Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Seattle's Far Reach for Resources

Will and I headed east across the mountains via the passes over the North Cascades on Highway 20. Just west of Newhalem, I took this picture of the electric transmission lines that connect the Upper Skagit River hydroelectric projects with the electrical grid.

The upper Skagit hydroelectric projects are operated by Seattle City Light. Far sighted Seattle leaders looked far and wide for resources to support the city well into the future. Seattle's drinking water source is far from the city in the Cascade Range and is gated and guarded to protect the resource. Seattle also recognized very early the importance of electric power and sought out sites for hydroelectric energy far from the city. The upper Skagit was one of two major hydro electric projects the city developed - the other was even further away on the Pend Oreille River in the northeast corner of the state.

Seattle's foresight in a manner established the city as the great city of of the Northwest. The dams on the upper Skagit are in Whatcom County. I have sometimes referred to Seattle City Light as the great colonial empire of Washington State as they managed to tap into resources for their own use from areas far from the city. The foresight of Seattle leaders over a century ago regarding drinking water, electricity, port facilities and rail roads has played a profound role in the shaping of Washington State. Seattle leaders showed some short sighted views regarding transit. They waited a very long time to develop public transit systems and that delay has added substantially to the costs of the projects now moving forward. Makes one wonder about which communities have foresight today and what we should be thinking about in terms of the future.  

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Road Work and Construction Aggregate

Gravel mine for road project

After my post on the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana berkely-pit-butte-montana it is worth considering another resource society demands - gravel aggregate. When I was taking classes on economic geology, my professor pointed out that while we students were excited about finding gold, copper, diamonds, oil, coal or any number of things that glitter or can be burned, there was money to be made investigating gravel. It was a resource in high demand everywhere.

To put gravel into perspective: Peabody Energy recently submitted the winning bid for mining a coal deposit in the Powder River Basin of northern Wyoming with a bid of $0.95 per mineable ton. A mineable ton of gravel in western Washington will typically be on the order of $1.50 with some variability due to location and a range of quality. Of course getting to the coal seam requires stripping of many tons of rock per every ton of coal.  

In my case as a geologist it turns out that exploration and assessment of aggregate (gravel) and bedrock for construction has dwarfed my explorations for metals. My metals work has been limited to providing interpretations of the geology of deposits someone else already found in order to inform further explorations that was then done by others. I should add in most cases my interpretations were such that they could be termed bad news for the potential for further rich finds.

The gravel mine pictured above is a classic road construction mine. A source for road material was required for the specific project, and if a source could be found near the project, a lot of tax dollars would be saved on construction costs. Hence, a thin gravel unit close to the site became attractive even though it was otherwise not a particularly noteworthy deposit.

What if a nearby deposit could not be found? One solution would be to pay a lot more for hauling material from a distant source or alternatively redesign the project so that a lot less aggregate material is required, or design the project so that otherwise poor quality material could be used. This is typical work for road engineers and work that geologists are sometimes called upon to support. For the road project pictured above, a source of material was available very near the proposed road construction site. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Patch of Ponderosa in the Wheat

Wheat fields north of U.S. Highway 2 east of Wilbur, Washington

A fairly large area of eastern Washington is treeless. This is of course because parts of eastern Washington have yearly rain fall well under 10 inches. Irrigation has turned some portions of the previously treeless land to crop land including stands of trees (orchards). But large swaths of eastern Washington is non irrigated wheat as pictured above. The wheat land has pushed into areas that have enough rain to support trees without irrigation. I have to remind myself not to equate dry land wheat with desert.

Patch of ponderosa pines near Wilbur, Washington

Tree covered areas are located along areas of Highway 2 when the ground gets rocky and is not suitable for crops. Trees also cover the steeper slopes of a few of the bluffs near Creston. A few miles north of Wilbur on the north slopes above the deep Columbia River valley the slope it is moist enough to support Douglas fir.  
In a number of areas where there is enough water to support trees along the outer edge of the true desert in eastern Washington, there has been extensive tree planting such that there are far more trees today than a few decades ago. Hence, the appearance of the eastern Washington landscape is changing based on commercial value of wood, fire control, and public and private desire for areas with trees. For some reason the generations of farmers that own the land pictured above decided they liked having that patch of trees. Perhaps they valued the shade provided for a break during the hard work of harvest.  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Notes from the Plains: Mutual Destruction

On many occasions while traveling on the plains of the northern United States I have observed small areas enclosed within barbed wire topped chain link fences accessed by a gravel road. Within the fenced area there are a few poles and posts and some ground hugging structures. These small fenced enclosures contained a nuclear warhead with the explosive force of roughly 25 to 50 times the Hiroshima atom bomb. The warhead or warheads (some have three) sit on top of a missile capable of hitting a target in Russia in a matter of minutes. There were and still are hundreds of these sites on the plains.

