Archive for the ‘Oakland hazards’ Category

Shepherd Canyon landslides

10 April 2017

Last week I went to visit a landslide that had been in the news. As it happened, I saw three.

Shepherd Canyon always gets a lot of landslides, like its neighboring canyons in the high hills. The main reason is that Shephard Creek has a lot of cutting power, thanks to its relatively large watershed and the low base level provided by Dimond Canyon. That creates steep slopes and V-shaped valley profiles. A secondary reason is the relatively soft mudstone underlying those slopes.

My destination was the landslide that came down on the south side of Banning Drive. But along the way my path was blocked by two more mass movements. They’re marked by white asterisks on the geologic map below.

The Montclair Railroad Trail, my usual route, offers walkers good access to the canyon. On the inner side of the sharp curve and cut leading into the canyon, this slope failure exposed the rears of two houses. I classify it as a debris fall.

The majority of the material is broken rock, hence the term debris, and it tumbled in a heap rather than traveling any distance, hence the term fall. Only a little mud was present.

The area is mapped as the Oakland Conglomerate (Ko), although the debris appeared to consist mostly of fine sandstone and a little shale, like this. The rainwashed stone is well displayed.

Picking my way past that was no problem. Farther up the trail, though, was a complete blockage.

Like the lower slope failure, this one involved debris, but unlike it the material slid, so I classify it as a debris slide. Several large trees that came down with the rock didn’t appear to be to blame. However, this time of year is the most dangerous for trees because the ground is sopping wet and the limbs are heavy with young leaves, making them prone to catch the wind. Maybe they triggered the slide. Maybe the other way around.

Fortunately no houses appeared to be threatened above the headscarp, but now the slope is highly vulnerable.

A sewer line runs beneath the trail, so the city may have to clear the slide once the ground is no longer saturated. Meanwhile this is too dangerous to approach. It could fall with no warning.

The debris is made of fine-grained sandstone of the Redwood Canyon Formation (Kr).

Finally I got up to Banning Drive. It’s situated in one of the major side valleys in Shepherd Canyon, and the walls are exceptionally steep.

I classify this slope failure as a debris flow, what the news media often calls a mudslide. It traveled downhill a good hundred meters in a thick semifluid mass. The mud content was greater than the other two slides, and muck spilled into and around several homes on Banning. There’s plenty of footage of the scene online, so I don’t need to show you that. It was hard to watch the residents clearing out their red-tagged homes while the news vans gathered round.

I didn’t need to be there once I’d seen it. Presently I went uphill to Aitken Drive, where the slide originated.

Note a couple of things. Right beyond the gap in the road, a telephone pole was snapped off and the wires were hanging low. (The power was off.) The extra load caused the pole at the left edge of the photo to lean inward. The scar in the road reveals a wall of sandbags (I assume they were filled with concrete) that must have been put there after a previous slide.

Landslides occur where previous slides did. And sure enough, looking uphill I could see the young scar of a small rockslide, nestled in turn within a concavity in the hillside that looked like the scar of a much older slide.

There is another street higher up, Chelton Drive, but no houses up there appeared to be endangered. Meanwhile East Bay MUD had the road blocked while they were making sure the water lines underneath wouldn’t break and make more trouble.

Who’s responsible? Perhaps no one. The problem is above my pay grade, as I’m not a licensed geologist. But I can see the signs and warnings of landslides, and so can you if you pay attention to the landscape. The U.S. Geological Survey has resources, and so does the California Geological Survey.

Old fill and made land

6 March 2017

Between the 1840s and roughly 1960, the Bay area made colossal amounts of dry land through “reclamation,” a euphemism for filling in marshland with whatever was handy. Oakland was no exception. Here’s a portion of the geologic map centered on Jack London Square, Oakland’s original harbor. Reclaimed land, or artificial fill, is shown in pink.

jlsgeomap

We were lucky in Oakland that the waterfront was largely developed by the railroads. They had the money and foresight to do the job right, by mid-1800s standards, and the fill is pretty good. An exception is the building that houses Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon.

heinolds

The structure was built in 1880 of ship’s timbers, and in accordance with good practice it was placed on piles, driven into the fill and the mud beneath. But it has settled, especially after the 1906 earthquake, and the land has been built up around it. You won’t notice from the outside until you approach the door, which sits below the surrounding ground.

heinoldsdoor

Go inside (as every Oaklander should at least once), and you’re in a funhouse of ancient furniture and creaky walls covered with old papers, all set off by a crazily tilted floor. Fortunately it’s merely a bar and not some place people have to live in.

