Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Other California: The CA State Mineral Museum - this is art, darnit!

I know it when I see it. Purveyors of that which we would not call art would use shiny perfect minerals that would cause the viewer to objectify the image, and desire to possess it without appreciating or respecting the intrinsic value and quality of the mineral. I would never stoop that low just to get readership here at Geotripper. Just ignore the "xxx" and "big gold nuggets" in the blog tags. Besides, these things are in a museum. That makes this art, darnit!
And what a great museum it is! One would think that the official state mineral collection would be housed in the state capitol somewhere, or in San Francisco or Los Angeles. The collection actually was in San Francisco for many years, surviving the 1906 earthquake, but in 1983 the collection was moved to Mariposa in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode, where it resides in the California State Mining and Mineral Museum, a unit of the state park system. The choice of Mariposa makes a certain amount of historical sense, as the town hosted one of the very first hardrock mines and mills during the Gold Rush, the Mariposa, discovered by Kit Carson and ultimately owned by John C. Fremont, two of the big players in early state history.

One of the premier attractions of the collection is the Fricot nugget (that's a part of it at the top of the page), the largest single remaining nugget from the Gold Rush days, at 13.8 pounds. It sits in a vault within a vault. Most large nuggets were simply melted down (there is a larger nugget at the Ironstone Winery, but it was found in the 1990's at the Harvard Mine). There is a facsimile of the biggest nugget ever found, which originally weighed in at around 200 pounds.

The other smaller gold sample shown above is extraordinary as it shows the crystalline nature of the metal. The mineral forms octahedral crystals, but they aren't seen often because the malleable metal gets pounded into the more familiar nugget shape while being rolled in a stream. Samples like this one have to come from the quartz veins in mines.

The museum has a spectacular collection of other minerals, including some of the best specimens of our state gemstone benitoite. This exceedingly rare sapphire-like crystal is found at a single locality in the world, a serpentine outcrop in the Coast Ranges of San Benito County.

The museum has a host of other minerals on display, like the malachite sample above, and the aquamarine sample below. There are some excellent interpretive exhibits regarding the history and current state of mining in California, and even a 175 foot long tunnel that recreates a gold mine.
Admission is $4.00, but they offer discounts for school field trips (call in advance). The staff and volunteers are knowledgeable and helpful. The museum is located on Highway 49 just south of the town of Mariposa at the county fairgrounds. Unfortunately, the museum has been one of the pawns in the state budget wars, and has been threatened with closure off and on. It could use some friends in the capitol...

The Other California is part of my continuing explorations of the California that you don't always find on the postcards.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Deepest Canyon in Yosemite National Park: It's not named Yosemite!

Contrary to what many people might think, the Merced River is not the biggest river in Yosemite, and Yosemite Valley is not the deepest canyon in the national park. The honor of the deepest canyon and biggest river belongs to the Tuolumne. It is not a surprise that the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River is not well known. It is a roadless, and sometimes trackless wilderness that is seldom seen by park visitors. A drive to Hetch Hetchy reservoir gives only a hint of the huge canyon upstream, which in some places is 2,000 deeper than Yosemite Valley. The canyon of the Tuolumne also hosted the longest glaciers that ever existed in the Sierra Nevada.

I've only been able to visit the fringes of the deepest parts of the Tuolumne, but here, courtesy of Leor Pantilat, via the Yosemite Blog, is a beautiful video of a run down the canyon.

Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne HD from Leor Pantilat on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Accretionary Wedge #26: Musings of an Education Junkie

I got to borrow a class today. This was important for me in this most unusual summer. California's budget crunch left me with no classes to teach over the summer months for the first time in years, and I was going through withdrawal pains.

I wasn't really aware of this at the time, as I had immersed myself in a grant writing project, some website design, and then out of the blue, one of the weirdest political controversies I've ever been involved with (it's true, in response to your unspoken question, that I do not know how to relax). So, when I heard that my old employer, Santa Barbara City College, was running a field studies trip through my area, I jumped at the invitation to join them for a few hours. They let me talk about the Mother Lode and California Gold Rush history at one of the old mines near Mariposa. It was like a breath of fresh air for me (and a touch of minor misery for the students forced to listen!).

This month's Accretionary Wedge is an introspective set of questions about the Geoblogosphere, and is proposed by Dave Bressan (History of Geology and Cryology and Co.) and Michael Welland (Through the Sandglass). A lot of geobloggers have responded, and I have been much impressed by their perspectives. I'm looking forward to seeing them in one place, in case I missed something. The wide-ranging questions were paraphrased as follows:

What role the geoblogosphere should play going forward? Should it have a role in disseminating research? Should geoblogging be factored into academic- or business- employees’ evaluations? Can, and how should, the expertise and enthusiasm of geobloggers be harnessed to effectively reach and educate the broader public? In short (again, as I interpret the issue), what do you see as the purpose of geoblogging and the geoblogosphere?
Geologists are story-tellers. Sometimes those stories take the form of peer-reviewed research, sometimes it is in the form of a classroom lecture, and sometimes it is a story told around a campfire, or over a round of beers. The geoblogosphere is a wonderful new forum for geologists and teachers to tell their stories.

I don't know that the geoblogosphere has a particular monolithic "role", but I do see it as having a purpose. It is a vast anarchy, much like gaggle of competing stories told over the campfire, but with an important distinction. Almost all the geobloggers I read seem to be oriented towards education, and even if that is not their main motivation, it is the effective outcome. I turn to the geoblogs for a quick informal perusal of the latest research, immediate analysis of geologic events (on-site reports from Kilauea's latest outburst, for instance), and to learn about places I may never have the chance to explore for all of its crazy disparate threads and pathways, it is an educational tool.

Sometimes (in the real world), I will be discussing an outcrop or site at a national park overlook, and occasionally a few tourists will start listening in, even asking questions. In the same way, lots of non-geologists arrive in the geoblogosphere when a search engine lands them there. They are looking for more information on whatever rumors are sweeping across the world of Twitter and texts (2012, anybody?), and geobloggers are often the ones responding to these things quickly. The geobloggers often provide a more nuanced scientific response to geologic events and political issues than the mainstream media, and there is great value in the tendency of geobloggers to critique (and sometimes severely demolish) bad scientific writing. This is seen during major ongoing disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, oil spills, and global warming, and in stupid local issues such as the weird dust-up over serpentine in California.

Can it be harnessed? In the sense of organizing, it already is to an admirable degree, due to the efforts folks like Chris at Highly Allochthonous, and, with their newsfeeds. If there is anything further to be done, a good start would be for all geobloggers to have a link to one of these feeds posted prominently on their blogs.

I had a great time out in the field today, working with the college students to better understand the origin of the Mother Lode, and of the beautiful exposures of serpentinite at the mine site. Telling stories. And when I can't be in the classroom or in the field telling stories, I tell them and read them in cyberspace instead.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Other California: When is a Peninsular Range not a Peninsula?

Answer: When it is in Alta California instead of Baja California.

My previous post included a mystery picture of a dome in California, and those who went out on a limb and guessed at the location gave some excellent possible answers: Yosemite, Hetch Hetchy, other Sierra Nevada sites, and Castle Crags up in the Klamath Mountains. But...there is another granitic mountain range in California that reaches elevations in excess of 10,000 feet, and includes some alpine forest environments, incredible views, wonderful backpacking trails, and some excellent technical rock climbing. The dome in the last post is Lily Rock, a rather large outcropping of granitic rock that rises over the mountain town of Idylwild in the San Jacinto Mountains at the extreme north end of the Peninsular Ranges of California.

