Archive for the ‘oakland rocks’ Category

Oakland ochre

24 May 2013


Here’s the story behind this photo. I just got back from five days in Fresno at the annual meeting of my regional section of the Geological Society of America, the Cordilleran Section. The first order of business was a field trip to see the Pleistocene fossils of the Fairmead Landfill, near Chowchilla. The guy whose hand this is is Blake Bufford, director of the Fossil Discovery Center just across the road from the site. His job is to follow around the giant scrapers at the landfill when they dig new pits and watch for fossils, so he’s the most important pair of eyes in the entire project. Blake showed our group the latest pit and then accompanied us to the Center for a tour and a reception by the FDC’s owners, the San Joaquin Valley Paleontology Foundation. Some nice Madera County wine, local cheese, “mammoth” meat balls and so on.

Blake and I got to talking, and the topic of Oakland came up. He asked if I knew anything about the traditional ochre diggings he had visited there. I told him about the Holy Names site, but that’s not the one he meant. No, he said, this was another place that was in the process of being wiped out to build a supermarket, where both red and yellow ochre were produced. “Let me show it to you.”

The Center is full of fossils, but it also has a little display cabinet dedicated to the people who once had the area to themselves, the Chowchilla tribe. There was an antique woven reed basket, of course, but everything else was a modern replica made with traditional techniques: arrows with interchangeable arrowheads, various kinds of twine, deerbone trowels and scrapers, a tiny wooden flute, necklaces, a soapstone bowl and trade beads, and balls of red and yellow ochre. Blake made all of it. He unlocked the case and showed me everything in it. He made the ochre balls, the size of a small egg, by grinding the stone to powder, then mixing it with boiled soaproot to hold it together. “We don’t know exactly what they used, but this worked.” There were a couple of raw ochre specimens lying next to them. “I collected this one from Oakland,” he said, and I said, “Please let me photograph that.”

Leona Canyon

23 April 2013


Leona Canyon Regional Open Space Reserve is an East Bay Regional Parks District property of some 290 acres that is entirely within the Oakland city boundary. It’s got rocks.

The canyon was cut by Rifle Range Branch, part of the Arroyo Viejo stream network. The branch joins Arroyo Viejo underneath I-580 at the turnoff to the zoo. The topography is rugged. I surmise that the rifle range that gave its name to the creek was here once upon a time, because it’s the sort of place where you could shoot a lot without disturbing the rest of the city.


Here’s the geology of the same piece of ground.


The pink “Jsv” is the same metavolcanic rock (Leona “rhyolite”) found in the Leona Quarry just to the west. The green units are the familiar sedimentary rocks of the Great Valley Sequence, tilted upward so that they get younger to the east. The units, in order of age, are the Knoxville Formation (KJk), the Joaquin Miller Formation (Kjm), the Oakland Conglomerate (Ko) and the Shephard Creek Formation (Ksc). You can see that the canyon is controlled by the faulted contact between pink and green.

OK! The creek is dammed at the base of the canyon, presumably just for flood or sediment control. Maybe the rifle range used to be here. Anyway, the creek is fairly level throughout the park, creating a nice bit of habitat.


As you walk up the creek, it wanders along the contact between the two major rock units, so you’ll see a mixture of boulders in the creek bed. The Knoxville is a shale with some sandstone, not very distinguished, but near its base it includes some conglomerate and breccia: rocks made of pebbles and cobbles derived from the Leona keratophyre. This example is from the high end of the trail, in the upper left corner of the geologic map.


The reserve has two paths that lead up the canyon’s sides. The Pyrite Trail goes west through the metavolcanics. It’s shady and steep. I should note that I saw no signs of pyrite on it.


Along this trail you’ll see the Leona metavolcanics, kinda ragged-looking stuff that’s been chewed up and spit out a few times since it was a volcanic island arc during the Late Jurassic.


There are nice views of the other side of the canyon, which is more open and chaparral-y.


The trail up that side is called the Artemisia Trail. I’m not sure that either trail’s name means much. It passes a lot of this fine-grained sandstone.


Higher up, you get a good look at this big knob, which is a prominent part of the hills’ skyline as seen from the north. This view is from the south.


There seem to be a few informal trails on it, and the view must be fantastic. But the Artemisia Trail offers superb views across the middle and south bay, too. I’ll be back.

