Thursday, June 17, 2021

Plane Notes: A Few Infrastructure Observations

Aerial views are part of my routine 'tool box' as a geologist. I use aerial photographs on a nearly daily basis for multiple reasons. Other aerial imagery is utilized as well - lidar, infrared and sometimes radar imagery. I enjoy this type of work and a there is a sense of discovery when viewing aerials. 

I had previously seen the below feature when reviewing historic aerials for a project, and hence, when I got a view of it while flying out of Seattle knew exactly what it was. 

Cedar Hills Landfill
The Cedar Hills Landfill serves King County. 

While I do like to see the geology observable while flying, the human infrastructure also stands out. Some infrastructure has far reaching influence.  

From right to left: Keechelus, Kaches, Cle Elum
Interstate 90 traverses along the left side of Keechelus
The Snoqulamie Pass ski areas are visible in the lower right 

The three lakes are all part of the Yakima River watershed. There were natural lakes at all three locations associated with past ice age alpine glaciers that left depressions and moraines in the three valleys. Dams were erected at the outlets of all three to raise the water storage which is then metered out through the summer growing season in the Yakima Valley below. The dams should not be considered static features - they require ongoing maintenance and at times repair. All three dams are Federal dams managed and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation.    

The western side of the Quincy Basin with the Columbia River to the right

The rocky ground with lakes are former spill ways from the large ice-age floods (quincy-basin-plumbing)The Quincy Basin is a major agricultural area in central Washington with irrigation water supplied via water routed from the Grand Coulee Dam through the former routes of the ice-age floods. On the upper part of the picture an additional flood spill way can be seen plus a whiteish area. The upper whiteish area is a site of a diatomite mine. The ice-age floods plucked off enough basalt to expose old lake deposits containing diatoms that are now mined.  
Moses Lake and Potholes Reservoir to the north

The east end of the Quincy Basin is drained through another ice-age flood route. Moses Lake is a natural lake formed in the deep flood water channels. Its depth and extent was slightly expanded by a small dam work at the outlet in 1911. Potholes Reservoir is formed by O'Sullivan Dam. The lakes receive natural water flow via Crab Creek, but the bulk of the water passing through now is via the water pumped into the upstream ice-age flood route of Grande Coulee and then routed via other reservoirs and canals to the Quincy Basin.    

Potholes Reservoir

Potholes Reservoir is a critical junction in the Columbia Basin project. Water from this area is routed to project irrigation lands around Basin City (upper left in the picture), the Crab Creek valley (above the lake in the picture) and the Wahluke Slope (dark area above the Crab Creek area and separated from Crab Creek by the ridge of the Saddle Mountains).

The lower Snake River

The lower Snake River is an area where infrastructure has generated some controversy. The lower Snake in Washington State has four dams that were the last of the big dams on Columbia-Snake system. These dams have led to the extinction of some salmon species and endangerment of additional salmon species. There is some irrigation near the lower Snake River. The big fields on the left are dry land wheat, but nearer the river above Ice Harbor Dam pumps in the backed up river and in wells near the river supply water to irrigated land. Part of the conflict over the lower Snake dams revolves around these irrigated lands --- if the dams are removed the irrigation works will need to be altered and water pumping costs may increase. 

Lower Snake River passing through the Palouse 

Most of the area along the lower Snake in Washington is not irrigated farm land as the river is a in a narrow steep rocky canyon for much of this river reach. The above image shows the slack water backed up by Lower Monumental Dam. The wide tributary is the Palouse River also backed up by the dam. The tributary on the left is the Tucannon River which drains out of the north side of the Blue Mountains.

The high Palouse and Blue Mountains

The further east position and higher elevation means wetter areas. In June the eastern Palouse and the Blue Mountains are very green landscapes. here the moisture levels are high enough that dry land winter wheat can be grown every year versus the every other year pattern in the areas to the west and at lower elevations. That switch over line can be seen on the right portion of the picture. 

If you blow up the picture above or better the one below another newer infrastructure feature can be observed. 

Rows of wind turbins line the upper ridges of the high Palouse in this area

One last infrastructure note beyond Washington Sate's borders: 

Surface mines along mountain ridges in southeast Idaho. 
Bear lake in northwest Utah is in the distance

Extensive open pit surface mining has been taking place in southeast Idaho over the past 50 plus years. The mines are phosphate mines. Some of that phosphate may end up shipped to Washington farm lands as a critical fertilizer. This particular mine is a JR Simplot Smoky Canyon Mine. The phosphate ore is mixed with water and pumped via pipeline for processing in Pocatello, ID. This was the best view I have had of the scale of the phosphate mining in this area. Its impressive on the ground, but more so from the air.   

