Sunday, December 30, 2012

December 2012's Extreme Weather

Part of assessing geologic risk is understanding weather and climate. This past month has had some extreme weather. Not the kind that gets a lot of attention, but we did have some landscape altering weather this past month.

First, Felton at the Seattle National Weather Service noted this:


While we have not had any huge rain events or flooding, it really has been wet and cloudy even for western Washington. The constant dribble of rain has led to numerous episodes of slope failures on very steep slopes subject to saturation along the railroad between Everett and Seattle as well as a few other places that don't make the news so often.

This steady wet weather brought about another subtle but extreme event at least where it took place. The extreme event was not the amount of snow, but the amount of a certain kind of snow. Cool and wet with days of chilly rain in the low lands led to days of steady snow in the mountains. Cliff Mass proposed that the steady right-around-freezing temperatures at discrete elevations mixed with lots of wet snow took out hundreds of trees in areas that experienced that sort of weather why-are-so-many-trees-falling. A follow up on his proposal would be to assess the kinds of trees that were susceptible to being taken down by days of wet snow and see if this kind of event took place in other Cascade valleys that do not have highways. The tree collapses closed the Mount Bake Highway for a few days and closed Highway 2 over Stevens Pass for several days. It was a fascinating phenomenon given that the locations where the trees collapsed typically get lots of snow. The extreme even was not the snow but the kind of snow - days of wet sticky snow.

One other extreme event this past month was the combination of very high winter tides coinciding with a low pressure system and winds that were just right causing the highest tide level ever in Seattle. Some minor flooding was associated with event not only in Seattle but elsewhere as well. And erosion and deposition along shorelines from the event may have lasting impacts that will manifest later. For example the erosion of the toes of slopes will cause slopes to become over steep setting up future shoreline bluff failures.
Bluff slope at Birch Bay


Friday, December 28, 2012

The 46%

One of my political talking points sources brought up the 46% of Americans don't pay federal income taxes. This number or similar numbers came up during the just completed election cycle. It's worthwhile perhaps looking at just who are the 46% who don't owe federal income tax. I should add that before the Great Recession the number was 40%.

So of the 46%, 61% are working poor that do not earn enough to owe federal income tax. 22% are poor elderly that again do not earn enough to owe any federal income tax. Working poor that are paying pay roll taxes, Social Security taxes, and medical taxes as well as state and local taxes. The other non owers of federal income taxes are as noted in the above chart. I will only add that I know a few folks that will likely never owe federal income tax and they really do need help.

In following the fiscal cliff (I prefer Austerity Bomb) more closely than is good for me, I do hope that policy makers remember that most of the 46% are working poor or elderly poor. Punishing them for not making enough money may very well be counter productive.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Cisterns, Out Houses and Erratics

I had conducted a geology hazard assessment a while back and had the opportunity to take a look at the foundation excavation at the site. Most of the excavation was into very hard glacial till, sediment deposited directly by glacial ice. The specific area was covered by a few thousand feet of ice during the last glacial period approximately 15,000 years ago.

But there was more to this foundation excavation than just the glacial till.

Note the rounded concrete patch with curved bricks
 and the pipe on the excavation wall

Close up of masonry lined basin now filled with cement

In excavating the foundation a couple features from that past were encountered. One was an old out house pit. My first experience with that was within my own yard as our home predated sewer by approximately 50 years. But the brick feature was something else. In the early days of this community water supplies were challenging as the community is on a peninsula with no major streams. One solution was to construct cisterns to store water.

From a geotechnical perspective, features such as these fall into the somewhat unexpected category, but features inconsistent with the geology should always be expected in urban environments.

Besides the unexpected anthropocene features, I enjoyed checking out the soil profiles the excavation exposed.

Dark organic rich soils overlying very compact glacial till

Closer view of till/topsoil interface

The glacial till at this site is a bit sandy. It will drain very slowly despite its extremely compact condition. The upper soil just above the till though will hold lots of water and in this case has developed into a thick organic rich soil. But with removal of the thick top soil layer also removes water storage capacity fro stormwater.

Besides the unexpected anthropocene features shown above, glacial till or drift can provide some other difficult surprises - big erratics.

This granodiorite boulder was carried from the British Columbia Coast Range

And for the excavators - not a bad view

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Landslide Derails BNSF Train in Everett

Shallow surface landslides have been a bother to the rail lines between Everett and Seattle almost every winter. This particular slide took place in south Everett. A Longshoreman, John Hill, noted the slight soil movement as well as wet areas with flowing water and aimed his camera. Great work.

