07 December 2013

The Most Serene Republic (is made of dead fish parts)

San Marino, the third smallest country in Europe (after Vatican City and Monaco) is a little gem surrounded by Italy.

Now we, of course, went to San Marino to check off another country on our list in our ever present quest to beat Mike and Patrice to every country on Earth...but I also had another reason. Now that I am back at school I have found a new subject that fascinates me....Geology.

I know what you are thinking (maybe)..."but Chris, you are a History guy!"..as it turns out, I have an inner scientist busting to get out too. Last semester I took a Physical Geology course, and this semester I took a Historical Geology course, both fascinating. I guess it helps that Geology is very Historical, there are also lots of maps involved (and I do love maps), but I think the most interesting part is the sheer magnitude of the time periods involved. Its kind of hard to wrap your mind around.

So off we went to Africa.........what's that? You thought Italy was in Europe? AHA NO! Italy is actually on the African Plate of the giant jigsaw puzzle we call the Earth's crust. Many years ago, 200 million or so, the African Plate moved northwards and slammed into Europe. Of course when I say slammed I am talking about movement of less than an inch a year, but you get the idea. Italy was not only part of Africa, it was underwater. The resulting continental collision, or orogeny, is what formed the Alps and in fact formed many of the mountains in Southern Europe and Southern Asia. As the continents pushed together, one of the plates had to dive under the other, increasing volcanic as well as seismic activity, and started the process of pushing up mountains.

Another set of mountains in Italy are the Apennines. They basically run from North to South straight down Italy forming a geological spine. These mountains were formed much later, about 20 million years ago as new faults had opened up on both sides of Italy in the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas.

The activity of these faults and the compressional stress from different plates in Italy being pushed together is what basically formed mountains in the middle and folded/crumpled the terrain across much of Italy. Now you know why Italy has not only significant seismic activity in the form of Earthquakes, but also why it has Volcanoes. Anytime you have plates diving under each other the resulting subduction zone makes volcanoes possible.

So this pushing up and folding of the crust, combined with increased volcanic activity and molten rock being pushed around inevitably led to some pretty impressive scenery.

Today when you go to North Central Italy, you see the same rolling valleys Tuscany and other parts of Italy are famous for, but when you realize it is actually crumpled up seafloor it really is amazing. How long did THAT take? The giant rock formations, like Mount Titano in San Marino, are made of limestone.

When sea creatures die, their shells and/or parts of their skeletons fall to the seafloor. Over the course of time, vast amounts of time, billions and billions of tiny organisms contribute the calcium carbonate and other minerals from their bodies to an ever growing sediment on the bottom of the ocean. If enough piles up and conditions are right, eventually it gets compressed (and more compressed, and more compressed, and more compressed) until it is limestone. Ok so how many gabillions of organisms and how much time do you think it took to make this?


When you think of Italy, you may think of marble. Marble statues, temples, etc etc? You know where Marble comes from? Thats what happens to Limestone when IT gets compressed (and compressed, and compressed etc)....how long does THAT take!

We had a great trip to San Marino. We enjoyed the great views from the top of Mt. Titano overlooking the Adriatic. One restaurant we had dinner at was tucked right into the rock on the side of the mountain. I was sitting on a ledge that 100 million years ago was a thousand feet below the surface of the sea and the rock was actually made from the skeletons of long dead sea creatures. Pretty freakin cool.

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