Rocks and Ridges - The Geology of Virginia

Geology helps to explain why hikers can see a vista of mountains from the top of Dragon's Tooth near Roanoke, why the Chesapeake Bay Bridge has two tunnels... and why the western part of the state is mountainous but the eastern part of Virginia is flat.

Obviously, Virginia is on the eastern edge of the North American continent - but we are not on the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate. Virginia is closer to the middle of the tectonic plate than to the eastern edge. The eastern edge of the tectonic plate is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The western edge is the San Andreas fault on the California coast.

There are constant earthquakes on the edges of the plate, where rock is oozing up to the surface (in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge) or rubbing against other plates (in California). Since Virginia is near the center, friction against other plates is minimal here - that's the main reason Virginias feel so few earthquakes.

"Few" is more than zero, of course. If you were in Northern Virginia during the afternoon of August 23, 2011, you felt a 10-20 second rumbling from a 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered near Mineral, Virginia. Items fell from bookshelves, cracks appeared in the Washington Monument, the nuclear reactors at North Anna were shut down, and many buildings in Washington DC and Richmond were evacuated.

number/magnitude of earthquakes on east vs. west coasts
number/magnitude of earthquakes on east vs. west coasts
Source: US Geological Survey Seismicity of the United States

Virginia wasn't always where it is today. Plate tectonics theory says we're moving west towards Japan at perhaps one inch (2.3cm or 23mm) per year. Different parts of North America are moving at different rates, and in slightly different directions. According to the UNAVACO Plate Motion Calculator, the Fairfax campus of George Mason University is moving at 14.49mm/year (1.5cm/year), heading north at 1.68mm/year and west at 14.39mm/year.1

That is roughly the rate at which the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is spreading - and, coincidentally, the rate at which our hair and fingernails grow. When you get a haircut, the length of your hair that is cut equals the distance we have travelled towards Asia.

Measured in English units, one inch per year is almost a foot per decade, or roughly three yards each century. Since the Godspeed, Discovery, and Susan Constant first arrived in 1607, Jamestown has moved about 10 yards westward with continental drift - the length of a first down in an American football game.

Since the first immigrants from Asia walked into Virginia (or maybe they rowed/sailed from southwestern France?) about 12-18,000 years ago, Virginia has drifted about the length of a football field. In the last million years, Virginia has moved 15 miles to the west through continental drift.

onshore topography and offshore bathymetry of Virginia
onshore topography and offshore bathymetry of Virginia
- note the wide Continental Shelf (light blue), the narrow Continental Slope further offshore,
and the wider Abyssal Plain (deep blue) extending eastward towards the Mid-Atlantic Ridge
Source: NOAA's National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) - ETOPO1 1 Arc-Minute Global Relief Model:

view from Dragon's Tooth The topography of Virginia was formed through a series of continental collisions that created vast mountain ranges in Virginia. The ancestral Appalachian Mountains - east of the current Blue Ridge, roughly where I-95 is located today - may have been 20,000 feet high, 200 million years ago.2

The collisions that created tall mountain ranges in Virginia were followed by erosion that has etched away those mountains. The eroded sediments have created the flat Appalachian Plateau west of Virginia, and the flat Coastal Plain east of I-95. The shorelines of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast have changed as the mountains washed away and as sea level has changed.

Virginia is not as flat as a pancake today, despite 200 million years of rain and wind and gravity. Some ridges have resisted erosion, but the key reason we have ridges today is recent uplift. Tectonic forces squeeze the North American Plate as it moves, and the deeply-buried "roots" of the ancient Appalachians continue to float upward as erosion has lowered the weight of the surface above them.

To understand why there are individual ridges in some places and valleys in others, it helps to know the history of those collisions. Since the locations of towns, highways, even soccer fields is determined in part by the geology of Virginia, it helps to understand the bedrock and the topography if you want to understand the people and the culture of the state. (Could we have mountain music or "mountain dew" - moonshine whisky - without mountains?)

The links below provide an overview of Virginia's rocks and ridges. For the solidly-scientific perspective, see The Geology of Virginia from William and Mary, and The Geological Evolution of Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic Region from James Madison University.

Using Cereal Bowls and Car Crashes to Understand Virginia Geology

"Once Upon a Time..." (The Story of the Rocks in Northern Virginia)

Tectonic History of Northern Virginia

And for more detail:

Barrier Islands

Blue Ridge Mountains

The Chesapeake Bay "Bolide" That Shaped the Groundwater in Southeastern Virginia

Building Stones of Virginia

Caves and Springs in Virginia

Chesapeake Bay Geology and Sea Level Rise

Coal in Virginia

Dinosaurs in Virginia

Earthquakes in Virginia

Fall Line

Glaciers and Ice Ages in Virginia

Minerals in Virginia

Mountain Lake

Native Americans - the
First Geologists in Virginia

Natural Bridge

Natural Gas Resources in Virginia

Oil Resources in Virginia

Physiographic Regions of Virginia

Radon in Virginia

Rain Shadows - The Orographic Effect

Role of the Blue Ridge

Topography and Coal Railroads

Topography of Virginia

Triassic Basins of Virginia

Tsunamis in Virginia

Tuscarora/Clinch/Massanutten Sandstone

Uranium in Virginia

Virginia Iron in the Colonial Era

Volcanoes in Virginia

Waterfalls of Virginia

Which Way Do the Rivers Run?

Wind Gaps and Stream Piracy


topography of Eastern United States
topography of Eastern United States
Source: National Atlas

Vulcan Quarry, surrounded by suburbia west of Manassas
Vulcan Quarry, surrounded by suburbia west of Manassas
Source: National Agriculture Imagery Program, Manassas National Battlefield Park DOQ

Williams Ordinary, historic colonial-era structure in Dumfries with Aquia sandstone quoins and brick walls
Williams Ordinary, historic colonial-era structure in Dumfries
with Aquia sandstone quoins on the corners to accent the brick walls


1. Plate Tectonics, Pacific Northwest Seismic Institute,; George Mason University - Fairfax Campus coordinates 384956N 0771829W from Geographic Names Information System, US Geological Survey,; "Plate Motion Calculator," UNAVCO consortium, (last checked April 26, 2013)
2. National Park Service, "Shenandoah National Park Geologic Resource Management Issues," p.10, (last checked September 1, 2011)

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