Thursday, November 30, 2023

Geology in Pop Culture - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

 Geology in Pop Culture: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

When I started preparing my talk for the 2023 annual Geological Society of America conference (Finding Hidden Geological Lessons in the Media Around Us), I knew that I wanted to talk about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It is a movie that had been on my radar to write about for many years and I figured it would be a fairly easy one to throw into the talk. However, when I started to do my regular research into it, fascinating things started to pop up and I figured as part of my talk, I would give the audience a walk through of my process. And that is what I will do here as well....

When we first are introduced to the eponymous dwarfs of the movie, we discover them as workers in a mine. 

The dwarfs working in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

And it turns out they have vocal talent as well, but that's besides the point. To start my research I needed to verify what it was that they were actually digging for. I assumed it was diamonds but I could not recall if it was ever stated as such.  

As the lyrics of their song state: "where a million diamonds shine". So clearly this is a diamond mine, as I was led to believe. 

From here there are several avenues that one can take while looking at this. I first wanted to confirm my suspicions, not just about the diamonds, which we just did, but also about the placement of the story. Another assumption of mine that I wanted to confirm, was whether Snow White was German. The story was written by the German writing pair, the Brothers Grimm, in 1812 as Sneewittchen, indicating that she was likely German. And while this doesn't mean that the Disney version of the character is also German, you can currently meet Snow White in Germany at EPCOT, pretty much confirming that Snow White is German (at least in the eyes of Disney).

Step 1: The original inspiration
But let us bring this back even further. What was the original inspiration for the character. Was she actually German? Did she live in a mining town? And if she did, did they mine diamonds?

The True Story Behind Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs article from Curious Historian

It is thought that the real life inspiration to the character of Snow White was Margarete von Waldeck, born to a prominent family in Waldeck, Germany in 1533. Many aspects of her life line up with the fairy tale per the article, but the most important one was that the town of Waldeck was a mining town. The only problem was that the mine was a copper mine, not a diamond mine. And those are two very different things in geology. So although the mine might still have sparkled with the light reflecting off the metal deposits, it is not a diamond mine. 

So we move on. 

Step 2: The Source for Diamonds
Although the real life Snow White didn't live near a diamond mine, we still assume that the character of Snow White is German and lived near a German diamond mine, if such a thing exists. So let us look at real life diamond mine localities. 

There are several ways that diamonds can form, and therefore there are several different types of deposits that they can be found in, but by far the most common types of deposits are known as kimberlites. 

Kimberlite model. Image courtesy of the Kansas Geological Survey

Kimberlites are the result of magma from deep in the Earth's mantle that gets erupted on the surface in a rapid and violent type of eruption. Deep in the mantle is where the pressures are high enough for diamonds to form, which typically happens at 150 to 700 km deep in the Earth. The diamonds are then carried upwards in these kimberlite eruptions, where they can then be found on the surface of the Earth.

Global kimberlite localities. From Tappe et al., 2018.

 However, there is a problem when we look at the global distribution of kimberlite deposits.

Blow up of European kimberlite deposits. From Tappe et al., 2018.

There are no kimberlite deposits in mainland Europe. So unless Snow White was Scandinavian or Russian, we are at a dead-end here as well.

Step 3: Alternative Diamond Sources

And this is where the story takes an interesting turn. During my research for diamonds in Germany, I did come across one fascinating story. It turns out that 15 million years ago the town of Nördlingen, Germany was struck by a meteorite. 

Norlingen, Germany. Image courtesy of The Travel.

Known as the Nördlinger Ries impact crater, the asteroid that struck the Earth was going at least 70,000 km/h forming an impact crater 25 km across and 500 m deep. When meteorites strike the surface of the Earth, they do so with tremendous speed, creating very high pressures. The pressures produced from this impact were large enough that they could potentially create diamonds, if the rock they are impacting has the proper carbon concentration (carbon being the element that diamonds are made out of). 

The Nördlinger Ries impact crater. Image courtesy of Digital Geology

The rocks in the area of Nördlingen were mostly sedimentary rocks (limestones, shales, and sandstones) however there is also a significant amount of graphite-bearing gneissic rocks. Graphite is another mineral that is entirely made up of carbon and is often the source mineral for artificial diamond creations. The impact of the Nördlinger Ries meteorite was then able to transformed the graphite in these source rocks into tons and tons of microscopic diamonds. 