For real landfill folly, you’ll want to visit San Francisco. The land south of Market Street was originally a mixed bag — the bedrock of Rincon Hill and a ridge of sand dunes to its west offered firm ground, and Sullivan Marsh to their south surrounded Mission Bay with poor ground. On the geologic map, the old marsh is mapped as “Qaf,” or artificial fill. It extends to the Civic Center.

sfmarshgeomap

The area south of Market began to be developed around 1870, and the marsh was filled rapidly and willy-nilly. Within a few decades the good ground was occupied by grand hotels, office buildings and luxury residences while the bad ground — the made land — was full of working-class boarding houses, small shops and warehouses.

The marsh contained several meters of peat on the surface and saturated sand and mud beneath. Loading this land with landfill rubbish, then placing buildings on it, left it highly vulnerable to settling and, during earthquakes, liquefaction — complete loss of strength.

When the 1906 quake struck, the buildings on firm ground did well while the former marsh area was largely ruined. But everything south of Market, rich and poor, burned down within a day. All of it was rebuilt, just like before, as rapidly as possible. And for the next century, the made land has kept on subsiding.

Main streets, like 7th Street, were regularly built up to maintain their grade. Side streets like Natoma were not.

sfslump-4

Many homes sank at the same time the street were built up. This one is typical.

sfslump-3

At the same time, many buildings suffered differential or uneven settling, like Heinold’s did. Residents, then and now, just put up with it.

sfslump-2

Today redevelopment is replacing these tired survivers. The new blocks have a hip and trendy look now, if you don’t happen to notice the occasional straggler.

sfslump-1

Soon enough, the past will vanish from the South of Market. But just wait another century, or less if they have a major quake before then, and some of these new buildings will slowly turn into antique funhouses like Heinold’s.

Oakland has been pretty good about avoiding our own versions of Sullivan Marsh, but we do have strips of fill to watch out for.

Notes for the Aftermath

16 January 2017

I think about earthquakes often, almost every day. That’s part of what makes a geologist — not just visualizing the deep past, but living in the deep present. Turning seeing into foreseeing. In this post I’ll talk about a bad idea, a good idea and a current lesson.

The bad idea is that when the Big One hits, you’ll just saddle up your car and get clean out of town. Don’t count on it.

There are two things wrong with this idea. First, the roads will be closed. I can guarantee this, even if the freeways won’t collapse outright like the Cypress Structure did in 1989. They’ve all been upgraded. It’s not about the freeways, but about surface streets. Trees and live wires will fall in every neighborhood. Buildings will catch fire in every neighborhood. Roads will buckle in every part of town — because of landslides in the high hills and the low hills, because of ground liquefaction in the low lands. The authorities will open access in an orderly way. Be prepared to wait instead.

Second, you should leave the roads clear for more important traffic — fire trucks, utility vehicles, police vans, ambulances. There will be hundreds of fires, broken water and gas lines, downed trees and power lines, a few panicky folks waving guns around, thousands of people injured. Sit tight and help where you can.

It’s good to have your car equipped at all times, but don’t count on being able to leave fast, or soon. That stuff in the car will make a big difference regardless . . . like if you’re driving, not at home, when the quake hits.

The good idea is this: text, don’t phone. Take a deep breath, sit down for a minute and use your phone’s little keyboard.

With cell towers damaged and emergency traffic heavy, bandwidth for communications will be scarce. Voice traffic takes much more bandwidth than texting. Text one family member and have them inform the rest. They’ll already know you’ve had a big earthquake. Tell them what they really need to know about you. Don’t send video, don’t send audio. Save your battery.

So, right after “drop, cover and hold” comes “text, don’t phone.” Two easy things to remember. If you’re up for a third thing, I recommend what they say in Japan: “Put out open flames.”

The current lesson is from the tragic Ghost Ship fire. It was reported in Thursday’s East Bay Times that people have raised a lot of money for the victims, more than $2 million, but six weeks after the fire, most of the funds haven’t yet been spent. Crowdsourcing drives feel fast if you’re donating, but getting the money at the other end takes a while. Read the article for a taste of the problems — psychological, bureaucratic, logistical — that make disaster relief hard work even for trained professionals.

And this is for just one building fire with a few dozen direct victims. After the Big One the challenges will be orders of magnitude greater. Along with the red tags everywhere, there will be red tape.

I don’t say all these things to dishearten or paralyze anyone. The best way to prepare is persistently. Pick one simple, specific, achievable step. Put that on your to-do list, then check it off, then add another thing. You might decide to put some extra cash in your go-bag and keep it there.

At the same time, think about what you’ll need even more than money if it all falls down. To help with that, Oakland’s own Earthquake Engineering Research Institute has an updated “big one” scenario for the Hayward fault.