Archive for the ‘Franciscan rocks’ Category

When did everything Franciscan begin?

25 June 2018

A paper I read last week led me a long way in an interesting direction that started in El Cerrito, just up the ridgetop from Oakland, at the property fondly known as the Mira Vista Golf Course (restored in 2011 to its original glory and rechristened with its original name, the Berkeley Country Club).

I first visited Mira Vista in 1999 to see the Hayward fault, which runs through the fairways and helps give the land its picturesque form. Trenching studies there have added to our knowledge of this threatening feature.

But what brought Mira Vista to mind last week was a paper in the journal Tectonics titled “Early Onset of Franciscan Subduction.” A handful of rock harvested here gave the authors a new answer to an old and vexing question.

California is known to geologists around the world as the type example of a subduction zone. Its rocks preserve a record — a messy one — of a long period of geologic time when a tectonic plate consisting of ocean crust was moving toward and diving (subducting) underneath North America, which consists of continental crust. That went on for some 150 million years, interrupted when the San Andreas fault system first formed about 30 million years ago and turned the plate boundary into the sideways-moving setup we have today.

During the subduction period, North America scraped off parts of the top of the oceanic plate. That collection of stuff, analogous to a pile of dirt on the blade of a bulldozer, is a mixed-up lithological scrapple called the Franciscan Complex.

One of the most basic questions we have about the Franciscan is, how old is it? That is, when did subduction begin?

The authors of the paper, led by Sean Mulcahy of the University of Washington, looked for special samples from “high-grade blocks,” lumps of rock that have survived being stirred by the bulldozer blade deep below the crust and returned intact. Most promising of these are the highest-grade rock type I’ve found in Oakland: blueschist. The authors studied just two rock samples, one from the high-grade blueschists of the Tiburon Peninsula and the other from Mira Vista, where high-grade blocks crop out of a matrix of serpentinite along with other Franciscan “knockers.”

The high-grade blocks are part of the golf course as well as the surrounding terrain.

The course is right next to The Arlington. It was easy to get there on the 7 bus line. Getting off near Madera Circle, I spotted telltale boulders at the roadside: Blueschist.

Mulcahy got his team’s sample from this knocker behind the fire station. Their International Geo Sample register says it was collected by “hammer and chisel.”

Close up, a fresh exposure of the rock — maybe the actual collection site — glistened with blue and green crystals: the high-pressure metamorphic minerals glaucophane and omphacite.

The real work began under the petrographic microscope, where Mulcahy had to untangle the complex set of high-pressure events that affected this rock from the geometry of these thin sections.

Briefly, the big garnet grains preserved grains of very old material inside them, protecting it from later reactions. Those grains were about 176 million years old; the same minerals outside the garnets were about 160. Their ages had been re-set during a later episode of high pressure.

Moreover, the earlier episode had a much higher pressure than the later one, high enough that the rock had been not blueschist, but eclogite (ECK-la-jite). It had been carried at least 50 kilometers deep, a depth only attainable by subduction, and just a few tiny shreds protected inside garnet grains, measured in microns, preserved the evidence.

That’s pretty cool. This finding sets a new record back in deep time for the beginning of Franciscan subduction, in the early Jurassic.

It also offers a telling clue about another California geology mystery: What’s the exact relationship between the Franciscan Complex and the Coast Range ophiolite? In brief, there are three main hypotheses, and this evidence weighs against two of them and favors the simplest one. That will change the book I’m in the middle of writing.

By the way, stairs and footpaths lead from here down through Motorcycle Hill to the El Cerrito del Norte BART station. Take that hike some time.

The St. James Drive roadcut

11 December 2017

Recent work in far east Piedmont has exposed some excellent bedrock worth a close inspection. Because the town government won’t put an interpretive sign there, this post will have to do.

To my knowledge, there are only two sites of powerline towers in Piedmont, one at the mouth of Estates Drive and the other at 298 St. James Drive, near Park Boulevard. Last year the power company replaced the latter pair with shiny new towers, and as part of the work it cleared the roadcut of its cover of acacia trees (Google Maps shows the site as a thicket going back to 2007). Shortly afterward I discovered it and had high hopes, though it wasn’t much to look at in late October.

By January, the exposure had been stripped of loose rock. Already it was clear that it would be a showcase of slickensides.

By August, a strong concrete wall had been put in place and landscape plantings made.

The slickensides turned out to be fabulous. These are the polished marks made as movement along faults grinds rocks against each other.

And here’s a closeup.

Also visible is evidence of brecciation, the geologist’s word for shattering rocks and cementing the pieces together.

The rock here is sandstone of the Franciscan Complex, specifically part of the Novato Quarry nappe. This is a thick slice of fine-grained sandstone that was laid down off the ancient coast of California, then shoved against the continent’s edge and pulled apart into lumps by the San Andreas fault system. A bunch of it underlies Marin County, and more makes up Point Richmond and El Cerrito as well as Piedmont and points south. This tectonic history probably accounts for the wear and tear visible in the roadcut.

When I visited the roadcut again last week, I annotated and recorded the site in the ROCKD smartphone app and announced it on Twitter. I’m trying out the app just for fun as a way to make some of my observations public. I’m looking at other apps for more rigorous mapping purposes.

