Monday, November 29, 2010

A Few Notes on Washington's Early Winter Weather

Sam enjoys the eastern Washington snow

While the snow and cold air has been scoured out of the low lands of western Washington, eastern Washington remains cold. Once the cold air settles into the inter mountain basin of eastern Washington it takes a more vigorous push of mild Pacific air to scour out the cold air. So for the time being eastern Washington will remain snowy. The Kennewick area got nearly 10 inches of snow last week and no melting yet with more snow on and off this week with occasional freezing rain from warmer air riding over top of the cold air in the basin. To the north in Spokane, it could be a snowy week as well.  This trend will continue as long as the arriving storms off the Pacific Ocean remain on the cool side and do not generate much wind as they cross the Columbia Basin. The east side of the Cascade Range experiences much more winter weather than the brief spells the more marine west side gets. 

I enjoy observing how snow interacts with surfaces and made a couple of minor observations during our brief winter weather in western Washington. The initial snow in Bellingham arrived before the ground was frozen. The pattern of snow on this patio suggests that the metal patio furniture acted as a heat transfer and the cement froze faster adjacent to where the furniture touched the ground surface. 

This pattern of the initial snow melting and forming a layer of hard ice is a common feature of snow in western Washington lowland areas. It is more than people not knowing how to drive on icy roads - the roads are really icy. Throw in steep drumlin hills or steep sided anticlines and driving gets tough.

This image is a view of our neighbors roof. The clumps of snow angling across the roof are the inverted tracks of a squirrel. The squirrel had run crossed the snowy roof several times leaving tracks in the snow. The compressed snow stayed on the roof when the wind blew nearly all the loose non packed snow off the roof.  

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Paper Birch in Western Washington

The cold winds howling out of the lower Fraser Valley got me thinking about paper birch trees. When George Vancouver sailed into the Salish Sea he noted the stands of birch trees along the shores of a bay in what is now Whatcom County in northwest Washington and named the bay Birch Bay.

Paper birch are a very common tree of northern North America, but are not common in western Washington. The tree's natural range extends down to Everett, but no further south. The tree is more common as one heads north along the BC coast. It grows in disturbed areas and is then crowded out by conifers.

At the time of Vancouver's exploration, the forests around Birch By would have had disturbances that would allow paper bark birch to thrive. One would be simply humans. Birch Bay was an area with significant First Nations population and they would likely to have disturbed the forest around the bay for fire wood, building materials, and simply moving settlement sites. I have done some geology hazard assessment work around the bluffs of Birch Bay and large middens of shells and other debris are not uncommon along the bluff slopes and are such that a non archaeologist can readily identify them.

The other disturbance would be fire. Fires set by First Nations people for managing the landscape for desired wildlife and/or plants was a common practice. Natural fires may have taken place as well.

Yet another disturbace would be the very high winds that flow out of the Fraser Valley. Evergreens growing on shallow wet soils are susceptible to blow down. During a rather intense outflow windstorm in 1991 hundreds of Douglas fir were blown over in the low land areas of western Whatcom County when high winds arrived suddenly with the ground being wet and soft.

Of course conditions like these exist in other places as well in western Washington, so another factor must be present that limits the range of paper bark birch. One idea that readily comes to mind is temperature. Paper birch is a tree of the north. A wood borer, bronze birch borer, severely damages birch trees and will kill the tree. One of the recommendations for managing the pest when you have birch trees in your yard is lots of water and mulch to keep the roots cool and planting locations on the north and east sides of the house. The tree can fend off the borer longer if it is kept cool. Hence, birch trees will do better in cooler climates. Cold temperatures will not eliminate birch borers and it is not the only controlling factor on birch borers, but it will slow them down. Birch borers are found throughout the paper bark birch range but are more common in the southern edge of the range and appear to be a major factor in the paper birch range (Haak, 1996).

The plunging temperatures associated with Fraser outflow winds, combined cool summers, past and perhaps present day disturbances and a borer may be why Birch Bay is unique in Washington State as having this otherwise common tree.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cold Walk Home This Evening

Update: The walk home met my expectations. Very cold with the highlight being when I braced my legs and let the wind push me along the ice. Perhaps I am being called to start ice sailing.

