Saturday, July 31, 2010

The New Wind Landscape is about more than Wind

I touched lightly on the aspect of permitting wind farms in yesterday's post. As noted permitting is a mix of local permitting and/or state permitting via Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC). A article in today's New York Times HERE discusses wind farms and noise in Oergon within the area of the Columbia River near Washington State.
I served on Washington State's EFSEC for three natural gas power plant proposals. Noise was a big issue for all three of those proposals and is a lot more complicated than one would initially think. Different frequencies were considered and how sound traveled under different weather conditions was also a factor. I will say that the Councils I served on took the noise issue very seriously for natural gas power plants and I suspect have done the same for wind turbines.
I will say that an attempt to camp near the Columbia River earlier this summer east of the Dalles was aborted because of the wind and the associated noise that came with the 40+ mph breeze. We found a somewhat more protected spot near Hood River, a popular wind surfing destination.

Friday, July 30, 2010

New Landscapes Defined by Wind

Just south of the Vantage Bridge on the Columbia River Will and I observed several trucks loaded with giant wind tubine blades.

Anyone making the I-90 drive across Washington State has noticed the landscape change taking place along Ryegrass Summit, the ridge line between Ellensburg and Vantage.

The area is aligned with a low gap in the Cascade Range that allows for passage of air between western Washington and eastern Washington. I suspect the arrangement of the ridges on the east side of the Kittitas Valley further accentuates the wind along Ryegrass Mountain. Over time I suspect there will be more wind development to the north and south along the ridge. Other wind projects are either under construction or in the planning stages in Kittitas County.

The big wind gap though is to the south where the Columbia River cuts through the Cascade Range. The ridges on the north side of the river as well as the ridges to the east between the Columbia River and Walla Walla are building wind turbines at a steady rate.

Turbine and para glider north of the Dalles

Turbines on Jump Off Joe south of Kennewick in Benton County

The State Line area in the Horse Heaven Hills west of Walla Walla

Lots more wind projects are in the works. A project is proposed north of White Salmon, Washington at Whistling Ridge just outside the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. The project has some opposition on scenery issues as no turbines would be allowed in the gorge itself. Just east of the Scenic Area at the Dalles turbines have already been installed (see above picture).

Another project is in the planning or early permit stage at Naff Ridge in Whitman County north of Walla Walla.

Permitting for the wind farms has been a mix of local and state regulations with many of the projects going through the Washington State Energy Facility Siting Evaluation Council (EFSEC) even though most are below the power thresehold that would require EFSEC review. Of power projects reviewed by EFSEC and approved, wind projects actually are getting built versus approved natural gas power plants that have not been built despite EFSEC approval.

The development of hydroelectric energy brought about profound changes to Washington's landscape. The development of wind energy is bring about large changes to our landscape as well - at least where the wind blows steady. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Washington Forests Stand Tall

NASA has published a unique map showing the height the tree canopy of the world's forests.
The map, an explanation of the how the map was produced and a discussion of the maps can be found HERE. It is noteworthy to see how little of the earth is actually forested. Living amongst the big forest of the Pacific Northwest, it is easy to forget that much of the terrestrial landscape of our planet is not tree covered. Furthermore, a careful look at the map shows that the forest of Washington State is part of a forest with canopy height that is dark green on the map. The western North American temperate forests contain some of the biggest trees in the world and covers a large area with very tall trees. Our forests soak up a lot of carbon from the atmosphere.

The United States map shows that the United States has a lot of forest coverage. The eastern forests cover a larger area than the forest in the west, but the trees in the eastern forests do not attain the same heights as our western forests and the area covered by forest in the east has been diminished by agriculture and urban development. The forest pattern in the west is primarily defined by precipitation with the white areas consisting primarily of deserts or scrub steppe.

The forest pattern in Washington State shows this western pattern. Most of western Washington is covered by forest as are most of the mountain areas including the mountains in eastern and north central Washington. Treeless areas can bee seen in the urban areas and farm lands around Puget Sound. Treeless area are also present in the Olympics and Cascades associated with areas with the higher peaks of the ranges that are either ice covered or are too cold for trees. Mount Saint Helens not only has areas covered by ice but also obliterated a large swath of forest during the 1980 eruption. East of the Cascade range low areas in the Columbia Basin and Okanogan Valley do not receive enough rain to support trees. But the high ranges in the Columbia Highlands with many peaks over 7,000 feet are covered with forest as are the Blue Mountains in southeast Washington with peaks over 6,000 feet.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dabob Bay Swimming

Yesterday's Swimming Hole
I spent yesterday on the northeast side of the Olympic Peninsula. One project involved hiking down from the top of the Toandos Peninsula to the east shore of Dabob Bay. Being a sunny warm day I took a swim out into the bay from the location pictured above. It was nice to have a set of glacial eratic boulders to start my swim. I simply hopped onto the rocks to remove my boots and clothes thus avoiding sharp edged oyster shells and gravel on my tender feet.
The water in Dabob Bay is warm. None of the usual northwest numbing and taking your breath away. A nice treat as I swam out to the middle of the bay and back in comfort for a good half hour in the water. The water is warmer here than elsewhere in the Salish Sea and Puget Sound because in the summer this area is one of the warmest places in western Washington. 

