Archive for the ‘The Hayward fault’ Category

The landslides of London Road

29 October 2018

I spent some time last week in a concerted effort to examine the site of the 1970 London Road/Wilshire Heights landslide. (It took me five years to return to this haunted scene!) The effort was fun, but I learned more at home than I did on site. Gather round the campfire and I’ll tell you the whole tale.

To start with, here’s the most visible sign of this notorious event: the missing side of Kitchener Court, a hard-to-get-to cul-de-sac just south of the LDS Temple parking lot. I took this shot through a chainlink fence as a lone crow cawed.

Deep in the night, the land on the left side, along with its houses, fell into the narrow headwater valley of Peralta Creek, where it pushed a row of recently built homes off their foundations down below on London Road. To orient ourselves, here’s a time series of road maps with London Road in the center. Click it to see its full 1300-pixel width.

Today the whole south end of London Road is gone, except for a tiny stub at the top of Maple Avenue. The north end, of later vintage, extends south from Maiden Lane. The 2018 map, from Google Maps with terrain visible, shows the topographic setting well.

Once upon a time London Road ran up a steep, secluded little wooded valley. It was platted in 1923 as part of the Wilshire Heights development and named for Jack London. It was built out by the late 1950s, after surges of homebuilding in the 1920s and 1940s. Meanwhile, East Bay MUD put water and sewer lines through, and Shell Oil emplaced a fuel pipeline down the valley to carry gasoline from its Martinez refinery to the Oakland Airport.

What could go wrong? A lot. Every steep headwater stream in the Oakland hills is prone to landslides. And this particular stream has carved its charming valley into the pulverized rock along the Hayward fault. Here’s what that shattered, highly weathered material — fault gouge — looks like where it’s exposed in the headscarp.

It was mid-February in 1962, on a dark and stormy night, when the combination of heavy rainfall and leakage from a broken water main caused the hillside just south of Maiden Lane to fail. Three homes were destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

Who knows how long the main had been leaking, or why. Slow landslides could have broken the main, or steady creep along the fault. Either would suffice, but probably both took part. On top of that, literally, was the added load on the hillslope from the new homes and their construction. No ordinances were in place at the time to ensure good construction practices on unstable slopes. And of course, for their landscaping, homeowners just added water. The land was probably in motion long before it finally slid.

Then came more construction in the 1960s: the Warren Freeway on one side, the LDS Temple complex on the other. People in the neighborhood said they noticed new ground movements during those years, but no cause-and-effect relationship can be confirmed this many years later. It is true, though, that when the Mormons sculpted the hilltop for their temple they disturbed an underground realm of water and soil. This photo shows groundwater coming up through the parking lot pavement, a phenomenon people described as the emergence of “hidden springs.”

But for the catastrophe that followed, the unregulated 1920s-era homebuilding on the bluffs of Kitchener Court was cause enough. During heavy rains in early January 1970, the whole east side of Kitchener Court began to collapse onto the south end of London Road. Within two weeks, some 40 houses were affected as 15 acres of land turned to hummocky ruin. The pipeline full of gasoline held, but Shell shut the whole thing down shortly thereafter. (In March 1969 it had been blown up, down in Redwood Canyon, engulfing the village of Canyon in a horrendous fire. Then this. And opposition continued to grow until the bad idea was safely dead.)

This land at the very end of Jordan Road is still iffy after almost 50 years.

There’s also the rock — you knew I’d get around to that. I don’t quite trust the geologic map in this area, but I can attest that serpentinite occurs here as it does in many places along California’s faults. These two specimens are good examples of our typical mixed serpentine rock and blueschist, and large boulders or outcrops of the same are visible in several places. There’s more on the west side of the temple. Serpentinite makes slide-prone ground, too, even when it’s not steep or waterlogged as this place was.

But on the whole, my poking around was frustrating because the land is so heavily overgrown and fenced off. Fortunately the US Geological Survey got funding for a lidar survey of the whole San Andreas fault system, including the Hayward fault, and the processed data — a digital elevation model or DEM, available from OpenTopography — is a fabulous resource for this exact area. After subtracting the vegetation and the structures from the data, the DEM becomes a grayscale image representing the bare ground, with the ghosts of streets and houses, here computer-illuminated from due northwest.

What’s handier, here’s the same with the Hayward fault superimposed. I usually have to do a lot of talking and armwaving to explain things, but not this time. Click in and wander around. The blue outline signifies a sag basin.

My final piece is this closeup of the slide area along with the lot lines and rights of way — more ghosts, still there after all these years.

There’s just one little house left on the east side of Kitchener Court, right up against the temple property. Incredible as it may seem, the adjoining lot, half fallen downhill with cliffs all around it, has a For Sale sign posted. Talk about a haunted place!

