Archive for the ‘Other topics’ Category

Geology of Alameda

20 January 2020

Although these two distinctive cities are right next to each other and were settled at the same time, Alameda is a very different place from Oakland. One way to put it is that when you’re in Oakland, you see Oakland all around you. In Alameda, you see everything but Alameda around you.

And I like both of those things just fine. But in this post I’ll attempt to show the subtle ways Alameda reveals itself.

First a little history. The earliest map showing Alameda in any detail was Captain Beechey’s map of the San Francisco Bay, first published in 1833. Mainly a sailor-centric chart, it focused on the seaward edges of things. It shows Alameda as the peninsula it was until the 1890s, when the tidal canal was completed across its east end making it an island.

Two details are interesting. First, the map shows the seaward edge of the peninsula as an embankment rather than the typical marsh found around most of the Bay. A sandy bluff overlooked the beach and mudflats here. Second, the map used the same tree symbols as it used for the redwoods in the high Oakland hills, and not the round icons used for the encinal oak groves to the north, in West Oakland and downtown. Gary Lenhart, over at alamedainfo.com, suggests that this may mean there were redwoods here. I don’t buy that because the habitat is wrong and because I haven’t seen any mention of redwood groves along the shore, but the possibility is intriguing, especially since Friar Pedro Font, during the Anza expedition in 1776, also sketched the peninsula with a heavy forest (view west).

The 1857 Bache map doesn’t cover all of Alameda, but what it does show comports with the Beechey map in depicting a definite edge, not a marshy transition, between land and sea. This segment is from the west end; the Peralta Wharf was where Ballena Bay is today.

This map shows the entire peninsula forested with oaks and labeled “The Encinal,” which is how the first generation of Anglo occupiers knew it.

That’s all long past. The trees went early, turned into firewood and charcoal; the land was farmed, then subdivided for estates and divided again for homes. Underneath it all, the Alameda peninsula is a uniform body of windblown sand dating from glacial times, now surrounded by artificial landfill as seen in the geologic map. Nowhere is the elevation higher than 35 feet.

I should note an exception to that. Once upon a time the shellmound of Mound Street was the tallest thing in town, according to the monument in Lincoln Park. And here let me acknowledge that we live on Ohlone land, and that we don’t deserve the acceptance and welcome the tribes have granted us. Forgive us our trespasses.

Between the natural sand and the artificial fill are Alameda’s lagoons, the city’s most unexpected and hidden feature.

They’re hard to reach, mostly private land. In a few places you can see that the landward side is higher . . .

. . . and the Bay side is lower.

On Willow Street at Alameda Hospital, the transition is plain to see in the roadbed. This is the greatest topographical feature in the whole city.

The main body of the dunes is a very gentle dome, reaching just over 30 feet elevation along Central Avenue. It’s hard to catch in a photo, but charming to see in person. This is looking down Chestnut Street, on the north side of the dome, toward Round Top.

And in the other direction is the top of the dome, such as it is.

It just goes to show that, to a committed geologizer, every place has a there there.

Drunk on rocks

9 December 2019

Every now and then I come upon sights in the field that transfix me, that make me stop and stare, that suspend time. This is not uncommon with landscapes, of course — that’s why our phones are full of vacation pictures and why I have so many photos to share in these posts. It probably happens a lot less often with rocks, except among geologists and maybe not all of them either.

A few examples. It happened to me this spring at this sandstone roadcut on Bitterwater Valley Road west of Blackwells Corner.

Granite stoned me in the fall of 2006 just east of Donner Pass.

It happened to me in June 2012 a little west of Copperopolis. (I was bringing back a piece of this slate I’d taken two years earlier.)

One day in 2008 I found myself lost in the landscape of this ancient Nevada limestone.

And Oakland rocks can affect me that way too, like this serpentinite in Joaquin Miller Park’s native plant nursery did in 2010.

It can be a little embarrassing when you’re supposed to have your geologist’s eye engaged, and all you can do is stand there stunned. Being drunk on rocks is a subset of an experience I call field intoxication. Professionals need to get over the tendency, and teachers probably see their students fall prey to it, but I can let the high happen even in the presence of experts. That’s a writer’s privilege.

The last time it occurred, and gave me the topic for this post, was in Oakland this summer when John Wakabayashi, a leading figure in California geology and an Oakland native, accepted my invitation to visit some choice localities in his old home town. The finale of the tour was the pod of high-grade blueschist on the grounds of Mills College. I’ve featured it here before.

