Archive for the ‘Oakland hazards’ Category

Claremont chert closeup; or, Oakland hills are falling down

23 November 2015

On Grizzly Peak Boulevard, pretty much right above the Caldecott Tunnel, there’s a little old fire road that heads downhill to the west. I poked my nose down it the other day. The whole area has excellent exposures of the Claremont chert, starting with the roadside.

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It’s real nice right now. The ground is moist and makes for quiet walking. Pine needles smell great. The rock is pretty.

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There’s a spot where a lot of loose rock has tumbled down. The Claremont can be crumbly, because it’s so brittle, even though the stone itself is rather hard. The loose stuff is good for collecting a specimen if you’re into that. Unlike the bleached stone exposed along the ridgetop, there’s some variety here, including the black, kerogen-rich stuff that has made this formation, like its larger cousin the Monterey Shale, good petroleum source rock.

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During the Caldecott Tunnel dig, this formation leaked significant amounts of oil and gas into the working space. Precautions had to be taken. The same black Claremont crops out at Alum Rock, as I showed you a few years ago, as well as at the Calaveras Dam site.

That’s all fun. But the road’s cut off by a washout ripped into the hillside, a twisted galvanized drainpipe sprawled along its path. At some risk, I scrambled across it and noted that at its floor lies the Claremont chert, which has its bedding planes oriented only slightly steeper than the gully. Treacherous ground. I don’t recommend that you follow me.

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And just beyond it is another gully, somewhat bigger but not eroding as actively. Giving up on the fire road, I scrambled up to Grizzly Peak Boulevard and this is what’s at the top of that gully.

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At the top of the active washout is this innocuous-looking street drain.

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As far as I can tell, every one of these cute drains is carving gouges into the hillside. This one points toward the Parkwood condos.

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Can’t we do better than this?

Perhaps our children can revise the old playground song to “Oakland hills are falling down.”

A lot of my outings are like this — mixtures of pleasure and concern.

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Two lessons about floods

19 October 2015

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Trees and serpentine

29 March 2015

There’s a stretch of Castle Drive, up in the Piedmont Pines neighborhood, lined with huge trees. On the Walk Oakland map, it’s even labeled “Colonnade of Eucalyptus.”

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These give me mixed feelings, as tree removal projects have aroused lately elsewhere in Oakland.

First, there’s the experience the trees provide. For one thing, you basically can’t walk here, so the colonnade is not a realistic attraction for walkers. Its main effect is a momentary diversion for drivers, who really don’t need one at this location.

Second, there’s the effect on the surroundings. As you climb up in this valley, the trees emerge as a very tall fence that blocks the view of the hills and the city and the bay.

Third, there’s the geologic setting. This part of the roadway runs along a very steep 40-degree slope through pure serpentinite, visible in the small landslide scar on the right side of the photo. Serpentine rock is poor footing for these massive trees. The trees may seem like they’re buttressing the roadway, but when they inevitably tip over in a storm or earthquake, they’ll uproot it instead, forcing the locals to drive up and down Ascot Drive for many months.

But how about that rock? Here’s a hunk of it that spilled across the road.

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And here’s a hand specimen. I love this stone, but roadbuilders don’t.

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It’s not my problem, since I don’t live there, but I think the best thing to do is to turn this colonnade into a line of ground-level stumps. The root systems would bolster the soil for another decade or so, giving the city time to plan and execute a properly engineered roadway. And bollards set in the stumps would preserve the trees’ most useful current function of keeping cars out of the canyon.

Trees are supposed to be wonderful stockpiles of carbon, sequestering it from the atmosphere. For me, that argument shouldn’t apply to individual trees or even individual groves of trees. What do we do, in the long run, with the carbon in trees—pile the trunks in pyramids? Carbon is best stored in the soil, where it provides excellent tilth and maintains a thriving ecosystem that resists fire and drought. It’s like circulating money in an economy: do you hoard it in vaults or spread it around among people ready to use it as a medium of exchange? Humans have spent thousands of years degrading the world’s soils, and I’d rather we begin to restore them.

Pinehaven canyon

4 July 2013

The headwaters of Temescal Creek lie east of route 13 in a steep canyon that has no name on the USGS topo map, so I will feel free to name it Thornhill canyon. The canyon splits at the site of Thornhill Nursery, with Pinehaven Road heading left up its own canyon and Thornhill heading right.

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Pinehaven canyon is heavily wooded with a lot of eucalyptus and is almost entirely underlain by the crumbly Sobrante Formation. It’s a beautiful place, with a nice running stream that helps keep Lake Temescal full.

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Whenever I visit the high hills I can’t help but think of its hazards, so different from those down below. The risks of landslide and fire, even in the absence of earthquakes, are compounded by the narrow, winding roads as we all know from the 1991 hills fire. Pinehaven canyon has not burned since it was settled, although the 1937 fire came close. Its firefighters are served by a couple of large water tanks, the Swainland tank at the top of Fairlane Drive and another tank above Skyline at the top of Broadway Terrace. If these run dry, a pumping truck is supposed to go halfway up Pinehaven to a spot where the next lower water system can be tapped to replenish the high system.

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