Geology of Hong Kong

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The Geology of Hong Kong is dominated by igneous rocks (including granitic rocks and volcanic rocks) formed during a major volcanic eruption period in the Mesozoic. It made up 85% of Hong Kong's land surface. The remaining 1% are mostly sedimentary rocks formed by deposition of sediments located in northeast New Territories of Hong Kong. There are also a very small percentage (about 5%) of metamorphic rocks found in New Territories. These are formed by deformation of pre-existing sedimentary rocks which changed the mineral assemblages in the rock (metamorphism).[1]

The Geological history of Hong Kong started as early as Devonian period (~420 million years old) which was determined by the discovery of Placoderm (a Devonian fish) fossils in northeast Hong Kong.[2][3] The youngest rock in Hong Kong from Paleogene (~50 million years old) is exposed in Tung Ping Chau,[4][5] an island in the northeastern corner of Hong Kong.

The three types of rocks: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks all formed spectacular geological landscapes in Hong Kong. Igneous rocks formed the famous hexagonal columns in Sai Kung and most of the hills in Hong Kong. Sedimentary rocks formed various erosion features such as wave-cut platforms and sea stacks in Tung Ping Chau.[4] Metamorphic rocks formed the iron ore site in Ma On Shan which was a mining site in the past. Each of these will be introduced in later sections.

In terms of structural geology, faults in Hong Kong are mainly running from the northeast to the southwest of Hong Kong. Deformation features such as sheared rocks, folds and faulted rocks can be found near the faults. Past fault activities are recorded by some structures such as the Lantau dyke swarm, deformed caldera, etc.[6] (See more on "Faulting" section)

[Fig.1] Geological map of Hong Kong showing the distribution of faults and different rock types in Hong Kong. Modified from Civil Engineering Development Department, HKSAR.[7]

Geological Evolution[edit]

Geological history of Hong Kong is mainly divided into three periods. From Devonian to early Jurassic is a pre-volcanic sedimentary period. Environment of Hong Kong alternated between river plain and shallow sea. Rocks of this period are characterized by a variety of fossils and deformation features. Later, from middle Jurassic to early Cretaceous, Hong Kong experienced a volcanic period. It is marked by the massive coverage of volcanic lava, ash, and granitic rocks around Hong Kong. From middle Cretaceous onward, it is a post-volcanic sedimentary period. It is represented by reddish terrestrial sedimentary rocks. The reddish colour indicates an arid tropical climate during the period.

Major rock units in Hong Kong are shown by chronological order in the table below.

Geological Stratigraphy of Hong Kong
Period Representative Formations Dominant rock types Deposition environment Notes
Devonian (ca. 416 - 359 million years old) Bluff Head formation Brownish folded sandstone River channels the oldest rock in Hong Kong, age determined by Placoderm fossils
Carboniferous (ca. 359 - 299 million years old) Yuen Long formation white or greyish marble marine metamorphosed in Mesozoic volcanic period, formed iron ore in Ma On Shan mine
Lok Ma Chau formation metasandstones and siltstone graphite beds deltaic swamps metamorphosed in Mesozoic volcanic period
Permian (ca. 299 - 252 million years old) Tolo Harbour formation siltstone, sandstone, conglomerate tidal shore oldest ammonoid fossils in Hong Kong
Triassic (ca. 252 - 201 million years old) missing N/A N/A
Jurassic (ca. 201 - 145 million years old) Tolo Channel formation black mudstone, grey siltstone shallow marine
Tuen Mun formation Andesitic lava and crystal tuff breccia volcanic arc Volcanic period started here.
Tsuen Wan Volcanic Group coarse ash crystal tuff back-arc volcano covered a large area in New Territories
Lantau Volcanic Group rhyolite with larger crystals (porphoritic) back-arc volcano related to Lantau caldera and dyke swarm, covered most of Lantau island
Cretaceous (ca. 145 - 66 million years old) Mount Davis formation coarse ash crystal tuff back-arc volcano related to Kowloon granite
High Island formation fine ash tuff back-arc volcano formed hexagonal columnar joint
Kau Sai Chau Volcanic Group lapilli bearing tuff with rhyolitic bands back-arc volcano Volcanic period ended here
Pat Sin Leng formation reddish conglomerate and ash bearing sandstone river plain volcanic ashes mixed with depositions, the red colour showed an arid climate
Port Island formation reddish conglomerate and sandstone river plain
Paleogene (ca. 66 - 23 million years old) Ping Chau formation calcium carbonate bearing siltstones lake Sea stacks and wave-cut platforms on Ping Chau formation