Deactivated missile site, North Dakota

Active missile site (?) Montana
So when I saw the missile site above in the green fields in North Dakota I recognized it as such. But then realized that an historic sign marker was posted on the road near the entrance. That was a first. I turned back and was able to walk into the site without setting off alarms. The missiles in this part of North Dakota have been removed, but this site was preserved for historic purposes. The brown/golden fields in the second picture is a still active missile site.

The site had lots of informative signs and I learned that lonely soldiers were not sitting underground with the missiles waiting for a call and codes to fire the missile. It was all done from a distance with an elaborate and very clever security system. One could crank the missile silo manhole entrance part way open although a steal cable prevented full opening.

Josh Ritter: The Temptation of Adam

Monday, August 22, 2011

Folds and Beer

When I began my blog experiment with notes and observations on the Washington landscape along with a few occasional deviations such as the recent posts on Butte and hail on the plains, I found that there is a community of sorts of other geology bloggers. I check up on AGU blogs including Callen Bentley's Mountain Beltway every week of so. Callen recently completed a year of posting what he calls Friday Fold friday-fold with pictures of folds both small and large. Will and I were traversing through an area of granite injections with gneiss/migmatites inbetween and along the margins and I saw this nice little folded pegmatite vein in a block of gneiss.   

After a rather long hard physical day, I took advantage of being located near one of my favorite beers, and I would note that highway8a.blogspot (Looking for Detachment), another blog I check up on routinely includes beer pictures.

1554 at the end of long day

After today I head back to the lonely country.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Notes from the High Plains: Hail Destruction

Will and I were driving through lush farm land of corn and soy when suddenly the lush fields ended. Initially I was trying to figure out what the new crop was or if we had crossed some geologic boundary of poor soil, but then I noticed most of the trees were missing their leaves. Apparently 6 inches of hail had fallen just two days ago with hail the size of quarters. The width of the destruction was about three miles.

Earlier, we had seen this in another town:

Hail is not very common in Washington State. We simply do not have the atmospheric instability that causes such intense thunderstorms and hail. Had to feel bad for the farmers that lost their entire crop along the path of the storm.  

Friday, August 19, 2011

Berkeley Pit, Butte, Montana

There are likely a lot of geologists that would recognize the above pictures as the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana. My first visit to the pit was shortly after mining in the pit had ceased in the early 1980s. We made a visit to Butte, not for the geology but in order for an associate to get his boots repaired after and before looking at other geology sites. Since that time the lake in the pit has increased in size substantially.

Berkeley Pit is the dark lake in the center
Active open pit mining is located on the upper right and
the tailings pond for the active mine is on the upper left

An initial reaction of revulsion to huge open pit mines filled with toxic waters is understandable. But most geologists and miners will point out that society demanded that we dig this big hole in the ground. Indeed, the very fact that you are reading this blog means that you are a consumer of the resources that placed a huge demand for getting copper out of the ground for use as an electric conductor as well as a huge variety of other uses.

Initially all the mining in Butte was done via multiple underground shafts mining along rich veins of copper. Butte was not a boom and bust mining town. There were dozens of rich copper ore veins and underground mining lasted for many decades and generated great wealth not only in Butte but in the United States. This rich mining history built a city that is unique for western U.S. cities, and the city now has a very large historic district that is well worth seeing. And I will add that down town Butte is in much better shape today than when I first visited in the early 1980s.

Open pit mining began in the 1950s as a result of the rich vein mining coming to an end, the high prices of copper (societal demand), and more efficient earth moving and ore processing. But there were serious trade offs to open pit mining. For one, the pit not only consumed a huge volume of rock but took out entire neighborhoods in the city. On the positive side, the pit was good for the local economy. Pit mining was also safer than underground mining at the time. Miners routinely died in the underground mines in Butte. There is a heart wrenching memorial to one particularly bad mining accident on the hill north of town.

In the 1950s when open pit mining began, societal views of and understanding of environmental damage was much different than today. Groundwater was pumped before entering the pit, but when mining ceased the pit began filling with water. The oxygen rich water reacts with the rocks creating sulfuric acid and leaching metals including arsenic. The Berkeley Pit and a variety of mine related sites has made Butte the largest and most expensive Superfund cleanup site in the United States. 

