Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Digging Through the Past

Got an email regarding the "Big Dig" in Seattle Milepost31 and a opportunity to hear about archeology on the project. Might be fun if your in Seattle next week.

A bit ago I had some back and forth with an historic preservation person that commented on archeology. The initial couple of comments were a bit of an over statement, but any digging projects in historic locations typically should have an archeology assessment done. I recently had a project where I suspected that there might be First Nations materials. A report had already been completed and hence much less concerns about encountering project stopping materials. Turns out there were sites nearby which I later observed, but not at the site I was investigating.

Historic preservation includes more than just pre European/American settlement. I would assume a dig through the Seattle waterfront might encounter some interesting stuff over a wide historic period. And really the Anthropocene is another geologic epoch full of interesting stuff. If you dug up a new or rare fossil you might want to treat it with care so as not to loose or lessen its value. The same holds true with the younger stuff.

Via the WDOT "Big Dig" project on the Seattle waterfront:

The Washington State Department of Transportation hosts a monthly speaker series at Milepost 31 in Pioneer Square to give visitors more insight into the massive SR 99 Tunnel Project. 

Milepost 31 Speaker Series – Digging Through the Past

Join us in February for a talk about archaeology, a brief history of the viaduct replacement work site in SODO and Pioneer Square, and the role of archaeologists during construction. This is a chance to see some recovered historical items that provide a view into the area’s past.

6 to 6:30 p.m.
Thursday, Feb. 7

Milepost 31
211 First Ave. S., Seattle

Admission is free.

After the talk, be sure to leave enough time to explore the rest of the First Thursday Art Walk in Pioneer Square. Milepost 31 is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and stays open until 8 p.m. on First Thursdays.   Free parking is available for First Thursday art walk patrons in Pioneer Square. Please visit for more information about participating garages.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Building Industry Association of Washington Gets Slapped

The Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) recently got dinged financially due to mismanagement of trust funbds by BIAW Trustees Published_Opinion.pdf. The BIAW has a program sanctioned by the state to reduce members costs for Labor and Industries fees for workers injuries. Members that participate in the program can get significant rebates from the state via the program. For my company L&I is not a big deal; I suppose geologists don't get hurt that often or at least do not make claims very often. But for building industry businesses workers reducing injuries and costs through a program is a big deal and indeed a good reason to join an industry group like the BIAW. That said, I have not been a fan of the State Program because the levels of payment are not entirely equal to the risk and those that are not in programs tend to pay more than their fair share. I testified a few years ago when there was a push to get the legislature to change the program.

The BIAW Trustees have been using some of the rebate funds from the L&I program to fund political campaigns. That is, program participants got rebates, but not all of the rebated money. Members of the program filed suite against the BIAW and won in Superior Court. The BIAW filed an appeal to State Court of Appeals. The BIAW lost not only that appeal but the Court of Appeals also ruled the BIAW not only had to pay back the money to members as ordered by the Superior Court but would need to include interest and the BIAW had to pay attorney fees as well. Members of the program will be refunded a total of $20 million. No small amount both to the members and to the political action.

The BIAW has been much less a presence in politics and policy since the down turn in construction. But that lessening of political action may have a lot more to do with the long term Trustee abuse of member funds in the L&I program.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Visualize 313 Years Ago

Its a cold wet day in Bellingham - 30s and rain. A good time to hunker down and stay dry and warm. Its a bit milder out on the outer coast of Washington State, but the winter nights are long and it is still wet and chilly. I picture the residences of a small village at the Copalis River on the outer coast 313 years ago in their long houses and homes staying warm by the fire, telling stories, working on food, singing, maybe carving a box or weaving baskets and hats. Then the earth began to shake like it had never before done. Perhaps some rushed outside if they could stay on their feet as the shaking was so violent. Perhaps a long house collapsed from the bouncing earth. Terror in the dark.

When the shaking ended those unhurt would struggle trying to help the injured. There would be much shouting and confusion. About 10 to 15 minutes after the shaking, a new sound approached from the west. A roar as waves that could not be seen in the night began over topping the dunes between the village and the ocean. The waves smashed through the village snuffing out whatever fires were burning. Perhaps a few that lived near the slope above the river managed to get to high ground.