Igneous rocks[edit]

Geology of Hong Kong is dominated by igneous rocks. They are rocks related to volcanic eruptions. During middle Jurassic to early Cretaceous period, Hong Kong was right at the convergent plate boundary where the Paleo-Pacific oceanic plate subducted beneath the Eurasian continental plate.[8] The oceanic plate carried sea water into the hotter lower crust, which lowered the melting point of the crust. The crust was therefore partially melted and magma was formed. The less dense magma rose and formed a magma chamber beneath the crust. Volcanoes are formed above the magma. When these volcanoes erupted, ashes, pieces of rocks, and some magma were expelled out. Magma became lava when they reached the earth surface. These materials eventually cooled down and became volcanic rocks.They cooled down quickly once they reached the earth surface. Therefore, mineral crystals in volcanic rocks are very small and hardly seen.

Volcanic rocks are widely distributed in Hong Kong (green areas in Fig.1). They formed most of the highest mountains in Hong Kong, such as Tai Mo Shan (957m, the highest mountain in Hong Kong) and Lantau Peak (934m, the second highest mountain in Hong Kong).[1] In the eastern part of Hong Kong, these volcanic rocks formed the spectacular hexagonal columns, which can be seen on the coast near High Island reservoir and islands nearby such as the ninepin group and Ung Kong group. These areas were listed in the UNESCO Global Geopark of Hong Kong.

Until early Cretaceous (about 140 million years ago), the subduction zone moved away from Hong Kong. Volcanic activities stopped. The hot magma in the magma chamber eventually cooled down and became granitic rocks. As magma was cooled slowly in the magma chamber below ground surface, mineral crystals are large enough to be seen.

Granitic rocks cover about 35% of Hong Kong land surface (red area in fig.1). They are mainly distributed in Kowloon, north Hong Kong Island, east Lantau, and Tuen Mun.[7]

Sai Kung Hexagonal columnar cooling joints[edit]

Hexagonal columnar cooling joints at East Dam of High Island Reservoir

Hexagonal columns, also called hexagonal columar joints, are parallel vertical cracks that are formed when volcanic materials cool down and contract. In early Cretaceous period, there was a volcano centred right at the sea east of the Sai Kung peninsula. During the final eruption of the volcano, the magma chamber was emptied and the eruption was explosive. The volcano lost support in its inner, collapsed and became a caldera with diameter of about 20-km. The large amount of volcanic ash produced in this eruption settled in the caldera and formed a thick layer of hot ash.[9] As the hot ash eventually cooled down, each column contracted inward towards a centre, forming hexagonal shaped cracks. The top part of the columns cooled down first and formed the cracks first, then the cracks developed downwards, creating the prismatic hexagonal pillars.[10]

Hexagonal columns in Hong Kong are distributed along the coast near High Island in Sai Kung, and on nearby dispersed islands. The total number of columns are estimated to be 200 000, covering 100 square kilometers. Diameter of the columns ranges from 1 to 3 meters. Most of the columns are tilted and are dipping towards northwest at about 80 degrees. Some columns such as those on the East dam of High Island reservoir, are curved by tectonic force.[11]

The hexagonal columns in Hong Kong are light brown to white in colour, reflecting its silica-rich chemistry. It contains about 76% silica.[9] Most of the columns in the world are basaltic or andesitic (low silica), such large, regular in shape and well-preserved silica-rich columns are rare.[11] The hexagonal columns in Hong Kong are therefore very important for geological studies and were chosen to be the logo representing the UNESCO Global Geopark of Hong Kong in 2011.