MapView: Not ready for Oakland (updated)

11 March 2013

The U.S. Geological Survey’s programmers have made a nifty nationwide map server called MapView that lets you play with geologic maps from most of the country. Naturally I zoomed in on Oakland. I expected to see something like this when I looked at the Toler Heights area.


It’s kinda garish, but it’s from the USGS and as authoritative as these things can be. Instead, MapView shows me this:


It’s crisp, it’s suitable for colorblind readers, but it’s wildly different. It shows simpler divisions and more limited areas of bedrock. It shows the active trace of the Hayward fault running on the opposite side of the hill from where it actually moves. Then there are things I notice: the names of the rock units have an antique feel and very few faults are mapped. And what’s with the ludicrously small landslide (“Qls”) and serpentinite pod (“sp”) in the middle? Why such a mixture of vagueness and precision?

In fact, this is not a USGS map at all, but a map issued by the Dibblee Foundation. Dibblee is the late and distinguished Tom Dibblee (1911–2004), popularly considered “the greatest geologic mapper who ever lived.” I consider him one of the greatest reconnaissance geologic mappers ever because that was his M.O.: to take his Jeep out to various high spots in poorly mapped territory and sketch out the bedrocks in the landscape onto a map base, then do field-checking until it was ready to publish. His skills were more than just fieldwork; he knew the literature and the community too, both scientific and industrial. I don’t have the talent to question his talent.

But. If you download the map and look at its sources, you’ll see that it’s based on Dibblee’s fieldwork in 1963 and a short return visit in 1977, plus three “preliminary maps” issued by the USGS, one of them in 1967 and all of them superseded by the map I use, Russ Graymer’s USGS Map MF-2342 published in 2000. I can only infer that this map was based on Dibblee’s old field notes as edited, posthumously, by John Minch in his role as official map editor for the Dibblee Foundation. I don’t question his talent, either, but it would be a major undertaking to update this map, one that has not been done.

What’s a few years, you might ask; the rocks never change. Well, consider that this map misplaces the Hayward fault. How do I know? It ignores the experience of Jim Lienkaemper’s meticulous mapping, which checks out in the field wherever I’ve looked. This is from his 1992 compilation of the fault trace and the supporting evidence.


The Dibblee Foundation map is beautiful, but in this respect it is simply wrong. It didn’t go through the rigorous USGS review process; in fact I am confident that if it were submitted it would be rejected.

I’m going to ask the MapView people to reconsider using these maps in preference to USGS maps. For now I have to say that MapView is not curated to my standards.

UPDATE: The MapView administrator responded to me promptly and politely; I’ll excerpt his reply: “the point you raise has been a real concern . . . but [we] didn’t know the entire story nor had we been presented with a clear example of the problem, as you did in your blog. . . Our starting assumption is that newer maps supersede older mapping, and so unless there’s a compelling reason to not do so, we show the newer map. . . . The most effective way to improve upon what’s shown in MapView is for local and regional experts to weigh in with their opinion and experience, as you have done. I sincerely thank you for contacting us, and assure you that we’ll remove the Dibblee Foundation maps in all cases where there isn’t an older map of that scale that is ‘better’.” Translation: We pick maps by their release date and we won’t adjust that until someone squawks.

The other attractive feature of the Dibblee maps is that they’re standard 7.5-minute quadrangles, which makes things much easier for the MapView programmers. But ease of programming is not the same as usefulness.

Encroaching slopes

27 November 2012

crumbling slope

This is a block of Swainland Road, at the high end of the Glen Highlands neighborhood hard under the powerline ridge just south of Route 24. The bedrock is mapped as Great Valley Sequence sandstone. It’s a lot harder and stronger than much of the rock in the hills, but it still doesn’t like being exposed and oversteepened. It’s steadily encroaching on the sidewalk, trying to reach a more comfortable angle. Vegetation would probably help.

Rocks of the Caldecott Tunnel

23 November 2012

I mentioned a few posts back that I would be doing a field trip related to the new bore of the Caldecott Tunnel. Here’s how it went.

We (the members of the Northern California Geological Society) started with a talk at the Caltrans headquarters in Lafayette. They showed us historical photos and engineering diagrams, explained the New Austrian boring technique, and ascertained that we weren’t interested in a “photo opp” near the tunnel entrance. Apparently that last is a prime demand of many tour groups, but we didn’t care.