The current very high prices for copper is good news for Butte. Mining is continuing at a pit immediately to the east. And the high copper prices are good for the environment.With the high copper prices the cost of processing the toxic water has been substantially reduced because the water itself is full of copper. One report states that 400,000 pounds of copper are extracted from the pit water every month.  

Although the pit lake is very toxic, the lake in the pit is not dead. Over 167 species of bacteria and fungi have been identified. Figuring out how these critters live and function is ongoing and in the end the pit may save lives as chemicals extracted from some of the bacteria show great promise as cancer fighting agents http://mtstandard.

As distasteful as the pit may be, keep in mind that your using the products from the pit and perhaps a loved one or you yourself may be saved by the chemicals identified in the lake ecosystem. Our side trip to Butte was well worth the time.

Find out lots more at

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Glacial Erratics Near Grand Coulee Dam

Basalt erratic with underlying lake silts west of Grand Coulee, Washington

David Tucker has posted some great write ups on glacial erratics including a write up of a huge erratic near Lake Stevens a-monster-erratic-discovered-in-lake-stevens/ by the Puget Ice Lobe during the last glacial period approximately 18,000 years ago. Shortly after reading his write up I was in the Grand Coulee area checking out the basal contact between the Columbia River basalts and the much older gneiss when I realized what I initially took as outcrops of basalt were ice rafted erratics.

Glacial ice advanced into eastern Washington as far south as the Waterville Plateau just north of U.S. Highway 2 between Banks Lake and Waterville. The ice in this area came from the Okanogan ice lobe as the Okanogan Valley (Okonogon in Canada) provided a north-south conduit for ice flow. The Waterville Plateau is a great place to see moraines, kettles, eskers and erratics. The area has been designated a National Natural Landmark because of the outstanding examples of glacial features. 

After the ice retreated from the plateau, the Okanogan Ice Lobe still blocked the Columbia River down stream of present day Grand Coulee forming a lake with the northern edge of the Waterville Plateau as the south shore and margin of the Okanogan lobe the north shore. 

Ice age lake terraces west of Coulee City
Modern erosion exposing glacial lake silts

The glacial ice readily plucked off blocks of basalt from the upland areas to the north as well as blocks of gneiss. The ice then broke off as bergs into the lake and as the bergs melted the basalt erratics were dropped into the lake. These erratics did not travel very far so they lack some of the exotic nature that more far traveled erratics have. And their short travel distance and lack of time being ground with other rocks means there is a fair collection of really big erratics.

Erratics and houses. A couple of big erratics can be seen between houses on the lake terrace

Blowup of a portion of above photo showing much larger than house sized erratic

Another blow up of photo with erratic and houses 

Basalt erratic protruding from the slope above the Columbia River

Erratics underlain by lake silts with ridge of bedrock behind.
The ridge is capped with basalt with bedrock on the lower slopes consisting of much older gneiss   

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Glacial Milk in Western Washington Rivers

North Fork Nooksack River

During my first visit to Mount Rainier National Park I learned about glacial milk. The finely ground sediment from glaciers incorporated into glacial fed streams and rivers give the stream or river a milky color. Rivers flowing off of Mount Rainier with its mantling with big glaciers are very milky. The Nisqually River fed by the Nisqually Glacier on Rainier takes on a milky appearance this time of year.

Numerous rivers flowing in the North Cascades in western Washington have a milky look this time of year due to glacial melt. The North Fork Nooksack and Middle Fork Nooksack are both very cloudy as both derive water from the glaciers on Mount Baker. The North Fork's head waters are in Nooksack Cirque and is fed by glaciers on the north side of Mount Shucksan. The Nooksack remains cloudy with silt all the way to Bellingham Bay.

The Skagit River is not as cloudy as the main stem of the river and one of its main tributaries, the Baker River are dammed and hence much of the silt settles out. There is still some siltiness from other glacier fed tributaries such as the Cascade River.    

Friday, August 12, 2011

Coal Terminal Notes: PR Battle on Particulates

Plume of smoke from ship heading out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca

While heading across the entrance to Puget Sound on the Keystone to Port Townsend Ferry run I noted a plume of exhaust smoke from a ship heading out to sea. I had seen the same ship a bit closer earlier in the day - a container ship heading out of Puget Sound between Whidbey Island and Marrowstone Island. The ship had previously been docked at either Tacoma or Seattle. 

The plume of exhaust smoke from the ship caused me to wonder how the analysis of air quality will play out out for the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point. A group of doctors in the Bellingham area want a health assessment done on the air quality impacts from increased diesel exhaust from the increased train and ship traffic whatcom-county-doctors-want-study. I noted three issues in the response of the coal terminal spokesman in the article.