Diagram showing the formation process of the columnar joints in Sai Kung

Tsing Shan (Castle Peak) granite and landslides[edit]

Tsing Shan is notorious for its low vegatation coverage and landslides. This is related to the heavily weathered granitic rocks covering Tsing Shan. Weathered granitic rock often form loose surfaces that is hard for plants to grow. Tsing Shan is therefore also called a badland in geography. The surface of Tsing Shan is therefore unstable and vulnerable to landslides. Several major landslides happened in Tsing Shan in past decades. From 1990 to 2000, there were at least 3 major landslides (1990, 1992, 2000) occurred that caused destructions.[12] For example, in 2000, debris flow from Tsing Shan reached a housing estate (Leung King estate) and blocked road access to the estate.[13]

Lion Rock and Kowloon granite[edit]

Lion rock viewed from Kowloon

Lion rock is located on the north of Kowloon peninsula. Its appearance resembles a laid down lion looking over major urban areas around Victoria Harbour. It is often used as a city symbol and a distinctive landmark representing Hong Kong. The Lion Rock is part of the Kowloon granite that covers Kowloon, Victoria Harbour and northern Hong Kong Island. Much of the Kowloon granite is already weathered away, forming flat land on Kowloon Peninsula, the north part of Hong Kong Island and the famous Victoria Harbour, where Hong Kong started developments as a trading port and eventually a metropolitan. To the north of Kowloon, granite formed the Lion Rock, and various hills lining up along the northern boundary of Kowloon.[14]

The Kowloon granite exhibits a circular shape covering the Victoria Harbour, and is surrounded by volcanic rocks. The strike orientations of these volcanic rocks were changed such that they are surrounding the circular Kowloon granite. During early Cretaceous, a ball shaped magma rose. It pushed and deformed the surrounding volcanic rocks outwards and formed the interesting orientations of its surround volcanic rocks.

circular shaped granitic rock (marked by dashed lines) is surrounded by deformed volcanic rocks with interesting strikes that resembles the shape of the granite. The red symbols are dip strike symbols.

Sedimentary rocks[edit]

Sedimentary rocks cover around 15% of Hong Kong land surface.[7] They are formed by deposition of sediments such as sand, mud, skeletons of marine species and pebbles, etc. As more and more sediments were deposited in layers, older layers are compressed by weight of younger layers above, eventually hardened and become sedimentary rocks. Undeformed sedimentary rocks always form horizontal layers. However, if deformed, sedimentary rocks can form deformation structures such as folds that record tectonic activities. Fossils are often better preserved in sedimentary rocks.

In Hong Kong, the oldest sedimentary rocks come from Devonian period (~416million years ago), dated by Placoderm (a Devonian fish) fossils discovered in Bluff Head formation in northeast New Territories. The youngest sedimentary rocks come from Paleogene (~50million years ago) in Tung Ping Chau at the very northeast of Hong Kong.[1]

Tung Ping Chau erosion features[edit]

Photo from Lung Lok Shui, Tung Ping Chau. A grey chert layer (the dragon's spine) on the brownish siltstones layers.

Tung Ping Chau, in Cantonese, means eastern flat island. It is a crescent shaped island lying at the very northeast of Hong Kong. Its 'flat' is caused by the flat lying layers of sedimentary rocks. The island is famous for its spectacular erosion features, such as sea stacks and wave-cut flatforms. "Long Lok Shui",which means dragon going into water, is a famous structure that looks like a dragon's back extending towards the sea. The structure contains a layer of chert which is more resistant to erosion than the surrounding rocks. This formed an outstanding layer of greyish chert that looks like a dragon's spine.

Rocks on Tung Ping Chau are reddish brown in color and fine-grained. This reflects a hot and humid climate during Paleogene that increase oxidation of iron in the rock and a quiet water setting which deposits fine sediments. Fossils of terrestrial plants and evaporites in rocks on Tung Ping Chau indicates that it might be a saline lake during Paleogene.[5]

Wave-cut platform on Tung Ping Chau

Ma Shi Chau[edit]

A fold on Ma Shi Chau, Hong Kong. Red lines show the limbs,the blue line shows the axis

Ma Shi Chau is a tidal island in the Tolo Harbour in northeast New Territories. It is an important special area for geological studies. It contains rocks from three different formations: Permian sedimentary rocks, Early Cretaceous volcanic rocks and middle Cretaceous sedimentary rocks. Fossils of ammonoids, corals and bivalves were found in the black Permian sedimentary rocks.[15] Layers of fine volcanic ash deposits formed the light grey colored tuffaceous layers interbedded with the brownish Cretaceous sediments. Ma Shi Chau is very close to a major fault (Tolo channel fault).[7] Rocks on Ma Shi Chau are therefore subjected to deformation by fault activities. Various deformed structures such as folds, kink bands, microfaults and sheared rocks can be observed on Ma Shi Chau.

