Archive for the ‘Oakland geology puzzles’ Category

The Idaho connection

13 February 2017

I’ve been getting into the weeds as I work on my book manuscript about Oakland’s geology (tentative title, Deeper Oakland). Where did Oakland’s rocks come from? Specifically, how did they get from where they formed to where they are? This problem is particularly vexing for the older rocks with Mesozoic ages. The western edge of North America has been built, unbuilt, shifted, rebuilt and disassembled for hundreds of millions of years.

Generally the pieces have been carried northward by the vagaries of plate tectonics. Rocks that were once Californian now sit as far north as Alaska, and likewise rocks that live here now come from as far south as Mexico.

The rocks in lower Shepherd Canyon (the Shephard Creek and Redwood Canyon Formations) belong to the huge set of sandstones and related rocks underlying the Central Valley — the Great Valley Group — but are separated from them. How they broke off and how they wandered to where they sit today are, as we say, poorly constrained. One clue may be within the sand itself.

Last year a paper in Geology laid out an intricate case that the sediment making up one part of the Great Valley Group was eroded from an ancient set of rocks in Idaho, the Lemhi subbasin of the Belt Supergroup. Papers dealing with the assembly of the North American Cordillera usually have gnarly figures, because the story is so complex, and this one, the product of an all-California team of geologists led by Stanford’s Trevor Dumitru, was no exception.

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The whole scenario is based on microscopic grains of zircon, which lurk in many sandstones because the mineral is extremely durable. Luckily, we can determine the age of zircon grains because they’re superbly suited for the gold standard of dating techniques, the uranium-lead method. Think of them like pennies with dates on them.

So there’s a big body of rock in the Lemhi subbasin full of a unique combination of zircon ages, including a bunch around 1380 million years old. At one point during Cretaceous time, around 80 million years ago, a mountain-building episode pushed these rocks into a knot of high peaks, which eroded into sand that was carried by rivers in at least four directions. Dumitru and his coauthors duly gave these hypothetical ancient rivers names, because that’s one of the perks of doing historical geology.

Sandstones containing Lemhi zircons, with their telltale 1380 Ma peak, are found in Wyoming, Oregon, Washington and California. In the Bay Area, the paper identifies them in sandstone from Del Puerto Canyon, west of Patterson in the Central Valley. Apparently a huge pulse of Lemhi sand poured down the “Kione River” and filled the whole sedimentary basin for a while. (Basins keep sinking as they fill, because the sediment load depresses the crust.) That sandstone is mapped as the Kione Formation, a portion of the Great Valley Group that’s been considered mysterious because the sand clearly didn’t come from its usual source, the nearby (ancestral) Sierra Nevada and Klamath Range.

The point of all this is that the Oakland rocks I’m talking about date from this same period! If only we could get a zircon researcher to check them out, we might learn a little something. I mean, Dumitru dated rocks from Albany Hill, Stinson Beach, Bolinas Ridge and Sutro Baths (localities H, G, F and E in the inset map) among other places. He dated rocks from the Novato Quarry terrane of the Franciscan complex, the same unit our own Franciscan rocks belong to. He dated rocks from the Sierra de Salinas Schist, down near Monterey.

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I love it; it has its own cool story. So why not visit Oakland too? I guess rocks on this side of the Hayward fault aren’t as important for the bigger story. But you never know until you find out, right?

By the way, I will be speaking at the upcoming East Bay Nerd Nite, Monday the 27th; watch its Facebook page or website for details. The topic is, “Are Rocks People?”

Clay outcrop in Horseshoe Canyon

25 January 2016

The gorge of Horseshoe Creek, in Leona Heights Park, is unusually grand for its size. Its rugged rocks, mostly Leona “rhyolite,” are pretty homogeneous though.

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So when a spot along the stream caught my eye with its color — reddish red and bluish gray — I went off the trail and checked it out. Notice that the surface is cut into the hillside.

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This streamside lump looked just like concrete. But there was a lot of it, in different states of preservation and age, so I took it as a natural deposit.

