East Bay diatomite

3 April 2017

The geologic map I rely on for this blog — U.S. Geological Survey map MF-2342 — extends north to Pinole, where it shows this little pod of rocks labeled “Tsa” and “Tdi” between Pinole, El Sobrante and Richmond.

Both units are of early Miocene age: Tsa stands for sandstone and Tdi stands for diatomite. The T stands for Tertiary, the catch-all term for Cenozoic rocks older than Quaternary, which — OK, you don’t need the whole lecture just now. The point is, I had to go see this diatomite because I didn’t know it existed in the East Bay. I’ve seen it in the Central Valley, but never around here.

Going north on I-80 you take the Appian Way exit right and immediately turn left on Sarah Drive. Down at the bottom of a valley is Pinole’s little, undeveloped Sarah Drive Park.

On the way to the hilltop, you start seeing this odd rock in the road. Pick up a piece and you’ll find it’s very light. That’s the diatomite.

The trail becomes very steep, exposing the bedrock. The hilltop affords nice views. I was especially taken with the view north.

And the view east looks up Pinole Valley toward Mount Diablo on the horizon. If you’re riding toward Sacramento on the Capitol Corridor Amtrak train, there’s a moment just east of Point Pinole where you can catch this same view of the mountain.

And there were butterflies.

So that’s all great. But here’s what’s cool about the diatomite.

Diatomite is composed of diatoms, the microscopic algae that make shells of silica. As an industrial commodity it’s also called diatomaceous earth, or DE, or kieselguhr if you’re feeling smart. As the stabilizing agent for nitroglycerin in dynamite, it made Alfred Nobel’s fortune, and that’s why we have the Nobel Prize.

As its silica content slowly turns into the crystalline mineral quartz, diatomite becomes the rock called chert. As it happens, the Pinole diatomite is about the same age as the chert in Oakland’s Claremont Shale. By some tectonic accident, it avoided being converted, and you can enjoy its lightweight charm without a trip to Los Banos.

Origins of Oakland ocher

27 March 2017

Before Europeans came into this country, the locals treasured the ocher deposits in the East Oakland hills. Ocher is the name for a variety of clay-like, iron-rich minerals with a color range from yellow to red to brown. For tens of thousands of years, we’ve used ocher as pigments and preservative coatings. Some cultures would bury their dead in it.

Our ocher deposits formed exclusively in the Leona volcanics, because that body of rocks was permeated with pyrite by hydrothermal springs as it rode on the seafloor toward North America, back in the Late Jurassic. Pyrite is pure iron sulfide (FeS2) and looks like this.

You can get nice crystals of it at any rock shop.

In the Leona volcanics, you’ll sometimes see pyrite in fresh exposures, like this roadside boulder along Campus Drive. It’s gray because the crystals are so small.

Oxygen, in air or in water, breaks pyrite down. The sulfur turns into sulfuric acid and leaches away while the iron oxidizes into a range of minerals on the ocher spectrum. This process reliably turns the surface of the Leona orange and red, like here in the former Crusher Quarry.

Pure, straight iron oxide (Fe2O3) is the mineral hematite, or red ocher. It can look black, but when powdered it turns the lovely color shown on the streak plates.

Between pure FeS2 and pure Fe2O3 is a range of hydrated iron oxides that form ochers of different colors. The roadcut on lower Redwood Road, at the site of the former Alma Mine, shows off some of them well. Here’s a hematite crust, which is right near a piece of concrete pavement that’s eaten out by acid.

And here’s a beautiful brown crust.

Most likely this is goethite (“GUUH-tite”), or brown ocher or sienna, an iron oxyhydroxide with the formula FeO(OH). Here’s a specimen I collected in Wisconsin, with a glittering crust of hematite on it.

Yellow ocher has even more water associated with it — the formula is FeO(OH) · nH2O. That’s what I would call this crust in the Crusher Quarry.

There are wild cards in this scheme, namely manganese oxides and jarosite. Manganese oxide, the mineral psilomelane (“sigh-LOW-ma-lane”), is black. Just a few percent turns ocher into umber. (So does carbon.) Jarosite is a hydrated iron sulfate that can form if some of the sulfur lingers instead of turning to acid. It has yellow to brown colors.

So really good ocher, in chunks worth the effort of digging, is hard to find. Oakland once had a large body of it that had slowly gathered on top of the Leona volcanics as the rock beneath was etched away by acid. Such an iron-oxide cap is called a gossan. A little bit of the deposit is preserved on the Holy Names University campus.

All of these ocherous minerals are important ingredients in soil, especially in dry regions. Rarely are they pure, though. Oakland’s ocher patch was the center of a widespread trade, back in the day. But in the late 1800s, Americans mined it out and turned it into red paint.

The marine terrace of Clinton, lengthwise

20 March 2017

A few years back I showed you a view across the flat marine terrace where the old town of Clinton once sat, back in the 1850s. To really get a sense of it, walk the length of the terrace some time. Here it is on the geologic map, marked “Qmt.”

The photos below (1000 pixels) were taken last week at the locations of the two blue asterisks.

First we have a view off the edge of the terrace at E. 15th Street and 22nd Avenue. At barely 40 feet elevation, the view is quite extensive. That’s the former Catucci building in the left middle.

East 15th Street, a residential street running between International (E. 14th) and Foothill (E. 16th) Boulevards, is a pleasant walk on this extremely level geomorphic feature. Look northeast as you go and note the abruptness of the terrace’s inner edge. That was where the sea used to lap up against the Fan during the last major interglacial, about 125,000 years ago.

At the other end of the terrace, at 3rd Street and Foothill, the land turns down toward Lake Merritt (and the hospitable Portal).

But turn around to see just how flat this thing is.

The two stream valleys that interrupt it, at 14th and 23rd Avenues, are like canyons by comparison.