Metamorphic rocks[edit]

Metamorphic rocks made up less than 1% of Hong Kong land surface. They are found in Lok Ma Chau near the border with Shenzhen, Ma On Shan and Yuen Long. However, metamorphic rocks in Ma On Shan and Yuen Long were only seen in boreholes.[1] Metamorphic rocks are sedimentary rocks or igneous rocks that are altered under high temperature and pressure but are not melted. Atoms are re-arranged and new minerals are formed. Metamorphic rocks in Hong Kong are all altered sedimentary rocks formed in Carboniferous period. Then until the middle Jurassic volcanic activity, magma chambers were formed and they intruded into older rocks. The heat of the magma together with active movements along major faults in Hong Kong, created a high temperature and pressure environment, causing the relatively older Carboniferous sedimentary layers to alter. Rocks in Lok Ma Chau became meta-sedimentary rocks and phyllites, which were low-grade metamorphic rocks. This indicates that Lok Ma Chau rocks were not much altered. However, rocks in Ma On Shan and Yuen Long, which were originally limestones, became a high-grade marble. These rocks were significantly altered by the high temperature of magma intrusions.

Ma On Shan Iron ore[edit]

Iron ore ore were found in Ma On Shan. They are both located near a granitic body, where hot magma intrusions existed during late Jurassic. The hot magma carried metal ores to the crust from the mantle as it rose. Metal ores are concentrated into hot fluids as it forced itself into cracks of the Ma On Shan limestone. The hot concentrated fluid (hydrothermal fluid) triggered chemical reactions. This process finally produced skarn, which an altered rock that carried the concentrated metal ores.[16]

Mining in Ma On Shan started in earliest in 1906 and became very active during the second World War for weapon production. Later, until 1976, the mine was closed down due to dropping metal prices. Today, the mining tunnels and the mining pit can still be seen in Ma On Shan.   [17]


A simplified geological map showing the Lantau dyke swarm and faults bounding the dyke swarm.Modified from Civil Engineering Development Department.
A drag fold formed by upper layer moving right, lower layer moving left. The middle layer is dragged and rolled over, forming a drag fold. Red arrows showed the direction of motion of the upper layer and the lower layer. (Photo took in Nai Chung)

The main faults in Hong Kong are oriented northeast-southwest, and northwest-southeast (see fig.1).They are generally of the same orientation as those in neighboring Guangdong Province. They are part of the Lianhuashan fault zone that contains faults of similar orientations extended along the southeast China coast to Shanghai.

Although faults are recorded throughout the known geological history of Hong Kong, they are considered to have been most active during the Jurassic to Cretaceous periods when strike-slip and thrust faulting was dominant. Some faults represent structures that were active during the period of Late Jurassic to Early Cretaceous volcanic activity and facilitated the rise of magma to the surface. Faults in Hong Kong formed interesting features that can be traced to understand their activities.

Lantau dyke swarm[edit]

The Lantau dyke swarm is located on east Lantau Island. It is a group of vertical sheet of rocks formed by magma and lava flowing into northeast trending cracks on pre-existing granitic rocks on Lantau Island. Those cracks were related to the northeast trending faults. The Lantau caldera, which was the volcanic centre of the magma, is also bounded by faults and exhibits an elongated shape towards the northeast. These structures recorded the active strike-slip motion of the northeast trending faults in Lantau during Late Jurassic. (~148 million years ago)[18]

Tolo Chanel Fault system[edit]

