Calling on Californians: West Coast Represent!

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 18, 2010 10:16 pm

Nishanta Rajakaruna, a professor of botany at College of the Atlantic, sent me UC Davis geologist Eldridge M. Moores’s list on why serpentine should remain the State Rock of California (background here). Why should you care? It’s simple:

When politicians make so-called “scientific” decisions based on nonsense, it’s our collective responsibility to call them out on it!

Alright, so what can you do? Judgment on the bill in question (SB624) happens this week, so if you live in CA, please email/call:

1. Senator Feinstein

2. Senator Boxer

3. The Governor

4. Gloria Romero who is naively pushing for this (and we’re not sure why)

5. Your state assembly person

Let them know that sound science must play a role in the policy-making process. Here are Eldridge’s talking points:

  • 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.

Related, there’s now a Serpentine Protest Song.

Update: Helpful links

The Law Against Serpentine: The Attorneys’ Arena


Highly Allochthonous

Twitter: #CAserpentine

Serpentine: A Group of Minerals

Throwing the Baby Out with the Bathwater: The Serpentine Issue in California

Asbestos in California’s State Rock? Not Really


Comments (8)

  1. chad

    what a foolish and unnecessary waste of taxpayer money, time, and intelligence. Definitely contacting some elected officials…

  2. Serpentine is and will be our state rock and it is important that we get our message across quickly and effectively. We have to show that serpentine and its associated biota should be studied and preserved for generations to come and that by keeping serpentine as our state rock we are better able to do so. As Eldridge and Garry ( have pointed out these outcrops provide many teaching moments. So many universities in CA and elsewhere have researchers focusing on serpentine rock-soil-biota relations and it is important that we continue to keep our focus on using serpentine as a model system for research and teaching (Harrison, S. P. and N. Rajakaruna (Eds.). 2010. Serpentine: Evolution and Ecology in a model System. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, USA . In press.).

    Please let your politicians know that serpentine does not equal mesothelioma! and that we need to celebrate this rock for all it has to offer rather than demonize it.

    California has been blessed with many scientists who have had life-long love affairs with the state’s serpentine outcrops, in particular the half century-long professional commitment by California native and pioneer of serpentine research Dr. Arthur Kruckeberg ( Art, in several emails to me over the last few days, indicated how strongly he feels about this move to demonize serpentine. I know he has written to our governor and senators. Similarly, Dr. Robert G. Coleman ( has spent well over half a century studying serpentine. During a recent conversation I had with Bob, he expressed his deep disappointment regarding the push to dethrone serpentine as our state rock.

    Serpentine outcrops throughout California provide settings for spectacular spring displays of our native plants. The fascinating stories associated with soil-plant relations of California’s serpentine have been well documented (see bibliography below).

    Many books & papers have highlighted CA’s serpentine outcrops and their unique plants. Our serpentine outcrops have been in the center of ecological research and teaching over the last 60 years and will continue to provide teaching and research opportunities for many generations of Californians and others. The very first International Conference on Serpentine Ecology was held in CA in 1991 (@ UC Davis). 17 of the total 51 oral presentations at the recently concluded International Conference on Serpentine Ecology ( were based on studies from California’s serpentine outcrops. Please join us next June in Portugal ( to learn more about serpentine in CA and around the world. I wish our legislators are able to attend this meeting so that they can become better informed of the real science behind serpentine. I think it is important that better connections are made between us scientists and those who make policy based on our science. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen with respect to this bill (SB624) but I am hopeful for the future.

    We must keep serpentine as our state rock. There is no other rock that could replace what serpentine has been to our state.

    Here is a list of some key treatments on the wonderful plant life on our serpentine outcrops. Serpentine is part of our natural heritage. We need to do all we can to make sure we value and preserve these habitats not just for us to enjoy and learn from but for future generations here and elsewhere.

    Interesting reads:

    Alexander, E.B., R.G. Coleman, T. Keeler-Wolf, and S. Harrison. 2007.
    Serpentine Geoecology of Western North America. Oxford University
    Press, New York.

    Kruckeberg, A.R. 2002. Geology and Plant Life: The Effects of Landforms
    and Rock Type on Plants. University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA.

    Safford, H.D., J.H. Viers, and S.P. Harrision. 2005. Serpentine endemism
    in the California flora: A database of serpentine affinity. Madroño
    52: 222–257.

    KRUCKEBERG, A. R. 1984. California Serpentines: Flora, Vegetation, Geology,
    Soils, and Management Problems. Univ. California Press, Berkeley, CA.

    Additional Summaries from the past conference:

    We scientists have few opportunities to influence policy. So here is your chance, don’t let that go!

  3. Gaythia

    Politically, especially in a state with such pressing concerns as California, it seems to me that any time spent encouraging elected officials to address the identity of the state rock is at best, superfluous.

    Educationally, I don’t agree that a small child would readily identify, or even be particularly intrigued by a serpentine sample. Quartz crystals, pyrite (fool’s gold) and fossils are, in my experience, much more likely to spark a child’s interest in geology.