Sunday morning up the Skagit Valley

Yesterday I did some field work. (Yes, I work on Sunday sometimes). I encountered a bit of snow at my first site up the Skagit Valley near the town of Concrete. I then headed down to the South Fork Stilliguamish between Arlington and Granite Falls. A few snow flakes but mostly got cold hands getting my fingers wrapped around roots and cedar branches because of bad footing while negotiating the steep slopes above the river. Compact glacial clays make for very lousy footing. All in all a nice day out in the snow and forest.

Working along the bank of the S.F. Stilly

My walk home from my office this evening will not be nearly as pleasant as yesterday's field trip. The Fraser outflow is on full force with gusts in the 60 mph range blowing Friday's snow all over and sidewalks that tempt one to get out the crampons.

View from my office of wind swept Senior Center parking lot

Tri Cities, Economic Recovery and a Little Politics

Politics does influence and shape Washington's landscape. Much of eastern Washington's present landscape was shaped by the New Deal politics of the 1930s and those political decisions made years ago and far from Washington State continue to influence and shape what Washington State looks like.

An employment study by Garner Economics on employment growth over the past five years in metropolitan areas around the United Sates provides a rather grim picture. The employment growth in most places has been negative.  A very rare exception has been the Tri-Cities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland, Washington. The Tri-Cities has seen the number of jobs grow over the past 5 years by 5.4%. It is the only metro area in Washington State with positive job growth for the period. All the others are in the negative, that is they lost jobs.

The economic situation many communities find themselves in often has little to do with local decisions. Policies and economic circumstances miles away have great influence. The fate of towns and cities in Washington State have been profoundly determined by decisions made miles away. Perhaps the easiest to see are the small towns that were by-passed by railroads in the late 1800s. Or in more recent years the slow depopulation of areas as timber harvests have declined from previous boom years and the industry modernized reducing the number of workers. Or the coastal fishing communities that have collapsed as fish stocks have plummeted due to decisions made miles away that impacted salmon habitat on rivers throughout the northwest.
The Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco have been shaped greatly by decisions made in Washington D.C.  All three were very small out of the way places until the combination of excess hydro electric power (New Deal politics), a big river (the Columbia),  remoteness and a World War (politics again)brought about the decision to select the area just to the north as the site for manufacturing fuel for atomic weapons. Less than 2,000 people lived in Kennewick in 1940. Today the population is estimated to be 67,000.

The most recent anomalous job situation in the Tri-Cities has a great deal to do with federal economic policy. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation has received $1.96 billion in federal economic recovery money primarily for speeding the on going and very complex and in some cases dangerous cleanup work on wastes associated with the production of weapons grade nuclear fuel at the site. The federal recovery funding that was part of the economic stimulus package funded 3,124 full time Hanford jobs. Not a bad deal for an area that votes strongly Republican with a congressman that opposed to the federal economic recovery stimulus funding. Doc Hasting (R) the local U.S. Congressman stated, "I fully support Congress acting now in the stimulus bill, the Fiscal Year 2009 appropriations bill and the Fiscal Year 2010 budget to enact more funding for these efforts (cleanup)." before he voted against the federal economic recovery funding that funded the 3,124 new jobs in the Tri-Cities.

At present it appears that as federal funding drops off next year, the recently created jobs will no longer be funded and the economic condition of the Tri-Cities will be greatly altered.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Western Washington Snow - a Few Miles Makes the Difference

As of 10:30 Bellingham 28F with 3 inches of snow. 20 miles to the south Mount Vernon 40F. Seattle is 46F. The Fraser out flow makes a big difference in the local weather.

Confessions of a Weather Junkie

The current weather pattern causes me to do frequently check out the various weather models. I do have a reputation to uphold as friends and associates flatter me this time of year by asking me what they should expect regarding the weather. And if I am not up to speed on the latest model runs and temperatures they express disappointment.

Besides I love snow and weather events like the potential set up for low land western Washington snow impacts our Washington landscape. So at 10:30 I checked some temperatures around the state and it confirms an interesting pattern as it cools down.