The Peninsular Range of California extends from San Gorgonio Pass on the north to the very southern tip of Baja California in Mexico. There is no peninsula as such in Alta California, but in a few hundred thousand years there will be one, as the adjacent Salton Trough continues to open up, allowing the Gulf of California to expand northward.

San Jacinto Peak (10,834 feet) is the highest point in the entire range, and rises in spectacular fashion from San Gorgonio Pass, with relief approaching two miles. Only Telescope Peak in Death Valley, or parts of the Sierra Nevada crest over the Owens Valley come anywhere close.

Lily Rock (sometimes Tahquitz Rock) is visible in the picture above, a little bit left of center. Local technical rock climbers know it well, honing their skills here when they can't get to the more famous cliffs of Yosemite. Tahquitz Peak rises to an elevation of 8,846 feet to the right of the dome. Marion Peak and other peaks on the high ridge of San Jacinto itself are visible on the left. A network of trails criss-cross the high plateau between the peaks, which is protected as San Jacinto State Park.

This was a mountain range of my youth. I spent many weekends in my teen years exploring as many corners of the wilderness as I could, and I loved it dearly. But when I visited Idylwild a few weeks ago, it was the first visit in perhaps 30 years. A few things have changed. Back then, the long ridge leading from San Jacinto to Santa Rosa Peak, about 30 miles to the south, was a largely unknown roadless area with hidden springs, pockets of incense cedar forest, and a few island forests of ponderosa and fir. In 2004, the entire range won protection as Santa Rosa and San Jacinto National Monument, administered jointly by (try to follow me here), the Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the California Department of Fish and Game, other agencies of the State of California, and private landowners. I'm glad the region has earned federal protection, but I'm not sure I would want to sit in on management meetings!

On clear days, the views from the San Jacinto Mountains are simply stunning. We had a clear day that allowed us to look down on Hemet and Perris Lake off to the west, with the Santa Ana Mountains in the far distance. This is some wonderful mountain country within a short distance of the huge population of Southern California. If you think you have to go to the Sierra to see alpine granite landscapes and splendid isolation, you don't necessarily have to go that far. Check it out!

The Other California is a blog series on the hidden geological gems of my wonderful state.

The Other California: A Mystery Photo for the Day

I was on one of my many excursions through the Other California recently, and snapped a shot of this cliff. I'm wondering how familiar the peak is to Californians (and anyone else), so I'm entering it today as a mystery photo. Solve it however you wish: identify the peak, identify the kind of rock, or identify the main geological processes that are operating on it.

As usual, the prize is...well nothing, but I'll give you a symbolic pat on the back!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fighting For California's State Rock: What's Right With Serpentine?

California's state flower, the Golden Poppy, grows on serpentine soils at Hells Hollow on Highway 49 in California's Mother Lode. Few plants can tolerate the chemical conditions in these soils, so many endemic plants grow there and nowhere else (the poppy is an obvious exception; it is classed as serpentine-tolerant plant, but grows in many environments). This brings us to the other side of the coin. In seeking to remove serpentine as the state rock of California, supporters of the move condemn the rock as somehow evil because it contains a form of chrysotile asbestos at times. In my last post, I outlined the factual errors and inaccuracies that the bill would codify into law. If you have followed Geotripper for any length of time, you know that I prefer to talk about the wonders of geology, and I wish to do so now. There are many good reasons for keeping serpentine (or more properly serpentinite) as the state rock of California. I've gathered these items into a single fact sheet that could help legislators better understand the concerns of not only geologists, but also teachers, biologists, botanists, environmental scientists, mineral enthusiasts, and others who feel that Senate Bill 624 is a bad idea. Pop me a note if you want the word.doc.

Let the California State Assembly know this week if you want to keep our state rock. They may vote as soon as August 2. Calls are great. Letters on paper carry more weight than e-mails. Be cordial, we want to educate people who may not know a great deal about geology and biology!

• Serpentine, or more properly serpentinite, is a rock made up of as many as 20 different minerals. It is found in at least 42 of California’s 58 counties, and makes up a significant part of the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode, the Klamath Mountains, and the California Coast Ranges. It is a relatively common rock in California and rare in most other parts of the country.

• The rock is variable in color, ranging from deep jade-green to black or blue. It often displays polished surfaces due to its mode of emplacement along fault zones. The minerals making up serpentine are complex magnesium iron silicates with varying amounts of heavy metals such as chromium, mercury, nickel, and cobalt.

• Serpentinite is derived from the metamorphism (alteration by addition of heat and water) of peridotite and other ultramafic rocks from the Earth’s mantle. As such, serpentinite provides researchers a window into the deep crustal and mantle processes of the planet.

• Serpentinite is often brought to the Earth’s surface by forces related to subduction zones. Subduction occurs when oceanic crust containing ultramafic rock is driven beneath oceanic or continental crust where it is partially melted to form volcanic rock, like that seen in the Cascades volcanoes like Mt. Shasta; or plutonic rock like the granite seen in the Sierra Nevada, the Peninsular Ranges, or the Mojave Desert.

• Serpentinite and related ultramafic rocks have served as an ore for numerous valuable minerals, including chromite, mercury, magnesite, platinum, nickel, and cobalt. Many of these minerals are exceedingly rare, and most must be imported from foreign sources.

• Serpentine is used as a colorful ornamental stone, in sculpture, in carved jewelry, and in buildings. Jade is sometimes found in association with serpentine, and the world’s only source of California’s state gemstone benitoite is a serpentine deposit in the California Coast Ranges.

• Soils developed on serpentine are rich in heavy metals like chromium, nickel, and cobalt, and depleted in essential nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. As a result, plants growing in these soils are highly adapted, and about 10% of California’s endemic species are found in serpentine areas, even though the rock covers only about 1% of the land area of the state.

• Serpentines and related rocks are increasingly viewed as a possible repository for sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2), because these rocks can chemically combine to fix the CO2 in the solid mineral magnesite (magnesium carbonate). Serpentine may thus play an important role in global efforts to control greenhouse emissions and climate change.

• Serpentine was chosen as the state rock of in part to promote a growing asbestos mining industry and to promote serpentine’s use as ornamental stone, but the law itself does not mention these things, and asbestos has not been mined in the state since 2002. The original promoters of serpentine had little knowledge of the educational value of the rock they chose as a state symbol.

For more information about California’s state rock, check out:

Contact Garry Hayes (Geotripper) at hayesg (at)

Fighting For California's State Rock: What's Wrong With Senate Bill 624?

An analysis of factual errors in Senate Bill 624. Legislators in the Assembly need to hear this in the coming week!

Summary: Senate Bill 624 seeks to remove serpentine as the state rock of California. The language of the bill includes statements about serpentine that are inaccurate. Some argue that if enacted into law these statements could be legally actionable. This bill has not received the appropriate and necessary scrutiny that is needed to produce scientifically accurate and binding statements of law. Unless there is a transparent and complete investigation of the implications of the language of the bill, the legislature should consider tabling or voting down Senate Bill 624.