First it was clear that he was well versed in the particulate emissions in Whatcom County. He noted that locomotive exhaust makes up only 0.6% of particulate pollution and wood stoves result in 35% of the particulate pollution. He pointed out that reducing wood smoke emissions by only 2% would equal all the locomotive emissions. One could jump on that as a way of mitigating the locomotive emissions. But he did not make that suggestion. 

The second thing I noted in the spokesman's statements was he spoke of locomotive emissions and made no mention of the particulate emissions from the huge ships that would carry the coal away. Given the plume from the ship I saw the other day pictured above, this is no small issue. 

The third issue was that when talking about Whatcom County particulate emissions, the coal terminal spokesman was referring to the particulate emissions for the entire county. The point of the Whatcom County doctors concerns is that the diesel particulate emissions will be concentrated through urban areas where more trains pass through than before. So the total emissions county wide may not be significantly impacted but the doctors want to see a more focused analysis along the very areas where the emissions will be taking place. 

While much of the focus on air quality has revolved around the trains, I suspect that the ship emissions will not be a minor issue. Large transport ships can be a huge point source for air emissions. The City of Seattle requires cruise ships that call on the port to hook up to the city electric grid because of the emissions from the ships generators was so high. 

For the Cherry Point area, frequent ship traffic combined with the train locomotives will add to the air emissions already generated from the oil refineries located at the site. At this point in time, the air quality in the air shed of the Cherry Point area is good. This is in no small part been accomplished by maintaining modern oil refinery facilities including numerous upgrades. A careful analyses of the impacts of very frequent coal transport ships on the local air shed will be interesting. If the coal ships combined with the frequent locomotive traffic push the area into non attainment, the regulations will clamp down harder on all facilities in the area including the refineries. Already one of the largest if not the largest particulate emission source associated with the refineries is the pollution associated with the oil tankers that call at the two refinery piers as well as at the aluminum plant pier. And based on preliminary information the coal terminal will have much greater ship traffic.  

My final thought is that clearly the coal terminal has lost the PR war. It hardly even matters what they say at this point. If there is any PR battle left it is the silly arguments among local politicians, one of whom seems to be running for head cheer leader of the coal terminal opposition.   

Tuesday, August 9, 2011



Multiple stalks of digitalis in a clear cut

During July and August, tall stalks of digitalis bloom. These common bright flower stalks are biennials - that is they take two years to grow and then bloom. They vary in color with light purple being the most common, but white is common and we had one in our yard that was peach colored. I like the ones with little dots on the lower side of the flower. They seem to be calling bees to walk on in along the dots.

The name digitalis is in reference to the fact the flowers are just the right size to fit your digits into. Its common name is fox glove, but I have always referred to it as digitalis. It not a flower you should bring into your home or have in your yard with toddlers that like chomping plants. They are very toxic. They also are used to extract medicines for heart treatment.

These plants are amazing in their ability to pioneer disturbed ground and are very good at getting their seeds to spread. They are common along the roads and in clear cuts.
Digitalis flower stalks in a clear cut area with erratic rock placed on top of a stump.

Monday, August 8, 2011

$2 Trillion or 8%

Nothing to do with the Washington landscape, but S&P rating no longer has meaning. This should be the only story about the rating fiasco. They made a $2 trillion mistake and are sticking to their guns. In the mean time investors are investing in the newly down graded U.S. T Bills lowering the U.S. rates.

They were off by 8%

S&P downgrades and money floods into long term U.S. Bonds lowering interest rates which were already low.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Sam Crawford Proposes Supporting National Conservation Area Designation for BLM Lands in Whatcom County

Map showing locations of Chuckanut Rock, Lummi Rocks and Carter Point

Back in May I did a write up on the proposed Nation Conservation Area (NCA) for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) parcels scattered around the San Juan Islands national-conservation-area-and-san-juan. San Juan County leaders are very supportive and passed a unanimous resolution in support of the San Juan NCA and both Washington State U.S. Senators Murray and Cantwell and U.S. Congressman Larson have spoken in support. The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, Ken Salazar, has directed BLM staff to begin working on the plans for how the San Juan NCA would be managed. NCAs have a fair bit of local input in how they are managed.

