Montana Earth Science Picture of the Week

White Cliffs of the Missouri
Painting Courtesy of Monte Dolack

May of 1805 . . .
Monte Dolack's painting depicts the Lewis and Clark expedition near the place where Eagle Creek empties into the Missouri (about 30 miles east of Ft. Benton). The "White Cliffs" shown in the painting owe their existence to sand deposited near the shore of a shallow sea that extended from the Artic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Called the "Western Interior Seaway", the sea existed from about 90 million years ago until about 70 million years ago.

When Dinosaurs Wandered the Area . . .
Apparently the shallow Western Interior Seaway experienced changes, which caused it to shrink and expand. These resulted in fluctuating depths and migrating coastlines. As rivers laden with sand, silt and clay emptied into this sea, the larger pieces (sands) would have settled to the bottom first. So, when the Eagle Creek area was at or near the coast, sands were deposited here as beaches and/or offshore sand bars. The smaller sediments (clays, silts) would not have settled right away, instead settling to the bottom of the sea in deeper waters farther away from the coast.

Same Layer, Different Location . . .
The same formation (layer) can be seen in Billings where it is known as the "Rimrocks". Geologists have named the layer (or series of layers) the Eagle Formation after the Eagle Creek area depicted in the painting.

When the coast was located farther to the west, the sea would have been somewhat deeper here. As a result of this deeper environment, this would have been a time when smaller particles such as silts, and clays were deposited here. Those materials make up the layer known as the Marias River Shale shown in the smaller photo of the Eagle Creek area below as well as on the painting. To see why alternating layers of sandstone and shale might be present, watch this animation. Be sure to watch both parts of the animation. To see 40 photos from a trip through the White Cliffs (Coal Banks to Judith Landing; 3 days - 2 nights) in October 2012, CLICK HERE .

Mountain Building (and the subsequent erosion) to the west of here provided an abundant source for the sands, silts, and clays deposited in this part of central Montana. The rock layers seen along the river tilt gently to the east, so as travelers move downriver (eastward), they see increasingly younger rock layers along the river. Below: This photo, taken about 25 miles downriver from the one above, shows the Eagle sandstone beneath the younger Claggett shale. The shale is made of finer sediments, which were deposited when this area was deeper and farther from the shore. (Photo by Jim Schulz) Even farther downriver, the Eagle sandstone is below the surface so it cannot be seen along the river.

Term: fluctuating

Interested in learning more about this area? . . .
Take a look at a book titled, "Magnificent Journey: A Geologic River Trip with Lewis and Clark through the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument" by Otto Schumacher and Lee Woodward.


Impressive Photos of the White Cliffs Area on Someone's Blog Site
*More about the geology of the White Cliffs Area
Many More Montana Earth Science Pictures

By Rod Benson
Earth Science Teacher at Helena High School

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