The current state rock, serpentine, is not the cause of mesothelioma in the state of California or anywhere else. Serpentine is an interesting and valuable rock that has an important role in education about California history, geology, biology, and environmental science. Chrysotile asbestos is sometimes found in serpentine. It is human use and abuse of asbestos in its many forms that has exposed people to the dangers of the material.

Statements from the bill are shown in bolded text below.

SECTION 1. The Legislature finds and declares the following:

(b) Serpentine contains the deadly mineral chrysotile asbestos, a known carcinogen, exposure to which increases the risk of the cancer mesothelioma.

This statement makes an improper connection between serpentine and mesothelioma. Exposure to serpentine does not cause mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to any of the six forms of asbestos, and the vast majority of cases are related to workplace environments, not natural ones. Chrysotile asbestos is sometimes found in serpentine, but serpentine is not asbestos, and as such, should not be branded a known carcinogen in legislation. The use of the word “deadly” in the legislation is inflammatory.

(c) California has the highest rate of mesothelioma deaths in the nation.

This statement is factually and scientifically incorrect. The rate of mesothelioma deaths in California is 11.0 per million residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control (1999-2005). This number is slightly below the national average of 11.7 per million. In states like Maine, Wyoming, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Washington, the death rate exceeds 20 per million residents. California has the greatest number of deaths, but that is a simple function of having the greatest population of any state.

(d) California should not designate a rock known to be toxic to the health of its residents as the state's official rock.

This statement is factually wrong. Serpentine is not toxic. A mineral that is found in the rock, chrysotile, in its asbestos form, has been shown to be dangerous when improperly utilized. Almost any rock contains ores that can be dangerous, including the ores that produce gold, our state mineral. It is the role of state and national regulatory agencies to identify areas that might contain dangerous minerals, and practices that might expose people to hazards, and regulate those activities. Numerous laws already exist that regulate the exposure of citizens to asbestos materials.

There is an appropriate place for discussing the dangers of asbestos, and how the state can best protect its citizens from dangerous exposure levels. A bill to remove the designation of serpentine as the state rock is not the appropriate venue, and is instead a detriment to proper education about asbestos.

The entire text of SB624 can be found here:

The history, Assembly floor analysis, and current status of SB624 can be found here:

The Centers for Disease Control cancer statistics site can be found here:

Today's picture: a yellow flower growing on serpentine soils in Del Puerto Canyon. Someone help me identify it! I'm a geologist, not a botanist!

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Other California: Baymouth Bars - It's 5 O'clock Somewhere?

It's Friday, the end a long week! I'm home from a four day exploration of the California's North Coast country, and it was...uh...academically stimulating? Uh, a teacher's exploration dream? Er...a wonderful excuse to escape the heat in California's Central Valley? Yeah, that's it. We have to be honest here. But that doesn't mean I wasn't paying attention.

I haven't been up in the Crescent City - Eureka area all that much, and I am delighted to discover something new every time we pass through the region. Today I am offering pictures of some of the finest baymouth bars I've seen in California. Coming around a corner of Highway 101, one is struck by a line of sand so long and so straight that it almost seems artificial, but it most certainly is not. It is the baymouth bar enclosing Big Lagoon, a fresh-to-brackish body of water separated from the Pacific Ocean by a three-mile-long strip of sand that is no more than a few hundred feet wide. This lagoon and several others are protected in Humboldt Lagoons State Park.
One might wonder how a strip of sand can survive the constant battering by the powerful waves that constantly rip away at the coast, but it is actually those very waves that bring out the creation of the bars. Waves expend the full brunt of their energy against headlands, but the energy is dissipated as waves enter into coves and harbors (which is, of course, why boats shelter in coves). Sand is carried along the beach by longshore transport, where waves wash up the beach front at an angle, but flow directly back into the water. When sand along an uneven coast encounters one of these bays, the loss of wave energy causes a spit (a long thin sandbar) to develop.

If there are no large rivers flowing into the bay, the spit will eventually reach all the way across the bay opening, forming the baymouth bar. The water behind these bars is fresh or brackish, and seeps out through the sand bar. It is only when there are flooding events or particularly violent waves that the bar is breached, and a portion of the lagoon pours into the sea. These are important ecological moments because the lagoon may have numerous salmon fingerlings and juveniles just waiting for a chance to get to the open sea.
I was trying to find a spot to get a good shot of the Big Lagoon, and we discovered a nice little county park at the south end of the bar. County parks sometimes have less than altruistic reasons for existence, and I suspect that might be the case here. Yes, there is a wonderful long beach with tables and a small boat ramp and all, but you may notice there is also a paved road that quite literally dead-ends at the top of the seacliff. The fury of the waves in this part of California exacts a heavy toll on beachfront property, and I can't be sure, but there very well could have once been houses here. Cliff retreat has to be considered in landscape planning, and a nice beautiful park fits the bill when housing developments would probably fall into the sea.

Still, if you are a southern Californian or Floridian, it might seem strange to see a vast beach with barely a dozen beachgoers. True, it's not as sunny, but this is the way I like my beaches!
The picture above is Stone Lagoon, another of the lagoons in the state park.
A Google Earth shot shows Big Lagoon from above, if you had trouble visualizing what a baymouth bar like.

The Other California is my continuing series of articles describing geologically interesting places in our wonderful state that somehow miss showing up on the postcards. Check them out!

Rocks: The Secret Weapon

From my favorite online comic artist, Zeo at Rant Hour, comes evidence of an insidious plot. Rocks are everywhere! It's true! Rocks threaten heavily-armed troops all over the world. It time we cleaned up all those loose weapons....

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

600th Blogpost: Sunset in Crescent City, and the Spheres

I noted the day I posted my hundredth blog, and might have said something about 200, but the others just didn't seem worth mention. Neither is this one really, but I did just happen to notice that it was post #600. It's kind of like the way you really notice mile 1,000 on a new car, but hitting 60,000 just means you need a tune-up. We do like our even numbers.

Nothing really significant tonight, but it has been a fascinating day which included a milestone: I finally completed my personal journey along Highway 1 along the coast of California. Over the years I've filled in the map with selected journeys that ultimately covered the entire extent of the incredible highway from Southern California to northernmost California, all except for one forty-mile stretch: Fort Bragg to Leggett. It was a beautiful stretch, and no doubt will appear soon as an "Other California" entry.

The day also included one of those odd moments that sometimes happen in life. I was parked at an overlook on Highway 1 snapping pictures of the stunning seacliffs. There were four motorcyclists there, also snapping photographs, and one of them walked over to me and said "Are you a geology teacher? From Modesto?". It turned out to be one of my students from a decade ago. At the other end of the parking lot his mom (the family that bikes together, stays together?) was recognizing my wife as a fellow teacher from a decade ago. Go figure...

Tonight's picture is a sunset at Crescent City in the far north of California. It was a beautiful clear evening, and as I glanced at the photo, I was struck by the intersection of the spheres that I always teach about: the lithosphere as exemplified by the rocky shoreline, the hydrosphere (the restless Pacific, an oxymoron if you think about it), the atmosphere, all combining to support the biosphere, represented here by the two flying dinosaurs. The energy source that drives the whole system was disappearing behind the distant fogbank. It has been a satisfying day.