First stop was at the old tunnel entrance, which I’ve shown here before. The old plaque has been refurbished and looks garish now.

old tunnel

The tour leader unfurled a huge geologic map of the tunnel and talked a lot about all the rocks (click the image to see the 1000-pixel version). I studied it closely, because it’s the best we have for this part of town.

tunnel geologic map

The blue stripes on the west side of the map are the Sobrante Formation, the green, purple and tan stripes are the Clarement Shale, and the buff stripe on the right is the Orinda Formation. These are stacked up in order of age, old on the east, and tilted nearly straight upright.

Next we wound our way around to the extreme top of Broadway, next to the tunnel’s west entrance. Here’s the view from there looking north.

The rocks in the immediate area are in the putative Sobrante Formation, but the Claremont formation takes over just to the east (right). Here’s the Sobrante exposed at that spot.

sobrante formation

It’s pretty crummy rock, and the tunneling was quite slow there. Every couple of meters, the tunnelers drilled a fan of holes over the roof of the upcoming dig segment, each one reinforced and grouted. That reinforcement allowed the tunnel roof to stay up long enough to spray it with shotcrete, which in turn held up the roof until the real concrete tunnel lining could be emplaced. The tunnel’s final shaft is round, as strong as an eggshell in its resistance to the earth’s weight. (To see what I mean, try gripping a raw egg firmly in one hand, fingers on all sides, and attempt to crush it. You can’t do it.)

Next we visited the type locality of the Claremont Shale, where I learned something new about it.

claremont shale

The unit here is mostly thin beds of chert and thinner interbeds of shale, but there are also lumpy beds in it—see one running down the center and another one near the right edge. Those are dolomite. It turns out that carbonate and silicate minerals dislike each other enough that they tend to segregate themselves: in chalks, you get flint lumps, and in cherts (as here) you get limerock lumps.

Our last stop was on Fish Ranch Road just east of the tunnel, where we looked at the Orinda Formation in the surrounding hillsides. The Caltrans people brought along a box of the fossils recovered from the fourth-bore project, so I got to lay my hands on this Miocene horse tooth . . .

horse tooth fossil

. . . and this slab of fossil leaves.

leaf fossils

The Caltrans public-information official was at obvious pains to say how happy the paleontology contractors were and how well the fossil collecting had gone. Obvious to me, anyway. I won’t forget the complaints I heard from the other party, but I will keep in mind that most stories have at least two sides, and that every fossil preserved is a victory over the universal decay of the world.

Tunnel approach

31 October 2012

I’ll be taking a tour of the new Caldecott Tunnel bore on Friday. This is the view of Route 24 from the ridge south of it, across from Hiller Highlands. Everything here is east of the Hayward fault.

great valley

On the right is uppermost Broadway, where a line of locals and advanced commuters chronically hope for a few seconds’ advantage by merging at the last second before the tunnel. I’ve decided that it’s faster to get in the left lane of 24 as soon as possible and stay there. Anyway, all the land from here to the far curve is underlain by rocks of the Great Valley Complex, of Late Cretaceous age. A fault separates it from the Sobrante Formation behind it, which is much younger. The lower part of the skyline ridge is Sobrante, but the high part is chert of the Claremont Shale. The tunnel penetrates both of those units, and I hope for a good look at it.

I was standing by the power line; you get to it by hiking down the road from the sports complex, on Broadway at the overcrossing, or by ducking around the gate at the top of Pali Court. The Great Valley here is a mix of fine-grained sedimentary rocks. Exposures are poor and the fabric is disrupted. Here’s an exposure on Pali Court.

great valley

And here’s a closeup from nearby.

It’s very shaly. The lenses of more siliceous stuff don’t add to its strength.

Pershing knob

9 September 2012

Pershing Drive sits at the top of the south end of the Piedmont block at nearly its highest point, just under 800 feet. At one end of the road is a long exposure of rugged Franciscan chert that is exquisitely integrated into the landscaping, which includes native oaks as well as the usual plantings. It is a challenge to photograph but a delight to see in person.


This is the high-grade, bleached and sometimes greenish banded chert of the Piedmont block rather than the beautiful red ribbon chert of the Marin Headlands. Its outcrop appears on the Oakland geologic map east of Piedmont’s Tyson Lake. The very steep slope on its bayward side is interpreted as a thrust fault separating the higher Franciscan melange from the lower Franciscan sandstone. Melange is not generally considered a strong stone by geotechnical engineers, but recent research shows that it depends. This melange is the best bedrock in Oakland, and worthy of its gracious and picturesque neighborhood.


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