Natural Resources Information and Mapping Center

Geologic Site of the Month - May

Penobscot Bay 10,000 Years Ago

A submarine canyon was the ancestral Penobscot River valley.


The coast of Maine is ever-changing. Even our primary reference point, sea level, is gradually moving. Though barely perceptible on a human time scale, dramatic changes are happening over geologic time.

The Modern Penobscot Bay

Today, Penobscot Bay is a spectacular and elaborate collection of waterways, coves, and islands. The bay has two main channels: the East and West Passages. These passages connect the Penobscot River to the Gulf of Maine and are divided by several bedrock islands. In the northern part of Penobscot Bay, the island of Islesboro splits the bay in two sections. South and east of Islesboro the bay is divided by North Haven and Vinalhaven Islands. The East Passage is to the east of these two islands and west of Isle au Haut and Deer Isle. The East Passage is shallower than the West Passage.

Southeast of Rockland, through the West Passage, there is a deep canyon on the sea floor. The bathymetry (depth) of the canyon is shown on conventional nautical charts and also on preliminary bathymetric maps by the National Ocean Service. This canyon is over 500 feet (150 meters) deep at one spot between Owls Head and Vinalhaven Island. The Maine Geological Survey has included the preliminary bathymetry on Geologic Map No. 96-10 of the Surficial Geology of the Maine Inner Continental Shelf, Boothbay Harbor to North Haven, Maine.

As part of the Penobscot Bay Project, Dr. Chris Elvidge and others at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Geophysical Data Center generated a combined bathymetric and topographic map of the region (using a 3 arc-second grid or 90 m horizontal resolution). A portion of this map (shown above) shows the canyon at the mouth of the West Passage. There are two arms to the canyon. The deeper and longer canyon extends to the southeast of Owls Head (the peninsula east of Rockland) and south of Vinalhaven Island.

The Paleogeography of Penobscot Bay

The last ice age had a profound effect on the coast of Maine. At its maximum extent about 20,000 years ago, the ice covered all of New England and most of the Gulf of Maine. Under the weight of the ice the earth's crust sank down into the mantle.

Isostatic uplift of coastal Maine occurred as the great ice sheet melted. Upward motion of the land resulted in a relative fall of sea level along the Maine coast. Several studies have suggested that sea level fell as far as about 180 feet (55 m) below its present level between about 11,000 and 10,000 C-14 years ago (Barnhardt et al., 1995). Coincidentally, this time marks the beginning of the Holocene epoch of geologic time, the current interglacial period of earth history. During the low stand of sea level the coast of Maine would have had a very different shoreline shape and coastal geography (paleogeography).
To illustrate the extreme difference in appearance of Penobscot Bay at the beginning of the Holocene, the bathymetric data were used to trace a generalized shoreline at a time when sea level was 165 ft (50 m) lower than it is today. This reconstruction of the former coastline shows the importance of the deep canyon in the West Passage. This canyon served as the channel of the Penobscot River in the early Holocene. In fact, the river consisted of a large bay east of Rockland and then a narrow gorge-like channel that curved east to enter the ocean at a location about seven nautical miles (nm; 1 nm is 1.15 statute miles or 1.85 km) south of the modern-day town of Vinalhaven.

In the early Holocene, Matinicus Island was part of the mainland. Back then, the “island” would have been a mountain top, “Mt. Matinicus.” Other peaks would include Mt. Ragged, Mt. Metinic, and the Large and Little Green “Peaks.” Vinalhaven and North Haven Islands would have been joined and part of a mainland peninsula extending south all the way from Castine and Cape Rosier. About 10 nautical miles upstream of the ancestral Penobscot River mouth there was a large, protected bay just east of Rockland. This bay was probably estuarine and mixed by tidal currents, much like the modern Great Bay near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The bay was about 10 nautical miles long from north to south and some 3 to 4 nautical miles wide. The present Rockland Harbor waterfront was about 2.5 nautical miles inland from the bay.

This paleogeographic reconstruction of the early Holocene Penobscot Bay is just an example to illustrate how very different the coast of Maine was 10,000 years ago, during the Paleoindian period. As the Gulf of Maine continues to rise, the sea will transgress over the mainland and slowly, but surely, continue to change the shape of the Maine coast in years to come. 

Additional WWW Links

More on the history of changing sea level

Sea-Level Trends Today

An overview of the Penobscot Bay Marine Resource Collaborative

Applications of Remote Sensing and Geographical Information Systems for Marine Resource Management in Penobscot Bay, Maine

Nautical Charts

Metric Bathymetric Maps from the National Ocean Service

NOAA/National Geophysical Data Center

Sources of Additional Information on Penobscot Bay Sediments and Sea-Level History

Barnhardt, Walter A., 1994, Late Quaternary relative sea-level change and evolution of the Maine inner continental shelf, 12-7 ka B.P.: Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maine, Orono, Maine, 207 p.