I knew he’d like it, and in fact he was delighted. He got animated. He climbed around, waved his hands and pointed out telltale features. He didn’t seem drunk at all. But while I noted what he was saying, I sat down dazzled into stillness. You see, this time the outcrop was clean after the spring rains and fully illuminated by the high July sun. I’d never seen it that way before. The rock shone blue as brilliant as the sky itself, and at all points it glittered with minute crystals and mineral flakes. All I could do was let this light wash over and into me, a sauna of stars. Knowing the camera was helpless to capture the moment, I didn’t attempt a photo. (Sorry.)

That’s getting drunk on rocks. Keep your eyes open and it might happen to you.

Oakland geology ramble 8: Piedmont Ridge

19 August 2019

I don’t always care about rocks; geology is about more than rocks. I don’t even always care about geology; sometimes I just want a vigorous, geographically arbitrary hike. Ramble 8 is one of those — a traverse of the ridge crest above Piedmont, our highest ground west of the Hayward fault. It goes from the Rockridge BART station to the 33 line bus stop at the Leimert Bridge, on the lip of Dimond Canyon, about five miles end to end. Nevertheless, it has geology and rocks along the way. Here’s the route. There’s a map with more detail at the end of the post, where I also have some announcements.

The BART station features the “Rockridge” destination signage, mounted above a selection of Sierran boulders. This time, some ten years after it was installed, I noticed that the lettering design is quirky, contrasting “rock” and “ridge.”

You could climb Keith Avenue and barge up upper Broadway to attain the heights at Contra Costa Road, but it’s more interesting to circle behind the College Preparatory School grounds on Brookside Avenue. The school nestles in a steep little stream valley — unlike many similar places, this is not a former quarry but, apparently, a former turn-of-the-last-century park that had a short existence.

Once you get up to Contra Costa Road via Eustice and Buena Vista avenues, the walking is pretty and level. While you’re here in this remote part of town, check out the blueschist outcrop at 6063, vacant since the 1991 fire. The entire ridge on this hike is in Franciscan melange, a mudstone matrix containing odd lumps of other rock types. You won’t see much of it.

At the very end of the street is Erba Path, a steep set of stairs down to the saddle in the ridge where Broadway Terrace peaks on its way past the south entrance to Lake Temescal and points east. Cross that busy road and head right back up again on Sheridan Road, visible here at upper left.

Turn right off Sheridan at Agnes Street, unless you want to explore the little-trod path that joins Sheridan’s two halves. (Everyone should at least once.) Take high-flying Cochrane Avenue, where views east of Thornhill Canyon and Glen Highland’s settled slopes beckon.

Then jog right again up the saddle of Florence Avenue (where I sent you in the last post) to Proctor Avenue. This is pretty steep, but short. By this point you’re well above 700 feet. You’ll go higher later, but first you clamber a hundred feet down to the next saddle where Moraga Avenue crosses the ridge. Take the well-marked pedestrian crossing, but beware — this is the most dangerous road crossing of the hike.

Proceed on Estates Drive, which climbs nearly to the 800 foot contour. Up here are two curious reservoirs that date from Oakland’s water wars, when private water companies struggled to supply the fast-growing region from local sources while they vied with each other in deadly capitalist strife. (A ruinous series of bankruptcies and mergers ended in the 1920s with the formation of EBMUD.)

The Dingee and Estates reservoirs were constructed, fast and furiously, at the highest point of the Piedmont hills to provide good water pressure. EBMUD is upgrading these old concrete bathtubs to proper steel tanks, built to withstand big earthquakes on the Hayward fault just a few hundred yards east.

From here you head down again to La Salle Avenue, which takes advantage of yet another saddle in the ridge. If you’re ready to quit at this point, go left on La Salle, left again on Bruns Court and cross that high pedestrian bridge over the Warren Freeway to Montclair Park (because you can!) and catch the 33 bus at La Salle and Moraga. Otherwise, cross La Salle and stay on Estates, which is a little to the right.

Estates climbs again, not so far this time. Because this walk hits the highest spots, take Dawes Street up the hill and over, where you simply must visit the south end of Pershing Drive and admire Oakland’s best outcrop of Franciscan chert.

From here on it’s all downhill. Dawes rejoins Estates Drive here, and as you start down Estates you can see across Dimond Canyon.

Geologically and geomorphically speaking, the other side is also part of Piedmont Ridge, but the large water gap of Dimond Canyon is impassable without a long detour. So, down you go to the bus stop at the Leimert Bridge.

Along the way are two more highlights. First, at the Piedmont line the road passes the head of the former Diamond Cañon Quarry, which today houses the Zion Lutheran Church. Recent foundation work here has exposed fresh rock; maybe you’ll see some too.

