Thursday, June 24, 2010

Unreasoned Fear of Serpents? We Geologists Need to Be Heard


Serpentine is not asbestos, exactly. Well, it is, but only sometimes. Serpentine is one of several minerals that includes an asbestiform crystal form, the finely spaced fibrous threads that turned out to be a great fire retardant. The thing is, of course, certain forms of asbestos cause mesothelioma and other diseases. But the most dangerous forms do not necessarily include chrysotile asbestos, the form derived from serpentine. The most dangerous stuff comes from the amphibole crocidolite. It is dangerous, but serpentine as a learning tool is something all together different.

I note this because there is a movement afoot to remove serpentine as the official state rock of California. While I understand the reasons certain organizations support this plan, I think a better approach is to use the state rock as a teaching and awareness tool. If you remove the state designation, you have a story about mesothelioma for a day. Keep the designation, you have an education tool more or less forever. Serpentine is a fascinating rock that is uniquely Californian. There are some really good reasons to maintain serpentine (actually serpentinite) as our state rock, enough that I have written a number of posts about it. If you agree, please consider writing to the principal people involved with this movement (see note at end of post):

From my earlier post in the Other California series:
At the same time that gold was selected as the state mineral, serpentine was designated the state rock. Serpentine (more properly called serpentinite) is a metamorphic rock derived primarily by the alteration of peridotite (a rock from deep in the earth's mantle composed of the gemstone peridot, also known as olivine). Chemically it is a magnesium silicate. It is a relatively common rock in California and relatively rare in most other places, and was picked for an ironic reason: it is a source of asbestos, which at the time was considered a valuable resource. The dangers of asbestos in building construction was not generally realized at the time.

For different reasons, I think serpentine was an excellent choice for our state rock. The fact that the source of the rock is deep in the earth's mantle, beneath the 15-25 mile thick crust, is a revelation and acknowledgement of the incredible forces that have shaped the state. Imagine what it takes to bring masses of rock from such great depths! California has the incredible scenery that it does because of forces of movements along plate boundaries, whether the lateral movements along the San Andreas fault, the vertical churning that occurs along convergent boundaries, where ocean crust is driven underneath the edge of the continent, or the splitting that occurs at the divergent boundary in the far south of the state.

The rock is also quite pretty, to this geologist's eye. It ranges in color from black to intense jade-green. The journey from deep in the crust to the surface along fault zones usually leaves beautiful polished surfaces on the rock.

There is a second consideration: Serpentine based soils are a uniquely Californian biological environment. Again, from the Other California series:
Oh, that's right, it's epidemics we're supposed to worry about. An endemic refers to plant species found in specific limited locations. There are a number of these in the Red Hills "Area of Critical Environmental Concern", a rather high-falutin' name for an area that less than two decades ago was barely more than an open garbage dump scarred by numerous off-road vehicle trails. The rare and endemic species are there for a very geologic reason, the subject of this post.

...I've been following a regional theme, traveling through the northernmost provinces, but the Other California has a temporal pattern as well, and late March is the perfect time to talk about the Red Hills, located in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode near the Gold Rush town of Chinese Camp (I talked about the area around La Grange a few days ago for the same reason).

Much of lowland California is currently covered with a green carpet of grass (mostly of exotic and invasive origin) along with the occasional oak tree, but as you can see in the pictures above, there are a few places where the grass and oak trees are missing, and a profusion of flowers and scattered pines thrive instead. Why are the oaks and grass missing?

The Mother Lode is famous as the source of the ores during the Gold Rush in 1848-53, and many people know of the association of quartz veins with the gold. What is perhaps less known is that the Mother Lode consists mostly of metamorphic rocks like slate, greenstone, and marble, not the granite that is found in the higher parts of the Sierra Nevada. These metamorphic rocks are the twisted and baked remains of sea floor muds and silts, lime from tropical reefs and shelves, and volcanic rock from the oceanic crust. These collections of crustal rocks (called "exotic terranes") were transported across the Pacific Ocean and slammed (in the geologic sense; they moved at maybe 2 inches a year) into the western edge of the North American continent, mostly in the late Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras (the Mesozoic, from around 251 to 65 million years ago, is best known as the "age of the dinosaurs"). The different terranes are separated from one another by major fault systems.