At the time I wrote about the potential San Juan NCA, I noted that perhaps it would make sense to include three small BLM parcels in Whatcom County as part of the NCA. The three sites are Chuckanut Rock, Lummi Rocks and Carter Point located at the southern tip of Lummi Island. Next Tuesday the Whatcom County Council will be considering a Resolution proposed by Council Member Sam Crawford supporting the NCA designation and adding Chuckanut Rock, Lummis Rocks and Carter Point in Whatcom County to the proposed San Juan Islands NCA

Carter Point at the southern tip of Lummi Island

Chuckanut Rock in Chuckanut Bay south of Bellingham

Lummi Rocks of the west shore of Lummi Island

The designation makes sense and is consistent with Washington State Department of natural Resorces Natural Resource Conservation Areas on Lummi Island, United States National Wildlife Area designations on nearby rocks, and State, County and City parkland and conservation easements. The County Resolution is an important show of support as ultimately the decision to designate a NCA is a political one requiring an act of Congress. If this NCA goes forward, it will be the first in Washington State.

Council Member Crawford was initially responding to a letter from Interior Secretary Salazar regarding interest in designating BLM lands in Whatcom County as Wilderness Areas. The letter was likely a blanket letter for all counties with BLM land. The only BLM land in Whatcom County are these three small rocky outcrops and they fit much better in a NCA designation.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Whidbey Island and the Sound of Freedom

Whidbey Island located in the northern part of Puget Sound is a long island that is accessed on the north via a spectacular set of bridges across Deception Pass and from the south via a ferry from Mukilteo on the mainland to Clinton. Another ferry crosses the entrance to Puget Sound from Keystone on Whidbey to Port Townsend on the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula. Whidbey Island is mostly rural with substantial areas of commercial forest land and farmland as well as some of the earliest American settlements in the state in the Coupeville area. It is also the home of Whidbey Island Navy Air Base. And as such there is a saying on the island, "The sound of freedom".

While crossing Admiralty Inlet from a venture to Port Townsend I could hear the roar of jets overhead. The jest were doing touch and go landings and take offs at the Coupeville Runway. The runway is located on a glacial outwash plain called Smith Prairie.

View of Smith Prairie and the Coupeville Runway

The jets are very loud and very fast. So this lovely, rural, historic island with its forests, farms and small towns rural does have periods of very loud roaring jets overhead - the sound of freedom.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Cheer from My Tribal Home Land

When I made my second trip back to the tribal home land, a First Nations' friend from Washington expressed cocern that I was leaving and returning to my people. I have to admit during our times of troubles here it is sometimes tempting to go to a land where children are welcomed in pubs.

So after tending to various bumps, scratches and the effects of a nasty patch of nettles with tricky footing on a steep slope I needed a little home land cheer and Lisa Hannigan always cheers me up.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Wallowa Valley, Craters of the Moon and Chief Joseph

While flying to Colorado I had some great aerial photographs of the Washington landscape as I passed high overhead. But I had some great geology views beyond Washington State and afterwards recognized that these places were part of the story behind one of the greatest leaders that ever lived in Washington.

Lake Wallowa and the Wallowa Mountains, northeast Oregon
A clasic glacial morain lake protruding out from the mountains into the Wallowa Valley

The Snake River and Hells Canyon on the border of Oregon and Idaho is the deepest canyon in the United States

The dark area in the central portion of the photograph are the lava beds of Craters of the Moon National  Monument

Besides the cool geology of these areas, these sites are part of a great tragic tale. The Wallowa Valley was the principal homeland of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Joseph and his people lived in the valley with their herds of horses in the summer and utilized the low elevations along the deep Snake River Canyon during the winter. But the Wallowa Valley attracted early American settlers and the United States was unwilling to stop the encroachment on Nez Perce land. Eventually the U.S. Army ordered the Nez Perce to leave the valley. Joseph held out hope that he could successfully plead his case and return to the valley, but while leaving for the designated reservation in Idaho a band of his men attacked a group of Americans. Joseph decided to keep his entire band together and began a long trek across the Idaho, Wyoming and Montana all the while being tracked by the U.S. Army. The Nez Perce despite traveling with elderly tribal members, women and children successfully eluded the army and at Craters of the Moon won a key victory over the army.

In the end the tribe failed to reach Canada or gain help from other tribes. Joseph and surrendered a few miles south of the Canadian border where he was reported to state "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever." Joseph and his band were sent to Oklahoma. The band was allowed to return to the Northwest where members were given a choice - they could live on the Nez Perce Reservation if they cut their hair and gave up many of the customs and become Christians or live on the Colville Reservation. Joseph chose the Colville where he lived in Nespelum, Washington along with Chief Moses. He was never allowed to return to his beloved Wallowa Valley.