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It was hard, but a little higher up I was surprised to find soft material. Not just soft, but pure clay.

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The high-silica lava and volcanic ash that makes up the Leona should weather into kaolinite (white china clay), especially under acidic conditions. We have that combination in parts of the Leona that are rich in pyrite. This mineral, with the formula FeS2, reacts with air to form iron oxyhydroxides and sulfuric acid (here’s a brief treatment).

There may be a pod of rock here with a different texture or composition from its surroundings, which might account for the purity of the clay. But I don’t actually know how pure the clay is. The way to tell would be nibbling it. Maybe on my next visit.

I think that a gradient in pH, plus interactions with air and surface water, explains the transition from gray to white to red clay as you go from depth to the surface.

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Without a lab, there’s not much I can say about it, although geologists with more experience probably know this stuff cold. If so, speak up. There was another piece of evidence at the scene, though: a bit of leaking “yellowboy” from the floor of the streambed.

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It means there’s a little bit of acid drainage here, not up to the level of the ex-sulfur mine just south of here. More like a geologically slow bit of natural acid drainage. It will be interesting to watch this spot during this wet winter.

Dunsmuir Ridge revisited; Irvington gravels visited

18 January 2016

Six and a half years ago, I put up a post about the special little gravel patches on Dunsmuir Ridge. On Tuesday I finally returned there to put back the rocks I collected. That’s extremely fussy of me, but a principle’s a principle and my living space refuses to stretch with the rocks I bring home.

I didn’t include a geologic map in my earlier post, so here it is now.

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The gravel patches are shown in light tan, inside the “Jsv” area (which you’ll recognize as the Leona “rhyolite”). The straightest black dashed line is the Hayward fault.

Winter is a good time to walk Oakland’s hills.

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The Leona makes up the country rock, distinctive yet somehow nondescript.

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As you climb through the woods, the stones in the road turn rounded, and variegated. That’s the odd, out-of-place gravel.

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Here’s a hunk of the laminated Claremont chert, well outside its domain.

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As I encountered each lithology, I pulled out the appropriate cobble from my 2009 raid and reintroduced it to its cousin: the celadonite-bearing Leona, more abundant in the gravels than in the field . . .

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and the glorious Franciscan metachert.

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When all the stones were dispersed, I went up to the hilltop where the gravel had been so abundant in the roadways in 2009. I knew what to expect.

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This part of the hilltop is no longer fit for science, but I’m not bothered. Real science would be done by careful excavation in undisturbed places, and those are still available. Meanwhile, you could say those rocks are now cherished stones. Rainwashed and sundried, they look their best now. Enjoy them while you’re up there.

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My second purpose in revisiting Dunsmuir Ridge was to compare its gravel to the official Irvington Gravel down in Fremont, which I did that afternoon. Here’s the geology, from the Alameda County bedrock map, USGS Open-File 96-252.

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It’s not a great map for field use — the geographic base layer is quite poor — but you get the gist. I-680 curves east through the northern tip of the gravel, and the original quarry is right there where the “25” is. The ex-quarry and the streambed along the north edge of the gravel are preserved in Sabercat Park.

It was an ordinary gravel quarry until the 1940s, when a treasure trove of Pleistocene fossils was extracted from the site.

More fossils are surely there, thousands of them, in the hillsides.

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I took a good look at the gravel cropping out. There was a general resemblance to the Dunsmuir Hills patches that I wouldn’t have noted had I been a naive visitor. But for an initial reconnaissance visit, this was cool.

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Fossil hunters adore the rain, because it gently washes dust and dirt away from even tiny fossils, allowing them to stand out on the clean surface. So I closely inspected a few spots just in case there were, like, Pleistocene mouse teeth exposed.

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Just some pretty Franciscan chert again. Parks are off limits to collectors, so I would have merely photographed anything I found. I’ve come to believe that finding is a purer pleasure than keeping, anyway.

The Northern California Geological Society had a field trip here 10 years ago. Many wonderful Irvington fossils can be seen and touched at the Children’s Natural History Museum in Fremont.