Abotsford                         32     
Bellingham                        34
Mount Vernon                 41
Seattle                               45
Portland                            45
Kennewick                        46
Spokane                             34
Kettle Falls                        37

Abotsford is just north of the border at the mouth of the Fraser River Valley hence it gets cold first as the cold air flows down the Frasser out of the deep interior of British Columbia. Some of that cold air has started to arrive in Bellingham, but points south are all in the 40s. Bellingham will often get colder than even cold spots in eastern Washington during the early stages of Arctic air arrival as the Frasser Valley is an efficient conduit, but typically Spokane and certainly Kettle Falls get much colder.

All said an interesting few days ahead for us weather junkies.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yakima Fold Belt to be Displayed in Yemen

Sun Sets on Horse Heaven Hills - Lisa McShane

This summer Lisa and I headed to the hinge in the Horse Heaven Hills anticline south of Kiona, Washington for an evening picnic. I posted about this site picnic-at-hinge-in-horse-heaven-hills. That nice summer venture is heading to Yemen. Art in the Embassies Program selected one of Lisa's paintings to hang in the United States Embassy in Yemen. Very cool to have a part of Washington State head half way round the world. We gave the painting a nice send off with Horse Heaven Hills wine.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Snow? and the Olympic Rain Shadow Reversal

Late last week long term weather models were indicating the formation of a deep low sliding down the coast with cold temperatures and high pressure in the interior of British Columbia. That model was for ten days into the future meaning this next weekend. That long term forecast has held up so far - pretty amazing how well weather models are working. The odds are still a bit long that it will snow this weekend, but it will be getting colder. Essentially a pressure gradient is setup that causes the cold interior air to be drawn out towards the coast. CBC radio (Canadian Broadcasting Company) often will say "outflow winds expected" during these events and everyone on the BC coast knows what that means - cold winds blowing down the the fjords and deep valleys along the coast.

For my town tucked up adjacent to the Canadian border it means outflow winds down the Fraser River Valley. The Fraser extends deep into the interior of British Columbia and hence makes a great conduit for air flow out of the interior and into the border area between Vancouver and Bellingham. This micro climate can really be a bit of a shock. Whatcom County low land areas go from typical mild 40s and 50s and wet marine weather to weather that is more like Minnesota with temperatures dropping to the 0 F degree range and winds of 50 mph. The worst I have experienced here was -5 F with steady 70 mph and gusts to 100 mph. Even a few miles can make a big difference. Locally people know that being north of Smith Road means way higher northeast winds when these conditions develop. The small border town of Sumas sitting right where the Fraser Valley begins to widen really gets blasted by these winds. Twice I have had drilling projects near Sumas during outflow events and the drillers arriving from south Puget Sound in both cases were not prepared for the weather conditions.

The outflow winds out of the Fraser create other micro climate issues beyond Whatcom County. The San Juan Islands get hit by these winds as well. And at the Olympic Mountains the rain shadow effect gets reversed. More typical rain storms coming off the Pacific collide with the south and west sides of the Olympics and areas to the north and northeast are in a rain shadow with yearly precipitation well under 20 inches. But during the northeast air flow events the air uplifts along the northern side of the Olympic Range and the north slopes get lots of snow. This phenomenon shows up in the local probability snow forecast for next Monday.

If this long term forecast holds up, Bellingham will get a light snow Monday and Port Angeles will be getting 5 inches with very heavy snow on the slopes of the Olympics as the air flows up the slopes. The Press Expedition that traveled into and through the Olympic Range experienced this phenomenon with days of snow even at low elevations during the early days of their trek.

After some delay it appears that the La Nina pattern of storm systems sending low pressure systems down along the coast with cold high pressure in land is staring to get set up so lots of snow chances are on the way.   

Monday, November 15, 2010

A follow up note on Marie Dorion

As I noted in the previous blog on Marie Dorion, after she survived the winter in the Blue Mountains she spent time at Fort Okanogan and Fort Walla Walla. These forts were not military forts. They were fur trading posts set up by the Hudson Bay Company for trading purposes and as centers of operation. She lived at these posts from 1814 to 1840.