    Biologically, Dr. Rajakaruna makes a strong case for the significance of a serpentine outcrop based ecosystem in the post above. But lots of ecosystems in California are threatened. Why the current concern about serpentine areas?

    I offer the following hypothesis:

    Geochemically, ultramafic rocks (olivine and serpentine) are being studied for their potential to sequester CO2. Some of this research is being promoted by “clean coal” industrial representatives. This geological reaction process is extremely slow. Thus to be practically utilized some process of grinding and heating would likely need to be employed. Thus consuming even more coal. Coal producers might not mind this. But evaluation from an energy budget standp0int would be necessary for practical application. Researchers are also working to develop more sophisticated methods that would not involve heat and grinding.

    If these processes were to come to practical fruition,there might be large scale mining of serpentine. The presence of crysotile asbestos is a complication in the use of serpentine for this purpose. Asbestos at the local power plant is not something likely to generate public enthusiasm. If I were a biologist interested in serpentine outcrop based ecosystems, I’m not sure it would be in my best interest to minimize this aspect.

    In a quick search for open source and easy to comprehend articles explaining the above I came up with the following links :

  4. FUAG

    How about this, rather than wasting any more time on what is perhaps the dumbest bit of legislation of all time, the good citizens of California should spend their efforts getting rid of politicians that have run the state into bankruptcy. I dunno, a “Tea Party” of sorts… 😉

  5. Gaythia: thanks for your note. Please see my comment #8, point #1 at this link:

    I agree with you. And I hope we will never get to experience the situation you are describing above. It will be nothing less than disastrous.

    Please do write your legislators if you feel strongly about this debate. Thanks!

  6. Gaythia

    @Sheril and Nishanta Rajakaruna: Note that the post on Highly Allochthonous discusses the idea that the highly exaggerated claim in this CA law that serpentine is “deadly” might have the effect of creating legal liability any time rock dust is stirred up. See also: This could be about mesothelioma lawyers looking for cases as was proposed at that link.

    Or, couldn’t it be a backdoor attempt at making it very difficult to develop or exploit serpentine outcrop based ecosystems?

  7. Gaythia – thanks for your views. Looking at what’s mostly out there I tend to think this has a lot to do with your former point, rather than the latter. However, you are right, this could also lead to reduced access to serpentine sites (see Ryan O’Dell’s comments on Sheril’s blog on unscientific CA) which may or may not be good in terms of using these unique habitats for research, teaching, and sound management. Also, what about those thousands of hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who hike in this terrain every day? Serpentine is scattered almost throughout central and northern CA and whether folks know it or not we all have walked on serpentine if you have ever hiked/walked around in CA. If access is cut-off, how are we going to enjoy up-close our beautiful spring flower displays found mostly on serpentine soils? If the rock is dropped from its status and all development/exploitation is stopped due to liability fears then you are right, perhaps this can be a win-win situation. But I am afraid that this may only increase exploitation, development (many cities, towns are built on areas overlying ultramafic rocks just like our toxic superfund sites are covered up so they are hidden from the casual observer), and many-fold increase in liability cases rather than strict preservation.

    I seriously think we should use this debate as a way of educating everyone about the joys and the few concerns associated with one of our natural wonders – celebrate it rather than demonize it. Isn’t this what we do with almost everything out there? talk about the good, the bad, the ugly. Serpentine worldwide is mostly good, it perhaps has a few bad sides, only if we are uneducated about it. Serpentine is not asbestos nor is it the leading cause for cancer – that is simply false. So bad science to freak folks out and then use such tactics to pass bills is not right – the good people of California deserve better.

  8. Serpentinophiles!

    I did a quick search on ISI Web of Knowledge to see how many peer-reviewed papers have been published in the last 5 years with serpentine as a key word.

    Here are the results:

    Serpentine + Soil – 185 papers
    Serpentine + Plants – 163 papers
    Serpentine + Rocks – 186 papers

    Clearly, serpentine outcrops around the world, especially here in CA, are model settings for research from geology and soils to cell and ecosystem level processes. We have a great natural laboratory to study and teach about in our backyard! We have researchers in almost every university in CA using serpentine as their model system; many of them with graduate students who are now ready to take on serpentine as their own model system to study and teach about.

    If this bill is passed, it is possible that access to serpentine areas may become difficult and this WILL have an impact on our ability to access and work at our research sites. We have already experienced access-related problems in a few places here in CA. This would have an impact on research productivity in our academic institutions as well as fantastic field trip opportunities for students (from secondary school to university levels) to learn first hand about geology, soils, plants, and other critters of serpentine landscapes. There is no better terrain to show the influence geology has on shaping the biotic world than on areas overlying serpentine rocks!

    Essentially, we will be closing an entire avenue for research and teaching for no valid reason. How would you feel about that?

    Please write to your senators, governor, and assembly persons right away. Links above.

    We have only this week to make our voices heard!



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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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