The painful history of the Sõrve Peninsula, Saaremaa, Estonia

July 6th, 2011

KURESSAARE, ESTONIA–This country has had the historical misfortune to lie between the Russians to the east and the Germans to the west with all their imperial ambitions in the last few centuries. The terrain is deeply glaciated and thus has few natural defenses beyond thick forests, extensive bogs, and rocky coastlines. It has been occupied by Crusaders, Swedes and Polish-Lithuanians besides the multiple incursions of Germans and Russians. The 20th Century has been especially painful for Estonians.

Yesterday the Wooster Geology Estonia team worked near Kaugatuma on the proximal end of the Sõrve Peninsula on the southwestern tip of Saaremaa Island (see the images above). We then traveled south down the full length of the peninsula to Sääre. We visited a small, eccentric military museum and learned much about the history of this region. I think this strip of land is emblematic of the recent historical travails of Estonians — and thousands of Russians and Germans as well.

This is a panoramic image looking from the top of an old Russian gun emplacement looking south to the end of the Sõrve Peninsula at the village of Sääre. For a larger view of this panorama, please visit the Sõrve Peninsula Wikipedia page. This peninsula, by the way, has only been connected to Saaremaa for about 2500 years. It and the other eastern Baltic islands are still rising from the sea as a consequence of post-glacial isostatic rebound.

On the left Rachel and Nick explore a massive concrete gun emplacement near Sääre. These were built by Imperial Russians to house the 12-inch guns shown on the right in a museum image. These guns commanded the western entrance to the Gulf of Riga. They were captured by the German Army in October 1917. Note that this was a World War I battle.

The Soviets occupied and annexed Estonia in 1940 following the secret protocols of the earlier Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Nazi Germany declared war on the Soviet Union in June 1941, and in October turned its attention to conquering the Baltic islands. In November 1944, the Soviets returned and re-invaded Estonia and its islands. Some of the fiercest fighting took place in the Sõrve Peninsula in both invasions, as can be seen in the above maps photographed at the Kuressaare Castle Museum of Saaremaa. Note the November 1944 Russian amphibious landing at Kaugatuma. You can see why the Sõrve Peninsula has a significant number of landmines still remaining in the undeveloped forests. (Since 1999 there have been at least 77 casualties from landmines and unexploded ordnance in Estonia.)

A Soviet artillery observation post (from the 315th Coast Guard Battery) disguised as a windmill. A nearby gun emplacement was connected to it through an underground bunker. The complex was captured by the Germans in the 1941 invasion. At the time, of course, there were far fewer trees.

Foxholes dug by defending German troops on top of Kaugatuma Cliff in November 1944. As you can see from the map above, the Soviet amphibious landing was successful. On November 24th, against a direct order from Adolf Hitler, the Germans evacuated the Sõrve Peninsula and thus the last part of Estonia they held. The Soviets reported that up to 7000 German soldiers had been killed on Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, and Muhu islands during their offensive.

Nick holds the rusted remains of a World War II artillery shell found near Sääre.

The museum we visited was filled with objects collected from the World War I and World War II battlefields on the Sõrve Peninsula. This shelf of bullet-riddled German helmets was particularly poignant. There was a similar shelf of Soviet helmets.

This is the text of a monument we found in the woods on the way to Sääre. It is the only such memorial I’ve seen here in all three languages of the combatants. (I could not find a way of editing out my own ghostly reflection.)

Without the old trenches, bunkers and decaying concrete fortifications, it would be hard to believe such violent events happened on these quiet islands. The occupations by the Nazis and Soviets had their own much more ghastly horrors as well, including mass executions, deportations and concentration camps. It is over now, though, and we can freely wander these beautiful shores and absorb ourselves in the arcane details of Silurian paleoecology while enjoying the flowers, butterflies and very friendly Estonian people. Here’s to peace and the vigilance to maintain it.

Return to a Silurian crinoid forest

July 5th, 2011

KURESSAARE, ESTONIA–Today our Wooster Geology team visited a favorite outcrop of mine: the Äigu Beds of the Kaugatuma Formation exposed on the northwestern shore of the Sõrve Peninsula on Saaremaa. These are Late Silurian (Pridoli) limestones with a great abundance of crinoid fragments — so many that they are locally called “ringstones” (see the above image of a crinoid stem and isolated ring-like columnals). Palmer Shonk (’10) studied this outcrop for his Independent Study thesis. We returned here today to collect more field data so that Palmer, Olev Vinn, Bill Ausich and I can write a professional paper on the depositional system and paleoecology.