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Plane Notes: Carlson Lake Landslide in the Lost River Range, Idaho

My preference even for long trips is to drive. But some trips do require flying. Initially the landscape is familiar and then becomes semi familiar. Looking down at the Lost River Range of Idaho (slight familiarity) I spotted a large landslide.

Carlson Lake Landslide

The slide is about 2 miles long with a headwall at about 8,500 feet elevation and the toe extending out onto the broad alluvial fan at an elevation of 6,700 feet. The slide took place within andesitic and basaltic lava flow formations. 

Schaller (1991) analyzed this slide and obtained a radiocarbon date of 2,420 bp. However, Krueger (2014) utilizing Lake Carlson on the upper part of the slide for past climate analysis got an age date on the upper slide of 9,054 years. It is possible that the slide has had multiple periods of movement that would explain a younger age at the toe of the slide. The slide is located within an active seismic area - the Borah Peak Earthquake ruptured the ground over 21-mile long fault scarp on the opposite side of the Lost Creek Range.    

The trip was a long trip that involved 2 bus rides, 5 planes and 3 trains to get to the destination, but glad to have made it.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Skagit County Mine Woes

Complex of quarries that supply a community

Quarries for aggregate go through various phases on a local basis. Once a group of quarries gets established and the market supply is being met there is a period of stasis. But eventually the quarries exhaust the resource and new supplies must be found. Skagit County is going through one of those supply shifts and the disruption that goes with that change The three proposed mine sites each has particular issues and regulatory status with the issues described in the article. Besides the three mines in the article another mine is proposed to expand, but apparently no significant objections have arisen yet and a fifth mine is in the early stages of the permit process. 

The State Growth Management Act includes language regarding resource land protection. Resource lands typically include farm land, forest land and mineral resources. The approach that counties have taken on resource land protection varies. For mineral lands, the protection limits the land use that can take place on the or near the areas of mineral resources with the idea avoiding loosing the resource to being covered homes. 

An example of an excellent source of sand and gravel lost to use is Mercer Island in Lake Washington smack in the middle of an area of high demand in King County.

Mercer Island

Obviously when Mercer Island was initially developed there were plenty of resources elsewhere and development of the island proceeded and one could argue that delaying development of the island so a big chunk of it could be mined would not be an ideal scenario. 

Skagit County took a very broad approach that utilized mostly geology to designate large areas of the county for mineral resource protection. There was some consideration of preexisting conflict so that some areas were pulled out of the protection zone. However, when mine sites enter actual permitting, it is very clear that conflicts are still present or issues still require attention. Just because an area is designated for protection does not mean a guarantee to be permitted to mine. 

And there have been Skagit property owners that have sought to do the opposite of getting a mine permit, getting the property removed from designation as a mineral area. This can be done by demonstrating that the site is underlain by sand and gravel or that other issues would preclude ever being permitted to mine. One site was removed after the Planning Commission agreed that the site could not be mined due to the presence of high voltage electric transmission lines and a large volume natural gas pipeline. I would note further that the site was also underlain by a thick layer glacial till that was mostly silt and clay.       



Sunday, May 30, 2021

Multiple Deformation Darrington Formation

I had a venture into the Northwest Cascades that included a chance to check a couple of old quarries. The quarries were readily apparent in lidar bare earth imagery, but a bit obscured on the ground as the forest had grown up around them. The first quarry mine floor was being pioneered by a mix of cottonwood and red alder trees. 

The geology of this area east of the South Fork Nooksack River is mapped as Darrington Phyllite and glacial drift and the quarries were in both formations with the one pictured above being in the Darrington Phyllite. The quarry exposed the highly deformed phyllite that includes a range of tight folds, kink bands and mini slip zones.

The Darrington Phyllite covers an extensive area of the Northwest Cascades with outcrops from as far east as near Marblemount to the west end of Samish Island. The same multiple deformation fabrics I observed at the quarry are also present miles away at excellent exposures on Samish Island. Dunhan (2010) working from excellent exposures on Samish Island did a detailed analysis of the deformation including how the kink bands so prominent in the formation developed.  

The Darrington is part of a larger terrain, the Easton Metamorphic Suite, a tectonic terrain of ocean crust that accreted to North America about 140 million years ago. The Darrington is mostly former mudstone that has been metamorphosed into phyllite. The multiple deformations in the Darrington represent different tectonic events in the history of the Easton Suite. Metamorphic minerals within the former ocean floor basalt record one time very deep burial of these rocks indicating the Easton Suite went deep down the subduction trench. Further deformation would have taken place when these rocks were exhumed or uplifted out the deep burial in the trench and then deformed yet again when subsequent tectonic events emplaced them in their current position with additional deformation during the most recent mountain building events. A hard story that has taken time to piece together by lots of geologists with still much to resolve and interpret.    