Which got me wondering if she or her two sons had encountered David Douglas, the English naturalist who visited the Pacific Northwest in the mid 1820s and spent time at both forts. David Douglas' name covers lots of Washington's landscape as the Douglas fir bears his name. I found one reference to Toupin, Marie's third husband. Douglas had traveled with Toupin and several other Hudson Bay Company members to the Clearwater and Snake River junction east of Walla Walla. Toupin was an interpreter. He apparently got in a heated dispute with a Nez Perce chief and according to Douglas "the poor man of language had a handful of his long jet hair torn out by the roots". Toupin survived the encounter and he and Marie moved to the Willamette Valley in 1840. Being very early settlers there, they would have been of great assistance to all new comers.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Marie Dorion - One Very Tough Woman

Where the Snake River joins the Columbia River there is a State Park named for Sacagawea. There has been much debate regarding Sacagawea's role on the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1805-1806. How helpful she was at key points of that expedition is hard to know, but all historians and anyone reading about the expedition agree that what she accomplished was impressive.  She traveled across the Continental divide and back via dug out canoes and horseback all the while enduring the hardships of that journey while caring for her new born infant. A few miles downstream of the confluence of the Snake and Columbia at the mouth of the Walla Walla River is another park in honor of another woman from the same era and of similar circumstances.  Madame Dorion Memorial Park at the mouth of the Walla Walla River commemorates Marie Dorion's winter of 1814 crossing of the Blue Mountains with her two young children as the sole survivors from an attack by Bannock Indians.  But that experience was only one of a series of hardships she endured.

Marie Dorion qualifies as the very first woman pioneer in the Pacific Northwest. Her path to being the first woman pioneer was not done intentionally and her trip west predated any pioneer trips by decades. While Sacagewea crossed the continental divide and reached the Pacific Ocean, Marie Dorion made the journey under much more difficult circumstances - Marie Dorion did it while pregnant and with two small small children and as part of a party that could be described as incompetent.

Marie was the daughter of an Iowa Indian and was married to Pierre Dorion, the son of a Yankton Sioux mother and French Candian father. Pierre was hired by Wilson Hunt to help guide the 1810 Astoria Expedition. This was the second expedition to cross the continent to the mouth of the Columbia. Unlike the government operated Corps of Discovery - Lewis and Clark Expedition, this expedition was a commercially funded expedition. The goal was to establish an overland route and network of fur trading posts from Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia.

Despite having two small children and being pregnant, Marie joined the expedition. Dorion biographer Jerome Peltier and historian Bill Gullick wrote that Pierre was given an advance that he attempted to pocket and celebrated by drinking. The story is that Marie insisted that he meet his obligation. Pierre reportedly struck Marie and she proceeded to knock him out with a club and left him only to rejoin him upon his meeting his obligation of being a guide and translator on the expedition.

The expedition headed up the Missouri River by boat and then headed overland through present day northern Wyoming. They ventured into lands and across mountains that were barely understood and ended up in southeastern Idaho on the Snake River. At this point the party made a huge mistake. They left the horses and headed down the Snake in dugout canoes. It did not take long to realize this approach could not work as there are many rapids and falls. After one man drowned they made their second mistake; they then proceeded by foot with part of the party on the south side and part on the north side of the river. Picture being 7 months pregnant and walking with two small children in late October in Idaho with a group of men making bad choices! Or if your a guy think of the wrath you would bring upon yourself having your wife walk miles with little food while pregnant.

The party was able to obtain horses through purchase and theft and eventually Marie was able to ride again. By all accounts the split up parties suffered near starvation. On December 30, 1811 she gave birth on the trail in the Grande Ronde Valley of northeastern Oregon. According to Washington Irving "In the course of the following morning the Dorion family made its reappearance. Pierre came trudging in advance, followed by his valued, though skeleton steed, on which was mounted (Marie) with her new-born infant in her arms, and her boy of two years wrapped in blankets and slung at her side. The mother looked as unconcerned as if nothing had happened to her." From this it appears that the main party was so desperate that they had proceeded without waiting for the mother to bear a child. The child died on January 7, 1812. The Grande Ronde Valley is not a warm place in the winter. Hence Marie bore the first child born on what later became the Oregon Trail and the same child was the first child to die on the Oregon Trail.  Somehow the party was able to get across the Blue Mountains and arrived at the poorly operating Astoria fur trading post in February 1812.  Other portions of the party arrived at different times with some having suffered terribly with numerous deaths.

