Mapping rocks never ends

A few days ago I took part in the latest monthly meeting of my local geological society — we do it via Zoom these days — and our speaker, Christie Rowe of McGill University, reported on three research projects her grad students are doing in the Bay area, specifically the Franciscan Complex. The Franciscan is a scramble of different rocks that has challenged geologists since they first came to California.

Fifty years ago Stanford’s Gary Ernst recognized that the Franciscan represents the mess of material that gathers around a subduction zone, where oceanic crust (a now-extinct neighbor of the Pacific plate, in our case) slides beneath continental crust (the North America plate). So now we know what it is — the tectonic equivalent of the dirt in a bulldozer’s blade — and prompted by that knowledge we can try to unscramble the mixed-up pieces and learn what they might tell us about California’s geologic history or what happens in subduction zones.

Rowe is a Marin County native who’s been working since her PhD days on the latter problem, in the Franciscan rocks of her home ground. Specifically, she’s been looking for preserved bits of ancient earthquake faults. Normally these are buried deep underground, but they’re important because subduction-related earthquakes, so-called megathrust events, are the largest on the planet. Think of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, the magnitude-9 monster whose tenth anniversary is coming up on 11 March. The Marin Headlands are full of them, broken in pieces.

Rare bits of the Franciscan have survived being subducted deeper than 25 kilometers and then returned to the surface, without totally wiping out what happened to them down there. The work requires dogged persistence. You have to look hard to find these “high-grade blocks” in the first place, then put your face close to them, magnifiers out, detect signs of slippage, then bring samples to the lab and determine what that slippage means — whether it happened on the way down, on the way up or afterward as the San Andreas fault system wrenched it all sideways.

Heart Rock, at Jenner Beach up the Sonoma coast, is small enough to fit inside a living room. One of Rowe’s grad students is mapping it at centimeter scale, spending a master’s thesis worth of effort on this one outcrop looking at rocks like this.

Seeing all this during Rowe’s talk took my mind, among other places, out to the rocks of Shepherd Canyon and Redwood Peak. The last person to give those strata a PhD-level scrutiny, using all available tools of the time, was a Berkeley grad student named Jim Case around 1960. Yes, 1960, a time when researchers were stuck in a mental framework of now-forgotten concepts and plate tectonics was still years in the future, when optical microscopes, brass seives, fossil correlations and test-tube chemistry were the best tools we had.

Case got his PhD, demonstrating that he’d mastered these tools as well as the literature, but he didn’t accomplish much more than correct a couple of ideas from earlier studies, establish a few new rock units on the map and tentatively correlate them with other units scattered around the East Bay. He put his little brick into the Wall of Science, then went on to a long research and teaching career doing other things.

Since then, other distinguished geologists have been over this territory. Case collaborated with Dorothy Radbruch of the USGS, a sharp and able field geologist. And in the late 1990s when Russ Graymer was putting together the East Bay geologic map that I rely on, he tramped the area with the late Earl Brabb and was ably advised by the late David Jones. Each of these workers found new things and revised their predecessors’ achievements. It always paid to reinspect the rocks. Nevertheless, none of them pulled out all the stops and pioneered a new in-depth reassessment of this interesting area.

We could do much better today. Every tool has advanced. The jigsaw puzzle of ancient California is far enough finished that any piece, if studied closely enough, can be placed on the table near — or even exactly on — its correct position and joined to other pieces. This would be more satisfying than what Case could accomplish in his time. We just need another grad student to take it on, another local who has imprinted on his or her home ground.

Mapping never ends, and geologic mapping always improves. New bits of rock are being exposed all the time. Fresh eyes see new things, and persistence furthers.

5 Responses to “Mapping rocks never ends”

  1. Mark Says:

    I went out a couple of times with some people John C. knew, including the retired head of the Tilden Bot. Garden (who is a geologist) who have been working on a very detailed mapping of the East Bay Hills from Richmond to Hayward. I could dig up some names if you are interested.

  2. Cherie Donahue Says:

    There is a large outcropping in my backyard on Rubin Dr. directly above the Butters Land Trust sign on Butters Dr. There is quartz in a vein in this outcropping which is also in evidence down on Butters Dr. road cutting.

    In several college geology class field trips ca 1974, we visited sites on Redwood Rd. and the corporation yard on Shepherd Canyon, metamorphosed, conglomerate, sedimentary and igneous? That Corp yard outcropping is almost disappeared but visible above on berm over RR cutting.

  3. Michael Hutchins Says:

    That closeup is Eclogite, isn’t it?!

  4. P.MIchael Hutchins Says:

    BTW, trying to use Facebook to log in got me an immediate time-out error.

  5. anne bailey Says:

    Just an amateur here but I really enjoy learning about the fascinating formations I see on my hikes. The layers & folds on the hike to the beach at TN Valley, Sibley Volcanic for the incredible variety, and now I’ll be looking for Heart Rock at Jenner Beach.
    Thank you.

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