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In This Section:
Africa to Florida | The Big Picture | Florida 250 million years...

From Africa to Florida

Sea Levels

Florida started out as part of Africa, back when Africa was part of Gondwana -- a continent that shifted and broke up into Africa and South America during the Paleozoic era (600 to 230 million years ago). Geologists have found similar sets of fossils and similar rock layers deep underneath both Florida and West Africa. They have found evidence that basement rocks in Florida and in West Africa were affected by the same major geological event about 550 million years ago.

These basement rocks are now called the Florida Block, and they are the deepest parts of what we call Florida. The Florida Block parted company from Africa's ancestor mega-continent, Pangaea, during the Triassic period (181 to 230 million years ago). Gradually, the Florida Block moved north across the Equator until it butted up against the southeastern tip of North America, where it has stayed ever since.

The top of the Florida Block is about three-quarters of a mile (1.2 km) below the eastern Panhandle's land surface and continues downward to the bottom edge of the earth's crust. Although we don't know the exact extent of the block, its northern edge is up in Georgia. Its southern, eastern, and western edges probably extend beyond the edges of the Florida Platform, a flat, U-shaped plate that sits on top of the Florida Block.

The Florida Platform supports Florida as we know it. Its boundaries are the edges of the modern continental shelf. The Florida Platform is about 300 miles wide and 450 miles long and is constructed mostly of the bodies of miniscule marine creatures. For millions and millions and more millions of years, as untold numbers of these creatures died, their remains -- primarily carbon (in the form of carbonate) -- sank to the sea floor and eventually were compressed into rock by the great weight of more zillions of their descendants as they, in turn, fell to the bottom of the sea. Imagine how many little animals lived and died and piled up and up and up to create the Florida Platform -- a 135,000-square-mile pedestal that dips down as far as 3,000 feet below sea level! You could count the stars as easily.

Right now, there's more of the Florida Platform under water than above it, which is why waters off most of Florida's shore are shallow for a long way out from land. At today's sea level, about half the platform is submerged.

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The Big Picture

In the couple hundred million years since Florida merged with North America, sea levels have risen and fallen, risen and fallen, over and over, each time changing the shape and nature of Florida. When sea levels were low, the exposed sea floor became land, and some of the surface was dissolved by rain or carried off by streams. When sea levels covered the land again, new layers of sediments accumulated. And so the cycle went on for tens of millions of years.

Where ancient oceans ate away the seaward edge of the uplands, they left behind a line of cliffs, called escarpments (scarps, for short), that are now miles inland from today's shore. Wind played its part, too, sculpting sands into dunes that are now far from any beach. Ridges and uplands that are now high and dry were shaped by currents that carried away the soils at the edges of those old shallow oceans.

These old coastlines are most evident in a series of terraces, step-like surfaces of erosion representing shorelines developed by advances and retreats of the sea during the Pleistocene Epoch. One of the state's best examples of terracing is found on the eastern and southern borders of Gadsden County, along the Ochlockonee River. The elevation changes quickly (at least, for Florida), and geologists have found five steps, or terraces, each associated with a different range of elevations above sea level.

But the layers beneath our feet are not stacked like pages in a book, one on top of another, in a tidy sequence. Instead, they dip and rise, get thicker and thinner, and come and go. Geologists study the rocks in samples that well-drilling rigs bring to the surface. They identify the sequence of layers of different kinds of rock in the samples, and then do the same thing in other wells. By charting the changes in the depth to similar layers in different samples, geologists map the spatial relationships between the various layers. Geologists call these layers "formations." Different geologists may group these sequences differently, and these categories can change as more samples are collected.

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Florida -- 250 Million years in the making

KEY
mya = million years ago
ERAS (also called Systems) are in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS
Periods are in bold italics
Epochs are in italics


MESOZOIC ERA
(248 to 65 mya)
    Triassic (248 to 206 mya)
    The Florida Platform's deepest rocks are still part of West Africa

    Jurassic (206 to 144 mya)
    Continents separate
    Sediments on top of the platform's carbonate base begin to accumulate -- and are still accumulating now!

    Cretaceous (144 to 65 mya) The Apalachicola Embayment, a gigantic shallow bay where most of the Apalachicola Region is now, developed some time before the beginning of the Cenozoic era. A channel filled with seawater, called the Suwannee Straits, connected the embayment on the south and the area to the north where Savannah, Georgia, is now. Currents in the channel isolated most of Florida from the rest of the North American continent.
CENOZOIC ERA
(65 mya to today)

A shallow sea covered Florida through the early Cenozoic. A mixture of carbonate and continental sediments was deposited in the Panhandle. By the mid-Cenozoic (see Oligocene, below), the Suwannee Straits had filled with sediment, leaving only a subsurface remnant called the Gulf Trough. Because the quartz sands that eroded from the Appalachian mountains were no longer washed out to sea via the Suwannee Straits, they were carried southward into peninsular Florida. These bits of mountain were carried in by streams and distributed by marine waves and currents.

Smokies
The Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Appalachian range (photo courtesy National Park Service)

    Tertiary (65 to 1.8 mya)

      Paleocene (65 to 54.8 mya)
      The sediments that form modern Florida's aquifer systems began to build up during the late Paleocene and continued to collect until the late Pleistocene (less than 100,000 years ago). Our major water-supply formations were 55 million years in the making!

      Eocene (54.8 to 33.7 mya)
      Carbonate deposition once again predominated in the Panhandle in the Late Eocene (40 million years ago) and continued through the late Oligocene (24 million years ago, approximately). Porous rocks containing the Floridan Aquifer system are made of these carbonate sediments.

      Oligocene (33.7 to 23.8 mya)
      During the Late Oligocene to Early Miocene, the old Appalachian Mountains rose again, providing a fresh supply of quartz sands and clays (called siliclastics) carried by rivers to points south. The Suwannee Straits and Apalachicola Embayment were filled up with these siliclastics. More silicilastics flooded southward until they covered nearly the entire Florida Platform.

      Miocene (23.8 to 5.3 mya)
      Sediments that became the intermediate aquifer system and the layers that confine it, as well as the surficial aquifer system (more familiarly known as the water table), formed between 24 million years ago and the present.

      Pliocene (5.3 to 1.8 mya)
      High sea levels flooded most of Florida. Siliclastics were deposited all the way south to the Florida Keys. Sediment layers totaling some 300 feet thick filled the Apalachicola Embayment.

    Quaternary (1.8 mya to today)

      Pleistocene (1.8 mya to 10,000 years ago)
      Glaciers in the northern reaches of the continent hoarded so much sea water that sea levels dropped considerably. Even though the glaciers never reached Florida, their effects were certainly felt, as a lot of the Florida Platform's surface was exposed. (Rupert and Lane, 1992)

      Holocene (10,000 years ago to today)
      Sea level returned to present level, our modern streams and springs formed, and people entered Florida for the first time.

Sources:

Scott, T.M. 1992. A geological overview of Florida. Open File Report No. 50. Florida Geological Survey, Tallahassee.

Scott. T.M. 1997. Miocene to Holocene history of Florida. Pp. 57-67 in Randazzo, A.F., and D.S. Jones (eds.). The geology of Florida. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

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This page was last modified on : 03/07/2005

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