Archive for the ‘other’ Category

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.”


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.


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


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.

Local global science

16 December 2014


I don’t spend all my time out among Oakland’s rocks. I also take advantage of the Bay area’s opportunities to learn about Earth science. Every year, for instance, I attend the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held without fail in San Francisco since 1968. I started in the mid-1980s, and it’s where I’m spending this week. Last year I also started attending the annual sessions of the Cooperative Institute for Dynamic Earth Research, or CIDER, held at Berkeley on the UC campus. It’s a geology geek’s gathering that marked its tenth anniversary last Sunday. UC professor and seismologist Barbara Romanowicz, on the left, is the prime mover; unfortunately I didn’t catch the names of the other two people. CIDER uses an NSF grant to bring together senior researchers and “junior” scientists—grad students and postdocs—who pick a few meaty deep-earth topics and set up a summer workshop to attack them. Last year’s puzzles involved the chemistry of the Earth’s mantle and the nature of the core. This coming year it will be the relation of the solid Earth to climate change, a conversation long overdue among specialists.

Anyway, that meeting was last Sunday and they let me be a fly on the wall. It’s one more thing that makes Oakland the navel of the world.


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