Sitka spruce stump at Copalis with tsunami deposit.

It is hard to visualize, but it was certainly a terrible night and likely survival after the event was very difficult. At other locations, entire communities would have been destroyed with few if any survivors.

This event will be repeated, with different homes and hopefully a bit more understanding on what to do. For geologists there is no debate on the if. There is uncertainty as to when, and given recent large coastal subduction quakes, the size may be larger than previously thought as well as the proximity of the quake to populated areas including the larger more inland cities.

For policy makers difficult choices. Investing in emergency planning, equipment and supplies for an event that may not happen in our lifetime. Planning emergency escape routes from tsunami waves, building escape towers when no reasonable escape routes are available. For development planning implementing new uniform building codes for really big earth quakes. Development restrictions at sites extra susceptible from earth shaking. Rules governing development in tsunami inundation areas.  

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Grand Canyon and Wallula Gap - Its Complicated

A story that got a bit of national media attention on the age of the Grand Canyon caused a number of folks to ask me about what I thought of the old versus young debate on the age of the Grand Canyon. Well I know almost nothing. Wayne Ranney who does know something provides a nice understandable summary/overview as well as a worthwhile take on scientific "controversy" latest-big-controversy-age-grand-canyon.

Controversy happens and interpretations of established facts can lead to different conclusions. While there are established facts not all facts are known and new facts can leading to different interpreations and conclusions. The tricky part of interpretation is presenting the facts and assumptions.

But in regards to the young versus old river what I find interesting is the whole concept of the history of a river. Rivers and streams shape our landscape. But likewise the geology of an area shapes rivers and streams. A few associates and I have had lengthily discussions about a few of our local northwest Washington rivers and just what the history of those rivers have been over the just the past 13,000 years. It is remarkably tricky and what initially seems a simple easily resolved problem turns out to be not so simple with multiple viable alternatives. Our discussions have yet to make the news cycle or reach any definitive conclusions.

On another river history in Washington State, I've been doing some reading on Wallula Gap. Wallula Gap is the place where the Columbia River passes through the Horse Heaven Hills. The gap is a remarkable canyon with shear basalt cliffs towering above the Columbia River on both sides of the gap.

1,500-foot cliff at Wallula Gap
Wallula Gap from near the site of Old Fort Walla Walla

During the great ice age floods, Wallula Gap greatly slowed the flood waters backing up short lived lakes that resulted in the now rich farm land in the Yakima Valley and the Walla Walla Valley.

One might assume that Wallula Gap was carved by the Columbia River as the Horse Heaven Hills were uplifted. But that assumption is incorrect. The Columbia formerly passed through the Horse Heaven Hills 60 or so miles to the west. The gap was initially occupied another river. One might then assume it was the mighty Snake River, the biggest tributary to the Columbia. But again that assumption is not right. The gap initiualy occupied  by the Clearwater River, a tributary of the Snake. Where was the Snake River at that time? Somewhere to the south, Who knows where? How did the Snake end up where it is today? What exactly caused the Columbia to shift to its present location at Wallula Gap? See for a nice summary of the state of understanding with a series of maps starting on page 32.

Given how far inland and how old the rocks are at the Grand Canyon, I'm guessing it is complicated with every new bit of information adding to the puzzle. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

Pile Driving at Port Townsend Ferry Terminal

The Port Townsend - Keystone (Whidbey Island) Ferry landing is going through some significant upgrades that involve new pilings.

Pile driving crane positioning new pile

New pile in position.

Driving the pile with vibratory pile driver

Washington State Department of Transportation Ferry system requires lots of pile work and the DOT has taken the potential negative impacts seriously. Hammering the piles into the sediment is easier than the vibratory method, but it is much louder. But the concern is not disturbing the peace. Hammer pile driving has been demonstrated to harm fish pile-driving-noise-changes. The sound levels were being monitored by a group of University of Washington students. As the vibratory pile driving was encountering some difficulties with some of the pile locations, the monitoring may get a good set of comparitive data as some piles will likley require the hammering method.