So, sorry for a bit of ramble; it's the essence of blogging as I see it. I am collecting my thoughts on this month's Accretionary Wedge Carnival, hopefully to be posted soon. As blogpost #601 or some other random number

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Other California: I Need This Like a Hole in the Head

What happens when profit motive collides with good science? I dunno, I'm on vacation!

We escaped the heat of the Central Valley yesterday by taking a drive up Highway 1 from Bodega Bay to Fort Bragg. Bodega Bay is formed by a prominence called Bodega Head that would otherwise be an island, except that sand has linked the island to the mainland and in the process formed a small protected harbor. The Head is a beautiful stretch of coast, with some stunning seacliffs and sea stacks on the Pacifc side.

Many of the seacliffs in this part of the state are formed out of Franciscan sediments or Neogene sandstones, so the cliffs at Bodega Head stand out. They seem steeper and more resistant. A quick look at some boulders at the top of the cliff soon make it clear why:
The rocks are made out of granite! Or, to the geologists eye, a granitic gneiss (note the lineations in the boulder above). These rocks have undergone some stress. The granite seems a bit out of place considering the big California picture; we tend to associate granite with the Sierra Nevada or Southern California, not the North Coast.
Which brings me to this scene, from the bay side of the Bodega Head. There is a quiet little freshwater pond, surrounded by thick vegetation. There was a gathering of egrets in the trees, and despite the season, wildflowers were in abundance. It was a serene setting.

What wasn't clear from the ground perspective is the pond is rectangular. It's artificial, having been dug out of the solid granite, but it was abandoned for some reason and left to be reclaimed by nature. Groundwater maintains the water level. So what happened here?

It turns out that in the late 1950's, an electric utility wanted to build a nuclear power plant on the site. The granitic rock would provide a firm foundation, there was a plentiful supply of water for use as a coolant, and the site was close enough to the Bay Area that transmission infrastructure costs could be kept low. What could go wrong? So they dug this hole to prepare the foundations for the nuke plant.
What could go wrong? We need to ask again what granitic rock is doing here. It is indeed out of place, for this rock originated to the south. At least 200 miles south! It was split off and carried north, 10-20 feet at a time during major earthquakes. There have been perhaps 100,000 of these earthquakes in the last 15-20 million years. As we look across Bodega Bay in this last photograph, we come to realize that Bodega Head lies on the Pacific Plate, while the town of Bodega Bay lies nestled on the North American Plate. The San Andreas fault passes within a few hundred yards of the chosen site for a nuclear power plant!

It is said that local opposition led to the abandonment of the project. Maybe. I've heard that they found evidence of active breaks in the granite within the pit. In any case, it never got built, and today the locals refer to the pond as the "Hole in the Head".

The Other California is a series of blog posts highlighting the kinds of places and features you don't find on the postcards of our beautiful state.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

California's Unique Serpentinite Landscapes: Eldridge Moores and California's State Rock

Many thanks to Sheril Kirshenbaum at Discover Blogs (the Intersection) for posting this important development in the effort to maintain serpentine as the state rock of California. Eldridge Moores is the past president of the Geological Society of America and one of the most respected researchers on California's tectonic history, including the ophiolite sequences in which serpentine is often formed. His story was a central part of John McPhee's Assembling California, one of the more influential books written about the state's geology. It was also his research that was cited in the State Assembly analysis for Senate Bill 624, so it is important to know that he opposes the effort to remove serpentine as the state rock. He offers some salient points about why serpentine is both an appropriate and unique choice for California (from Kirshenbaum's blog, working Nishanta Rajakaruna, a professor of botany at College of the Atlantic who has been working tirelessly these last few weeks getting the word out on serpentine):

-Serpentine is closely associated with gold deposits in the foothills, with the California Gold Rush, and California’s history;

-Serpentine is formed by hydration of rocks (peridotite) that come from the Earth’s mantle, the layer beneath the Earth’s crust.

-Principally, serpentines and associated rocks are part of rock suites called ophiolites that are fragments of ocean crust and mantle emplaced in continents;

-Ophiolites are widespread in California–in the Coast Ranges, the Klamath Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, along other parts of the western margin of North America, in the Appalachians, and in Latin America, Eurasia, and elsewhere. Thus these rocks are important for a full understanding of the complex evolution of the California landscape and our planet.

-Serpentines are fairly easy to identify, being mostly shiny black or green. Many serpentines are also weak rocks and prone to landslide. Having serpentine as California’s State Rock calls attention to these issues in many places; and provides a “teaching moment.”

-The asbestos in serpentine is mostly the less-harmful form, chrysotile, rather than the more dangerous form – amphibole. The latter forms by different geologic processes from a variety of rock-types;

-Having children possess samples of serpentine should not endanger their health any more than samples of many other rocks;

-Many rare species of plants grow only on serpentines, including special trees, shrubs, and non-woody plants. California is world-famous for these plants: indeed many grow only in California. These plants also provide a “teaching moment”.

-Serpentines and their original mineral, olivine are increasingly viewed as an ideal repository of carbon dioxide (CO2), because they chemically combine to fix the CO2 in the solid mineral magnesite (magnesium carbonate). This possibility is important for the future of California serpentines, for the US’s efforts to control its greenhouse emissions, and provides an additional “teaching moment” for all of us.

-Serpentine plays an important role in small movements (creep) where serpentine is present along active faults, reducing the hazard of large earthquakes.

-“Defrocking” serpentine as the California State Rock is not going to make any of these issues go away. It will, however, make it more difficult to communicate the many issues, both bad and good, to the public in California.

Time is very short; if you are concerned about this issue, a letter to your senator, assemblyperson, and governor is critical (and California teachers, geologists, biologists, historians, environmental scientists, and everyone interested in good science should be!). Please, always be polite, positive and emphasize the educational values of keeping serpentine! It's easy to be angry about something that is important to us, but not well-understood by many others, including legislators. They need to know the issues involved (and there are many).

Today's photo shows ultramafic rock in Del Puerto Canyon that has been partly serpentinized. The locality was a chromite mine that operated during both world wars. Many important ores have been mined from serpentine and associated ultramafic rocks.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

New Book out on Yosemite Geology!

When I'm not doing other things, most of you know that I love hanging out in Yosemite National Park. I'm happy to report a great new book is out from Mountain Press Publishing Company called Geology Underfoot in Yosemite National Park, by fellow Pomona College alumni Allen Glazner and Yosemite Park geologist Greg Stock. Just got a copy, and I am most impressed. It has been quite a few years now since N. King Huber's book on Yosemite geology was published (the mid 1980's), and Yosemite Underfoot is a great update, and far more comprehensive. It is a series of vignettes of significant geologic spots in the park, but also in the surrounding region, is well-illustrated (in color), and is rich with locality maps and diagrams.

If you are the least bit interested in geology, pick up the book. If you are not interested in geology (which begs the question of why you are reading this) pick up the book anyway. You will become interested in the geology!

Friday, July 16, 2010

California's Unique Serpentinite Landscapes 5: Doing What I Like to Do, and An Invitation!

Two of the strangest days in my life happened this week, awoke one morning to find the serpentine story on the AP wires all across the country, and awoke again on another day to find my hand in a picture on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle. Geologists, ecologists, and biologists wanted a part in the discussion on whether to remove serpentine as the state rock, and I hope we have a place now. There is a serious need to engage and find a common ground that educates people about the scientific uniqueness of serpentine and the role it plays in California's history, geology and biology. And in public health. But that discussion can't happen if there are political ploys or even a whiff of hidden agendas, and that is what is wrong with the present bill.

