Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Serpentine-Inspired Rant

By this point, I don't think I need to actually outline the whole fiasco surrounding the motion to demote serpentine from its position as California's state rock. More prompt geobloggers than I have already outlined this idiocy - seriously, unless you're inhaling serpentine dust like it's oxygen, you're not going to run into an asbestos problem - and those posts (and the flurry of commentary from geotweeters) have reached the attention of national media.

The claim that serpentine is an "unhealthy" rock is ridiculous on its own, but you know what else strikes me as ridiculous about this whole issue? The fact that, suddenly, people are getting all freaked out by the mere idea that something about California's geology might be able to kill them.

Hold the phone! Stop the presses! California's geology may be hazardous to your health and wellbeing?!

This is a state sliced by a plate boundary, with the main fault and all of its subsidiary ones capable of city-destroying earthquakes. We're known for our earthquakes, are we not? This is a state where the configuration of mountains focuses, heats, and speeds up the wind like a huge bellows, and effectively creates corridors of fire. We're known for our fires, are we not? This is a state where steep slopes produce debris flows after storms or slump off after longer rains. We're known for our landslides, are we not? Not to mention the contours of the coastline that serve to magnify distant tsunamis in some cases, or the ski resorts that happen to be dormant volcanoes...

I would say those things can be pretty darn hazardous to your health. I suspect that plenty of people would agree with me: the residents of La Conchita, of Crescent City, or of Sylmar, the historians and current residents of San Francisco, those who visit and monitor Mammoth Mountain, just to name a few. I'd hazard a guess (rimshot) that these folks would find those geological threats far more pressing than some specific minerals that are one component in a rock that's more commonly found underground than in, oh, our lungs. And I suspect the other geologists pushing to keep serpentine as California's state rock would agree with me as well.

So, California's geology can be pretty darn unhealthy, for values of unhealthy ranging from "deadly due to fault surface rupture collapsing one's house on oneself" to "alive but breathing in lots of smoke." But California kind of represents us as Californians, doesn't it? Does that mean the next step is to demote California's entire landscape from representing the state?

That would be ridiculous. But isn't it, then, ridiculous to make a fuss about demoting a rock that is really only dangerous if someone throws it at you, or perhaps if you drive off a cliff with a serpentine outcrop at its base? (Because, in case you somehow missed the other blog entries, tweets, and news articles, serpentine isn't going to give you cancer!)

Aside from all that, the formation of serpentine is directly related to the forces that formed and shaped so much of California to begin with. As such, it's an excellent representative of the state. (And for any politician who knows the word "subduction" and is about to claim it's dangerous for causing quakes and volcanoes, the serpentine is a byproduct of that process, not a cause. If I wanted to be even snarkier than I already have been, I could argue that picking a rock that is dangerous might better represent California's potentially-hazardous landscape. Be glad serpentine is "just" a representative of how the land that became our state got here to begin with. Also, be glad that it's pretty. Can you find me a prettier rock that also represents California well?)

I think that's quite enough from me, at least for now. I'll leave with this note: why is state money getting spent on this issue at all? If California wants to spend money on reducing geologically-induced harm, that money would be better spent on things like seismic retrofits, zoning to avoid earthquake and landslide hazards, clearing brush between the urban-wildland interface to try and avoid fires spreading into neighborhoods, emergency response training for civilians, and general awareness and outreach.


Lockwood said...

There's an old joke... Californians fear only four things: earth, air, fire and water.

Chris R said...

Ah, I love a good rant in the morning....

The additional irony is that the presence of serpentinite might actually reduce the risk of city destroying earthquakes, by making the faults weaker (I think Lab Lemming pointed this out last week)

erfie said...

Everything you say is true, but then there's nothing new about California freaking out about health risks that make no sense and aren't health risks and the government stepping in because they just have to DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE DANGER.

Really, when I first heard about the serpentine thing, all I could think was, "Yep, that sounds like something California would do".

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