Hydrophone monitoring electronics and read out

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tube Worms in Bellingham Drift

I had a couple of drilling projects recently. I utilized a geoprobe. Basically a a hollow cylinder of hardened steel driven into the ground to extract soil samples.

Casey runs the geoprobe or push probe

Sumas ouwash sand and gravel on left and Bellingham Glacial Marine Drift on the right.

The sampling at one site was through a late stage glacial outwash unit called the Sumas outwash. These outwash deposits were from glacial meltwater flowing from glacial ice when the glacial ice margin was located in the vicinity of the US-Canadian border near Sumas, Washington. The ice was still present after glacial rebound had uplifted the local Bellingham area above sea level.

Prior to the Sumas outwash, the location where I was drilling was below sea level as the 6,000 feet of ice had pushed the local surface of the land well below sea level. For a time the area was below sea level with floating glacial ice on the sea surface or at least ice bergs. As the ice melted, silt and clay consisting of very finely ground rock rained out of the ice on to the sea floor.

In the picture above, the sampler captured the transition from glacial marine drift that was likely tidal to sand and gravel river outwash. There was a nice surprise in one of the clay samples.

Tube worms remains

I have encountered a few shells within the Bellingham Drift in test pits and at shoreline bluff exposures, but this was only the second time I encountered animal remains while drilling. A nice bonus on top of the good news we found doing our explorations.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Engineering Metamorphic Geology

My graduate school work involved tectonics and metamorphic rocks. As a consulting geologist my work has been more oriented toward surficial processes and engineering geology either learned through experience, mentors or self taught. It was nice to have a recent couple of projects where my metamorphic background combined with my engineering geology background. One project has been an ongoing project involving metamorphosed bedrock. I had an inspection visit recently and then I traveled to another project with metamorphosed bedrock on the same day.

The first ongoing project was to inspect the embedment of rebar into bedrock for the support of a couple of wing walls spanning between a concrete structure and a steep bedrock slope. The rock was drilled first and then the rebar was set into the rock with an epoxy. The foliations, lineations, variability in protolith lithology, and shear zones defined where the rebar supports had to be placed. Fortunately there was enough flexibility for the wall locations that the alignment worked even with the above described limiting factors. A few feet in another direction and the rock would likey no have held up to being drilled due to well developed foliations creating weekness in the rock. Metamophic mineralogy, foliation orientation and protolith matter!

The second site was to take a look at a steep slope underlain by metamorphosed bedrock. This site was within the same formation as the first site - the Darrington Phyllite and semischist of Mount Josephine. The two units are interlayered and in places sheared and faulted and include slivers and blocks of Shuksan Greenschist. The Darrington is .... phyllite. Most of the Darrington Phyllite is very soft graphitic phyllite derived from metamorphosed mud stone. Really bad stuff for getting solid embedment for rebar and rarely stands out as outcrops. However, there semischist and greenschist that include sandstone, volcaniclastic sandstone and lava protoliths are more solid depending on the degree of shearing and foliation development.

These rock units are part of the Easton Metamophic Suite within the Northwest Cascades. These rocks are a complicated melange of fault bounded and highly sheared rock. The semichist and phyllite typically contain at least two foliations along with multiple lineations and from the rock being stretched and tightly folded. These rocks have had a long hard life since being deposited on the ocean floor at least 165 million years ago. They got shoved deep into the subduction trench, thrust back out and then piled up along a series of other exotic terrains against and along the North American margin and then uplifted yet again before erosion brought them to or near the surface.

The first site with the rebar was located within an area that was predominantly coarse volcaniclastic protolith and even igneous protolith with a bit of phyllite and some ancient fault lines filled with talc to make things interesting. The second site was mostly siltstone and mudstone protolith. This second site had some nice exposures showing intense folding in the formation.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Great Inversion of 2013

The past week has been one of the more memorable inversion events in western Washington. Icy fog throughout much of the Puget lowlands of western Washington with warm air and sun only a few hundred feet above. High temperatures have been mostly stuck in the 30s in the fog, but 60s have been reported above the fog in the Olympics and highs reaching 70 were reported at a couple of weather stations above the soup south of Olympia.

