The Chalk Buttes Physiographic Region

Chalk Buttes Physiographic Region

Kary Reznicek
Fall 2007

ES 546 Field Geomorphology
Dr. James S. Aber

Contents
Abstract
Kansas Physiographic Regions
Chalk Buttes Physiographic Region
Methodology
References

Abstract

The State of Kansas is divided into 12 physiographic regoins. Of these, the Chalk Buttes region stands out as unique, not only to Kansas but to the whole United States. Chalk Buttes is characterized by the chalky composition of rock located there, the rich fossil beds which contain invertebrates as well as large reptiles, and the picturesque formations which have weathered out of the 600 foot thick chalk bedrock layer. These monuments are distinctive due to their composition and fossils, but also because they are quickly disappearing due to wind and water erosion as well as the stresses exerted upon them by unregulated tourism. On Saturday, September 29, 2007 students from the Field Geomorphology class from Emporia State ventured to this site to search for fossil remains, discuss the geomorphology responsible for creating this amazing scene, and to collect a digital photographic record of the Monument Rocks region for posterity.


Kansas Physiographic Regions:

Kansas plays host to a vast range in ages of rock exposed at the surface, from the Mississippian age rock exposed in the Ozark Plateau region; deposited 330-360 mya, to the loess and river valley deposits of the High Plains region which were only laid down about 10,000 years ago during the Pleistocene. Between these extremes reside ten other physiographic regions which contain a variety of geologic formations, mineral deposits, and fossil-rich strata. The geomorphologic processes that shaped the geology of Kansas are numerous and diverse. The whole state is underlain by Pennsylvanian rock, but it is only exposed in the Osage Cuestas. This is overlain by Permian rock exposed in the Flint Hills, then Cretaceous which is visible in the Smoky Hills, Blue Hills, and Chalk Buttes regions. Over top of these layers were deposited Quaternary loess and river sediments in the west, glacial drift deposits in the northeast, and wind eroded and deposited sand in the central west.


Geologic map of Kansas showing surface and cross-section.
image taken from
KGS.

Erosion is the most influential geomorphic process at work on Kansas topography. Depending on the type of rock present in each region, the effects of erosion differ; the Ozark Plateau region is characterized by the erosion resistant chert and gravel left behind as the softer limestone eroded. Similarly, the Flint Hills are shaped as they are due to the resistant nature of the chert and flint which erodes out of the limestone and blankets the hilltops serving to protect them from erosion. Dissimilar to these regions, the prominent features of the Chalk Buttes region were formed by excessive erosion rather than a lack thereof. The soft chalk beds of the Chalk Buttes formations have been rather rapidly weathered by wind and water erosion, making them some of the most striking and memorable landforms in Kansas.


Revised Kansas Physiographic Regions
image taken from Aber, 2007

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Chalk Buttes Physiographic region:

The Chalk Buttes physiographic region is located in north central Kansas, and is characterized by chalky sediment as well as the buttes and badlands landforms formed by the erosion of this sediment. This region has in the past been included in the Smoky Hill formation due to similar physiographic characteristics, but is now characterized as its own region. Chalk Buttes shares with the Smoky Hills and Blue Hills regions similar bedrock, surficial geology, relief, drainage, vegetation, and landuse but differs from these in the nature of landforms present as well as the presence of vertebrate marine fossils (Aber). Two of the most famous fossils extracted from this region are a 50 foot plesiosaur and 35 foot mosasaur. The existence of fossils such as these contributed to the naming of Monument Rocks as a National Natural Landmark (GeoKansas).

The Niobrara formation is visible on the surface at various locations throughout western Kansas, but nowhere as dramatically as at the Castle Rock and Monument Rocks formation sites in Gove County.

The Niobrara chalk formation was originally formed on the floor of an inland sea by the accumulation of microscopic marine flora and fauna, tens of meters thick, which acted to help preserve larger creatures that died and settled to the bottom of the sea (Kansas, 33). The chalk and chalky shale beds average 600 feet in thickness (Kansas, 46). The unique topography present at these locations today were originally carved by the ancestral Smoky Hill River and perpetuated and enhanced by wind and water erosion over the last 5 million years.

The Chalk Buttes region has been in a perpetual state of change for millions of years, but dramatic changes are evident even over the last 60 years. As evidenced by photographs taken of the same locations at different times, the soft nature of the Niobrara chalk and chalky shale are extremely vulnerable to wind and water erosion. Add to these stresses that exerted upon the formations by tourism and the long term outlook for the famous Castle Rock and Monument Rocks formations appear as bleak as that of the once impressive Cobra Rock. (Charlton & Merriam 2003)