Article highlighting all of the diamonds from the Nordlingen impact. Image courtesy of The Travel

On average the diamonds produced from the impact were less than 0.2 mm, however the total amount of diamonds is estimated to be 72,000 tons! That's a lot of diamonds. So it is my theory that Snow White and the seven dwarfs lived near the Nördlingen impact crater and mined the diamonds from a meteorite impact. 


Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Geology in Pop Culture - The Rescuers Down Under

 Geology in Pop Culture

Released in 1990, The Rescuers Down Under continues the escapades started in 1977's The Rescuers. However, in this adventure our favorite mice, Bernard and Bianca, travel down to the Australian outback (not the steakhouse). Here, they find that the villain of the story, the poacher Percival C. McLeach has kidnapped a boy, Cody, while hiding out in some abandoned opal mines.


So what exactly is opal anyway?

Different types of Australian opal varieties. Image courtesy of BlackOpal Direct

Opal (SiO2.H2O) is a mineral that forms from the packed spheres of silica (SiO2), also known as the mineral quartz. Opal is a hydrated form of silica where water has been shown to include between 3 and 9% of the total mineral structure. Unlike many minerals, because of how it is formed, opal is amorphous, or without form. This means that there is no crystal structure or cleavage that is seen in most other minerals. Opal forms through the processes of solidification of gelatinous or liquid silica within cracks and voids of other rocks. 

Since the opals are created by spheres of silica and water, the size of the sphere's dictates the colors that are produced. These colors are refracted through the opal like a prism, with larger spheres yielding red or orange, and smaller ones radiating blue. However, this is only the case with precious opals, the more gem quality ones. Most opals, ~95%, are referred to as common opals. These are opals that do not have the "play-of-color" expected in opals as seen in the image above. Although still beautiful, they are harder to identify than the precious opals. 

Location of Australian Opal Mines. Image courtesy of Opals Down Under

Despite being found around the world, it turns out that ~95% of the world's supply of precious opals comes from Australia. The opals started to form during the Cretaceous period when there was a large inland sea across Australia. During this time silica rich sands were deposited along the shorelines, then 30 million years ago, during the Tertiary, deep weathering of these sediments within the Australian Artesian Basin released large amounts of soluble silica into the groundwater. This silica traveled into the cracks and fissures in the Cretaceous age rocks where it was stopped by an impermeable layer below. Staying in the cracks and fissures, the opal deposits formed veins, often trapping fossils that also happen to be in the sedimentary rocks such as leaves, dinosaurs, small mammals, and marine reptiles such as Eric the Pliosaur

Eric the opalized pliosaur. Image courtesy of Opal Auctions

Most of the opal mines in Australia are a type known as open-cut. This means that they basically dig down to the source of the deposit, in this case opal, and clear out anything above it, forming a quarry or pit. This limits the dangers of enclosed mine spaces, allows you to find smaller deposits easier, is much faster with heavy machinery, but is also much, MUCH, more damaging to the environment, destroying literally everything to get to the deposits. 

In The Rescuers Down Under though, they are clearly not in an open-cut mine, they are underground mines. There are some underground opal mines that are found within Australia. One of these locations is the town of Mintabie, found near the north-central portion of the South Australian state. And although they did use open-pit mining in Mintabie, they also had quite a number of underground mines as seen in the picture below.

Mintabie Opal Mines. Image courtesy of Opal Auctions

What makes Mintabie interesting is that the mining heyday here was in the 1980's. Even though opals had been know from here since the 1920's, production increased starting in 1976 with the addition of mining equipment able to break through the hard sandstone. During the 1980's, production here was the largest in all of Australia with a peak during 1988. However, after 1988, production quickly declined resulting in lots of abandoned opal mines. 

Warning sign in The Rescuers Down Under

This timing of the opal mines being abandoned during the late 1980's correlates strongly with The Rescuers Down Under, which would have been starting to be in production probably ~1988. Seeing these abandoned opal mines pop up all over the place would have been a good impetus to a setting for their movie. 

Monday, November 27, 2023

Geology of the National Parks in Pictures - New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

My next post about the Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures is from my undergraduate years when we traveled the national parks during spring break.  