              Average Maximum Temperatures
                                        June   July   August  Sept.
Seattle                              69      72       73         67
Port Townsend             66      70       71         67
Bellingham                     66      71       72         68
Quilcene                          72      77      79         73

In the summer the Hood Canal area gets warmer from adiabatic warming of the air as it descends the east slope of the Olympic Mountains when there is a general westerly flow of air. The broad tide flats at the north ends of Dabob Bay and the adjoining Quilcene Bay adds to the warming of the water along with the more enclosed nature of the upper Hood Canal and Dabob Bay. During rainy periods with rain approaching from the southwest a rain shadow develops to the northeast of the mountains. Rain fall in Quilcene is 54.4 inches per year and in Port Townsend it is19.3 inches. So while I have experienced the positives of warmer weather near Quilcene I have also experienced the much harder rain fall and snow fall in the winter.

Plants are different in this area as well with evergreen huckleberry and rhododendrons being a predominant understory plant in the forest around Quilcene and areas of poison oak being common especially to the south in the Brinnon area and on steeper sunnier slopes where it can be the dominant vegetation in clear cuts.

Google Map of Toandos and Dabob Bay. The tip of the peninsula is less than 20 miles from downtown Seattle, but the nearest gas station or small grocery is 22 miles by road.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Lummi Peak from the Flats

The Skagit Flats is a broad flat plain south, west and north of Mount Vernon, Washington. To the northwest of Mount Vernon the Skagit Flats blends into the Samish Flats. The Samish River is a small river that meanders across the flast and drains into Puget Sound. The flatness of the farm land in this area is a result of alluvial deposits primarily from the Skagit River with a big influx a couple of thousand years ago of volcanic mud from Glacier Peak.

One of my favorite views on the Skagit/Samish Flats is the abrupt sharp rise of Lummi Peak to the northwest. Lummi Peak is the summit of Lummi Island and rises to 1,685 feet. With a double summit and its steep sides it resmbles a volcanoe from the Flats. However, its lack of symetry gives it away. The picture below was taken in Edison behind the Long Horn Salloon and the Smith and Vallee Gallery.

Lummi Peak above Samish River

I said a hello to Todd Horton painting in front of the Smith and Vallee Gallery (web here). I love his paintings of animals in motion and he has been doing landscapes of the flats as well including as I found out while posting this blog a painting of Lummi Peak from the Samish Flats HERE. I drive through Edison frequently. The small farm/fishing village has survived and in the past few years has moved from being a semi ghost town to a significant tourist stop for people driving the flats or heading up to Chuckanut Drive.

Todd Horton at work in front of The Smith and Vallee Gallery, Edison

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Stop at Deception Pass

I travel to Whidbey Island via Deception Pass on a routine basis. Due to routine and familiarity, I forget what an amazing site the passage is. Last week I stopped at the bridges. The pass is spanned by two high bridges across a very small island in the middle of the passage. The bridges are about 160 feet above the water. The tide was flowing in to the east at the time of my visit.

View of Canoe Pass, north of Pass Island
View of Deception Pass, south of Pass Island
with waving tour boat passengers 

The rocks lining the passage are part of the Fidalgo Ophiolite Complex of Brown and Others. The ophiolite is a stack of ocean crust rocks from the ocean basement through the sediment deposited on the ocean floor and has been estimated to be Jurrasic, roughly 150 million years old. This ocean floor assembly was likely accreted onto the edge of North America in the northern California area and then was transferred northward via lateral faults and thrust into its current position in the late Cretaceous (65 million).
The vegetation between the steep north facing slope and steep south facing slope is markedly different. Of course the north facing slope is cooler and moister so is completely covered primarily by Douglas fir. The warm south facing slope is grass, bare rock, rose, stunted Douglas fir and madrone. 

Heavily forested north facing slope.
Open woodland and bare slopes facing south.