At times the crustal terranes also include rocks from beneath the crust. This rock hails from the underworld of the earth's mantle, and includes dunite and peridotite, composed primarily of the mineral olivine (known to most people as the gemstone peridot). The rock readily alters to serpentine, California's state rock. These rocks are also collectively called ultramafic rocks, for their high content of magnesium and iron (fe, the 'fi' part). They also contain small, but significant amounts of nickel and chrome.

When ultramafic rocks are brought to the surface, they are far out of chemical equilibrium with the ambient conditions, which means they are easily attacked by oxygen, water and organic acids. Clay is a common product of this process, as well as red or yellow iron oxides (from which the Red Hills take their name). The surface layer resulting from this weathering process is of course soil. We tend to think of soil as a rich surface layer that supports plant life, but some soils lack the necessary nutrients for most kinds of plant growth. This is definitely the case for soils developed on ultramafic rocks, which lack nitrates, phosphorus, and potassium. To make things worse, chrome and nickel are actually toxins. Hence, only specialized species can thrive on these rocks.

The shrubby Ceanothus, or Buckbrush (above) and Gray Pine (below) are two plants that are more or less indifferent to the odd soil conditions. They grow elsewhere, but compete very well in ultramafic soils. A large number of flower species are also indifferent to the soils, but the only grasses found in the region are native species. The European and Asian grass species that have overwhelmed most of the prairies in the Central Valley, Coast Ranges and Sierra foothills cannot grow on the serpentine soils.

There are a number of endemic species that grow on these soils, and at least one is found nowhere else in the world (California verbena, Verbena californica). Other rare endemics include Rawhide Hill onion (Allium tuolumnense), Layne's butterweed (Senecio layneae), Congdon's lomatium (Lomatium congdonii) and the Red Hills soaproot (Chlorogalum grandiflorum). A fairly common serpentine endemic is the Milkwort Jewelflower (Streptanthus polygaloides). Alas, I arrived very late in the afternoon and had no time to search them out (and to be truthful, I am better at identifying rocks and minerals).

Though closely associated with the rocks of the Mother Lode, the serpentine and dunite were remarkably free of gold, and so the Red Hills were mostly ignored by the miners. Farmers couldn't grow much in the soils, and grazing conditions were not favorable, so the when the federal government came into possession of these lands in 1848, they couldn't even give them away! So this swath of land, about 7,000 acres worth, was administered, somewhat indifferently, by the Bureau of Land Management. The landscape suffered the abuses of modern civilization, with trash heaps, motorcycle trails, and unrestrained target shooting. The recognition that the area was a unique geologic and biologic treasure led to the restriction of shooting and off-road vehicle use in 1991. Private groups assisted in cleaning up the trash heaps and a trail network was established, so today the Red Hills are a delightful place to visit, especially in the spring when the wildflowers are at their stunning best. And I could be wrong, but I don't think I've seen any postcards with pictures of the area.

If you want to learn more, or pay a visit, information about the Red Hills can be found on this BLM website , and the nature trail brochure PDF can be found here

Serpentine in California is part of a journey of the mind that can take us towards the deepest interior places of our planet. Again, from the Other California:
How many of you tried to dig a tunnel to China in the backyard when you were a kid? Given the soil conditions in the yard I grew up in, I'm probably lucky to be alive. I dug tunnels looking for buried treasures, gemstones, fossils and sometimes I was just curious what was down there. Geologists, I've found, are the kids who tried to find all those things, and never really grew up.