You can find more Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures as well as my Geological State Symbols Across America series at my website


New River Gorge National Park & Preserve

Another park that is within the Appalachian Mountains, the New River Gorge has a similar geological history as other nearby parks like Shenandoah National Park to the east and the Great Smoky Mountains to the south. It also traverses some of the same rock types as the Gauley River National Recreation Area a short distance to the north, however since the New River Gorge is much larger and deeper than the Gauley River valley, the rocks exposed are slightly older (although they also overlap). 

The New River Gorge cuts through Carboniferous Age deposits from the Upper Mississippian age Bluefield Formation (~325 million years old) up through the Middle Pennsylvanian Allegheny Formation (~312 million years old). 

Geology of the New River Gorge National Park & Preserve. Map courtesy of the NPS

The different formations are groups of rocks made up of members that were deposited in similar environments. Although the water levels fluctuate up and down during this time interval, overall North America is moving towards Africa in this time period as the Iapetus Ocean was closing up towards the east. Eventually North America will meet up with Africa to form the supercontinent Pangea, but we haven't gotten there yet when these rocks were deposited.

Geological map units for the New River Gorge National Park & Preserve. Courtesy of the NPS

The rock units here, as well as at Gauley River NRA, dip towards northwest in a direction that essentially follows the course of the river. One of the oldest formations, the Hinton Formation, was deposited along the coast, with both marine and freshwater deposits represented. It is made up of shales and siltstones, with lesser amounts of sandstones and limestones. It gets up to 1,000 feet thick within the gorge. 

Geologic Profile of the New River Gorge. Image courtesy of WVGES

Above the Hinton Formation, the Bluestone Formation is what is known as a regressive sequence, where the sea level slowly went downwards until there is a paleosol (ancient soil) deposited before the Pocahontas Formation starts to be deposited. The paleosol represents an unconformity, which is a buried erosional surface, and signifies the transition from the Mississippian to the Pennsylvanian. Above the Pocahontas Formation is the New River Formation, which is partially seen at the Gauley River NRA. This again represents a coastal environment and the last coastal environment deposited within the region.

The New River itself is often designated the "second oldest river in the world," however this is difficult thing to actually determine. We know that the oldest rocks that the New River erodes through are ~310 million years old, so the river must be younger than that. 

It is also estimated that the river is at least 3 million years old based on glacial evidence that the New River follows the same course as the pre-glacial Teays River a river that used to flow towards the northwest and eventually was the ancestor to the lower reaches of the Illinois River. The Teays River, and eventually the New River, is the only river to cut across the Appalachian Mountains. This is because it predated the mountains and was able to cut down through them as they were lifted up, much like the Colorado River cutting out the Grand Canyon or the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Estimates for the age of the New River therefore fluctuate between 3 and 310 million years, quite a variance.  

Along the New River Gorge, with the steep sided cliffs due to the abundance of sandstone deposits forming ledges, there are a number of picturesque waterfalls. I believe this is Cathedral Falls, which starts far above me in the picture, tumbling over the New River Formation's Upper Nuttall Sandstone. 

But while there are some of the largest waterfalls in West Virginia within the New River Gorge, there are also smaller waterfalls, that flow down many of the shale deposits along the gorge's depth. 


Thursday, November 23, 2023

Geology of the National Parks in Pictures - Gauley River National Recreation Area

My next post about the Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures is from my undergraduate years when we traveled the national parks during spring break.  

You can find more Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures as well as my Geological State Symbols Across America series at my website


The first couple of national parks that my future wife and I visited were in West Virginia, hence the reason I don't have many geologically themed photographs. Gauley River National Recreation Area is located within the Appalachian Mountains, much like Shenandoah National Park to the east and the Great Smoky Mountains to the south, so the geological formation of the region would follow a similar path.

Looking downstream the Gauley River from the Summersville dam

The Gauley River flows from east to west across West Virginia until it eventually meets up with the New River. Within the Gauley River NRA, the river cuts through Lower Pennsylvanian (~320 million years old) New River Formation rocks, specifically the Upper Nuttall Sandstone and some undifferentiated deposits below the Upper Nuttall and above the Upper Raleigh Sandstone. 

