Archive for the ‘Oakland rocks’ Category

Vollmer Peak and the Bald Peak Basalt

11 April 2016

At 1905 feet above sea level, Vollmer Peak is the highest point on San Pablo Ridge and in the Berkeley/Oakland Hills. It doesn’t stand out from below — you know it by the two widely separated towers on it, to the right of Grizzly Peak — but it sure stands out when you’re on it. Here’s a view of Grizzly Peak from its upper flank.

griz-from-vollmer

Vollmer Peak used to be known as Bald Peak, which accounts for the name of the rock unit that holds it up. The Bald Peak Basalt is the youngest volcanic rock in the Oakland area, the well-defined reddish blob in the geologic map labeled Tbp (for Tertiary Bald Peak).

vollmer-geomap

I haven’t seen a lot of this rock, but it’s described as “massive basalt flows.” Here’s an example from nearby Chaparral Peak. Notice the dark color and the light-brown weathering rind, both of which are typical.

BPbasaltfromchap-peak

Its age, about 8.4 million years, is distinctly younger than the lava flows you’ll see at Sibley Volcanic Reserve, which are part of the Moraga Formation (Tmb) and date from 9 to 10 million years ago. The two volcanic units are separated by sedimentary rocks of the Siesta Formation, and apparently the Bald Peak and Siesta interfinger with each other in outcrops in the upper part of the Siesta Valley.

It’s nice and quiet up there, and the wildflowers are in progress. The peak used to be unforested, like all the high hills, and it has remnant populations of many different meadow plants.

Here’s a shot overlooking Briones Reservoir on a moist day. In clear weather the Sierra Nevada takes precedence.

vollmerviewE

And here’s the view southeast. There’s a lot to point out in it.

vollmerviewSE

Left to right on the horizon, we see the flank of Mount Diablo, the twin humps of Las Trampas Ridge and Rocky Ridge with Bollinger Canyon between them, the Diablo Range hills beyond the Livermore Valley, and Round Top on Gudde Ridge. The green valley in the middle is Wilder Valley (or Gateway Valley) in Orinda, now being developed. It’s the counterpart of Siesta Valley on the north side of route 24, which we can’t see because we aren’t high enough. The tree-studded hilltop in the middle is Eureka Peak.

The sulfur problem of the Leona rhyolite

4 April 2016

The Leona “rhyolite” is one of Oakland’s most intriguing rock formations. We have other volcanic rocks here — the true lava flows at the Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve — but the Leona is ten times older and has a very different story.

Leona-green-Knowland

I put the word rhyolite in quotes because the rock isn’t technically rhyolite, although geologists used to think it was. Rhyolite is a type of lava, generally light-colored and very viscous, the kind of stuff you see in the Inyo Domes south of Mono Lake, or at Lassen Peak.

Instead, the Leona was originally a thick pile of mostly volcanic ash, part of a chain of volcanoes out in the deep Pacific Ocean. Volcanic ash is a glassy material. Later it was invaded by actual lava flows and hydrothermal features like the “black smokers” of the deep sea floor. These things cooked the ash beds into hard rocks as the glassy ash broke down (devitrified). The result looks somewhat like rhyolite, but it’s formally called quartz keratophyre on the geologic map. Cliff Hopson, a leading expert in this part of California geology, described it in 2008 (GSA Special Paper 438) as the top part of the Coast Range ophiolite, “mostly altered, devitrified volcaniclastic sedimentary rocks” of the “volcanopelagic remnant,” a mixture of ash and deep-sea ooze.

The hydrothermal activity, in particular, added sulfur into the mix in the form of the mineral pyrite. The mineral oxidizes upon exposure to air and rainwater, yielding sulfuric acid and iron oxides.

Over the years on this blog, I’ve documented acidic waters draining the Leona “rhyolite” almost everywhere it’s exposed. The most notorious place is the former sulfur mine at the top of McDonell Avenue, where “yellowboy” oxides stain the streambed below.

sulfurmine-2016

Would-be pyrite miners have poked their picks into the Leona all over the place. I recently located a long-abandoned adit — a horizontal tunnel — left behind by one of those guys.

Leona-adit

You don’t want to go here. The adit is about 10 meters long, smells funny and is lined with a powdery deposit signifying a steady decay. The city ought to seal it, but it’s difficult to find and is well enough left alone, so far.

