What Lies Beneath: Exploring the Geology of Western New York


Rocks and minerals have exciting biographies – born in fire, carried down mountains by flowing water, crushed by glaciers and oceans, compressed, and twisted and melted again into new and exciting forms!

Rocks are everywhere, and people today, just as in the past, use them for a wide variety of purposes from constructing architecture to works of art. They are the filaments in our light bulbs and the insulation in our homes. They provide us with shelter and even food, as well as a multitude of objects that make our lives easier and more enjoyable.

Here in western New York, the ground beneath our feet is ancient, some layers having formed over 440 million years ago during the Paleozoic Era! Scientists developed the Geologic Time Scale as a visual representation for identifying different periods of time in earth’s development, according to the different layers and formations of rocks and the forms of life that have appeared and disappeared.

From the late Ordovician through the Middle Silurian Periods, a shallow sea lay in the Appalachian Basin covering much of what is now western and central New York. The record of this marine environment can be seen in the rocks of the Niagara Escarpment. Notable marine deposits include the Bertie Formation, which outcrops in the Amherst and Williamsville area and contains some of North America’s best-preserved eurypterid fossils; an ancient and extinct group of lobster-like arthropods known to have grown as long as six feet!

The bedrock of the Erie and Ontario Lowlands and the Allegheny Plateau consist of horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks, composed of sandstones, conglomerates, and shales deposited during the late Paleozoic Era. The Hamilton Group contains several trilobite-rich beds in Hamburg and along Eighteen Mile Creek. The Olean Conglomerate was formed by the collision of the African and North American continents which forced up the Appalachian Mountains. Our area’s more recent sediments are terrestrial deposits from the Pleistocene (1.2 mya) and the Holocene (11 kya or 11,000 years ago) Epochs. These more recent deposits record a large freshwater glacial lake, Lake Warren, and its associated beach front that reaches from the Akron area and stretches southwesterly to Fredonia. Genesee County is home to the Hiscock Site, excavated over several decades by the staff of the Buffalo Museum of Science and yielding over a dozen nearly complete mastodon remains and other remnants of life from the last Ice Age.

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