Snowdon is the highest mountain in Wales and an extinct volcano. The summit is easily accessible on foot, by train or you can practice your mountaineering skills there – as apparently did Sir Edmund Hillary to train for the ascent of Mt Everest. I walked it; mountaineering is not one of my skills.
Snowdon is well worth a visit as it is in a national nature reserve for rare flora and fauna.
Wales has had a marked influence on geology. Early geologists defined periods based on the names of Welsh villages. “Ordovician” is named after a Celtic tribe, the Ordovices.
Snowdon formed during the Ordovician period. It is comprised of tuff with sedimentary rocks and igneous intrusions, folded into a syncline. Around 450 ma, a caldera formed, producing ash flows of rhyolitic tuff deposits up to 500 metres (1,600 ft) thick. The current summit at 1,085 metres (3,560 ft) is near the northern edge of the caldera.
Much of Wales was under water in the Ordivician period. Wales was in a back arc basin between a subduction zone and in front of the Midland Platform. The basin had both submarine and sub aerial volcanoes. While I have focussed on the volcanic activity, there was a lot of sedimentary activity occurring as well so igneous and sedimentary rocks often form consecutive layers.
England and Wales were part of the Avalonia micro plate; Scotland was then sited on the Laurentia plate and did not join England and Wales until much later during the Caledonian Orogeny. In the early Ordovician period, Avalonia was a volcanic arc on the northern edge of Gondwana where the Iapetus ocean crust subducted under the Gondwana plate. As the Iapetus Ocean closed, Avalonia broke off from Gondwana and moved northward to eventually meet the Laurentia and Baltica plates.
The collision of the plates resulted in the Caledonian Orogeny around 490 ma to 390 ma, the building of a chain of mountains which stretched from the Appalachians, through Snowdonia and the Lake District to Norway.
For Avalonia, volcanism of the Tremadoc era, c. 510 ma, was island arc, whereas the subsequent volcanism of the Llanvirn and Caradoc eras was characteristic of a back arc environment. Wales, itself, was the site of a back arc basin with voluminous calc-alkaline basaltic and rhyolitic volcanic activity which ended with the meeting of the three terranes in the late Ordovician. Acidic lavas were produced by subduction and basaltic lavas were produced by thinning of the crust of the back arc basin.
Early volcanic activity in the Tremadoc was sub aerial, followed by a period of submarine activity in the Caradoc and sub aerial again in the Ashgill.
The Snowdon Volcanic Corridor
The Snowdon volcanic corridor was built in two phases: the Llewelyn volcanic group and the Snowdon volcanic group. These are separated by sedimentary rocks.
The Llewelyn group had five main formations: Conway – rhyolite and ash flow lavas; Foel Fras – andesitic lava and tuffs; Foel Grach – basaltic – andesitic lava; Braich Tu Du – acidic ash flow and rhyolitic tuff; and, the Capel Curig – formation of both sub aerial and submarine acidic ash flow and tuffs.
The Snowdon Volcanic Group had three centres: Llwyd Mawr – an emerging volcanic island that produced acid ash flow tuffs that were partially contained in a subsiding caldera; Snowdon, itself; and, Crafnant –deep water acidic submarine tuffs. Snowdon evolved as initial ash flow tuffs from a series of fissures south east of the volcano. The caldera subsided as more ash was erupted. This was followed by pumice and rhyolite. Ash flow tuffs were partially contained by the caldera.
Basaltic rocks also occur alongside acidic: both intrusive and extrusive basalts are found and also hyaloclastites. The sequence is acidic followed by basaltic and then a final rhyolitic phase.
At the end of the Caradoc, most volcanic activity ceased, although there were some minor eruptions later in the region. Successive orogeny episodes led to mineralisation of the faults in the region and further uplift. There are no rocks in the area that are younger than the Triassic period. Any that might have been deposited have since been eroded. Glaciation during the Cenozaic Ice Age and subsequent erosion from wind and rain formed the current landscape, revealing the underlying geology of Snowdonia.
“British Regional Geology Wales”, M F Howells, British Geological Survey, 2007
“Geology of Snowdonia”, Matthew Bennett, The Crowood Press, 2007.