Following Bob across the Samish Flats

Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters and me all above the inversion layer (this picture was from an earlier inversion event this winter)

Cold air has settled into the Puget Basin and the lack of wind has kept the cold air trapped. The fog has been present in Bellingham where I live but it has been not as bad as in the more enclosed Puget Sound. I had a project up the Skagit Valley that was outside of the fog. It was warm and sunny and hard to leave to go back to the freezing fog.

The weather in the Puget lowlands is very similar to the cold foggy inversions that routinely develop in eastern Washington. Southeastern Washington in particular is a nearly completely enclosed basin with the Columbia Highlands to the north, Cascade Range to the west, Horse Heaven Hills to the south and the Blue Mountains and Rockies to the east. Last winter I got above the murk and enjoyed sun and mild temperatures above what could be thought of as a giant freezer chest. 

The high pressure causing the inversion is supposed to break down tomorrow as we return to cold rain.

Above the inversion layer in eatern Washington

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Beacon Rock

One last short stop on my loop (bridge-of-gods-landslide-and-history and icy-multnomah-falls) up the lower Columbia River Gorge was Beacon Rock. The rock was named by Lewis and Clark. They must have been feeling good when they saw this rock as it was at this location in the gorge that they first noted tidal influences on the river.

Beacon Rock
Beacon rock is the remains of a volcano. The rock is the hard solidified magma that once was the core of the small cinder cone. The rest of the mountain was eroded away by the huge ice age floods that surged down the river. The United States Geological Survey recently determined the age of this volcano to be approximately 57,000 years old. It was one of several associated with a dike of magma extending to the north several miles. Perhaps there were others to the south that were completely eroded away by the river. The rock was almost eroded during the Anthropocene. The US Army Corp of Engineers considered using the rock for jetties at the mouth of the Columbia River.
Given the cold, wind and icy conditions as well as my needing to get to a job site I passed on taking the trail to the summit hence no details. But the remnant of a small volcano of such a young age is a reminder that the Cascade volcanic range consists of more than a series of large strato volcanoes. Another eruption like the one at Beacon Rock in the vicinity would make for an interesting alteration of the landscape and the flow of the Columbia River.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Bridge of the Gods: Landslide and History Meet

After a visit to Multnomah Falls icy-multnomah-falls, I headed up to the Bidge of the Gods.

Bridge at Bridge of the Gods

The steel framed two lane bridge pictured above crosses the Columbia River at the Bridge of the Gods. The Bridge of the Gods is from a local Indian story about a natural bridge located across the Columbia River at this location. Lewis and Clark heard this story from the local Indians during their journey both down and up the Columbia River in 1805 and 1806. They observed that there were dead standing trees in the river upstream of the this location and surmised that the river had been dammed at this location by a landslide. Turns out they were right; a huge landslide had blocked the river. The Washington side of the river pictured above is a landslide deposit and the landslide scarp consists of the partially snow covered slopes in the distance. The landslide covers and area of approximately 5 square miles.

The local Indian stories that survived place this gigantic landslide as one of the earliest recorded historic events in Washington. Giant slides like this one likely had multiple failures, but recent work suggests a mid 1400s date for the slide. Pat Pringle provides a nice summary of the work that has been done bonneville_landslide_explorations.pdf.

Bridge at Bridge of the Gods with a great view of part of the head wall scarp of the landslide

It costs a buck to cross the bridge. The bridge is narrow with a steel deck and a speed limit of 15 MPH. This gives one a chance to glance at a bit of history of this historic place.

View to the east up the river at one of the old locks.