To say that being involved in a political firestorm is unfamiliar ground for me is a huge understatement. Like almost every geologist I know, I would rather be on the road with my field class, pounding rocks. That didn't happen this summer because of the state budget crisis, of course. But some great things did happen in the last two days, two quick trips that reminded me of why I love doing what I do. I took a photographer for the Chronicle and a public radio reporter on a geologic tour to the center of the earth. In a manner of speaking, anyway. We drove up Del Puerto Canyon in the Coast Ranges, and quite literally drove through the muds on the ocean floor, through the oceanic crust and into the Earth's mantle. More properly, the mantle had been pushed up, and we drove up the canyon to see what it looks like.

On the way up the canyon, we passed 20,000 feet of layered sedimentary rocks, passed the dig site where California's first dinosaur was discovered, looked at landslides, old mines, and took a close look at California's state rock. It was quiet up there, there was a slight breeze, and it was hot as hell. But it felt good being a teacher.

I know what lung cancer is like. It is a horrific disease, it is a horrible way to die, and it touched my family personally. I want to honor and remember the victims of asbestos-related diseases. But the bill before the state assembly is not the way to do it.

I think there is a better way, and one that educates people, especially our children about the uniqueness of this strange rock that is found across our state. Sure, it has asbestos in it sometimes. It also sometimes contains ores of mercury. And chromium. And magnesite. And it carries a history within it of moving continents, vast ocean basins, and secrets from deep in the earth's interior.

I have no idea if anyone from State Senator Gloria Romero's office has ever read or even knows about my blog (funny thing, in all the papers around the country, but the same number of visitors to the blog!), but I would like to extend an unusual invitation to you, Senator, or any other legislator. Join me, and some biologists, and historians, and let's go to Del Puerto, or one of the other places where serpentinite can be seen. Let's talk about why it is important to the state of California.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

California's Unique Serpentinite Landscapes 4: What can our state rock tell us about geologic processes on Mars?

It's a teachable moment; our state rock has value and is worth keeping. The following is a study of serpentine/peridotite landscapes as an analog for possible water-forming processes on Mars, of all places. I'm heading up to Del Puerto Canyon in the next few days for pictures. In the meantime, enjoy a shot in Upper Del Puerto from last spring, and see if you can wade through an abstract about research on spring water in the upper canyon:

J.G. Blank, S.J. Green, D. Blake, J.W. Valley, N.T. Kita, A. Treimand and P.F. Dobson,May 2009, An alkaline spring system within the Del Puerto Ophiolite (California, USA): A Mars analog site, Planetary and Space Science Volume 57, Issues 5-6,

Mars appears to have experienced little compositional differentiation of primitive lithosphere, and thus much of the surface of Mars is covered by mafic lavas. On Earth, mafic and ultramafic rocks present in ophiolites, oceanic crust and upper mantle that have been obducted onto land, are therefore good analogs for Mars. The characteristic mineralogy, aqueous geochemistry, and microbial communities of cold-water alkaline springs associated with these mafic and ultramafic rocks represent a particularly compelling analog for potential life-bearing systems. Serpentinization, the reaction of water with mafic minerals such as olivine and pyroxene, yields fluids with unusual chemistry (Mg–OH and Ca–OH waters with pH values up to 12), as well as heat and hydrogen gas that can sustain subsurface, chemosynthetic ecosystems. The recent observation of seeps from pole-facing crater and canyon walls in the higher Martian latitudes supports the hypothesis that even present conditions might allow for a rock-hosted chemosynthetic biosphere in near-surface regions of the Martian crust. The generation of methane within a zone of active serpentinization, through either abiogenic or biogenic processes, could account for the presence of methane detected in the Martian atmosphere. For all of these reasons, studies of terrestrial alkaline springs associated with mafic and ultramafic rocks are particularly timely. This study focuses on the alkaline Adobe Springs, emanating from mafic and ultramafic rocks of the California Coast Range, where a community of novel bacteria is associated with the precipitation of Mg–Ca carbonate cements. The carbonates may serve as a biosignature that could be used in the search for evidence of life on Mars.
Oh, those of you who drink Noah's Spring Water? It comes from a spring in the immediate vicinity. We have to watch out for water trucks sometimes up the canyon.

It is Time for a Rational and Civil Discussion on Serpentinite: A Proposal

My Grandfather was a proud and hardworking man. When the dustbowl overwhelmed so many in Oklahoma, he moved the family to Texas, and in 1943, he brought them to California, in a time when crossing the Mojave desert in summer was still a dangerous journey. They broke down, spent nearly the last of their money to repair the car enroute, but made it to the Central Valley. He and my grandmother picked cotton in Visalia-Tulare for a few years, and eventually built a home in southern California. He tended to speak little, but had a dry humor that leaked out now and then. Sure, he had flaws (we probably all idealize our grandparents), but I remember him as a good and honorable man.

Besides farming an acre or two and running a small chicken ranch, he worked in a tile factory for 20 years. He's in the picture above, along with my grandmother. Almost every day he ran a mixer for dry mineral powders with no breathing apparatus. There very well could have been asbestos mixed in with the materal he worked with. Tiles often did at the time. And he smoked.

In retrospect, it is hardly a surprise that he developed lung cancer. Lung cancer is a horrific disease, and when I saw him for the last time, this proud man was curled in a fetal position, barely conscious, and filled with painkillers. He died a few short weeks later. It's no way to die.

You need to know this about my family heritage before speculating about my motives in arguing against the California Senate Bill 624 that would strip serpentine's status as the state rock. A group involved in this kerfuffle has quoted statements I made in my blog, but that does not mean I agree with their goals. I don't.

It's time to find some common ground. Some of the families affected by mesothelioma and lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos feel insulted by the history that led to serpentine being established as the state rock in 1965. It must be acknowledged by all of us that supporters at the time emphasized serpentine as a source of asbestos, seen as a lucrative mineable natural resource. This is the history, and I have now seen it brought up a number of times as a defense for the "drop the rock" campaign. But times changed, and so did our understanding of the truly unique nature of serpentine and what it tells us about the earth's interior and history.

There are no longer any asbestos mines operating in California. And I don't know of a single educator who thinks asbestos is a wonder mineral that should be promoted by the state. But serpentine is not asbestos. It is a rock that sometimes contains a form of asbestos (chrysotile, in an asbestiform crystal habit). But for reasons discussed in many places across the geoblogosphere (good examples are here, here and here) serpentine is a unique rock that exemplifies the strange and wonderful geological processes that have formed the Sierra Nevada, the Klamath Mountains, and the Coast Ranges, as well as the unique biomes and endemic species of our state.

This has now become a national issue, and for a short time we have an opportunity to work together to accomplish something that is good:

I am proposing a resolution that could potentially be acceptable to all the parties in this controversy. At the very least, it needs to be a starting point for discussion. The legislature in 1965 made a factual error in the legislation. They made serpentine the state rock. But serpentine is a mineral (really a group of minerals). Serpentinite is the term used for the rock. Let us consider having the legislature correct their mistake by establishing serpentinite as the state rock. In this bill we could recognize the uniqueness of serpentinite, and it's role in the geological development of the state, the role it played as a source of many mineral ores, including chromite, cinnabar, magnesite, and yes, chrysotile asbestos, and the critically important role of serpentine soils in the development of dozens of endemic species. And...we could acknowledge the present state of knowledge concerning the health effects of exposure to the different forms of asbestos.