Bedrock in the headwaters of Trestle Glen Creek

13 November 2017

Surprisingly, the town of Piedmont has its share of woodland trails — well they’re paved sidewalks, but they’re unused, covered with duff and overhung with untended shrubbery. On a weekday afternoon, you can walk quietly on miles of these soft paths and encounter only a handful of property workers. It’s in that spirit that I recommend a geologizing stroll around the highest part of Trestle Glen Creek’s eastern watershed.

The shaded-relief map below shows the creek valley in eastern Piedmont, with Dimond Canyon on the right edge. The area I’m featuring is the triangle just right of center bounded by Crest Road, Pershing and Estates Drives and Hampton Road.

And here’s a closeup just to display the street names. During weekdays, the 33 bus stops at Lexford and Hampton, where the two valleys in this little watershed join.

The geologic map shows that this area is solidly within the block of Franciscan sandstone (Kfn) that underlies most of Piedmont. The hilltop above it consists of Franciscan melange (KJfm) that includes bodies of chert (fc), notably the one on Pershing that I’ve called the best bedrock in Oakland.

The neighborhood is gracious. This view looks up Huntleigh Road, which runs on the valley floor. As I traversed the streets, I used sidewalks that almost never feel a human foot. At times it was easy to imagine being in a Tolkien novel.

Lexford Road, in its own valley, is more secluded and more whimsical architecturally.

For the geologist, these streets are valuable because they aren’t as tightly landscaped as in most of Piedmont, and the Franciscan bedrock can be seen and studied at leisure in several places where the road builders exposed it. That’s unusual for this town.

Plenty of hand specimens are available too, if that rings your chimes.

There are even a few empty lots here. Unlike the existing homesites, these are especially challenging due to the steepness of the terrain and the strength of the rock — not just on the surface, where the weathered sandstone has fractured into rubble, but also deeper down where foundations would need to be dug into the hard, unweathered bedrock. When this lot was cleared recently, it had shed enough rubble to nearly cover the sidewalk.

A large house has been proposed here for many years, and the record of the intricate wrangling needed to invite and address everyone’s concerns is mind-numbing. However, the record does include geotechnical reports that give us a glimpse underground.

What’s on the site now is this set of what are called story poles, which serve to outline the planned building.

Geologists acquire a certain ability to see the ground through everything growing or sitting on it. It’s an ability to visualize the landscape as if it were covered with story poles instead of vegetation and structures. This bit of watershed is a good field site to practice.

Mountain View Cemetery: The Bay area’s best landscape

1 May 2017

Although I’m tempted just to let the photos in this post stand on their own, let me make a case that Mountain View Cemetery offers the best landscape in the Bay area.

First there’s the cemetery itself. The managers have been putting a lot of effort into improving the ground — see the excellent new stonework and gravel path in the first photo — and this winter’s abundant rainfall has abetted it by giving the hills a coat of green that ought to last longer than usual before turning gold, then brown.

Unlike your typical cemetery, Mountain View is very large and occupies the rolling terrain of the Piedmont block, consisting of Franciscan melange. In the photo below, all of the land in sight lies within the cemetery’s property.

Long ago the operators arranged for Cemetery Creek (headwaters of Glen Echo Creek) to fill three ponds, where the water can be parceled out over the dry season to help keep the turf lush. Right now they’re brim full and support a few waterfowl. The open hilltop on the left side will be turned into a new section of graves under a proposed plan.

The Franciscan outcrops or “knockers” in the cemetery’s hills echo the finished stone displayed so touchingly in the grave markers. Many historical Oaklanders famous and obscure rest here. A random walk in any direction will bring up names that ring a bell if you’ve spent significant time in the East Bay. Yes, that’s what cemeteries are for, but without the graves this territory would be just another busy park. The dead ensure that the living visitors stay on their best behavior.

And this is important — the delights of the cemetery don’t stop at its edge. The east side has had its huge hedge of overgrown eucalyptus removed, opening the crest of the high hills and the well-tended neighborhoods of Broadway Terrace to view.

A few eucalyptus trees remain on the hilltop hosting the cemetery’s high staging area. In manageable numbers, their trunks are attractive as they frame views of tempting places.

With the view east restored, there’s now a postcard vista in every direction you look. To the west you can see the Golden Gate, San Francisco, St. Mary’s Cemetery and Oakland’s outer harbor.

To the southwest is downtown Oakland and the ridges of the San Mateo Peninsula. These views, as well as those to the north and south, will always be unspoiled. From Mountain View, one can take in surroundings that encompass a large share of the greater Bay area from the midst of a setting that’s both attractive and historic.

So that’s my main case for this being the Bay area’s best landscape. But there’s more — there are rocks. I always make sure to visit this outcrop of red-brown radiolarian chert on the hillside behind the garden mausoleum, plot 3.

Other parts of the cemetery consist of shale, like this bit left behind from an excavation in plot 9.

The road up to the top of the cemetery exposes some of the well-bedded mudstone that underlies much of the grounds, but look in the gutter for the freshest exposure.

And once up there, make your way bayward from the northern tip of plot 77 to this outcrop of green and red chert.

I’m glad to entertain arguments that one place or another might be superior to our cemetery. For sheer viewshed, Mount Diablo is a candidate, as is Tamalpais. Twin Peaks in San Francisco gives excellent views of Oakland. Mount Livermore, on Angel Island, is worth a special mention. The South Bay and North Bay have many more picturesque places, not to mention the Peninsula. Lots of these spots survey a more spacious territory, but Mountain View surveys the most gracious territory, a viewshed of singular integrity that extends from infinity to your feet. In a region full of landscapes, this one offers as much elegance as it does grandeur.