The rail line in this area traverses along the base of a former steep shoreline bluff. Fill placed at the base of the bluff created the rail line route. In a way the rail road acts line the former shore. Every time there is a slide, the soil is removed and hence the slope remains over steep without a buttress of landslide debris at the base of the slope. The rail workers that clear the slides from the tracks are acting like waves. What is not clear is whether the slope was cut into to make room for additional rail lines. I suspect in places it may have been.

The bluff slopes along this particular area are on the order of 100 feet high. They get even higher further south and there are some very large landslide complexes near Edmonds and Mukilteo as well as some very steep high bluff areas near Woodway. At this particular location the bluff is underlain by pre Vashon transitional beds. These sediments were deposited prior to the last glacial period (Vashon) and transition upward into melt water deposits as the glacial ice advanced into Puget Sound approximately 17,000 years ago. The lower, older sediment, is alluvial and non glacial and then transitions upwards into the glacial related sediments. Because these sediments were deposited before the ice advanced over the area these soils have been highly compacted by the mass of glacial ice.

The siltier units cause areas of soil saturation and with steady rainy days of late we have plenty of saturated soils. I would describe the slide as a small surficial slide. Some geologist use the term skin slide. Even a relatively small landslide has plenty of momentum to easily knock rail cars off the tracks.

Passenger rail is prohibited from passing through this area for at least 48 hours after a slide and this reach of rail has been closed for passenger service for something like a week or more as there have been numerous slides. Clearly there was a risk of slope failure that I am sure BNSF was well aware of. I do not know if BNSF has any clear policy as to movement of freight through areas that are obviously about to fail and what the cost of damages from numerous mangled rail cars and shipments would cost BNSF versus the cost of having the freight sit.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Kettles and Dunes on Whidbey

Blue sky and even sun was a nice treat earlier this week - its been wet in western Washington this fall. I had a nice view of a section of the west shore of Whidbey Island during the return trip from Port Townsend.
West shore of Whidbey Island - note dip on the left center of the bluff slope
This particular reach of Whidbey shore stands out as a usually tan to brown streak between the waters of the Salish Sea and the uplands covered with evergreen forest. For a brief period the slope will turn green in the spring, but otherwise it is like an out of place swath of high plains prairie on the shores of western Washington. There are even cactus on this slope!
There are several reasons why this area is brown. For one thing this area is located within the rain shadow of the Olympics and has rain fall totals a bit under 20 inches. Second the slope is a southwest facing slope so it tends to dry out. It is also windy another drying factor. But another factor is the geology. The slope is underlain by sand and gravel and hence another factor in the dry condition. The slope is also an eroding slope. Waves routinely erode the base of the slope and with the thin soils and active erosion trees are not able to get established.
Toward the end of last glacial period this location marked the southern terminus of the Puget ice lobe. The ice had retreated out of the main portion of Puget Sound and for a period the ice margin lingered near this location on Whidbey Island.
The Washington State Department of Natural Resources produced a map of this area that provides an excellent explanation of some of the features on the quadrant (Poelnz, Slaughter and Thorsen, 2005, The map include an inset figure with LiDAR reproduced below showing some of the ice margin features and a photograph of the same bluff shown in my picture above.

LiDAR of central Whidbey Island in Coupeville area
Red circle corresponds with dip in bluff shown in my picture
above and in the DNR map inset picture below 

Photo inset from DNR map
Qd - dune sediments, Qs - soils, Qgome - glacial marine drift 
The dip in the slope is a deep kettle. A spot where a large block of ice melted leaving a big pit. This particular kettle was partially filled by sand - note the Qd (dune sediments) on the picture and the sand dunes that show up in the LiDAR.
There are a number of locations above west facing bluffs on Whidbey Island as well as few other bluff sites on the Salish Sea where there are sand dunes or sand accumulation areas. After a large slide exposes a lot of sandy bluff soil, the strong winds blow the sand up the bluff to form dunes on the top of the bluff.
Given the dry conditions in this area, the forest currently at the top of the bluff may not have always been present. Indeed a few miles to the south of here, there were open prairie areas when the first European explorers arrived in the late 1700s. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Paleomag on the Crescent Formation

I have been going through old film pictures. I still believe one of the greatest technical advances for geology is the digital camera. 

When trying to coax a story out of rocks some geologists do more than simply look at the rocks and whack them with a hammer. Here Andrew Warnock cores some Crescent Basalt on the Olympic Peninsula. If I recall we gave Andrew a tough time as he was coring the rock.