This sharp contrast is not the norm in western Washington. Rainfall at this site is about 22 inches a year so it is dry enough that slope aspect becomes important for tree coverage. The drier weather here relative to most of the rest of western Washington is due to a the rain shadow caused by the Olympic range to the southwest. Rainfall at Oak Harbor a few miles to the south is barely 20 inches per year compared to Seattle's 36 inches. Oak Harbor is dry enough that oak trees grow on the south facing slope within the town. The dryness is partly off set by the cool climate and infusion of fog in the summer as this area is open to the ocean via the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
The dryness and tough growing conditions impressed upon me the flexibility of Douglas fir as a species. I observed a Douglas fir growing as essentially ground cover cones and all on the upper slope of Pass Island.
Douglas fir growing as ground cover

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gulls Take Advantage of Pavement

I was in on Whibbey Island last week and noted something I have seen before, but it took awhile to dawn on me as my attention was focused on work related observations. The large vacant paved area was littered with sea shells. Gulls are resourceful creatures that have adopted well to the tools we have given them - large flat hard surfaces.

I noted that the parking area immediately joining the vacant lot I was at had no shells. Perhaps the lot is swept clean since it is in use or the gulls prefer not being interrupted by car when they drop their shells.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Floods and Urban Landscapes

I spent some time yesterday reviewing urban growth areas (UGAs). UGAs are how our current local governments decide where future urban ares will be located. Under the Washington State Growth Management Act passed in the early 1990s most cities and counties need to plan for future growth. The proposed growth areas I was looking at are located adjacent to Ferndale, Nooksack and Sumas, Washington all in Whatcom County where I live.
The typical way the UGA planning works is that the County establishes an overall growth plan and must approve the city UGA plans. State Growth Boards have been set up for purposes of reviewing plans when disagreements take place. Ferndale, Nooksack and Sumas all appealed the County plans and the County Council is now considering ways to get past those disagreements with Ferndale, Nooksack and Sumas without the Hearings Board involvement. I should add that Blaine also appealed as did a large property owner north of Bellingham that wanted Bellingham's UGA to be increased and some property owners to the south of Bellingham that were displeased that Bellingham's UGA was made smaller in that area.
Some readers of this blog are well aware of my opinions on local UGA boundaries. While I do have opinions regarding growth plans and UGAs, the purpose of this blog is to try to bring an understanding of Washington State landscapes. Urban areas and why they are located where they area are part of our landscape in Washington State. So I will try to stay neutral here and keep in mind the goal of informing readers about how land use policies at the local level can shape how our Washington State landscapes appear.
Ideally growth areas will be efficient for development and minimize costs to tax payers and utility rate payers. For example, having urban areas in very hilly areas with lots of hard rock may be costly for building roads, water lines and sewer. But flat well drained land might mean loss of farm land. And poorly drained land in much of western Washington likely means wetlands or storm water challenges.
In the case of Ferndale, the current city leaders are fairly bullish on growth. But even then the City's growth boundaries are bigger then the State law allowed as the law limits growth plans to accommodate 30 years of reasonably projected growth. This created a dilemma of what areas to take out of Ferndale's UGAs. Ferndale leaders have attempted to minimize the UGA area loss with a variety of arguments and are attempting to get the County Council to put some areas removed back in.  
Sumas and Nooksack are very small towns that want some growth as well, but they face some tough dilemmas. Both towns are nearly surrounded by high quality agricultural land and abut flood areas. The Sumas River flows through both communities. The Sumas River is a small river, but the land around it is very flat and when the Nooksack River has big floods flood waters from the Nooksack flow into the Sumas Valley flooding large areas. At one time the Nooksack likely once flowed through the Sumas Valley and discharged into the Fraser River in British Columbia instead of its current route to Bellingham Bay. Paul Pitman and others have postulated that the Sumas River meander loops are too big for its small size and that the Sumas is simply following the old river channel the Nooksack used to follow to the Fraser Valley. It has been postulated that the change of flow on the Nooksack took place within the last 500 years.
But a more recent problem has developed on the Sumas River. Swift Creek a tributary stream is filling with sediment from a massive landslide on the west side of Sumas Mountain. This sediment load is causing the Sumas River to fill in as well. Approximately 150,000 cubic yards of sediment is entering Swift Creek every year from the slide and this is expected to continue for the next 350 years. The answer in the past has been to dredge the stream and river, but there are two problems with this approach: 1) the amount sediment entering the system is much greater than in the past as the slide and its impact to Swift Creek is a relatively new phenomenon and 2) the sediment contains asbestos in quantities that the EPA considers unsafe. Part of Nooksack's UGA request is along the banks of the Sumas River a short distance downstream of the confluence with Swift Creek.

