Archive for the ‘Oakland sediment and soil’ Category

A paean for the flats

7 December 2020

For years I’ve been working on a book manuscript about Oakland’s geology. (The first draft of the second version is nearly finished.) It’s an intense mental project in which I must strip back, like layers of wallpaper, the human overlay upon our soil, rocks and landforms to contemplate the natural setting beneath it all. The whole time, I’ve also been walking around all parts of this city snapping photos of things that strike me. Many of them have been in the flats.

Sometimes geology matters where it seems to be absent. The dazzling variety found in any walk in Oakland’s flats rests on a geological foundation that is nearly ideal for human activities. It’s a canvas ready for painting with wave after wave of civic expression.

The Oakland flats — pretty much everything between the Bay shore and Broadway and Foothill Boulevard — served the Ohlone tribes as a bountiful meadow. The flats served the Spanish and the Mexican Californios as a fertile unfenced cattle range. None of that land exists any more. We have to envision it beneath a century and a half of development, then recognize it as the product of truly geologic time.

The flats are a wide, gently sloping apron of sediment washed out from the hills by around a dozen different little streams.

In East Oakland the apron rises to about 100 feet elevation; about twice that in North Oakland. The streams aren’t strongly committed to any particular course. Over thousands of years, they strew their mud and gravel all over, like firehoses dropped loose on the ground, or groundskeepers carefully watering down a ballfield. The result is an even plain, intricate underneath but level on top, with subtle undulations made visible only by looking down our longest streets.

The streams were easy to cover and trap in tunnels. Temescal Creek in North Oakland was an early victim. Despite efforts to “daylight” it here on Telegraph Avenue, apartments now cover it with the same finality as any other spot in the flats.

But across the street the creek is commemorated, as it is in a few other spots. Awareness is dawning that our landscape was once very different and can change again.

And if the abundance of the Ohlone’s meadow in the flats is lost to living memory, here and there it is recalled in art.

To the earliest American settlers, the flats were famously productive farmland. The virgin soil could grow carrots the size of your leg. The last remnant of that farmland, off 105th Avenue at Oakland’s farthest verge, is being revived next to this lot by Planting Justice in collaboration with a land trust that will give the Ohlone people ownership of a new foothold in their native ground.

The peach groves of Fruit Vale helped make Alameda County the richest county in the state. They supported canneries that old-timers still remember as bustling enterprises. Livermore Valley wheat was milled and turned to food in Oakland, where industries of all kinds set up shop near to rail transport and the plentiful groundwater of the flats.

To the founders of early Oakland the flats were ideal for laying out the roads and rail lines and heavy industry needed to support a great city. It was good ground as well as excellent soil. When waves of residential developers filled the flats with subdivisions, they praised the locale’s sun and soil. Odd imperfections show that not every scheme worked out as Oakland grew, but still it became a great city.

The enormous freeway system of the twentieth century relies on the same firm ground, and it hasn’t suppressed the flats’ inherent fertility.

Can you see this part of our geology? Maybe now you can. Unsung and invisible, the flats are fundamental to Oakland’s character. With apologies to Walt Whitman, you will hardly know what they are or what they mean, but the flats are good health to us nevertheless, and filter and fiber our blood. The flats are full of charm and support our spirit. That is what delights me as I walk this part of town.

Chris Granillo Art

Without the flats, Oakland would not have its soul.

The Merritt sand: A little deeper

3 February 2020

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.


14 August 2017

With all the construction going on around town, you’ll see lots of drill rigs taking geotechnical cores. This one was at work at 2330 Webster, where the Webster Alexan development will go.

Just a few days earlier, a rig was collecting cores in the parking lot at 20th and Telegraph, slated to become one of two residential towers.

Crews like this are testing the ground to firm up the construction plans. The weight of these buildings requires a foundation that won’t sink, buckle or deform under the expected loads over the building’s life, including earthquake loads. At the Telegraph site two holes were bored, at opposite ends of the lot.

It takes a couple of workers to run the rig and a geologist to log the hole. They look the same — vests, boots, hardhats — except the geologist carries a clipboard and isn’t quite as muddy. The geologist on this job was a young guy, crouched in the sun and processing sediment plugs that looked like this.

It’s nice, clean marine clay from the lower part of the hole. I refrained from nibbling on a piece to gauge its silt content. It was real firm, not sticky. I’d put a house on it, no problem.

The geologist was poking at the plugs with a pocket tool and keeping them properly organized. He told me the hole was around 90 feet deep, with this stuff at the bottom. The top 20 feet was sand and gravel, then about 30 feet of clay, then some more sand and gravel and finally this clay. It’s a common pattern around the Bay, reflecting the changes in sea level over the last few hundred thousand years.

The crew was finished in less than a day, and they tidied up nicely afterward.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Open-File Report 2014-1127, “Geologic Logs of Geotechnical Cores from the Subsurface Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California,” will give an idea of what core logging involves when it’s done right. What seems like painstaking drudgery is essential for building safely, and geologists can get called into court to vouch for the accuracy of their core logs.

Geology of the Biff’s site

22 May 2017

Because I walk through the area regularly, I’ve kept an envious eye on the excavation at the southeast corner of 27th Street and Broadway. Since the building slated for the site doesn’t have a name yet, I’ll call it the Biff’s site after the much-loved but long-departed Biff’s Coffee Shop that once sat there. It’s at the center of the maps below — first the Google terrain map.

Then the historic map. This is from an 1888 map compiled by state surveyor Julius Henkenius, served up by the David Rumsey Map Collection. What I like about it is that it shows the creeks. The main stream is Glen Echo Creek, with the Broadway Branch joining it near the top of the map.

The 27th and Broadway site appears to include the southern half of the Cogswell tract, presumably the remarkable Henry Cogswell whose great monument is a highlight of Mountain View Cemetery.

Anyway, what’s under the ground here? For that, we want the geologic map. This site is at an interesting intersection.

The site is flanked by two lobes of the ancient alluvial fan (Qpaf) that covers central Oakland. The one on the left is Pill Hill — which was known as Academy Hill in the 1880s and the site of Anthony Chabot’s first municipal reservoir — and the lobe on the right is Adams Point Hill. To the south, the ground is mapped as Pleistocene marine terrace deposits (Qmt), and the site itself is mapped as ordinary alluvial sediment.

Knowing all that, it would have been fun to poke around as the excavation proceeded from 24 March . . .

. . . to 1 April . . .

. . . to 19 April . . .

. . . to 7 May, when the digging was complete and the foundation prep was under way.

The chances were that no mammoth skulls or other cool megafossils were present, but you never know. It all looked like well-sorted fine sand from my distant viewpoint, what you’d expect. If this had been a Caltrans project, they might have retained a paleo firm to watch the digging and grab any fossils the dozers turned up. But as of last week the exposure is all over.

Most of the time, science is just an indulgence. But as Oakland enters a downtown building boom, it would be nice if the experts got a chance to document and sample some of these big holes.