Just to the east of the quarry the geology changes abruptly into an entirely different tectonic terrain, or more appropriately multiple tectonic terrains termed the Bell Pass Mélange. In the midst of the mélange of terrains is a large block of dunite derived from the mantle of the planet. This block of mantle forms the jagged peaks of the Twin Sisters Range. The Twin Sisters were in and out of the clouds during my venture.

Twin Sisters Range

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Blowing Dust in Skagit and Douglas Counties

Last week while on the Waterville Plateau in central Washington I observed a bit of a dust storm to the east in the early morning.


Blowing dust on the north side of the Waterville Plateau
Distant haze suggest dust blowing further east 

The dust blow was from an area that burned last September that is also underlain by glacial lake sediments. Glacial ice from the Okanogan ice lobe blocked the Columbia River forming a large ice margin lake. The lake sediments are very fine grained and readily will erode via both water and wind from areas of disturbed ground. 

More surprising was the dust storm mid day today on the Skagit River delta.

April and May have been dry on the Skagit delta/flats and the fields are drier than usual. This is generally a good thing as wet springs can hamper getting out on these fields -- they are just above or at sea level (think Netherlands and dikes that keep the tide out). Most of the dust was from potato fields that were recently plowed. They get plowed pretty deep and pretty late with some not yet planted. However, one corn field just sprouting was kicking up dust as well. The pictures are from between Edison and Allen, northwest of Burlington.

Dust lifting off plowed field obscuring the view of Blanchard Mountain

Dust lifting off field with Bayview Hill in the distance

Driving across the Samish Flats was an eastern Washington experience

The dust blow lasted a few hours but ended as the wind calmed a bit and spring shower passed through. 

I sent a few pictures to Cliff Mass and he has a write up on today's wind event: dust-storms-on-both-sides-of-cascades. Cliff included some pictures from the Tri-City area, a place where I experienced my share of dust storms. 

Josh Ritter starts a song that is apt for dust storms and farming: "Dirt roads and dryland farming might be the death of me. But I can't leave this world behind" Josh Ritter - Lawrence, Kansas. I will just note that all the rain in Skagit winters precludes dirt roads in the farm land.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Late Low Snow and Rosie Has a New Baby

On Monday I headed to central Washington via the Highway 20 across the North Cascades over Rainy Pass and Washington Pass. A cold rain was falling in the late afternoon as I crossed the passes. The sky cleared by the time I reached the Columbia River at Pateros so I opted for camping at a favorite site that will remain secret. When I got into my sleeping bag it was 63 F -- a bit warm for sleeping, but by morning it was 36 as the cold air caught up to me. 

It was hard to tell as the mountains still have lingering late snow, but it looked like there was fresh snow on the North Cascades in the morning. 

I had to head back Tuesday and noted the fresh snow on the trees and peaks on my return. 

Liberty Bell approaching Washington Pass

View of Fisco Mountain while descending from Washington Pass 

View of high ridge between Colonial Peak and Pyramid Peak on the descent to the Skagit River

 Late Wednesday even Lyman Hill at 4,000 feet in the Northwest Cascades had a dusting of snow on its upper slopes added to the older snow on the clear cuts.

Our neighbor Rosie delivered as least one fawn on Wednesday. Three years ago Rosie somehow got her nose torn up; hence my name for her. She typically has previously had twins so another may be on the way. Our other neighbor, Blackie, has not made an appearance yet, but I expect she will be around with her fawn or fawns soon.


Tuesday, December 29, 2020


I have spent a fair bit of time on the high bluffs along the east side of Port Discovery. During some of those ventures a small boat has been off shore in a stationary position with the sound of engines running. At other times the boat is simply anchored near the end of an unpaved road adjacent to a cuspate shore form.  

Landslide complex with cuspate shore form in distance and anchored boat

Port Discovery with Olympic Range in the distance

The boat is used by divers for harvesting a lease tract subtidal geoducks. Dave Williams has an excellent write up of the history and management of the resource ( The shellfish can be harvested during very low tides without diving.  (b-roll:-geoduck-beach-harvesting-aquaculture). However, a fair bit of the harvest is via dive boats at lease sites ( Geoduck Diving Harvest). The geoduck fishery is managed by Washington State Fish and Wildlife as well as the owner of the subtidal lands, Washington State (

The first time I tried geoduck was via a gift from shellfish business I did some geology work for. I have since dug for them a few times during very low tides. They are a fun prize to pull up out of the sand. One big goeduck is more than enough for a meal. But those big geoducks take many years to grow. As their value has increased management of the resource has become more important.