The Tolo Channel fault system is the longest fault system in Hong Kong running from Tolo Channel in the northeast, cutting through Shing Mun river in Sha Tin and extending to southeast Lantau Island. It is approximately 60-km long. Traces of displacements and shearing are well-preserved in rock units on the both side of the Tolo Channel. Examples are kink bands, microfaults, veins at Ma Chi Chau on the north coast and en echelon veins, drag folds, sigma structures at Nai Chung on the south coast. These structure are all found on the middle Jurassic Tolo Channel formation sedimentary rocks and are traces of shearing events. They represented the most active period of the Tolo Channel fault systems during the middle Jurassic volcanic activities.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Sewell, R. J. (2000). The Pre-Quaternary Geology of Hong Kong. Geotechnical Engineering Office. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Geological Survey. ISBN 9620202996.
  2. ^ Lee, Cho Min (May 1983). "THE OCCURRENCE OF A DEVONIAN PLACODERMI FISH FOSSIL IN HONG KONG" (PDF). Geological Society Hong Kong Newsletter. 1 (4): 5–6.
  3. ^ Lee, C. M.; Chen, J. H.; Atherton, M. J.; He, G. H.; Wu, S. Q.; Lai, K. W.; Nau, P. S. (June 1990). "Supplementary report on the discovery of lower and middle Devonian fossils in Hong Kong" (PDF). Geological Society Hong Kong Newsletter. 8 (2): 16–24.
  4. ^ a b Wang, Lulin (7 February 2015). "Discussion on the sedimentary structure, geochemical characteristics and sedimentary environment of Ping Chau formation at Tung Ping Chau, Hong Kong". Journal of Environmental Biology. 36: 777–788.
  5. ^ a b Lee, C. M.; Chen, J. H.; He, G. X; Atherton, M. J.; Lai, K. W. (March 1991). "On the age of the Ping Chau Formation" (PDF). Geological Society Hong Kong Newsletter. 9 (1): 34–49.
  6. ^ Lai, K. W.; Langford, R. L. (January 1996). "Spatial and temporal characteristics of major faults of Hong Kong". Geological Society of Hong Kong Bulletin. 5 – via Research Gate.
  7. ^ a b c d "The Geology of Hong Kong (Interactive On-line)". Retrieved 2018-11-16.
  8. ^ Campbell, S. D.; Sewell, R. J (November 1997). "Structural control and tectonic setting of Mesozoic volcanism in Hong Kong". Journal of the Geological Society. 154 (6): 1039–1052. ISSN 0016-7649 – via Researchgate.
  9. ^ a b Sewell, Roderick J.; Tang, Denise L. K.; Campbell, S. Diarmad G. (2012-01). "Volcanic-plutonic connections in a tilted nested caldera complex in Hong Kong". Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems. 13 (1): n/a–n/a. doi:10.1029/2011gc003865. ISSN 1525-2027. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  10. ^ Fang, Shi-ming; Li, Jiang-feng; Ng, Sai-Leung; Guo, Xu (2 November 2009). "Large six-party columnar joints of acidic volcanic rocks and its geological causes and significance in Hong Kong China [in Chinese]". Maine Science. 35 (5): 89–94.
  11. ^ a b Shum, C. [岑宗陽]. (2017). Columnar joints of high island formation in Hong Kong : comparison with overseas examples. (Thesis). University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong SAR.
  12. ^ King, J.P. June 2013. GEO REPORT No. 281: TSING SHAN DEBRIS FLOW AND DEBRIS FLOOD. Geotechnical Engineering Office, Civil Engineering Development Department.
  13. ^ H., Department of Civil and Structural Engineering ; The Hong Kong Polytechnic University Chau, K. T. Lo, K. Hazard assessment of debris flows for Leung King Estate of Hong Kong by incorporating GIS with numerical simulations. HAL CCSD. OCLC 893032729.
  14. ^ "CEDD - Kowloon Granite - Klk". Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  15. ^ Yim, W. S., Nau, P. S., & Rosen, B. R. (1981). Permian Corals in the Tolo Habour Formation, Ma Shi Chau, Hong Kong. Journal of Paleontology. 55(6). 1298-1300
  16. ^ Strange, P. J.; Woods, P. W. (March 1991). "THE GEOLOGY AND EXPLOITATION OF THE MA ON SHAN MAGNETITE DEPOSIT" (PDF). Geological Society of Hong Kong Newsletter. 9 (1): 3–15.
  17. ^ "CEDD - 10 Economic Geology". Retrieved 2018-11-17.
  18. ^ Davis, D. W.; Sewell, R. J.; Campbell, S. D. G. (1 December 1997). "U-Pb dating of Mesozoic igneous rocks from Hong Kong". Journal of the Geological Society. 154 (6): 1067–1076 – via GeoScienceWorld.

External links[edit]