Barnhardt, Walter. A., Gehrels, W. Roland, Belknap, Daniel F., and Kelley, Joseph T., 1995, Late Quaternary relative sea-level change in the western Gulf of Maine: Evidence for a migrating glacial forebulge: Geology, v. 23, no. 4, p. 317-320.

Belknap, Daniel F., Andersen, Bjorn G., Anderson, R. Scott, Anderson, Walter G., Borns, Harold W., Jr., Jacobson, George W., Kelley, Joseph T., Shipp, R. Craig, Smith, David C., Stuckenrath, Robert, Jr., Thompson, Woodrow W., and Tyler, David A., 1987, Late Quaternary sea-level changes in Maine, in Nummedal, Dag, Pilkey, Orrin H., and Howard, James D. (editors), Sea level fluctuation and coastal evolution: Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Special Publication 41, p. 71-85.

Folger, David W., 1972, Texture and organic carbon content of bottom sediments in some estuaries of the United States, in Nelson, Bruce W. (editor), Environmental framework of coastal plain estuaries: Geological Society of America, Memoir 133, p. 391-408.

Johnson, Anne C., 1987, Chronic marine pollution; a Maine case study, in Magoon, Orville T., Converse, Hugh, Miner, Dallas, Tobin, L. Thomas, Clark, Delores, and Domurat, George W. (editors), Coastal zone '87: Proceedings of the Symposium on Coastal and Ocean Management, American Society of Civil Engineers, 5 volumes (v. 3), p. 2332-2336.

Johnson, Anne C., Larsen, Peter F., Gadbois, Donald F., and Humason, A. W., 1985, The distribution of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the surficial sediments of Penobscot Bay (Maine, USA) in relation to possible sources and to other sites worldwide: Marine Environmental Research, v. 15, no. 1, p. 1-16.

Kelley, Joseph T. and Belknap, Daniel F., 1989, Geomorphology and sedimentary framework of Penobscot Bay and adjacent inner continental shelf: Maine Geological Survey (Department of Conservation), Open-File Report 89-3, 35 p.

Kelley, Joseph T., Belknap, Daniel F., Shipp, R. Craig, and Miller, Sarah B., 1989, An investigation of neotectonic activity in coastal Maine by seismic reflection methods, in Anderson, Walter A., and Borns, Harold W., Jr. (editors), Neotectonics of Maine: studies in seismicity, crustal warping, and sea level change: Maine Geological Survey (Department of Conservation), Bulletin 40, p. 157-204.

Knebel, Harley J., 1986, Holocene depositional history of a large glaciated estuary, Penobscot Bay, Maine: Marine Geology, v. 73, nos. 3-4, p. 215-236.

Knebel, Harley J., 1987, Map and diagrams showing the distribution, thickness, and textural characteristics of Holocene sediments, Penobscot Bay, Maine: U. S. Geological Survey, Miscellaneous Field Studies Map, MF-1899, 1 sheet.

Knebel, Harley J., and Scanlon, Kathryn M., 1985, Maps showing sea-floor topography, depth to bedrock, and sediment thickness, Penobscot Bay, Maine: U. S. Geological Survey, Miscellaneous Field Studies Map, MF-1751, 2 sheets.

Knebel, Harley J. and Scanlon, Kathryn M., 1985, Sedimentary framework of Penobscot Bay, Maine: Marine Geology, v. 65, nos. 3-4, p. 305-324.

Larsen, Peter F., Gadbois, Donald F., and Johnson, Anne C., 1984, Sediment PCB distribution in the Penobscot Bay region of the Gulf of Maine: Marine Pollution Bulletin, v. 15, no. 1, p. 34-35.

Ostericher, Charles J., 1965, Bottom and sub-bottom investigations of Penobscot Bay, Maine, 1959: U. S. Naval Oceanographic Office, Technical Report 173, 177 p.

Scanlon, Kathryn M. and Knebel, Harley J., 1989, Pockmarks in the floor of Penobscot Bay, Maine: Geo-Marine Letters, v. 9, no. 1, p. 53-58.

Shepard, Francis Parker, 1930, Fundian faults or Fundian glaciers: Geological Society of America, Bulletin, v. 41, no. 4, p. 659-674, 13 Figures.

Shipp, R. Craig, Belknap, Daniel F., and Kelley, Joseph T., 1991, Seismic stratigraphic and geomorphic evidence for a post-glacial sea-level lowstand in the northern Gulf of Maine: Jour. Coastal Research, v. 7, p. 341-364. 

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Last updated on 5-11-99