After cutting a rock core with the drill, Andrew marked the horizontal line and angle of the core and then took the core to the lab where he measured the paleomagnetic signature of the rock. As the lava cooled iron bearing minerals aligned slightly with the Earth's magnetic field leaving a magnetic signature in the rock.  Andrew drilled dozens of cores and measured dozens of magnetic signatures in the Crescent Formation. Using that data he could unfold and realign the basalt to its original position contributing to our understanding of the Crescent Formation.  What latitude was the lava when it first flowed on to the surface? How has it been moved since that time?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Trip to Port Townsend Between Wind and Tides

I delayed my work trip to Port Townsend on Monday due to the high winds. I was able to make the trip yesterday from Keystone on Whidbey Island across to Port Townsend. There were still logistical issues with the ferry yesterday due to tides with all the late afternoon and early evening runs canceled. So no time to Christmas shop on Water Street.

But a nice trip with minimal wind and sunshine after a very dark moring with snow flurries in Bellingham. Just a trace of melting snow on the grass in the shady spots up on the hill above the Port Townsend waterfront.

Had a nice view of the Indian Island munitions dock (indian-island-us-supreme-court-case).

And I always enjoy seeing my hometown's name on the ferry.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Wind and Tides

We are at that time of year when I check weather reports. I have a couple of site visits to Port Townsend, but noted that with high tides and lots of wind down the Strait of Juan de Fuca a delay might be worthwhile as I suspected the ferry would be delayed or not be running. It would have been fun to get out and see some geology processes, but I am feeling pressed with office work.
Hugh Shipman at gravelbeach.blogspot came through with this video on the west shore of Whidbey Island, and I'll bet their might be more later.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Thorp Lahar with Central Rocks

I previously posted a suggested side trip off of the usual Interstate 90 east-west or west-east drive across central Washington ellensburg-formation-side-trip . There are a couple of great pull offs along Highway 10 along the Yakima River west of Ellensburg. In addition the road passes through an area that recently had a wild fire in the summer of 2012. Nick Zentner did a video of one of the sites that helps one through thinking about these spectacular sections. In addition to the Thorp Lahar, there are some interesting interviews that have been put together by Central Rocks that are worth checking out.

Thorp Lahar: Central Rocks - Roadside Geology from Nick Zentner on Vimeo.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

NRA Political Clout Diminished?

After the slaughter of innocents in Connecticut. I paid a visit to the lobby arm of the National Rifle Association - Institution of Legislative Action to see their perspective. Nothing yet.

I did have to wonder if the fear the NRA causes in politics might be diminished after the last election. The NRA ran negative adds against Tim Kaine in Virginia. This was a close race and supposedly an outside group like the NRA could tip the balance. Kaine won.
In another close Senate race the NRA attacked Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Brown won easily. The NRA also attacked Florida Senate candidate Bill Nelson in a race the GOP hoped to win. Nelson won. In North Dakota the NRA backed GOP Senate candidate lost.
Of course the NRA posted some spin on this, "Nine of NRA-PVF's 20 endorsed U.S. Senate candidates won their races (Arizona, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming). In addition, we saw pro-gun upgrades in Indiana, North Dakota and New Mexico. The only pro-gun downgrade was in Virginia". Really?

The NRA put a lot of effort into defeating Obama. Did not work out so well either.

A couple of other thoughts: Nicholas Kristof presents reasoned argument /kristof-do-we-have-the-courage-to-stop-this? I suppose we will see.
And the idea that guns stop gun crimes. Back in the 1980s a man in Washington DC was surrounded by well trained individuals that were armed with guns. He was shot. That shooting led to a change in gun laws. A major component of that law was allowed to lapse in 2004. The man that was shot: Ronald Reagan.

Columbia River Treaty and Cover Photo

I received a nice package this week to welcome me home. A while back I was contacted about the use of a photograph I took of Wallula Gap as the cover for a book on the Columbia River Treaty. In exchange I got a few copies of the book. Just the kind of book for me too - lots history, science, and policy. And by the way the treaty is up for renewal.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Coal Terminal and Community: KUOW Visits Our Home

Ashley Ahearn of KUOW visited our home to talk about what many folks are in Washington State have been talking about - coal terminals. She recorded a dinner conversation with Lisa and labor leader Mark Lowry. There is a right up where-coal-divides-community-remains. The story ran this morning on KUOW.

Raven did the cooking and I was relegated to the kitchen as well where we had a much more relaxing meal not being recorded.

Lisa and Mark disagree on this issue, but also recognize that we are all humans and one disagreement ought not to divide us as a community. The outside forces and passions the coal terminal project has brought should be viewed as such - outside forces forcing members of a community to take positions on things they never dreamed about.

The coal terminal issue is being so extensively covered and researched I have for the most part been leaving it alone on this blog as I am not sure I can add much except little bits here and there.