The Indian story that the landslide blocked the river is convincing. At this location the river is narrow and confined. But it used to be even more narrow. Bonneville Dam downstream from the Bridge of the Gods has backed the river up. Prior to the dam navigation at this spot was nearly impossible and generally required portage even for canoes. The site was an important trading center as the portage was difficult and would often require assistance from local Indians. During early American settlement the old giant land slide restriction on the river brought misery to several tired pioneer groups at the end of the journey. This lead to development of new routes to avoid this section and go overland to the Willamette Valley. But river transport was important and in the late 1800s a series of locks were constructed to transport barges up and own the river safely. All but one of these locks were submerged by the waters backed up by Bonneville Dam in 1938. That easternmost lock can be seen from the bridge.

Fishing platforms along shore west of the bridge

With the narrow river channel this location was also an excellent fishing location for netting salmon as well as other fish and eels in the river. Several tribes continue to utilize this site and a few platforms can be seen out over the river on the Washington side.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Icy Multnomah Falls

It is not part of the Washington landscape, but it is close. Earlier this week I had some work in southwest Washington and took advantage of the cold weather to take a short detour up the Columbia River upstream from Portland to see how Multnomah Falls looked in the winter chill. 

Ice coated plants from waterfall spray

Multnomah Falls - if you have not made the stop at the falls, the bridge is foot bridge

The trail beyond the bridge and all hand holds were coated with very slick ice

The upper falls is 542 feet high. It plunges down cliffs that were likely the result of the ice age floods that surged repeatedly down the Columbia River Gorge. The Columbia River is a National Scenic Area that includes both the Washington and Oregon sides of the gorge. There are other waterfalls coming off the basalt cliffs, but Multnomah is the highest.

There is also a nice perspective of the lower falls from the foot bridge.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Digesting Rural Element II: Local, Wonky

About one week ago the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board found Whatcom County's Rural Planning invalid. At the risk of punditry what follows is my take on the various aspects of that ruling.


The Hearings Board previously ruled the County rural plan invalid about a year ago digesting-lamirds-wonky-long-and-local. This latest ruling is a follow up ruling on the County's latest effort to comply with the Growth Management Act.

Agreements Reached

First of all only Hirst and Futurewise appealed during this round. The appealing parties agreed that on numerous issues previously found invalid or in error that the County had made changes that satisfied the petitioners. Those issues were:

1) Several policies related to how limited areas of more intense rural development (LAMIRD) boundaries would be drawn.
2) Eliza Island would no longer be treated as a LAMIRD
3) The LARMIRD boundaries for Emerald Lake and Van Wyck were properly delineated.
4) Rural Business was properly defined.
5) The county consulted with fire districts and water districts.

Not all bad. Agreement was and is possible. Hence the Hearings Board ruled these problem areas are now compliant without further review.

The List

What follows is a list of issues the Hearings Board ruled on with very brief summary and occasional shooting from the hip commentary from the pundit.

Structure and Narrative

Whatcom County won on this issue. Trying to understand this argument hurt my head, but the short answer is: regardless of how the rural plan is structured in its presentation and how the narrative is written, the Hearings Board is OK with it. I think the big issue is that the way the rural plan is written it can confuse people. There is also concern that minor zoning changes in the future could get sideways with the plan.

Population Allocation

Whatcom County won on this issue. The County has for a long time had excess growth capacity within the rural areas of the county because of past zoning and subdivision rules that allowed thousands of lots to be created in the rural areas far beyond the projected growth policy the county has established for rural areas. There is clear evidence that rural growth has been exceeding projected population growth. There is some disagreement about how excessive the rural growth has been and how it will proceed.

The Hearings Board previously ruled that this issue must be addressed. This was a precedent setting as it has been an over looked issue that could be described as allowing rural residential sprawl. That is large swaths of 5 acre residential development.

Whatcom County added language to the plan that rural growth rates will be monitored and adjustments will be made depending the results of said monitoring. There are no specifics as to just what the county will do in the event of rural growth rate exceeding the rate the county planned for, but for the time being the Hearings Board was satisfied that the County is now in compliance. Depending on the growth rates in the rural area this issue may be revisited another day.  