Nearby are numerous pits with the telltale red-brown linings that develop in the Leona after a few decades of exposure.

leona-pit

Bits of rock below the adit, with the pyrite leached out of them, are very lightweight. Elsewhere I’ve seen this stuff turn to pure clay.

leona-leached-chip

Experience has shown me that the Leona seems to release acid drainage wherever an incision is made in it. Had I read the literature first, I’d’ve known this long ago. In a 1969 report for the U.S. Geological Survey (Map GQ-769), Dorothy Radbruch noted, “Fresh rock contains abundant pyrite in many places. . . . runoff from rhyolite hills [is] very acid and corrodes concrete sewer pipe.

“Geoseki” at an exhibition

21 March 2016

Last Friday at the Oakland Museum of California, I had the pleasure of giving a pop-up talk billed as “Artful Rocks and Rocky Art” that riffed off of my backstage experience with the UNEARTHED: Found + Made exhibit (going on til April 24). This was the only chance I’ll ever have to show my rock collection in a museum, and I’m very grateful to the museum staff for helping it happen.

I laid my four chosen specimens on a table and did an alas-poor-Yorick thing with each one. The point was to say something about what a geologist might see upon contemplating these stones, as a counterpoint to what a suiseki practitioner might see in a suiseki stone.

museumtalk-1

I went from stage right to stage left, starting with this piece of Orinda Formation conglomerate.

museumtalk-2

It exemplifies a lesson from Earth Science 101 that’s still the most profound thing geologists teach the rest of us. Conglomerate is a rock made of preexisting rocks — pebbles — and sand. The pebbles signal that a long-vanished mountain range once stood nearby, an upland which crumbled slowly into gravel that washed down riverbeds to rest in the sea. They were buried by more and more sediment deep in a seafloor basin, where the gravelbeds turned into new rock. And somehow, that rock was raised again above the water and became part of a new mountain, the Oakland Hills near Claremont Boulevard.

I summarized that with the singer Donovan’s rendering of an old Zen saying: “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.”

This sexy piece of serpentinite came second.

museumtalk-3

I explained how serpentinite arises when seawater invades the hot deep crust beneath the ocean floor, transforming its minerals from dark pyroxenes and olivine into the soft, scaly green translucent mineral serpentine, named for its resemblance to snakeskin. Later this material was vomited up in a seafloor mud volcano, then transported onto the land by plate tectonics where I found it by the road near Lake Berryessa.

Third was my pet cobble of laminated chert, mascot of my Facebook page. I found it long ago on a San Mateo County beach.

museumtalk-4

The multiple sets of layers in this silica-rich stone mark different events in its history. The earliest set is the fine laminations; perhaps they were annual layers left by a rich microscopic rain of dead diatom shells, or layers of them made by large storm events. The material, once buried, transmuted into chert under relatively mild conditions. Subsequently, and repeatedly, cracks formed across the laminations that filled with the same silica-rich material — earthquakes like today’s were the likeliest triggers. These veins are evidence of geologic conditions that extended across a whole region for a prolonged period in the deep past. Then the rock was uplifted. And then finally the pounding of cold surf sculpted the stone away until this smooth little nubbin was left. Nevertheless, it held enough evidence for me to visualize that whole lost land and history, as surely as the conglomerate told its tale of a mountain range.

Last was this unprepossessing bit of sandstone from Mountain View Cemetery.

museumtalk-5

It looks as ordinary as the sand in a riverbed, even under close inspection with a hand lens. But in the lab, the geologist can interrogate it with various microscopes and radiations that go far beyond the visible. People who have done that learned that this sandstone, the high-grade Franciscan graywacke found just up the hill, has its grains cemented together with jadeite. Jade is a material that forms at great depth, and a testimony that rocks can be taken very far from their birthplaces and brought back to the light of day.

All four of these stones, then, tell stories that imply the action of slow, colossal forces that are constantly reshaping our planet’s surface. The real work of geologists is to understand those forces and work out their ramifications. The little stories lead to big stories that in turn shed light on the little stories. And that’s what these little geoseki mean for me.

My understanding of suiseki is as shallow as my understanding of rocks is deep. And suiseki practitioners don’t need any of my knowledge to pursue their ends. Our chosen beauties — their art and my science — are orthogonal to each other and that’s OK, because they still intersect. We are fellow appreciaters of rocks, and suiseki stones are as special as mine. Get yourself to the museum and take them in.


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