I will say that I am proud of Lisa and glad that our we have a community leader like Mark that can disagree without being disagreeable.  

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mapping What is at Risk From Cascade Volcanoes

The USGS Volcano Center has a series of short clips regarding their research. The clip below is about gathering information via GIS layers regarding impacts to infrastructure and development from volcanic hazards. I would note that in the still image before you click play, Angie Diefenbach is checking out hazard impacts from Mount Baker and possibly Glacier Peak as western Whatcom County and western Skagit County are on the screen. It will be interesting to see how the hazard maps and impacts effect planning. Delivering bad news can get bumpy sometimes.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Coal Terminal Hearing in Spokane

A few story links regarding the proposed Cherry Coal Terminal

First discusses the use of paid line sitters for the coal terminal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) scoping hearing in Spokane. The same tactic was used at the Ferndale hearing.

How broad will the EIS scope be fro a project proposed in northwest Washington State? A lot of folks in Montana want it to include the impacts in Montana.

A couple of TV stories out of Spokane with lots of train shots.
KHQ Right Now - News and Weather for Spokane and North Idaho |
KHQ Right Now - News and Weather for Spokane and North Idaho |

Previous posts on this issue:

Monday, December 3, 2012

Caliche and Tuff Pebbles Near Yakima

I was looking at a regraded slope east of Yakima. A bit challenging as the slope regrading work had been completed months ago. The slope had been cut initially (made steeper) and then reshaped to meet an even gradient between a new drive and the slope above.

Most of the slope consisted of silt soils. One of the first things I did was check the elevation. The elevation was higher than the level that the backwater flooding that took place during even the highest ice age floods that backed up the Yakima Valley from flood waters being held back by Wallula Gap. Hence, I could rule out Missoula flood deposits. 

The property owner reported caliche on the slope. Caliche forms as a hard pan a few feet below the surface from the leaching of calcium carbonate part way down through the soils. The carbonate precipitates forming a hard pan and it is typically light colored. Sure enough I found lots of white pebbles scattered on the slope. However, most of the pebbles were volcanic pebbles of volcanic tuff.

A few volcanic tuff pebbles

I did attempt to take a few closeups of individual tuff pebbles, but my close up zoom temporarily froze up as it was a very cold morning. The tuff pebbles were likely delivered from an eruptive event in the Cascade Range the east by the Yakima River at a time prior to down cutting by the Yakima to its present elevation a few hundred feet below this site.

I did find some broken angular plate like fragments of caliche approximately a half inch thick.

Tuff pebbles on the upper left, caliche fragment on the lower right 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Notes From Coal Terminal Ferndale Hearing

The proposed coal export terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County had another public hearing on the scope of the environmental impact statement this last week. This hearing was in Ferndale and follows previous hearings in Bellingham, Friday harbor and Mount Vernon. There are hearing scheduled in Vancouver, Seattle and Spokane.

Previous hearings have been dominated by opponents or those wanting a broad environmental scope. For this hearing the coal terminal proponents put more effort into stacking the meeting.

Most of the earlier arrivals did not speak. They entered the hearing and were given numbers which were then collected by staff and redistributed to people that they wanted to speak. The hearing began at 3:00 pm. The first opponent to speak against the terminal told me he arrived at 10:30; he was the 63rd speaker.

As far as a numbers game went, I estimated about 60% that attended were opposed to the terminal. By the end of the hearing the number that spoke in favor versus opposed was about 50/50.

The proponents main message was "Jobs". Very few spoke to the scope of the EIS; when they did, it was about considering the economic benefits. A few did suggest the scope be narrow and not consider larger issues outside the project site itself. I was surprised at the number of proponents that were off message. One very early speaker, whose business would like have a shot at constructing the steel works of the project stated "any environmental issue should be mitigated" - did he really mean "any". Several mentioned the project should move forward, but included statements about rail/traffic impacts being addressed with on even suggesting that rial impacts in the City of Edmonds be addressed. More than a few took the opportunity to lecture the crowd of opponents and one proponent said the EIS should include an evaluation of the impacts of the radical environmental movement.

Opponents laid out in the very short time allowed arguments for including a variety of issues on the scope of the project: air emissions locally, dust, water use to suppress dust, rail impacts to communities, CO2, vessel traffic problems, herring, crab fishery.

The most compelling take away is the clear solid opposition by First Nations Peoples. The Lummi Nation is solidly opposed to this project. EIS scope may or may not be as broad or narrow as some would care for, but the strong unequivocal opposition by the Lummi Nation will be very difficult to overcome.