Bedrock Geologic Map of the Gauley River NRA. Image courtesy of the NPS

The Upper Nuttall Sandstone, along with the rest of the New River Formation, was deposited along the western coastal edge of the Iapetus Ocean as Pangea was slowing being formed and North America and Africa were barreling towards each other. The sandstone deposits themselves represent the beach/barrier island complex of the region. The sandstone layers are mixed with shale layers that are intermingled with several coal seams. These coal seams represent areas where lagoons formed when the barrier islands were located further to the east, allowing abundant live to thrive in a swamp-like environment. The New River Formation is the final gasp of coastal deposits in the area as the ocean fully closed up shortly after this.   

Summersville Dam

The Summersville Dam, seen here, is actually located just upstream of the National Park boundary along the Gauley River, however because of that it has a tremendous impact on the water flow through the park. Dam's have historically not been the best for the environment, completely disrupting the traditional flow of water, sediment, and wildlife that thrives in such an environment. However the construction of such dams also provide a much needed service for the people that live in the region. The construction of the Summersville Dam helps control flooding that was destroying nearby communities as well as provide a renewable source of energy through their hydroelectric plant.  

Also, interesting item of note, dams are typically named after the nearest town, however the nearest town was called "Gad" and it was agreed upon that the second closest town's name would be used instead. 


Monday, November 20, 2023

Geology of the National Parks in Pictures - Shenandoah National Park

My next post about the Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures is from my undergraduate years when we traveled the national parks during spring break.  

You can find more Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures as well as my Geological State Symbols Across America series at my website


Much like the Great Smoky Mountains to the south, Shenandoah is formed by a small part of the Appalachian Mountains. 

The Appalachian Mountains are an amazing mountain belt because you can easily see the geology any time you pull up an aerial image of the region (like in Google Earth).

Google Earth aerial imagery of the central eastern US

The flow of the mountains from central Pennsylvania through western Virginia (where Shenandoah is located) to eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina is a perfect visual for the impact that produced them when North America collided with Africa. However, there are some events that took place before the Appalachian Mountains were formed. 

Granodiorites of the Pedlar Formation at the Hazel Mountain Overlook

As was the case for the Great Smoky Mountains, the oldest rocks within Shenandoah National Park are about 1.1 billion years old. These rocks formed during what is known as the Grenville Event and are known in the park as the Old Rag Granite and a gneiss called the Pedlar Formation (pictured above), The Grenville Event was the mountain building event (orogeny) which occurred during the formation of the Rodinia Supercontinent.  

Geological map of Shenandoah National Park. Full size available on the USGS website.

The Pedlar Formation and the Old Rag Granite make up the majority of the outcrops through the central portion of the park.

Big Meadows

As Rodinia started to split apart, or rift, lava poured out, forming the Catoctin Formation which is made up primarily of a metamorphosed basalt known as greenstone. The rifting continued until there was an ocean separating North America from Africa, much like today. This ocean is known to geologists as the Iapetus Ocean. Because of the hardness of the Catoctin Formation and its location within the park, many of the waterfalls are formed flowing over this formation. Big Meadows, as seen in the picture above, is located right atop 1,800 feet thick deposits of the Catoctin Formation. Along the edge of Big Meadows is Dark Hollow Falls, which drains the meadows as it falls over the Catoctin Formation. 

Erosion of the Grenville Mountains produced sediments that were deposited within the Iapetus Ocean, forming the rocks that would later make up much of the Appalachian Mountains. These include Cambrian and Ordovician age limestones, sandstones, and mudstones. Then around 470 million years ago, during the Ordovician, the continents took an about face and started to head towards one another again. 

Geologic map of the eastern US. Image courtesy of

This eventually ended when North America plowed into Africa creating Pangea, the next in the supercontinent line. This collision uplifted the Appalachian mountains and created the great mountain imagery as we can see in the aerial and geological map above. Around 200 million years ago, in the Jurassic, Pangea started to break apart, creating the Atlantic ocean as well as eventually putting the continents in the configuration as we know them today. During the breakup, several Jurassic age dikes, volcanic intrusions, were formed and can also be seen in various locations within the park. Over time the Appalachian Mountains had slowly eroded to shadows of their former glories but the former grandeur of of them can still be glimpsed in the aerial imagery.