So how far do these overgrown kids get? It turns out that the deepest tunnels that humans have ever been able to dig reach depths of about 12,800 feet, a little over 2-1/2 miles. That might seem like a lot from our point of view, but the depth to the center of the Earth is around 4,000 miles. We've barely scratched the surface, yet the temperatures of the rock at these depths is well over 100 degrees, and the rocks are under so much pressure that explosions of rocks from the walls are a constant danger to the miners. Kids, there's got to be a better way to see what lies deep below. And there is, in the Other California, one of those places not found on the postcards. The adventure lies in the Klamath Mountains, and the most dangerous thing you have to face is slipping on a slick river rock, because geological processes have brought the rocks many miles up from the depths. You need only explore the rivers flowing off the mountains to see what the deep interior of the earth looks like.

The Klamath Mountains are a collection of bits and pieces of the earth's crust that have been carried great distances from their point of origin and slammed (at geologic speeds of inches per year) into the western edge of the North American continent. A huge variety of igneous and metamorphic rocks are found around the province, and some of the most interesting are those that once resided deep in the Earth's mantle, a layer that extends from just below the crust, from maybe 15 or 20 miles beneath our feet, to a depth of about 1,800 miles. Here are a couple of bits of the Earth's deep hidden places that I found on a short trip to the Eastern Klamath Terrane in the vicinity of Gazelle.

The oceanic crust is usually described as being made of basalt, but a few miles down in the crust the basaltic magma cools slowly to form a coarse-grained basaltic rock called gabbro. Sometimes, as can be seen above, the crystals that form are huge, with black hornblende and white feldspar crystals several inches long. Igneous rocks with such large crystals are called pegmatites.

Going even "deeper" into the interior, we pass the Mohorovicic Discontinuity, the dividing line between the crust and mantle. The upper part of the mantle is composed of olivine-rich rocks like dunite or peridotite. Olivine is best known to most people as the green gemstone peridot. That's right, much of the Earth's interior is made up of gems! The rock in the picture above is dunite, in part slightly altered to serpentine.

In many parts of the Klamath Mountains, the mantle rocks are completely altered to serpentine, the state rock of California. These ultramafic rocks are fairly rich in a number of unusual metal ores, including platinum, nickel, magnesium and mercury. One of the most important ores is chromite, which is the only significant source we have for chromium, the metal that puts the "stainless" in stainless steel. We import most of the chromium that we need from foreign sources, but in wartime (especially the two World Wars), the ores were mined domestically, and a number of operations were present in the Klamaths. The black semi-metallic crystals in the picture above are chromite, with green serpentine across the top.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat, and the California Assembly Natural Resources Committee approved the legislation, stripping serpentine of its official designation, and sent the bill to the Assembly floor for consideration. An earlier version of Romero’s bill previously passed the California Senate.

7 comments:

Silver Fox said...

Very informative post.

My vote? Keep the state rock, change the name to the more proper serpentinite, which isn't a mineral, but is made of several minerals, sometimes including chrysotile.

Gaelyn said...

Definitely keep the serpentine. It's such a unique rock. I loved to collect pieces along the Illinois River in SW Oregon and sometimes carve this soft rock into interesting shapes. Plus the Darlingtonia is most amazing.

Randy Adsit said...

Doesn't the state legislature have anything better to do? Such as, you know, funding education???

Anonymous said...

I saw this on Fox 40 news the other night and that was one of the arguments that it contained asbestos. I was kind of thinking the legislature should work on other things like a state budget. Serpentine was one of the first samples that I collected and have always loved it.
Doug N.

Randy Adsit said...

I briefly spoke with my Assemblyman in person about this issue today. He agreed that it was a silly thing for the legislature to do at this time. But he said he'd probably vote for it, just to go along with the majority.
Apparently peer pressure is important to politicians.

Nick said...

I live in Weed, wished I'd have known you up. I just started reading your blog. I was up the same area doing some sediment source inventories. I was looking for a better description of the area around me and you nailed it. Thank you

Larry said...

I'm all for serpentine, and against unreasoned fears.

I'd rather we don't have a state rock at all. The state has no business favoring one interest group over another.