Two lessons about floods

As we anticipate the strong possibility of heavy El Niño rains, my attention will be on Oakland’s streams this winter. Last week parts of southern California were hit by “thousand-year” rainfall events, cloudbursts that washed thick sheets of mud over roads and properties. We can expect such things here too, in any given thousand-year period.

Arroyo Viejo, the stream that crosses Knowland Park, offers two lessons about floods. The scene below is at the northern edge of the park, looking upstream: a streambed piled with boulders, some as large as sofas. (All photos 800 px)

A-viejo-in-K-park

Notice: these rocks have been tumbled by the stream. How much water would it take to do that? Let’s make a rough, arm-waving estimate.

The rainfall in last week’s cloudburst was almost 4 inches in one hour. Had it fallen on the watershed of Arroyo Viejo above this point — say, half a square kilometer — it would represent an input of roughly 30 cubic meters of rainwater every second.

Picture in your mind that volume of water — no, it would be mud and therefore that much greater — funnelled through this narrow valley. Do a little geometry and it’s easy to see the floodwater would be well above the tops of the boulders.

Hidden in plain sight in this photo, then, is a single hour of tumult that might have happened a thousand years ago or five hundered years ago — or perhaps during the dreadful winter of 1861-62, when it rained for 43 straight days and much of the Central Valley became a lake.

The lesson is that most of geology’s hard work gets done in rare spurts of extraordinary activity.

Okay, the second lesson is hidden in these rocks. All of them, like this boulder as tall as me, are made of conglomerate.

Knox-in-A-viejo1

These rocks, assigned to the Knoxville Formation of Late Jurassic to Early Cretaceous age, were laid down by ancient floods in a nearshore or terrestrial setting. I’ll show you three different specimens. Notice the large clasts and the fine-grained matrix that surrounds them.

Knox-in-A-viejo2

This boulder displays a wide range of clast sizes. It was probably laid down by what’s called a hyperpycnal flow, a slurry of sediment that carries everything along with it. We’ve watched them happen offshore in Monterey Canyon. Here’s another example.

Knox-in-A-viejo3

Instead of an underwater landslide, as seen in the first specimen, this represents something gentler and more organized, like a mudflow, or like the mudslides we saw in the news. The clasts are aligned with the current that carried them here.

The key observation in both cases is that the large clasts are floating in the matrix. In geologist’s terms, they are matrix-supported conglomerates.

Then we have this.

Knox-in-A-viejo4

Here’s a beautiful clast-supported conglomerate. It represents a clean bed of well-rounded cobbles, all touching each other, like you’d see in a rushing stream or a rocky beach, nicely infiltrated with clean silt or clay after it was laid down.

None of these stones were made by ordinary sediment wafting down streams during ordinary rainy seasons. They were assembled by floods of all sizes.

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2 Responses to “Two lessons about floods”

  1. gen katz Says:

    Define clast. Dictionary dedinition doesn’t seem adequate. ‘fragment of a classic rock formation’

  2. Andrew Says:

    A clast is a piece of rock, of any size. I was hoping the meaning would be clear from context. It’s also the only five-letter word, it seems, that spellcheckers don’t recognize.

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