Why consider this idea? We geologists and educators were taken aback at the way this bill was presented in the legislature, with no input from anyone but a single constituency. The political ploy of passing a bill on anaerobic composting, and then replacing that bill with a totally different one just seems wrong. There is language in the present bill that has possible legal implications. There are denials and accusations. Let's remove the imprecise language so as to eliminate any doubt. Such language in the future needs to be vetted by objective legal experts.

State symbols promote the interests of the state, and provide a great opportunity for education. I explored this idea last year with a series of posts on many of our state symbols, and I enjoyed learning new things about my home state of California.

This is a teachable moment, and one that can lead to positive teaching outcomes for all of us for decades. If the present bill succeeds, there will be publicity (much of it derisive and negative; take a look at the comments in the NY times article) about asbestos for this week or this month. And then? Nothing. If we take this moment, to establish serpentinite as the state rock with a clear message of why, every child who does a project in the years to come about state symbols will learn about a fascinating and unique rock, and they will learn about asbestos at the same time.

I'm just a community college geology instructor who is caught up in what has become a national issue. It's time to talk... I'm not a legislator, I am not a lobbyist, but I am an educator. I don't like to pick fights. I want to resolve conflicts. And I have only words at my disposal.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

California's Unique Serpentinite Landscapes 3 - Finding Beauty

There is nothing quite like exploring the serpentine belt of the Sierra Nevada foothills in spring time. Few plants can adapt to the nutrient-poor soils, but the ones that can make for a unique endemic community. Indian Paintbrush is a common species across the west, but is also a plant that tolerates serpentine soils well. It can put on a great show in March. This one was blooming near the Pine Tree Mine at Hells Hollow on Highway 49.

Serpentine is California's state rock...and this is a teachable moment.

Monday, July 12, 2010

California's Unique Serpentinite Landscapes 2 - And How Education is a Better Choice than a Press Secretary

A new picture of California's serpentinite landscapes. Today's picture includes some springtime poppies on an outcrop of the state rock at Devils Hollow on Highway 49 north of Mariposa.

I complained the other day about how difficult it is to catch anyone's attention in Sacramento, especially if one is not part of a business with PR people and paid lobbyists. I don't have a public relations manager, but those of us concerned about this very strange legal action to strip serpentine of its status as the state rock do have one tool: education.

I've worked with Jon Christensen, Executive Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University to produce a press release that discusses the educational aspects of serpentine, and the uniqueness of the rock in regards to the landscape of California. The text follows:

July 12, 2010

Contact: Garry Hayes, Professor of Geology, Modesto Junior College, phone: 209-575-6294,
Jon Christensen, Executive Director, Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University, cell phone: 650-759-6534,

Campaign to Save Our State Rock Erupts on Twitter

California’s state rock — serpentine — is at the center of a growing controversy that erupted among geologists on Twitter and is now spreading to the capitol. A bill quietly passed the state Senate in May to strip serpentine of its status, and will be voted on by the Assembly in early August. While a few commentators tweaked the Legislature for worrying about the status of a rock when the state faces more pressing problems, the bill was hardly controversial until geologists leapt to the state rock’s defense on Twitter.

“Rarely has so much attention been paid to a rock.,” says Garry Hayes, a professor of geology at Modesto Junior College, who has been at the center of the “geoblogosphere” of concerned geologists. “This is a teachable moment.” Hayes is the former president of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers’ Far Western Section. Hayes opposes the move to strip serpentine of its honor. But he acknowledges the concerns of advocates who claim that asbestos fibers found in some forms of serpentine can be hazardous.

Serpentine was named the state rock in 1965. A bill to strip serpentine of its status, SB624, was introduced by state Senator Gloria Romero, who represents East Los Angeles, last year. The bill slipped under the radar of serpentine aficionados because it initially referred to anaerobic digestion, commonly known as composting. But Romero amended the bill after it passed the Senate in May, changing the language to strip serpentine of its status as the state rock.

It was then that word of the move slowly began to spread on social networks. In early July, a conversation erupted on Twitter when Jon Christensen, an environmental historian who is writing a book about serpentine, asked if anyone was organizing to try to save its status as the state rock. “Serpentine has an incredibly deep, rich history in California,” says Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. “It is connected to the Gold Rush, earthquakes, plate tectonics, and habitat for California’s iconic spring wildflower displays, as well as endangered species.”

Since then a vigorous debate has erupted online, on blogs, in comments on web sites, and on Twitter, where defenders of serpentine have used the hashtag #CAserpentine to rally support for the state rock and inform the public debate.

Background information on serpentine is available on Garry Hayes’ blog:
The history of SB624 is available at
A good summary of serpentine with links to news and the debate can be found here:

So...the issue is growing, and hopefully some people will start paying a bit more to seemingly innocuous pieces of legislation. There are other issues at stake in this matter (here is another press release from a legal organization), but the legal issues are beyond my expertise. But underhanded political ploys...they bother me. A lot. Words count. And so does education.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

California's Unique Serpentinite Landscapes 1

Serpentinite (the rock composed of serpentine) is many things to many people. To geologists it is a clue to understanding the deep interior of the Earth, and evidence of complex chemical interactions at depth and at the earth's surface. A wide variety of minerals are associated with serpentine, including the ore minerals of chromite, cinnabar (mercury), magnesite, platinum, nickel, and yes, chrysotile asbestos. To the biologist, serpentine soils represent a unique environment that has given rise to dozens of endemic species found nowhere else on earth. It has become controversial because of a bill in the California legislature to end its status as the state rock (Senate Bill 624). I've covered the reasons and the arguments elsewhere, and in the face of a well-funded drive for the bill from vested interests, and indifference from members of the state Assembly, I have only the platform of the geoblogosphere to make a difference. This week and for the foreseeable future, expect to see pictures of this unique feature of California geology. I'm following the lead of WestCenter and others on the geotwitter feed #CAserpentine.

Today's picture is a field of monkeyflowers in the Red Hills Reserve near the Mother Lode town of Chinese Camp. It was early spring and grass was growing everywhere else, but not on the serpentine.

Wow...If I had a press secretary, would my assemblyperson call me? Update on the serpentine issue in California

The California State Legislature is about to make a mistake that will harm earth science education, and may inadvertently cost the state, counties and individuals millions in unnecessary lawsuits. Through Senate Bill 624, they would remove serpentine as the California state rock. On the face of it, sponsors are saying they are doing this to raise awareness of mesothelioma and lung cancer, due to the fact that some forms of serpentine contain chrysotile asbestos, one of the six forms of asbestos, but not one that is not clearly implicated in causing cancer. On the face of it.

If this is the case, I have two questions:

Why does this bill ALSO include a declarative statement that finds "Serpentine contains the deadly mineral chrysotile asbestos, a known carcinogen, exposure to which increases the risk of the cancer mesothelioma."? Medical researchers and geologists would take issue with the wording. But a lawyer would not. Chrysotile asbestos may be deadly, especially if inhaled in elevated amounts, but chrysotile is not serpentine. It is one component of serpentine, and not the largest component. Read the whole story here, not from the website of advocacy organizations that are big enough to have public relations spokespeople (see below). Call me naive (surprise!) butI am growing to realize that some if them have misleading information (whether by design or ignorance...I don't know...).