Time series photography of Castle Rock

Castle Rock formation, taken in 1941. photo by H.T.U. Smith. taken from Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. vol.106 Number 1-2 Spring 2003. Charlton & Merriam.Ever changing landscape: Recent topographic landmark erosion in Kansas. p.34 figure 6.
Castle Rock formation, taken in 1997. Note the absense of the left tower top present in the 1941 photograph, as well as the top erosion of the shortest formation to the right. photo by Charlton. taken from Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. vol.106 Number 1-2 Spring 2003. Charlton & Merriam.Ever changing landscape: Recent topographic landmark erosion in Kansas. p.35 figure 7.
Castle Rock formation, taken in 2001. Both tower tops are now gone in this photograph. photo by Charlton. taken from Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. vol.106 Number 1-2 Spring 2003. Charlton & Merriam.Ever changing landscape: Recent topographic landmark erosion in Kansas. p.35 figure 8.
Time series photography of Cobra Rock
Cobra Rock formation, taken in 1993. photo by Charlton. taken from Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. vol.106 Number 1-2 Spring 2003. Charlton & Merriam.Ever changing landscape: Recent topographic landmark erosion in Kansas. p.36 figure 9.
Cobra Rock formation, taken in 2001. the formation has toppled and almost entirely eroded away in a period of only 8 years. photo by Charlton. taken from Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. vol.106 Number 1-2 Spring 2003. Charlton & Merriam.Ever changing landscape: Recent topographic landmark erosion in Kansas. p.36 figure 10.
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Methodology /Kite Aerial Photography of the Region:

The concept of Kite Aerial Photography (KAP) has been around since the 19th century. It was in fact the primary means of collecting aerial photography until the advent of powered flight in the early 20th century (Aber & Aber, 2002). The aerial photographs of this region was taken using a kite-mounted camera rig. The camera assembly was flown to approximately 150 meters using a camera-kite assembly discussed below.

High oblique wide angle aerial photograph of the Monument Rocks
image taken May 26, 2006 by J.S. Aber and used with permission.
Low oblique narrow angle aerial photograph of the the same formation as above
image taken May 26, 2006 by J.S. Aber and used with permission.
For the purposes of photographing Castle Rock and Monument Rocks, the camera used was a Canon S70. The camera is ideal for this because of its high 7-megapixel resolution, wide angle lens, and fast shutter speed (Aber & Aber, 2007). The camera is mounted in a remotely operated electronic assembly which consists of a titanium frame and electric motors capable of rotating the camera 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically. The whole unit including camera weighs 28 ounces (Aber & Aber, 2007). The action of the assembly is controlled from the ground using an electronic remote control.


Canon S70 digital camera assembly.
image taken from
Aber & Aber, 2007

For the purposes of collecting KAP, the camera assembly can be fastened to one of several rigid or soft kites, depending on wind conditions. The two kites most often utilized during the course of Field Geomorphology were the Sutton Flowform 16 and the rokkaku. The Flowform 16 is a soft kite which inflates in the shape of an air foil to cover a surface area of 16 square feet and is ideal for winds of 15-25 mph (Aber & Aber, 2004). This kite typically is flow with two 15 foot streamer tails for stability. The rokkaku on the other hand is a 7.5 by 6 foot diamond shaped rigid kite which covers an area of 36 square feet. The rokkaku is not meant to be flown in winds greater than 10 mph (Aber & Aber, 2004).


launching the rokkaku kite
image taken by author Sept. 29, 2007

The altitude of the kite is controlled from the ground using a Strato-spool(Aber & Aber 2004). This is a large wooden reel similar in mechanism to an old-fashioned fishing reel, except that the Strato-spool includes a 1 meter handle which can be propped against a hip or the ground for added leverage. The spool holds 1000 feet of line.


Strato-spool being operated by Paul Lewis.
image taken by author Oct. 26, 2007

An alternative platform for acquiring small format aerial photography in slight to windless conditions is to use a blimp. The blimp utilized by ESU is a 13 foot helium blimp. The blimp is made of a single layer of urethane for durability. It holds 240-250 cubic feet of helium and can carry a payload of approximately 7 lbs (Aber&Aber 2004). This blimp will fly in winds up to 10 mph, but is ideal for windless conditions.


(left) Helium blimp lifting off (right) Blimp viewed from below.
camera assembly visible tied beneath.
both images taken by author Oct. 26, 2007


Megan Flory, Tyler Ringler, and the author atop a formation
at Monument Rocks. image taken by, and used with permission of
James Whittington Sept. 30, 2007

References:

  • Aber, J.S., Aber, S. 2002. Great Plains Kite Aerial Photography. http://www.geospectra.net/kite/kaphome.htm
  • Aber, J.S., Aber, S. 2004. Kite Aerial Photography Equipment. http://www.geospectra.net/kite/equip/equip.htm
  • Aber, J. 2007 ES546 Project Summary. Kansas Physiographic Regions. http://academic.emporia.edu/aberjame/geomorph/project/summary.htm#project
  • Aber, J.S., Aber, S. 2007. Kite Aerial Photography Cameras and Rigs. http://www.geospectra.net/kite/equip/camera_rigs.htm
  • Charlton, J. 2003. Ever changing landscape: Recent topographic landmark erosion in Kansas. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. Vol. 106, no.12. p.29-39.
  • GeoKansas- Smoky Hills- Places to visit. Kansas Geologic Survey. 2005. http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Extension/smoky/places.html
  • Kansas Geology: An Introduction to Landscapes, Rocks, Minerals, and Fossils. Published for the Kansas Geologic Survey by the University Press of Kansas. 1984. Edited by: Rex Buchanan.
  • KGS Special Maps 2 & 3--Geologic Map of Kansas. Kansas Geologic Survey http://www.kgs.ku.edu/General/geolSheetMap.html

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