The limestones show significant storm beds made of skeletal debris, especially the crinoids but also corals, stromatoporoids, bryozoans, brachiopods and trilobites. The most remarkable aspect of this exposure is the presence of an in situ crinoid “forest” of holdfasts (the part of the crinoid that holds it to the sediment). Our job today was to find out more about the non-crinoid fauna since Palmer and I have already mapped out the crinoid holdfasts. We hope to soon publish a rare look at a Silurian crinoid community essentially preserved in place.

The Kaugatuma outcrop on the Sõrve Peninsula of Saaremaa. This was a Russian amphibious landing zone in 1944. You can bet you’ll read more about that story later!

The star-shaped fossil with the hole in the center is a crinoid holdfast in place at Kaugatuma. There are dozens of these scattered across the outcrop. The crinoid is Enallocrinus. The hole in the center is the hollow lumen of the crinoid stem.

Nick found this calyx of another crinoid known as Eucalyptocrinites. Such well preserved calices are rare.

Nick also found this very nice trilobite pygidium (tail piece). It is preserved well enough that we can probably later identify it to the genus level.

Back to the Big Island for the Fourth of July

July 4th, 2011

KURESSAARE, SAAREMAA, ESTONIA–The Wooster Geologists Estonia Team today braved the Baltic Sea again and took a ferry from the island of Hiiumaa to return to their previous field sites on the island of Saaremaa. We worked at Soeginina Cliff on the western coast (shown above) to finish up Nick Fedorchuk’s Independent Study field research on the Wenlock-Ludlow (Silurian) erosional sequence. It was a fun day because we now have hypotheses to test about these rocks and fossils. More on those later.

The above rock shows an advantage we have studying exposures on rocky coastlines. The waves erode blocks of limestone from the cliff and polish them up on the boulder-strewn beach. We can thus see our rocks in three dimensions rather than just the flat cross-section we would normally have. The trick, though, is to know from where in the section the boulders were derived!

We found some excellent sections through the numerous oncoids in our outcrops as well. We saw that many are formed around gastropod (snail) shells — very much like a Jurassic version I recently described as one of Wooster’s Fossils of the Week.

Tonight we will celebrate the 4th of July with a pizza dinner in downtown Kuressaare. It is as close to American food as we can get here. On this holiday we salute the Wooster Geologists Iceland Team also far from home on the front lines of science!

Saying goodbye to the little island of Hiiumaa

July 3rd, 2011

KÄINA, ESTONIA–Today we had our last visit to our Silurian quarry working site (where I photographed the Paleofavosites coral fossil above, which by the way was preserved upside-down in the sequence), and then we had lunch in the town of Kärdla overlooking the Baltic. Tomorrow we take the early morning ferry back to the larger island of Saaremaa where we resume fieldwork. Here are a few last photographs from Hiiumaa.

The other Silurian outcrop on the island: Kallaste Cliff. A bit overgrown, we think.

Some purple flowers found in the woods near our field site.

Yellow flowers in the quarry itself. I do know the one on the left is a daisy!

Whitish flowers and then a moth-covered thistle. I photographed this Six-Spot Burnet moth earlier, but three on one flower deserved another image. I'm sparing you the photos of them mating!

Our hotel on Hiiumaa. For most nights we were the only ones there. The students said it reminded them of "The Shining".

A walk to the sea after lunch in Kärdla. We have enjoyed this weather very much.

Tiny bit of wildlife on Hiiumaa

July 1st, 2011

KÄINA, ESTONIA–This is a shout-out to our Wooster Geology colleagues currently working on the barren volcanic island of Iceland. We thought they might want a break from the bleak expanses of black basalt for a little color of wildlife from Estonia. The creature above, of course, is a grasshopper we found in our quarry today.

This colorful moth seems to specialize in the nectar of a common thistle here. It is a Six-Spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae).

A native bee on a daisy.

And delicious wild strawberries every day!

Quarry time on Hiiumaa

July 1st, 2011

KÄINA, ESTONIA–Rachel, Nick and I worked today in our lonely quarry on Hiiumaa measuring and describing this section of Lower Silurian (Llandovery, Rhuddanian) rocks and fossils. This is the fieldwork for Rachel’s Senior Independent Study.