Marie Dorion left Astoria with her husband on a fur trapping expedition to southern Idaho in 1813. The trappers headed out onto various streams and rivers to trap and Marie stayed at the main encampment with her children. Upon hearing rumors that local tribes were planning on attacking the trappers she headed out with her children to warn her husband. Too late, she found he and is associates had been killed with one exception. She returned to the base camp with the wounded man. Arriving at the base camp she found all those there had also been killed while she was gone. The wounded man then died.

Marie with her two children then headed west over the Blue Mountains where they were trapped by deep snow. They spent two months living on frozen horse meat, frozen berries, inner bark of trees and occasional rodents before they walked out to the Walla Walla River in the spring where Walla Walla tribal people took them in.

Marie remained in the Pacific Northwest living at Fort Okanogan and later Fort Walla Walla where she married twice more and had three more children. She and her husband then moved to Oregon's Willamette Valley in 1840 as one of the early pioneer family's of French Prairie.

I imagine Marie Dorion provided valuable information regarding the route that she had taken that later became known as the Oregon Trail. She was part of an American push into the Pacific Northwest. Her impact on the landscape of Washington State may be a bit uncertain, but she was a member of the party that essentially found the route of the Oregon Trail. Other party members returned east further to the south establishing a better way across what is now Wyoming. Without that early path finding, Washington State and Oregon may very well have become a southern extension of British Columbia.

But more than anything I can not be anything but impressed with just how tough she must have been as she trudged across the Snake River Plain with her two young sons while heavily pregnant or weathered two cold months in the Blue Mountains with them. I'll be giving the small park at the mouth of the Walla Walla River a nod every time I pass by.

Information for this post was derived from Bill Gullick's Roadside History of Oregon, Jerome Peltier's Madame Dorion, and Washington Irving's Astoria.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Slide Mountain Landslide on the North Fork Nooksack River

Last week before heading to eastern Washington I had a project up the Nooksack River Valley in Whatcom County. Before I left I had noticed in LIDAR imagery that the North Fork Nooksack valley floor just past Maple Falls appeared very lumpy. There are lots of old very large landslides on the steep mountain slopes in the North Fork Nooksack valley. A large landslide has been recognized on the north side of the of the aptly named Slide Mountain and was included on a geologic map of the area by Moen in 1961. The bedrock failure took place within the Chuckanut Formation. The Chuckanut Formation consists of layered sand stone, mud stone and occasional coal seams. The layers dip steeply to the north on the north end of Slide Mountain.

LIDAR of north end of Slide Mountain and lumpy ground on valley floor

Google Earth oblique view looking up the North Fork Nooksack valley to the east with failure area on Slide Mountain marked.

So while driving up the valley I slowed down and noticed that indeed the ground along this stretch of highway is a bit lumpy with boulders strewn about in the woods including the one shown below.

One of numerous boulders on the valley floor

Area along highway east of Maple Falls where boulders from the slide can be seen

Based on the scattered boulders that extend across the valley, this slide covered the entire valley floor and likely at least temporarily backed up the river. The large boulders from the slide are limiting the channel migration such that the river is entrenched along this reach of the river versus the multiple braided channels more typical upstream and downstream. Along portions of the river bank it appears that the river bank is lined by rip rap boulders to prevent erosion, but in this case the rip rap is natural.

Rocks from landslide line river bank slowing erosion

Another look at the LIDAR shows that the prior to the slide the river had carved into the glacial sediments on the north side of the valley, but now the river is entrenched into the slide deposit. I am not aware of anyone having dated the landslide, but if buried trees could be found beneath the slide deposit, a date could be derived.

One added treat while walking and crawling along the river bank, I spotted this palm frond fossil on one of the sandstone boulders.

Palm frond fossils in boulder within the landslide deposit 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Debris Flow Risk

Two amazing warm sunny days in a row in November. I managed to get out in the field on both days; yesterday Whidbey Island and today a trip up the Nookasack River Valley in Whatcom County.

