Geomorphology of New England

Professional Paper 1208




Widely scattered terrestrial deposits of Cretaceous or Tertiary age and extensive nearshore and fluvial Coastal Plain deposits now largely beneath the sea indicate that the New England region has been above sea level during and since the Late Cretaceous. Estimates of rates of erosion based on sediment load in rivers and on volume of sediments in the Coastal Plain suggest that if the New England highlands had not been uplifted in the Miocene, the area would now be largely a lowland. If the estimated rates of erosion and uplift are of the right order of magnitude, then it is extremely unlikely that any part of the present landscape dates back before Miocene time. The only exception would be lowlands eroded in the early Mesozoic, later buried beneath Mesozoic and Cenozoic deposits, and exhumed by stream and glacial erosion during the later Cenozoic. Many of the rocks in the New England highlands are similar to those that underlie the Piedmont province in the central and southern Appalachians, where the relief over large areas is much less than in the highlands of New England. These comparisons suggest that the New England highlands have been upwarped in late Cenozoic time. The uplift took place in the Miocene and may have continued into the Quaternary. The New England landscape is primarily controlled by the underlying bedrock. Erosion and deposition during the Quaternary, related in large part to glaciation, have produced only minor changes in drainage and in topography. Shale and graywacke of Ordovician, Cambrian, and Proterozoic age forming the Taconic highlands, and akalic plutonic rocks of Mesozoic age are all highland makers. Sandstone and shale of Jurassic and Triassic age, similar rocks of Carboniferous age, and dolomite, limestone, and shale of Ordovician and Cambrian age commonly underlie lowlands. High-grade metapelites are more resistant than similar schists of low metamorphic grade and form the highest mountains in New England. Feldspathic rocks tend to form lowlands. Alkalic plutonic rocks of Mesozoic age underlie a large area in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and doubtless are a factor in their location and relief. Where the major streams flow across the regional structure of the bedrock, the location of the crossings probably is related to some other characteristic of the bedrock, such as joints or cross faults. The course of the Connecticut River is the result of the adjustment of the drainage to the bedrock geology during a long period of time. There is no ready explanation why many of the large rivers do not cross areas of calcalkalic plutonic rock, but rather take a longer course around such areas, which tend to include segments of the divide between the streams. The presence of coarse clastic materials in Miocene rocks of the emerged Coastal Plain of the Middle Atlantic States suggests uplift of the adjacent Piedmont and of the Adirondack Mountains at that time. The Miocene rocks of the submerged Coastal Plain in the Gulf of Maine and south of New England are fine grained and contain only small amounts of fluvial gravel. Perhaps the coarse clastic materials shed by the New England highlands in late Cenozoic time are buried by or incorporated in the Pleistocene glacial deposits.

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Geomorphology of New England
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Professional Paper
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18 p.; 1 plate in pocket