The Swift Creek landslide is a fascinatingly complex geology, health and community problem. With the proposed Nooksack UGA it gets even more complicated.
The proposed Sumas and Nooksack urban growth areas provide insight into how flood areas become urbanized.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Eagle has Landed - in the York Neigborhood

Sunday morning I took a look out our window to the west to see how far the marine push had come. After a few warm days (hot by Bellingham standards) the hot trough had shifted to the east and marine air was pushing into western Washington. The fog came all the way into Bellingham but short of my neighborhood. I took this picture of the fog front.
Fog front to the west 

But a careful look at the Douglas fir on the left of the photo shows that a bald eagle was paying a visit to my urban neighborhood and that is really why I took the picture.
Bald eagle with a prize in an urban Douglas fir

I was not the only one that noticed the eagle. The local clan of northwest crows were complaining loudly. I don't have a camera setup to get a good wildlife shot. The picture above was shot through a binocular lens and I had managed to stabilize the binoculars, the camera and my hands to get a reasonably clear image. The picture below is not so clear but gets across the idea that the local crows were not pleased with having an eagle in the neighborhood.
Northwest crow harassing bald eagle

The variety of birds has increased in my neighborhood over the past 20 years. This is in a large part due to trees in the neighborhood growing large enough to appeal even to passing eagles. Nearby Whatcom Creek is now lined with mature cottonwoods and Youth Conservation Crews plantings of native brush along the stream has further increased habitat. The close by Sehome Arboretum is moving into a mature forested condition. And finally a more people are planting trees and bushes versus all lawn. However, the biggest break for eagles has been the ending of the use of DDT that decimated their numbers as the pesticide moved up the food chain. Many other fish eating birds have rebounded as well. Bald eagles are now a common site in northwest Washington, but is was still a thrill to see one form my own window in an urban neighborhood.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Yosemite Rockfall Video

Sam Crawford a former associate in county government suggested I might like this video. I did enjoy it. It is interesting to me at multiple levels as I have had to assess rock fall hazards on numerous occasions as a consulting engineering geologist.
Washington State does not have cliffs as dramatic as the shear granite walls of Yosemite, but we do have plenty of overesteep glacial valleys in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains as well as the Columbia Highlands, the Columbia River Gorge, the scab land cliffs in eastern Washington and the San Juan Islands.
Washington State's Growth Management Act requires counties and cities to have Critical Areas Ordinances. Critical Areas Ordinances are used to protect wetland areas, wildlife habitat and to protect the public and property owners from geologic hazards. Rockfall hazards fall under geologic hazards. If there are steep potentially unstable slopes an assessment of the geology hazard will likely be required before a building permit is issued. I have assessed the potential for rockfalls impacting a proposed building site when the site is located below a cliff area or the impacts of development on the stability of a slope that may generate rockfalls. The most recent project I assessed where rockfall was a concern was up the Skagit River Valley in the North Cascade Range. My conclusion was that the hazard was essentially nil for the proposed building site. At another site I ruled out building on one portion of the property that had been previously prepared for development. My conclusion was the risk was very low, but the consequences was very high. That site was more like the sites in Yosemite although at a much smaller scale. I have had only one property where I completely ruled out development due to rock fall hazard. That site was on a small lot on Orcas Island. Last fall I assessed a site on Fidlago island specifically for rock fall hazards. Sure enough there were large boulders in the woods on flat ground not unlike the boulders in the video of Yosemite. However, all of the boulders were covered in moss and lichen and hand digging underneath the boulders as well as elsewhere on the site I found the soils were indicative of ice wasting. The boulders on the flat area were most likely boulders left behind by melting glacial ice. Scrambling on the bedrock slopes and overgrown and mossy talus on the slopes above I found no evidence of recent rock fall and could not find any potential rock fall sites at least above the property I was interested in. However, further to the west of the site I found lots of hazardous cliffs and relatively recent rock falls so the County geologist was warranted to be concerned.      

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Moses Lake Fire

A grass/brush fire in north Moses Lake destroyed one home on July 4th. The fire was very near an associates parents' home. I took a look at Google Earth to get a sense of where the fire burned and found that a previous fire showed up very clearly in the satellite image of the area.

