“It’s a Sicilian message. It means Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.” – Clemenza, The Godfather
Our story starts approximately 400 million years ago. Back then, Western New York wasn’t really western, it was more northern. And by northern I mean north – as opposed to west – of the east coast, which itself might have been more appropriately called the south coast. Oh, and another thing. We weren’t hanging at a cool 42º North latitude. We were closer to the equator. In fact, we were just south of the equator.1 To prevent further directional confusion, I will continue to refer to the geography in modern terms, not the way it actually was back then.
And we were totally under water – a shallow, but vast, inland sea of the pre-Pangean continent of Laurentia1,2 (the precursor to North America). This sea stretched from the Hudson Valley to the area that would eventually hold the Rocky mountains and from modern Ontario to Alabama.2 In fact, this period of time – the Devonian Period within the Paleozoic Era – is called “The Age of the Fishes.”1 Within 10-20 million years – 380-390 million years ago for those counting – Laurentia collided first with Avalonia1 and then with Baltica1,3, squeezing the Iapetus Ocean between them out of existence and forming the new continent of EurAmerica. In its wake, though, this collision – known as the Acadian orogeny – produced a large mountain range to the immediate east of Western New York.2
Now, if you’re a student of geology, then you’re sure to know the one underlying trait of most of these early mountain ranges: you can’t see them anymore. Why not? Because Nature, in her infinite wisdom, saw to it that these earthen behemoths eroded themselves into oblivion. But that’s not to say they haven’t left their DNA strewn across the country-side. In fact, much of the study of Devonian geology takes place right here in the Greater Western New York region. This is where those Acadian mountains left their fingerprint – in the form of the rocks beneath our feet and jutting through the various “rock cities” among us.
In the case of the Acadians, water erosion from the west side of those mountains brought down silt and small pebbles into a gigantic delta known as the “Catskill Delta.”5 This was no ordinary delta formed by a single river (like, for example, the Mississippi Delta), but a huge complex of deltas formed by many small rivers.2 The Acadian mountains spent the remainder of the Devonian period bleeding themselves into the delta. As a result, the shoreline moved from the Hudson Valley to Western New York over this time.2
As the sediment was deposited, the layers above crushed the layers below into various forms of rock. According to Nature’s Blog (“The Devonian Coast,” April 29, 2007), “…Western New York harbors one of the most extensive outcrops of Devonian rocks in North America.”6 It’s a tribute to the significance of Western New York geology that many types of rock from the Devonian period are named for the Western New York locales where they were first discovered. (Unfortunately, the period itself is named for the region in England where these rocks were first identified.)
The downside of all this geology, however, is the relative lack of biology. The less disturbed shallow sea in Pennsylvania found itself the graveyard of the exotic ferns and other plant life, while Western New York became a cemetery of marine life. The former meant Pennsylvania got most of the oil, although Western New York did get its fair share of natural gas. The latter meant Western New York received layers and layers of limestone, a key resource for, among other things, the processing of steel. Anyone traveling on I-90 just east of Buffalo will see two large open Limestone pits. Shallow salt-water seas also leave one other deposit as they evaporate – salt. As those in the Livingston County Town of Retsof – home of what was once the largest salt mine in North America and second largest in the world – can attest, Western New York residents have mined this resource for more than a century, much to the delight of winter road travelers everywhere.
Why? Salt, if you don’t know this already, lowers the freezing temperature of water, keeping winter roads slushy, but not icy. Of course, salt doesn’t lower the freezing temperature of water forever. In fact, once the temperature falls to 6º below zero (Fahrenheit), the salt molecules in the solution crystalize out, allowing the now-naked water to freeze.7 Since it would be an awful shame to see all that Mesozoic slat go wasted, it’s sort of a good thing winter temperatures rarely get that low around here. They do, but, thanks to the moderating influence of the Great Lakes, our average low winter temperature remains in the upper teens – that’s above zero for all you wise guys. And, speaking of wise guys, thanks to Western New York’s impersonation of Luca Brasi, its sleep beneath the salty sea during “The Age of the Fishes” yielded not just the rocks all around us, but the very salt we use today to help keep our winter drivers safer.
If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to sign up for the GreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out when the book is published this fall.
1 The Paleontology Portal, “the Devonian – 417 to 354 Million Years Ago” http://www.paleoportal.org/index.php?globalnav=time_space§ionnav=period&period_id=13
2 “Devonian Stratigraphy and Fossil Assemblages of WNY,” Dr. Jörg Maletz, Stratigraphy and Paleontology http://www.geology.buffalo.edu/contrib/people/faculty/gly216trip.htm
3 The Paleontological Research Institution and The Museum of the Earth, The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Geology of the Northeastern U.S., “Mountain Building Part III: the Acadian Mountains,” http://geology.teacherfriendlyguide.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=62&Itemid=82
4 “Geology of Chautauqua County, New York: Part I – Stratigraphy and Paleontology (Upper Devonian),” Irving H. Tesmer, New York State Museum and Science Service, Bulletin Number 391, The University of the State of New York, The State Education Department, Albany, N.Y., September, 1963, page 45, http://nysl.nysed.gov/Archimages/77617.PDF
5 “Understanding Late Devonian and Permian-Triassic Biotic and Climatic Events: Towards an Integrated Approach, edited by D.J. Over, J.R. Morrow and P.B. Wignall, 2005 Elsevier B.V. page 96 http://www.ohio.edu/people/stigall/PDFs/StigallRode_GARP_06_noappendix.pdf
6 The Devonian Coast, Nature’s Blog, April 29, 2007, http://naturesblog.blogspot.com/2007/04/devonian-coast.html
7 “Why does salt melt ice,” General Chemistry Online! http://antoine.frostburg.edu/chem/senese/101/solutions/faq/why-salt-melts-ice.shtml