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 Hillside School and the Hayward fault

20 November 2017

It was a most enjoyable hike that I led on Saturday for the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association, wandering for 3-plus miles in the city’s wonderful rock parks and along the Hayward fault. As usual, visiting the fault has its troubling side, and here I couldn’t ignore the implications of this splendid building, the old Hillside Elementary School on Le Roy Avenue.

This is the second Hillside School, built after the first one burned in the 1923 Berkeley Hills fire. For its time it was well designed, well made and well appointed, but after 50 years scientists confirmed that an active trace of the Hayward fault runs under it. The next major earthquake on this fault will rupture and ruin the structure. Besides that, the site is on a deep-seated active landslide.

The clear and present danger to children and teachers led the authorities to abandon the building in 1980.

In 2011 the German International School of Silicon Valley bought the site and pledged to do right by the building. In 2016 they fixed the roof with new, historically authentic materials, but at year’s end they moved out after deciding they couldn’t afford any more of the needed work.

There are two facts on the ground here. It’s a geological fact that this building is doomed and dangerous. But it’s an emotional and political fact that this building is precious.

The city declared the school a historic landmark in 1980, and it’s on the national register too. People love it and have strengthened the structure twice since 1925. But after the next major quake — not to mention a repeat of the 1923 fire — the school will be kindling, or ashes. Spending good money in a lost cause is an example of escalation of commitment, or the fallacy of sunk costs.

Without a building here, the site would be an excellent resource throughout the disaster period, and in between disasters an excellent little park.

During the walk, I made the modest proposal that we remove the building, and give it a nice funeral, before disaster strikes. Because now is the time that one day we’ll remember as “before.”

By holding a funeral for a building I mean, for starters, a respectful demolition. Make a virtual-reality model of the structure, recording the rooms and their beautiful wood beams and floors. Collect stories from the people who taught or attended school there. Hold a farewell concert in the old auditorium (with everyone signing waivers). Salvage the good materials. Build a memorial and have ceremonies.

All that stuff and more would befit the facts on the ground. I think it would raise the community’s consciousness of disaster preparedness, and at the same time mark the fact that in this case our ancestors won their bet against geology.

South Dunsmuir Ridge

29 May 2017

I finally got to a sweet corner of town last week, the sunny side of Dunsmuir Ridge, this lovely hill in the Google Maps 3D view.

The view is to the north-northwest, such that the Hayward fault runs straight up about a thumb’s width from the left edge. The maps below start with the 1915 topo map, in which the ridge’s top is the lobed outline of the 625-foot contour.

That straight creek valley along the hill’s south side — the gorge in the foreground of the top image — keeps catching my eye, but it seems to be inaccessible, which might make it Oakland’s wildest piece of land. The watershed map below may help in visualizing the hill and its surroundings. The two black dots are where the fire trail I took starts and ends.

Dunsmuir Ridge is city land, rescued from development after several aborted attempts to put high-end estates on this broad hilltop overlooking (in both senses) the deadly Hayward fault. The fire trail starts at the end of Cranford Way and winds up the ridge to join the fire road from the other side, which I’ve featured here before.

The walk is very scenic. To the north, downtown rises against Mount Tam.

Or if you prefer, there’s the new profile of San Francisco.

Higher up, the view opens out. Here San Leandro Creek is made visible as a line of trees coming out of the canyon toward its mouth near the airport.

But the main attraction is to the south. This is the best place to take portraits of Fairmont Ridge and its quarry scar. Unlike most places, this trail sets off the hill with a foreground of wild, forested land.

The prominent cleared space midway up the trail — a staging pad for firefighters — has regular visitors who find the spot special.

Interestingly, this spot is mapped as a patch of the peculiar Irvington-aged gravel that first brought me to Dunsmuir Ridge in 2009. However, I didn’t notice much of it, if any. See it on the geologic map — the white dots mark the ends of the fire trail.

There are rocks to be seen too. The soil is thin in most places. This little cut displays a profile of the soil and the decaying bedrock — saprolite — just beneath it.

The bedrock varies, and it doesn’t match the geologic map very closely. I would say nearly all of the lower part is not Leona volcanics (Jsv) but San Leandro Gabbro (gb). It has the gabbro’s pepper-and-salt appearance but is stained orange instead of the pristine rock’s bluish gray (as I saw earlier that day in San Leandro). You’ll see it well exposed in the trail itself, where this winter’s heavy rains carved fresh runnels.

If the city fills them before you get there (which it should before they become gullies), there are still roadside exposures that display the rock well, and it’s unmistakably gabbro where the map says volcanics. The top of the hill, though, is unquestionably Leona volcanics.

My long-term plan is to revisit every bit of bedrock in Oakland and log it. Besides sheer nerdery and the chance to improve the map, my motive is to come back to views like this one over and over again.

The old quarry is still for sale. Developers have tried to put houses there, but they keep getting shot down. Better, I say, for the Regional Parks District to acquire the land and develop it for quiet recreation.