Tree clearing on alluvial fan

On the way up the Nooksak I took a look at the debris flow creek I posted about HERE and HERE. I was a bit surprised to see that land was being cleared adjacent to the creek on the alluvial fan. Large trees can do a very good job of stopping debris. The trees act a rake capturing logs within the debris flow. Hence removing large trees from an alluvial fan can significantly increase the run out distance of large wood increasing the risk to homes further down the fan that would otherwise not be at risk from large woody debris.
Large wood from debris flow stacked against trees. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

An Erratic Revealed

I spotted this glacial erratic just starting to be revealed by erosion along the shore of Hood Canal. This erratic is a block of the British Columbia Coast Range Batholith, one of the largest granite-diorite magma areas in the world. Think of Yosemite and the granite cliffs there and you have a good picture of the geology of the BC Coast Range. The big melt that caused these magma bodies to form took place between 75 million and 100 million years ago.

The BC Coast Range is a high range with lots of deep winter snow and many glaciers and ice fields. Those ice fields expanded and flowed south into the Puget Sound area and the Strait of Juan de Fuca several times over the past couple of million years. The last glacial advance took place between approximately 20,000 and 14,000 years ago. The flowing ice carried blocks of granitic rock like this one to Hood Canal. Erratics are a common site along the shorelines where the fine silts, clays and sand are washed away leaving the boulders behind on the beach. I spent some time working in the BC Coast Range traversing the margins of plutons and batholiths and always like seeing rocks from that area scattered on Washington beaches. Almost like seeing old friends as they bring back memories of good geo adventures.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Geology Field Work and Weather Monitoring

We are entering the time of year where it is highly advisable to keep close tabs on the weather when planning field work. Besides avoiding hazardous weather part of my work is assessing geology hazards and big storms and geology hazards are very much linked. So I routinely check and Western Climate as well as cliffmass.blogspot .  I do as much if not more field work in the winter as I do in the summer. The mild western Washington winters generally do not preclude field work, but it is a good idea to keep an eye on the weather reports while planning ventures on steep slopes or in the forest.

From a safety perspective several weather issues come up in doing my geology hazard work. A primary issue is wind. It really is not a good idea to be in the forest during a wind storm. I lived in Kennewick, Washington while in high school where winds of 80 mph are not uncommon. A little 40 mph breeze was not a reason to not go for a run - not particularly pleasant while running into the wind but great mile splits when it was at your back. But Kennewick is not forested. When I moved to Seattle I would go running in Ravena Park or along the winding paths at the north end of Capital Hill. Running through Ravena Park during a wind storm was a lesson that I have not forgotten. Besides limbs falling the ground was moving as the trees were being tilted and the roots were pulled upward.

Another issue is snow. I love snow but it presents two problems. Access to sites with steep roads gets harder and a covering of snow makes it difficult to figure out the geomorphology.

Deep freezes can pose a challenge to digging hand dug test pits. Frozen saturated soil can be very difficult to dig through after a week of sub 20 degree temperatures.

As for rain that is part of the routine of living and working in western Washington, but I do try to time the Pacific fronts - sometimes to stay dry but there are times when I want to actually be out when a big rain storm hits. The fact is much of our landscape is shaped not by typical storms but by the big storms. Two winters ago I was working on a project in the coast range of Oregon where high water levels in the river canyon and its tributaries had caused approximately 70 millions dollars of damage. The river did not have a gage station. I managed to time a storm hitting the area perfectly and hiked up the canyon during a period when 5 inches of rain fell in 8 hours. It was like working in a bathroom shower. I came away with a much better understanding of the river and a lot more confident in my interpretations.

So this time of year I begin looking at the National Weather Service web site a lot more frequently and pull up long term weather models at the UNISY site. Cliff Mass is always good for proving an earlier warning if something big might be developing. And I try to be flexible with my field schedule and let clients know that field plans are subject to change. Northwest Washington is subject to occasional very cold winds with Arctic air flowing out of the Frasser valley just north of the border. For drilling projects, I know that drillers appreciate a warning if a hard cold northeast outflow wind is expected. Even if they don't bring warm enough clothes, they can't say I did not warn them.

I posted this picture of an approaching weather front before.
This storm caught me off guard. 
I had not been tracking the weather while traveling.