And second, enjoy this wonderful volcanic breccia used for the landscaping at 170 Estates Drive. There are whole walls of it.

The house itself is something to see, too.

And as promised, here’s the detailed route map (1126 X 1126 pixels), followed by some announcements.

The excellent, out-of-print book Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology by David B. Williams is being reissued in paperback by the University of Washington Press. If I didn’t have the hardcover already I’d buy this classic. More information on David’s website.

My own book manuscript is making the rounds of a publisher, and while I await a yea or nay I’m trying to get my arms around a whole lot of scientific literature pertaining to Oakland’s rocks. It’s a ridge walk of the intellect, but I want to make Chapter 5 as good as humanly possible. I hope to buttonhole some of the real experts next month at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Phoenix.

But first I’ll be giving a talk to the Friends of Sausal Creek, on 18 September at the Dimond Library, titled “Sausal Creek: The Last Million Years or So.” You read it here first (unless you follow me on Twitter, @aboutgeology), and I’ll repeat the announcement in the Q&A thread soon.

Oakland and the Coast Range ophiolite

24 June 2019

A commenter asked, in connection with a recent post, if I’d written anything about Oakland’s ophiolite. The answer is, not specifically until now. The Coast Range ophiolite (OH-feel-ite) is a string of mostly disconnected outcrops of unusual rocks that extends north almost to Redding and south almost to Point Conception, rather like the way my writing about it runs through the ragged string of posts on this blog between late 2007 and today. In Oakland, the serpentinite patch is part of it, the San Leandro gabbro is part of it, and the Leona volcanics are part of it (see posts about that part here and here).

Here’s a recent simplified geologic map from a 2005 paper by ophiolite savant John Shervais (doi: 10.1130/B25443.1, available here) showing the most important bits of the ophiolite in black. It’s kind of a privilege to have a piece of it in our city.

The details in California are intricate and I’m about ankle-deep into them at the moment, so I’ll be pretty general here. Ophiolites were first recognized as a suite of related rock types over 200 years ago, at the dawn of scientific geology, in the Alps. Alexandre Brongniart gave them the name, which means “snake rock” in scientific Greek, because serpentinite (“snake rock” in scientific Latin) is so typical of them. About 50 years ago, at the dawn of plate tectonics, they were recognized as pieces of oceanic crust that somehow have ended up on land during the elephantine dance of the tectonic plates.

The oceanic crust of most ophiolites is not as well organized as the standard oceanic crust formed at mid-ocean ridges. It forms in the roiling setting near subduction zones, where subducting plates sink straight down and draw the other side toward them. (This situation, called slab rollback, is the opposite of what we’re taught in popular accounts that talk about subduction in terms of colliding continents and mountain-building.) As the plate on the other side is stretched thin, new magma forms beneath it, rises and freezes into fresh oceanic-style crust (the ophiolite). It’s because most ophiolites form near land next to subduction zones (the “suprasubduction-zone setting” in academic lingo), not way out to sea at mid-ocean ridges, that we find scraps of them plastered onto the continents in a couple hundred places around the world. There are some other tectonic schemes that make ophiolites, but this is the typical one.

Ophiolites consist of rocks that correspond to the major layers of oceanic plates, which are a deep base of peridotite, a middle layer of gabbro, an upper layer of basalt and a cap of mixed seafloor stuff: red clay, seamounts, volcanic chains and the odd limestone basin here and there. And most of these can be found in Oakland. The peridotite, when seawater reacts with it, turns quickly into serpentinite (but you can see rare remnants in places).

The gabbro, a coarse-grained rock of the same composition as basalt lava that has cooled slowly enough for visible mineral crystals to grow, underlies much of San Leandro and the deep-East Oakland hills.

And the Leona volcanics is a big pile of volcanic ash, shot through with dikes of basalt and now strongly altered, that sat on top.

The Coast Range ophiolite is highly disrupted now. It’s been caught up in millions of years of squeezing, stretching and kneading North America’s western edge — and that was before the San Andreas fault system arose and smeared everything sideways.

A handful of intrepid specialists continue the work that Brongniart started, reassembling and correlating and extrapolating and collecting ever more data. Ophiolites are important in the bigger scheme because some of them are the only pieces of seafloor rock that are older than the present ocean floor (which barely covers the Cretaceous period, back to about 140 million years). But if ophiolites are born poorly organized, unlike proper deep seafloor, attempting a perfect restoration may be an delusion, a will-o’-the-wisp. Our insights may always be a string of fragments, and we may have to let mystery be, but we have to try.

I also wrote this introductory piece about ophiolites for another website, once upon a time.