The Merritt sand: A little deeper

My last post was about the great sand bed that underlies Alameda; now it’s time for a fresh look at the whole geologic unit of which it’s a part: the Merritt sand.

The Merritt sand is mapped in three places: in downtown Oakland, in Alameda and in Bay Farm Island. It’s labeled “Qds” (Quaternary dune sand) on this map of sediment deposits in the Bay area (Open-file Report 2006-1037), largely surrounded by artificial fill on top of Bay mud (afem).

UC Berkeley’s indefatigable Andrew Lawson named the Merritt sand in 1914 “from its occurrence on Lake Merritt, in the city of Oakland.” He considered it a marine deposit, but our understanding has advanced since then. He noted that it was 44 feet thick in a well dug at 665 16th Street (now an apartment complex) near today’s MLK Boulevard. He also mapped it in a long trench on Telegraph Avenue, noting that the top of the sand descended from the surface, just south of today’s 21st Street, to 13 feet deep just north of today’s West Grand Avenue. I’m confident that this is it on the west side of Telegraph at 20th.

The sand ends abruptly to the east of this spot, not appearing at all in the excavation for the upcoming skyscraper on the other side of Telegraph at 20th. That was historically a boggy ground that drained down 20th Street to the lake, and the sediment there is sand and gravel with a good share of clay.

Elsewhere downtown, the eastern edge of the sand is a steep slope, for instance along the lake and at Snow Park.

Since Lawson’s time, the Merritt sand has mainly been of interest to practical geologists concerned with building sites. In the late 1940s, proposals for a second trans-Bay bridge led to a concerted geological investigation of the Bay floor covering two different routes for the bridge. In a 1951 paper, UC Berkeley’s Parker Trask and Jack Rolston reported that the Merritt sand extended across the Bay, reaching a thickness of up to 60 feet. Their cross-section along the route of the Posey Tube shows it well.

Trask and Rolston noted that the sand’s texture “is remarkably uniform” and its grains were typically in the “fine” range, between 1/4 and 1/8 millimeter, although in some places it was extremely fine, forming “material with the characteristics of loess.”

Dorothy Radbruch noted in her 1957 map of the Oakland West quadrangle (USGS I-239) that the Merritt sand reached 65 feet in thickness in a boring where the Crucible sits today. A meticulous worker, she described the material as “Sand, fine-grained, silty, clayey, with lenses of sandy clay and clay. Yellowish-brown to dark yellowish-orange. Grains consist of quartz and feldspar, some magnetite, flakes of white chert from the Claremont [Shale], minor amounts of sandstone, shale, hornblende, pyroxene, biotite. Grains angular to subrounded, frosted. Well-sorted.”

The key word for my purposes is “frosted,” a textbook sign of windblown sand. By 2000, Russ Graymer of the USGS could confidently say that the sand belonged to dunes that “probably began accumulating after the last interglacial high stand of sea level began to recede about 71 ka [thousand years ago], continued to form when sea level dropped to its Wisconsin minimum about 18 ka, and probably ceased to accumulate after sea level reached its present elevation (about 6 ka).” Here “Wisconsin” refers to a formal stage of the North American ice ages.

Large areas of Merritt sand in the Bay, more than 50 feet thick, were exploited by dredgers to build (“reclaim”) land. In one area west of Bay Farm Island, as large as the island itself, some 25 million cubic meters of sand was “borrowed” from the Bay floor and used over the years, most likely, to build up Treasure Island, the Oakland Airport, Bay Farm Island itself and Alameda’s south shore. We owe a lot to this fine sand, and by fine I mean excellent. And as the sea rises, we may need more of this Ice Age resource.

One Response to “The Merritt sand: A little deeper”

  1. Amelia Sue Marshall Says:

    Andrew – this is fascinating!

    Those who have expertise in designing the footing for horse arenas say that the gold standard for footing is “Angel Island #1” sand. This has always made me wonder:
    1. Is this particularly coarse sand? Powdered sand would seem to not be as good as absorbing impacts of horse hooves, which are likely in excess of 100 psi when the steed is jumping.

    2. Modern ecological sensibilities hold that it is not OK to excavate the Bay bottom. Is this Angel Island sand from above or below the surface? Should designers of horse arena footing seek a more ecologically benign alternative, and if so, what would that be?

    Amelia

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