The Science of Sustainability

A Record of the East Bay’s Past Revealed During Caldecott Tunnel Construction

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Geologic map of Caldecott Tunnel area (credit: USGS ) Click here for a larger version.

If you use Highway 24 as part of your daily commute you are already familiar with the Caldecott Tunnel, which connects Orinda and Oakland — perhaps you are too familiar with the tunnel as you sit in the bottleneck traffic waiting to enter it. What you may not be familiar with, however, is the geology of the hills through which the tunnel was constructed. There are currently three separate tunnels, or bores, that make up Caldecott Tunnel. Construction for a fourth bore is now underway an is already yielding interesting geologic results. The Caldecott Fourth Bore Project website contains a wealth of information about the entire project — from funding to logistics to tunneling methods and more.

The process of excavating a tunnel produces a lot of rock and, in this case, it is sedimentary rock that is known to contain abundant fossils. The geologic map shown above depicts the distribution of distinct rock types and ages in this area. The part of the ridge that Caldecott Tunnel cuts through is made up three formations — each of which has their own color: The Orinda Formation is the orange unit at the east portal, the Claremont Chert in yellow, and an unnamed mudstone in brown at the west portal. The tectonic forces that created these hills also caused the layered sedimentary rocks to be tilted at high angles and, in many areas, the layers are standing up vertical. The rocks are older from east to west so, in this case, excavation of the tunnel from east to west is similar to drilling down into older layers.

Orinda Formation along Hwy 24 near east portal of Caldecott Tunnel (credit: Jeff Weiss, public information officer for Fourth Bore Project)

The rocks are lithified sediments that were deposited in the Miocene period, which ranged from 23 to 5 million years ago. The Orinda Formation (the orange unit by east portal in map above) is approximately 10 million years old and is known to contain abundant mammal and plant fossils in nearby areas. The Orinda Formation is characterized by a wide variety of sedimentary rocks including mudstone, sandstone, and conglomerate that were deposited in streams in creeks (see some photos of the rocks near the tunnel here.

Some mammal fossils found in the Orinda Formation include*:
•    Gomphotherium (a primitive type of elephant)
•    Hipparion, Nannipus, and Pliohippus (primitive horses)
•    Barbourofelis (member of primitive cat family)
•    Cranioceras (deer-like mammal)
•    Ticholeptus (member of extinct group of pig-like animals)
•    Desmostylus (exctinct sea cow similar to a hippopotamus)

The Miocene was the peak of mammal diversity and thought to be linked to the development of grassland ecosystems. So, next time you’re stuck in traffic leading up to the tunnel remember that you’re driving through the geologic evidence of a past Bay Area environment. Excavation of the fourth bore is really just getting started so stay tuned for more in the coming months. I will do my best to find out what I can and blog about it here for QUEST.

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* List of mammal fossils from University of California Museum of Paleontology database. If you want to learn more about specific species, you can learn a lot by simply googling the italicized names in the list above.

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Category: Geology

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Brian Romans

About the Author ()

Brian Romans is the author the popular geoscience blog Clastic Detritus where he writes about topics in the field of sedimentary and marine geology and shares photographs of geologic field work from around the world. He is fascinated by the dynamic processes that shape our planet and the science of reconstructing ancient landscapes preserved in the geologic record. Brian came to the Bay Area in 2003 and completed a Ph.D. in geology at Stanford University in 2008. He lives in Berkeley with his wife, a high school science teacher, and is currently working as a research scientist in the energy industry. Follow him on Twitter.
  • Biff

    I find early Bay Area history fascinating. Does anyone know the history of the apparently man-made rock wall up near the kiddie-trains? It's on the same ridge at the Caldecott Tunnel, but a bit farther north.

    I suppose it could be a natural formation, but I heard a lot of stories (including my own) about how it was a territorial marker for the early Miwok peoples.

  • http://clasticdetritus.com Brian Romans

    Biff, I've never seen that feature and don't know anything about unfortunately.

  • http://oaklandgeology.wordpress.com Andrew Alden

    Basically, the wall is a mystery from what I've read. But I haven't talked to everyone at UC Berkeley yet. Rocks get covered with lichens and look old after just a few decades in our climate, so they could have been built by early white settlers or many years before by someone else.