California’s Amazing Geology

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California’s Amazing Geology by Don Prothero is an amazing book about — wait for it — California’s geology!

California is one of the most geologically interesting and complex geopolitical units in the world. But so is Minnesota, and Minnesota is boring, geologically, for most people. Why? Because Minnesota is all eroded down and flattened out and covered with glacial till, so most of the interesting geology is buried, while California is actively engaged in its own geology in a spectacular and visually appealing way!

Lots of places have volcanoes. California has volcanoes that blow up, or that have erupted recently enough (geologically speaking) that you can still see the stuff laying all over the place they spewed out. Lots of places have rifting. Hell, one of the most interesting and important rifts in global geological history is right here in Minnesota. But, do people go to Duluth to see that rift, or to see Bob Dylan’s house? The latter, I think. In Califonria, there are three or four different kinds of major tectonic activity, including lots of plate tectonic movement, some spreading, and a big chunk of the amazing Basin and Range extension phenomenon. (That was where what is roughly Nevada and big sections of Utah and California stretched out to several times its original size. In the old days, Reno and Salt Lake Cities wold have been in the same Congressional District!)

California doesn’t’ just have mountains. It has several different kinds of mountains, most of which are currently actively forming right before our very eyes, or so recently formed they still have the tags hanging off them.

California’s Amazing Geology begins with several chapters on basic geology. If you know basic geology you can skip quickly through this and refer back later when you forget something. Then there are several sections each dealing with a different geological region. Then, there is a chapter that literally puts it all together (“Assembling California”). Following this is a compendium of information on California’s main geological resources (gold, oil, water, etc., including fossils!)

There are three things you need to know about this book. First, it covers everything pretty completely, considering the vastness of California and the fact that the book is 480 pages long. Second, it is very up to date. There aren’t any up to date books about California Geology. Third, it is written by Don Prothero, which means that complicated and nuanced scientific topics are explained in a way that a reasonably educated non expert can totally understand. Books like this all too commonly fall into jargonistic language either because the author has no clue it is happening, or because they are written for a highly specialized audience (and maybe the author is even a bit insecure). Don Prothero does not do that. He simply gives you the information in a respectfully, clear, understandable, but not watered down manner. A lot of people will tell you that is not possible. They are wrong, and Prothero does it all the time.

The illustrations, many by Don’s son, are excellent and numerous.

By the way, if you want to know more about how one goes about writing books like this, and how Don’s approach works, check out this interview with the man himself.

This is a bit of a specialized book unless you frequently visit or live in California. It is suitable as a textbook in college, but also, in just the right California science elective class. If you you are a modern student of natural history and California is in your catchment, this is a must-have book.

I am a little confused about its availability. The publication date is 2017, I got a pre-publication review copy, but it looks like you can actually buy it on Amazon now. But, I’m not sure what happens if you click through, maybe they tell you it will be delivered in January.

Here is the TOC:


The Golden State

Building Blocks: Minerals and Rocks

Dating California: Stratigraphy and Geochronology

The Big Picture: Tectonics and Structural Geology

Earthquakes and Seismology


Young Volcanoes: The Cascades and Modoc Plateau

The Broken Land: The Basin and Range Province

Gold, Glaciers, and Granitics: The Sierra Nevada Mountains

Mantle Rocks and Exotic Terranes: The Klamath Mountains

Oil and Agriculture: The Great Valley

The San Andreas Fault Zone

Melanges, Granitics, and Ophiolites: The Coast Ranges

Compression, Rotation, Uplift: The Transverse Ranges and Adjacent Basins

Granitics, Gems, and Geothermal Springs: The Peninsular Ranges and Salton Trough

Assembling California: A Four-Dimensional Jigsaw Puzzle


California Gold

California Oil

California Water

California’s Coasts

California’s Fossil Resources

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7 thoughts on “California’s Amazing Geology

  1. “Assembling California” is also the title of John McPhee’s fourth book in his “Annals of the Former World” series. It covers mostly the Sierra Nevada, Great Central Valley and Coast Ranges, but in an obviously far different style 🙂 The Basin and Range is covered separately and eponymously.

  2. Actually reading the roadside geology of Minnesota, you find that Mn has an interesting geology, in particular in the Northeast and Southwest areas. Both are far older than most of Northern Ca (Not so much the Death Valley area). The northeast has both the western part of the mid continent gravity high, as well as several iron deposits (including the Mesabi). Iron deposits only really occurred before there was much oxygen in the atmosphere. Then the southwest has among the oldest rocks in the US at 3.5 billion years old, as well as the Souix Quartzite (pipestone).
    Interestingly Southeast Mn as well as NE Iowa and adjacent parts of Wi are areas that were not glaciated during the Wisconsin event and suggest how much of the upper midwest looked before that event.

  3. Actually for California there was a new edition of the Roadside Geology of Northern and Central Ca and a new book Roadside Geology of Southern Ca. Among the interesting facts in the Southern Ca book is that there are actually holes in the upper plate that expose parts of the farralon plate (Pelona Schist).
    I would recommend both and the combo is still cheaper California’s Amazing Geology.
    In general the Roadside Geology series is good

  4. Lyle, yes, as I said, Minnesota has great geology, very complex, very interesting. I’m in to glacial geology, so really, most of the state is interesting for that. But, much of that ancient history has been smoothed over (by glaciers among other things)

    I live in the canyon lands, where the numerous plateaus (buttes, mesas) are typically hundreds of feet above the steep sided cliff flanked arroyos and river valleys that snake almost randomly through the region. That’s very interesting geology.

    The fact that it is all covered with glacial till so it now looks like low rolling hills and many marshes is a bit misleading!

  5. Roadside Geology of Southern California and Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California are both recently updated roadside books, and they are good.

    Neither is a proper geology text and though they are cheaper, they are a different thing. The roadside geology books are essential if you are going to go out and look at geology.

    Having said that, Prothero’s book would serve as a roadside book if you have a reasonable sense of the local geography and a map. But I strongly recommend both for the serious geologizer. I’ll be carrying both with me in on an upcoming trip to the state!

  6. Great, another book to buy!
    I’ve been interested in Californian geology since I went out there to see some friends. Coming from arguably the birthplace of geology, Scotland, I was familiar with most of the basics, but California has such a variety and all sorts of things all of it’s own that Scotland hasn’t.

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