Scorch pattern from brush and grass fire north of Moses Lake

The fire in the satellite image was smaller than the more recent fire but damaged and destroyed several homes.
The area is a large flood way channel from the Missoula Floods downstream of the Grande Coulee the former route of very large volumes of flood waters. The area is underlain by cobbles and boulders and is excessively well drained with poor soil and hence has not been irrigated like areas to the west, south and east.
The northern arm of Moses Lake can be seen in the left portion of the photo. The lake is located within the deepest flood way channel. Additional flood way channel scarps are evident in the photo including the dark line from the lower right in the photo to the upper center border of the image.
Moses Lake formed when a dune field blocked the flow of Crab Creek and Rocky Creek approximately 5,000 years ago and the water backed up into the deeper flood way channels. The dune field is still present south of Moses lake although most of the dunes are inundated by water from the O'Sullivan Dam and Potholes Reservoir.

The Thirsty Woman Follow Up

I did not give much information on The Thirsty Woman The story is that years ago the only bar in Mosier, Oregon banned women. That bar burned down and it has been hinted that the women may have done it, but I suspect it just sounds appropriate. Mosier is a small town and the YWCA was located in a small building. So while the men were drinking the women were apparently doing more wholesome activities.
The current owners acquired the old dilapidated YWCA building along with a restaurant next door. After getting the restaurant going they fixed up the old Y as a bar and did not ban men. Hence the name for all the past women of Mosier that went thirsty. On a warm summer evening, its a great place to appreciate music and the view of the landslide across the river.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Landslide from the Thirsty Woman

Last week I stopped in Mosier, Oregon to enjoy a cold beer at the Thirsty Woman. I sat outside on the steps and while sipping my beer looked north across the Columbia River Gorge to the Washington side. With the late summer evening sunlight it was easy to recognize the very large landslide across the river.
Part of very large slide area across from Mosier, Oregon

The slide area is a dipping slope between basalt lava flows of the Columbia River Basalt Group. The upper slope above the cliff consists of Wanapum Basalt and is approximately 14.5 million years old. The lower bas of the slide consists of the upper portion of the Grande Ronde Basalt. The failure likely took place along a weathered bed of weak rock between the flows. The lower portion of the slope was eroded during one or several of the Missoula flood events that deepened and widened the gorge. There are numerous slides within the gorge as a result of the Missoula Floods erosion.

Slide on the Oregon side that involves just the upper slopes of the gorge.
This site is east of The Dalles and just east of Cello Village.
The slide area is the lumpy portion of the upper slope and includes a debris flow levy that flowed down over the lower cliffs.

A number of very large slides are located to the west near Bonneville that I posted on previously Here. On this trip I took a out the window shot of the slide scarp area above the Bridge of the Gods slide area. The Bridge of the Gods slide blocked the river entirely and it is likely that the slide near Mosier did the same.

Large slides are a common feature in the gorge and can be readily seen if you your looking for them. The raw scarps above the Bridge of the Gods landslide complex attest to the recentness of the event. Another slide at the same location at a similar scale would be an impressive event and would be comparable if not bigger than the Mount Saint Helen's eruption.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Barred Owl on Lummi Island

 I spent part of yesterday on Lummi Island. Lummi Island is in Whatcom County, but geographically is part of the San Juan archipelago. I had been looking forward to some great views but the cool wet weather led to only very murky scenes. I could barely make out Bellingham across the bay.

Murky view of Bellingham Bay from upper slopes of Lummi Island

On the positive side I barely broke a sweat despite the hard physical effort my project involved. With the temperature at 50 degrees or a little less I stayed comfortable. Given that it was July 1st I am not sure if I should complain, but it does seem to be very cool even for northwest Washington.

I did see a barred owl that my partner was able to photograph.
Barred owls are a relatively new species in Washington State. They have moved into the northwest across the forests of Canada from the east. They are a relative to the northern spotted owl. Spotted owl numbers have declined and the species is listed as endangered. Barred owls out compete spotted owls in most areas where they overlap. Furthermore the owls are close enough relatives that they interbreed further reducing spotted owl numbers. Spotted owls need old growth forest to survive. This has led to areas of old growth forest to be removed from timber harvest primarily on National Forest and State forest managed areas with a few on private lands. The protected areas are referred to as owl circles.

This barred owl was observed in a stand of second growth forest. There is some old growth forest on Lummi Island that is now protected, but I do not know if there are any spotted owls. There are peregrine falcon nesting areas on the cliffs of the west side of the island that likely has led to protection efforts and much of the public land in the San Juan Islands is set aside as protected areas. 

I have only seen a spotted owl once. I was sharing a camping site on the Cascade River in the North Cascades with a team of biologists that were calling spotted owls and enticing the owls with mice. I saw an owl come in to grab a mouse. I only saw the silhouette as it was night, but according to the biologists it was a spotted owl.