One of the dilemmas is the nature of the lower interbedded limestones and shales. In places they show gently sloping beds and curved tops as here. Does this indicate some sort of mud mound or bioherm? Or is it a function of slumping in the quarry itself? (I'm leaning toward the latter.)

The fossils here are excellent, including corals and bryozoans. (Just because I could I expanded the image of the mite!)

A second new Senior Independent Study project begins in Estonia

June 30th, 2011

KÄINA, ESTONIA–Today we moved our geological investigations from Saaremaa to the island to the north: Hiiumaa. Our friend Olev Vinn of Tartu University then led us to an abandoned quarry in the Hilliste Formation (Lower Silurian). This made Rachel Matt very happy as it is the place she has been studying as the potential site for her Senior Independent Study project. First, it is not filled with water; second, it is easy to get to; third and most important, it has a diverse mix of fossils and rocks crying out for her attention. She is shown above in front of what looks like an ancient mud mound.

The rocks and fossils are so good that the students quickly accumulated a pile of cool specimens. I had to stop them from picking up fossils because we’ve not even started to sort out the stratigraphy. A good sign!

Our friend Bill Ausich at Ohio State University will be pleased to hear that there is much crinoid debris, as shown here in this image. It is a calyx plate in the center, with stem fragments around it. Hiiumaa is the island on the Euro to the right of the top star.

There is much I can’t identify here, at least not immediately. Another good sign!

The only thing that I don’t like is that we’re on yet another island, and this one smaller than the last. So much water around so little land, and no way off except by these little ferries. Our car is the brown one in the front on the right. I’ll endure for science!

A few of the wildflowers on the alvars of Saaremaa Island, Estonia

June 30th, 2011

KURESSAARE, ESTONIA–We have gotten to know the western coastline of Saaremaa very well and would like to simply share some of the gorgeous flowers found there. All of these grow in alvars, which are environments on limestone bedrock with thin and nutrient poor soils. They often dry out completely in the summer, so they tend to host endemic species well adapted to these specific conditions and generally out-competed elsewhere.
Saaremaa is especially blessed with plant diversity. There are 1200 species of vascular plants on the island, about 80% of all the vascular plant species in Estonia. About 10% of these species are rare and protected

I don’t have any identifications for these flowers. They are here for their beauty and as a break from all the rocks!

A little something for igneous petrologists

June 29th, 2011

Like a lonely little onion in a petunia patch, a boulder of red granite sits on the cobblestone beach off Soeginina Cliff, western Saaremaa, Estonia.

KURESSAARE, ESTONIA–Hard-rock geologists sometimes complain that I flood this blog with too many sedimentary rocks and fossils (and just wait until I get to the Estonian wildflowers!). There are actually quite a few igneous and metamorphic rocks on Estonia — just like there are in Ohio — in the Pleistocene glacial till. They show up well on the beaches here in contrast to the sedimentary rocks around them.

A closer view of the above rock, just to show it really is granite.

Granite in action! A granitic vein through some unfortunate rock.

Saaremaa Silurian stromatolites studied

June 29th, 2011

KURESSAARE, ESTONIA–Our fieldwork today at the Soeginina Cliff locality ended with an examination of a sequence of stromatolites near the top of the exposed Ludlow section. Stromatolites are layers of sediment accumulated by photosynthetic cyanobacteria. They are the earliest fossils known, some 3.5 billion years old, and these structures are still being formed today. Bacteria were present at the beginning and no doubt will be the only surviving life at the end.

In the image above, the stromatolitic portion of the outcrop begins at Nick’s upraised arm and goes almost to the top of the exposure. It is a complicated story because they seem to be sitting on an erosional surface cut into the dolomite underneath. There are also patches of what appears to be gravel under some of the stromatolite domes. A dolomitic sand fills the spaces between the stromatolite heads. Stromatolites can tell us a lot about the paleoenvironment of this area during the Silurian.

Closer view of the stromatolites at Soeginina Cliff.

Top view of the Soeginina stromatolites showing the fine layering produced by cyanobacteria. (Note the clever use for scale of a Euro with the map of Estonia on it. You can easily pick out the island of Saaremaa!)

I don’t usually come across stromatolites in my work. The last time I saw a few was with Matthew James on a great field trip to British Columbia. Part of the joy of supervising student research is that I must learn alongside them!

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