

“It’s almost like art,” Palmer said. “There are pinks, blues and greens like a rainbow. I don’t think people realize how beautiful they are.”

Palmer plans to create a map that locates the types of metamorphic rocks around Elachee with his findings.

“When people go on walks, they point out the trees and flowers, but geology is a huge part of our lives,” Palmer said. “We live on a huge rock. I want to make people more aware of what’s beneath them.”

Through their research, Mobasher said she has found some evidence linking Elachee’s rock formations to the Brevard Fault Zone, which is the wide fractured area around the Brevard Fault Line. 

The fault line cuts across Georgia, and geologists suspect it’s the area where the tectonic plates underneath Africa are smashing into North American plates, according to Mobasher.

She hopes her research with Palmer, Allison and Ferreira will help uncover more of the fault zone’s nature and add extra hands-on opportunities in her geology classes.

Although they haven’t drawn any conclusions yet, Mobasher suspects the twists found in the rocks show the movement of tectonic plates around the fault zone.

“That’s exciting from an environmental education perspective because you’re taking people out and seeing geology in action, and that’s almost an oxymoron,” Irminger said. “It’s a slow timeline.”

Exposing students to the elements

On the chemistry front, Allison and Ferreira collected samples of the rock formations, ranging from the size of a hand to a human head. 

They ground the rocks into a fine powder and loaded the substance into a capsule. 

The sample was then zapped with an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, also known as an XRS, which tells the researchers about the elements that make up the minerals.

Once all is said and done, Allison and Ferreira will merge their elemental analysis with Mobasher and Palmer’s petrographic findings. 

The group plans to present their results at the Geological Society of America’s meeting in March 2020.

Allison said his main goal with the project is to make the community more aware of the earth beneath their feet, offering more teaching opportunities at the University of North Georgia and giving students a chance to get involved in research. 

“There’s a lot to be said about getting out into the world, poking around and actually collecting and analyzing data,” he said. “This gives the students the opportunity to do that.”

In teaming up with Ferreira, Allison said he has watched her excitement for the project rub off on other students.

“It’s interesting to be able to learn and show results about the geology and chemistry behind it right here in an area I’ve been living,” Ferreira said. 

Mobasher said the Elachee geological project has already fulfilled three of her passions: research, working with students and community outreach. 

Elachee plans to incorporate the team’s research findings into its trails, so people can learn about the types of minerals encountered on the routes. 

Irminger said the research enhances the conservation of Elachee and broadens people’s sense of what’s under their feet. 

“My biggest takeaway from this is seeing the age and beauty of the Earth that’s right at the surface,” Irminger said. “You do miss it sometimes because it’s all covered. They’re coming up with a picture of the geology and it’s really interesting.”

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Elachee Nature Science Center natural resource manager Lee Irminger walks the Dodd Loop trail Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. Recently University of North Georgia students and faculty members are conducting a study that includes examining the different rock outcrops around Elachee with the goal of discovering how the rocks were formed and hopefully learn something new about Georgia’s unique geology. - photo by Scott Rogers