2. Why did the sponsor of the bill, State Senator Gloria Romero, use a slick legislative trick to move this bill under the radar? The original bill was about the definitions of anaerobic compost. After the senate unanimously passed the bill, the language was swapped out and replaced by the serpentine language, a completely different bill. Something just reeks here. Something dishonest. A bill that seeks to do what this does should be subject to analysis by geologists, educators, medical researchers, and other experts. It should not have been dictated by the "Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, an anti-asbestos group whose major sponsors are law firms specializing in asbestos litigation". It needs a public airing.

For that reason, I am grateful that Dan Walters, the political columist for the Sacramento Bee has raised the issue (see the column here). I have a great deal of sympathy for those whose lives have been touched by lung cancer and mesothelioma, but for many reasons, this bill would do more damage to their cause in the long run. I have previously discussed my reasons for thinking so (see my open letter to the governor and state legislature here).

What I find most illuminating in this issue are the comments responding to Walter's article. A press secretary for a litigation organization (comment #4)!
Dan, your contention that CAOC's support of SB 624 has anything to do with widening opportunities for lawsuits is outrageous and wrong. Serpentine was made the state rock in 1965 precisely because of its commercial value as an ore from which chrysolite asbestos could be mined. Luther Gibson and Pearce Young, who introduced the bill, chose serpentine to show the importance of asbestos to the state economy. The Department of Conservation wrote a letter supporting sepentine as the state rock because it would promote the mining and commercial use of asbestos. CAOC didn't initiate the move to remove serpentine from "state rock" status, but we are happy to sign on in support, because symbols are important--as was clearly felt by the asbestos industry in 1965. But whatever the legislature designated as the state rock has nothing to do with lawsuits over the health effects of asbestos, and shame on you for suggesting it does.

J.G. Preston
Press Secretary, Consumer Attorneys of California
A response about events 45 years ago, and not a word about our present-day understanding of the issue. Simple denial. This is all well and good, but the geoblogosphere's own Andrew Alden has a great response (comment #29):

...JGPreston disingenuously says that SB 624 has nothing to do with asbestos lawsuits. Well fine, then, please lobby for removing the false legislative "finding" in the preamble that serpentine rock, in and of itself, is a carcinogen. And please pledge never to harass a landowner, or the state parks system, with a serpentine lawsuit...
The small group of geologists and educators who are trying to raise awareness of this bill (see Twitter hashtag #CAserpentine, and Looking for Detachment for a good compilation of related articles) have nothing to gain by stopping this legislation. But I have the uncomfortable feeling that large amounts of money are at stake. It's one thing if the debate is honest, transparent and on the level, and quite another if they are trying to gain an advantage by subterfuge. Maybe they are and maybe they aren't. But the argument needs to be in the open.

I most appreciated this comment (#31):

I am an epidemiologist and spent many years hiking California's beautiful serpentine grasslands, so I appreciate both sides of this issue.

In its most recent evaluation, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that all forms of asbestos are carcinogenic to humans, including chrysotile. Some studies have shown associations between proximity to serpentine soils, which often contain chrysotile, and mesothelioma. So maybe there is a basis for arguing that serpentinite is a toxic thing.

However, I am far from convinced that those possible toxic harms outweigh the wildlife conservation benefits of the serpentine grasslands, which are havens for many rare native species. I am also uncomfortable with politicians making formal comments on science without having transparent consultation with relevant experts (epidemiologists, toxicologists, ecologists and geologists).

Maybe it is time to revisit the rationale for the rock being the state emblem (and correctly calling it "serpentinite" rather than "serpentine"), but these changes and declaration should be done in a transparent and inclusive way, not as a sneaky amendment to an already-passed bill.

Well said. It's time for some open discussion. My own assemblyman, and others that I have contacted don't return my calls. If I had my own press secretary, would they call??

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Letter to Governor Schwarzenegger and the California Legislature...About Serpentine!?!

I seriously can't believe that with all the crap going on in the California state legislature over the budget, which does in fact have a direct bearing on my employment, my school and my town, that I'm spending time on an issue that shouldn't have come up in the first place, but there it is: a group of people want to remove the designation of serpentine as our state rock. I understand their feelings about asbestos, but they are aiming for the wrong target. Serpentinite is a rock that sometimes has chrysotile asbestos in it. But not always. And chrysotile, while dangerous if it gets into the lungs as small particles, is not the most dangerous form of asbestos fibers. Those from the amphibole group are far more worse. And there are possible legal ramifications in this bill, which I am not qualified to discuss. But I find myself wondering why lawyers are on record supporting this "non-controversial" bill.

In any case, I have been trying for the last week to distill the arguments concerning this bill into a concise narrative that I can convey to the Assembly and to the governor. Yesterday's diary at Daily Kos was getting closer. The senate already passed the bill without a single dissenting vote a few weeks ago (UPDATE 7/10: this gets weirder and weirder. The Senate passed the bill last year, not a few weeks ago, but the bill they passed was about anaerobic compost. Then the entire language of the bill was swapped out in favor of the serpentine business. This is getting so fishy; Dan Walters at the Sacramento Bee is on the issue now, and I think he nails it). The bill is now in front of the Assembly and apparently to be voted on in the next few weeks. If you agree that this is a bad course of action, I would hope that you might consider getting involved. If you are on Twitter, try the hashtag #CAserpentine to see what others are doing. Or check out the geoblogosphere for recent news. I don't want to sound hopeless, but I wonder if these people even care what geologists and educators actually think. We aren't a very large or rich constituency. I guess there is the one way to find out. Here's my argument that I will be sending on paper (??!) this week:

To the Members of the California Senate and Assembly, and Governor Schwarzenegger:

The California legislature is about to strike an unfortunate blow at education. Senate Bill 624 would remove serpentine as the state rock of California, and furthermore would declare the rock to be dangerous to the health of state residents. I am a geology professor at a California community college, and a past president of the Far West Section of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers (NAGT), and I strongly disagree with this legislative effort (the opinions presented below are my own, however, and not of my employer or the NAGT).

The bill and its analysis, contains several factual errors, and instead of being "noncontroversial" as one assemblyperson put it, may open up the state and residents to litigation, although I cannot speak to that issue with any legal expertise. Serpentine is not a “deadly” rock, at least not in the sense of being poisonous. It sometimes contains the fibrous mineral form called chrysotile asbestos, but chrysotile is just one of six different forms of asbestos. It is asbestos derived from the amphibole family of minerals that is proven to cause mesothelioma and lung cancer. Chrysotile may be implicated in some forms of cancer, but the link is not as clear-cut. Many other rocks and minerals can cause serious problems when inhaled as small fragments, including quartz and coal (dangers to the miners of these rocks are well-recognized). State laws have been crafted that deal with exposure to most of these materials. I am concerned that the legislature is making a statement of fact in this legislation without proper review by knowledgeable authorities and experts.

