Archive for the ‘Oakland hazards’ Category

Water underground

4 January 2011

In today’s Chronicle, the Oakland writer Jon Carroll was musing about fire: “Usually it’s an obedient little creature, about the size of a cocker spaniel—until one day it turns into the largest, meanest cocker spaniel on Earth, and there goes the house.” Water, another of the four ancient elements, is the same way.

water main burst

Water is great in metered doses, delivered by tank and faucet. But “water dissolving, water removing” is no tamer than fire. Some time you should see firsthand what keeps it constrained: giant dams and stout mains, treatment plants, intricate feeder lines. The antique examples of dams and treatment facilities in Oakland are not the state of things today. Every now and then something breaks, like this line under Santa Clara Avenue in 2005, and a hint of chaos leaks out.

Last week a handyman had our water turned off for most of the day, with no word about when he would finish. As sunset approached we panicked enough to go out and buy 48 pounds of jugged water. But we didn’t need to use most of it. And so another bit of our earthquake preparedness is in place, a little lurch of progress. After the next big-enough one there will be water, water everywhere.

The ancients had a handle on things with their notion of four elements. Fire and water are worthy of the status, both full of motion and power. As for air, every weather report vouches for it. But it took someone more observant than most of us to see earth the same way and sum it all up as panta rhei, everything flows.

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Drainage

18 December 2010

Oakland is a fine town unless it rains too much. Then we have to worry about all the water.

drainage

All things considered, Oakland’s landscape would prefer to be steep, forested hills raised by tectonics along the Hayward fault and gentle coastal plains that absorb the sediment washed off those hills. It’s a rich recipe that produces redwoods in the heights and forage and fruit in the vales. But with impervious roads and homes carpeting the upper slopes, we increase the runoff and undermine our own infrastructure. People like the homeowners above Broadway Terrace run flexible plastic lines over the edge of their properties to put the problem out of mind. But if you walk the road, you’ll find fresh gullies that will work their way uphill to the source of the problem regardless. Landslides will probably follow.

Ruins of the 1991 fire

7 July 2010

As you explore Oakland, you come upon places where something has been erased and not yet replaced.

oakland hills fire

The Oakland Hills fire of October 1991 left these, the first on Acacia Avenue and the other two on Roble Road.

oakland hills fire

There must be reasons for each of these remaining ruins after almost twenty years. But here they are, some quite public and others in quiet privacy. People pass and pay them no mind. Another few decades and the traces might be gone.

oakland hills fire

I got an odd request last year: Henry K. Lee, author of Presumed Dead, asked me to visit the spot in the Oakland Hills where a notorious murderer put the body of his victim. He wanted to know how a geologist would describe the ground there. It was shale, crumbling and easily dug. The place was shrouded in oak woods, but everyday life was within earshot: lawn equipment whining, bicyclists conversing, dogs. The site—which I will not call a grave—was still being visited. But its traces should be left to vanish.

Punk shale

23 February 2010

Up along Skyline Boulevard between Snake and Shepherd Canyon Roads is a long section of crumbling roadcut. The rock there is mapped as brown mudstone that has been questionably assigned to the Sobrante Formation. OK, enough of that. What struck me about it is how weak it is. This exposure is an excavation, probably for a garage, dug a good four meters deep into the hillside. And all the way in, it consists of this crappy stuff. Click the photo for an 800×800 closeup.

punk shale

The bedding slopes to the right; you can see three different units in this shot which is maybe two meters high. On top is a blocky layer richly stained with iron; the middle is lighter and crumblier, and on the bottom is a dark claystone. The big vertical streaks are backhoe marks, that’s how soft this material is. You can pluck it apart with your hands, scratch it with your fingernail. The dark layer is as creamy as chocolate between the teeth. As I stood there, the rattle of falling pebbles was nearly constant.

Covered with soil and shaded by trees, this rock will stay in place all right. But excavate into it and it turns to dry rubble. The roadcut is a steep slope of loose shale bits, topped with a meter or so of fresh strata and a big tangle of exposed tree roots dangling in the air. When the next big earthquake hits Oakland, expect this stretch of road to be buried and barred by fallen trees.

I think it’s earthquakes that have shattered this rock so pervasively over the years. It took thousands of them to lift these hills, and the process continues as surely as the continents move. Also, high, steep hills tend to focus seismic waves toward their peaks. Consider this account of the 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake in the Los Angeles Star (17 Jan 1857):

“We may here relate what has come to our knowledge through the Rev. Mr. Bateman, who was traveling to Fort Tejon at the time. Previous to feeling the earth’s vibration, his attention, and that of his party, was attracted by a tremendous noise issuing from a mountain in that neighborhood, south of the Fort. Immediately after, they felt the shock. In conversation with Mr. Botts, in charge of the mill at the Fort, he stated that his attention was also attracted by the same noise, and on looking towards the mountain, he saw issue from its topmost peak, a mass of rock and earth, which was forced high into the air—this was unaccompanied by smoke or fire. The shock immediately succeeded. Thereafter, a noise from that mountain was premonitory of every succeeding shock, no matter how slight.”