From an educational point of view, serpentine (or more properly, serpentinite) was an excellent choice for the state rock. It is relatively rare across the United States, but quite common in California. The original intent of the designation was to promote asbestos mining, and serpentine sometimes is a host rock for the fibrous mineral. But the educational value of the rock lies elsewhere

The source of the rock is deep in the earth's mantle, beneath the 15-25 mile thick crust, and its presence all over the state of California is a revelation and acknowledgement of the incredible forces that have shaped the state. 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.

When ultramafic rocks like serpentine are brought to the surface of the earth, 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. 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 serpentine, 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. In California, there are many endemic species on serpentine soils found nowhere else on the planet.

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 California.

The bill was promoted by cancer and mesothelioma awareness groups. So far as I can tell, no one involved with the bill ever consulted with geologists or teachers.

I do not want to belittle the problem of asbestos, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. These are serious issues, but going after serpentine is misguided, and I believe it will actually hurt the effort to raise awareness of any links between the mineral and disease. The fracas going on today will be over, and in another month no one will remember the issue. But any child studying the state symbols over the coming decades will discover an interesting rock, but also the connection to asbestos and disease.

State Senator Gloria Romero, defending her sponsorship of a bill, was quoted as saying: "This bill is about raising awareness to protect the health of our citizens. Serpentine contains asbestos, a known carcinogen. Toxic materials have no place serving as emblems for the State." This statement is not really logical. Consider some analogies:

California Poppies, our state flower, contain some morphine and codeine, the raw materials for making heroin, an illegal drug. We might as well get rid of poppies as our state flower.

Gold miners, breathing the dust of quartz in the milling and crushing of gold ores, died by the score in the mines during the Gold Rush, the event that led to the establishment of the state. Native American groups could very well argue that the Gold Rush destroyed dozens of cultures and the celebration of gold as the state mineral is an insult to them. We might as well eliminate gold as our state mineral. And the ghost towns of Bodie and Calico should not be celebrated as the official ghost towns of the state, because many people died in the mines, by the logic presented above.

Grizzly bears killed hundreds and hundreds of Native Californians and Mexican-Americans in the early history of the state. We might as well remove the bear as our state mammal. It is extinct anyway.

State symbols are a means for promotion of state interests, and a tool for educating our students. Cancer support groups should be seeing the use of serpentine as our state rock as an opportunity to educate the public about the possible dangers of asbestos.

The state legislature is contemplating throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I strongly urge the State Assembly to reject Senate Bill 624. I urge Governor Schwarzenegger to veto the bill if it is passed.


Garry F. Hayes
Professor of Geology

Theropods in the Backyard: Dinosaurian Drama on my Porch

Apologies to Harper Lee, but if she had come to have known the mockingbird in my backyard, she would have called her classic story "To Kill a Yellow Finch". Or, she would have written a totally different story under the original name, a horror novel that Alfred Hitchcock would have been comfortable making a movie from.

I don't want to make light of Lee's novel. I watched the movie "To Kill a Mockingbird" the other night, and was reminded again of its great emotional impact. In this day when bigots are once again feeling free to spew their hatred on the right-wing airwaves, it was a reminder of what a fragile thing justice and equality is in our society, and how easily we could lose it.

On the other hand, that mockingbird in our backyard is more reminiscent of the velociraptors in "Jurassic Park". No hauntingly lyrical song from this one; it's a screech that would put cold fear into anything small enough to be hunted. It has a bravado that has to be seen to be believed. It's attacked our cats, our dog, my wife, and my son. I think I'm the only one big enough to make it think twice.

On the other hand, there's the T-rex or Allosaur of today's dinosaurian world, the hawk. This juvenile Redtail (?) was hanging out in my mom's backyard these last few weeks. It still begs for food from momma, just like any teenager, but is getting better and better at flying, and soon will be striking fear into the local rodent population, just as its ancestors have been doing for 200 million years.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

5.4 Earthquake in Southern California: Not an aftershock this time

A magnitude 5.4 quake has struck in southern California, but in this instance, I don't think this is an aftershock to the Easter Sunday El Mayor-Cucapah quake earlier this year. The quake took place on a different fault system, probably the Coyote Creek or San Jacinto fault. The constant aftershock activity from the El Mayor quake may very well have had a role in destabilizing the fault that moved today. As always, moderate quakes like this serve as a reminder that California is earthquake country, and of all natural disasters, these are the most unexpected. We can't predict them, so we have to be ready for them, and understand the faults and their history the best way we can. I am repeating a description of the San Jacinto fault that I wrote in February after an earthquake swarm in the Redlands area along the same fault system....

From February 19, 2010:

"A lot of people, when they hear of quakes in California, think San Andreas Fault. Many California residents who have lived here all their lives cannot think of the name of another fault in the state, but our landscape is literally crisscrossed by active faults (look at the map above; most of the brown lines are active faults). Most earthquakes in CA happen on faults other than the San Andreas, and this week's swarm is no exception. It appears to be taking place on one what is arguably the most active fault in the state, the San Jacinto fault.

The San Jacinto fault is certainly part of the San Andreas system. It splits off from the San Andreas at the east end of the San Gabriel Mountains, and runs roughly parallel to the San Andreas for 140 miles south into the Imperial Valley. It has the same type of motion, right lateral (features on the opposite side of the fault have been shifted to the observer's right). Since it began moving a few million years ago, something like 15 miles of lateral motion has taken place.

The San Andreas fault is justly famous for several devastating earthquakes, including the 1906 San Francisco event that killed 3,000 people, and the 1989 Loma Prieta quake (the World Series quake). It also produced a magnitude 8 event in southern California in 1857. But most of the time the fault is quiet (in a menacing way; it is storing up stress). Compare this with the history of the San Jacinto system (courtesy of Wikipedia):

1890 - Magnitude 6.5 that occurred in the "San Jacinto or Elsinore Fault region".

1892 - Another magnitude 6.5 occurred in the same region as the 1890 earthquake.

1899 San Jacinto Earthquake - Magnitude 6.4 earthquake destroys San Jacinto and Hemet.

1918 San Jacinto Earthquake - Magnitude 6.9 earthquake strikes the same area that was damaged by an earthquake 19 years earlier, with an epicenter roughly 10 mi NW of the previous earthquake.

1923 North San Jacinto Fault Earthquake - Magnitude 6.3 earthquake damaged the San Bernardino and Redlands area. Last time the fault, which runs under the I-215/I-10 interchange, ruptured in this area.

1937 Terwilliger Valley Earthquake - Magnitude 6.0

1942 Fish Creek Mountains Earthquake - Magnitude 6.3

1954 Arroyo Salada Earthquake - Magnitude 6.2

1968 Borrego Mountain Earthquake - Magnitude 6.5

1987 Superstition Hills Earthquake - Magnitude 6.6 (Note: some consider it to have occurred on a fault completely unrelated to the San Jacinto Fault Zone)

These quakes are considerably smaller than the 1906 event, by a factor of 32 or more (it takes the energy of 32 magnitude six quakes to equal the energy of a single magnitude 7 quake; a magnitude 8 quake is 32 times more powerful than a magnitude 7 quake and more than a thousand times more powerful than a six). But they clearly happen more often . The message is clear: to live in California, we must be prepared not just for the BIG, HUGE ONE, but also lots of lesser BIG ONES."

The picture above is a linear valley along the San Jacinto fault near the mountain town of Idylwild in the San Jacinto Mountains. I was there four days ago. As usual I missed the quake.