 Variety of Densities

The County lost on this issue. Rural areas of Whatcom County outside the forestry zones and agricultural zones are mostly zone for one home per 5 acres with the scattered pockets of rural villages and LAMIRDs as well as odd ball suburban development neighborhoods created before the Growth Management Act. The County does have some areas zoned one home per 10 acres. However, there is no guiding language as to why an area would be one home per 10 acres versus one home per 5 acres. It seems random and the Board ruled against the county.

The solution for the County will be to figure out what the difference between R10 and R5 zoning criteria and spell it out.

Lot Clustering

The County lost on this issue.

This issue is hideously complicated and can lead to all sorts of good and all sorts of problems. Above I noted that the County won on the issue of cross referencing. In reading the Hearings Board decision, it appears to me that the cross referencing may be causing lots of confusion and the issue is further complicated by the Board's reliance on a cluster provision case from Kitsap County.

Without going into too much detail, I think the County could revisit this and clarify the various area cluster provisions and the motivation behind those provisions. In doing that exercise the county may find some adjustment is warranted such that clustering be mandatory in more areas and dropped entirely in other areas. That said, I can not help but think that the issue confused the Hearings Board and a Kitsap County type of solution as expressed by the Board would be a poor solution for Whatcom County.

Visual Compatibility

Whatcom County won.

Chuckanut Wildlife Corridor

The County won on this issue. The reason for the win this time versus the loss previously is I believe the County simply did a better job arguing this issue. And at the risk of offending, I considered this issue as a non issue. The County growth plans allow for nearly no development in this corridor and have very strong language in the code to protect wildlife in this area from the very little remaining development that can take place in the corridor. Part of my defense of the county on this issue is that too much doom and gloom is directed at the County on environmental issues. While this issue under GMA was being argued the County is actively considering the creation of an 8,000 acre park within the corridor with a strong wild land component.

Lake Whatcom

The lost on this issue. First I think some credit should be given the county on this last submittal in that the county further reduced the potential lot creation in the watershed. In this regard there is only a limited bit more the county can do.

Where the county is having problems is that they have been very slow at adopting new stormwater rules for development in the watershed that will satisfy the Washington State Department of Ecology. My own view of the rules that are being worked on is that the changes needed to satisfy Ecology from the existing rules already in place are minor. Match the Ecology recommendations and be done with it.

The above said, I found the ruling fascinating in that the Hearings Board is willing to rule against the county on this issue and Ecology has taken no action besides advisory. And back to the all doom and gloom complaint. It should be noted that the county is very seriously considering creating an 8,000 acre plus park in the watershed that will preclude nearly 20 miles of new logging road and greatly reduce the amount forest clearing that will take place in the watershed. And does Ecology provide any credit for this action by the County? No. Go figure.

Groundwater Protection

No decision was made on this issue as there is another case specific to this pending.


County sort of lost. As noted there was agreement on some other LAMIRDs. The county pulled Fort Bellingham and North Bellingham out of LAMIRD status as they are adjacent to Bellingham. The areas were designated rural neighborhoods. The Hearings Board ruled the neighborhoods too large. The Board also ruled an isolated LARMIRD called Welcome as too large.

Two other LARMIRDs did not quite make the grade. The county mostly fixed the Smith/Guide LARMIRD, but put in a dog leg boundary that made little sense and can't be supported. Easy fix. The other was at Birch Bay/Valley View and involves a single lot that ought not be included Again a simple fix.

LAMIRD Policy Development Regulations

County lost big time. Of all the areas the county did poorly on it is on this issue. The county development regulations for these areas opened the door for much expanded intensity and size of business/industrial use in some LAMIRDs and was likely the main reason for the continued invalidity ruling. It is very unclear to me as to the county council motivation or understanding on this issue. It strikes me that some of the language is a direct favor to a very few potential development schemes.

Water Transmission Lines

Mild loss by County that is easily fixed with clarifying language.

Concluding Thoughts

The County Council is close. Most of the areas where the county lost really do not require big changes. The cluster issue really requires the hardest work as it is complicated and it is important that the petitioners and the Hearings Board understand this issue and the consequence of not doing cluster rules in the right manner.

The biggest change of direction will be to greatly narrow the wide open allowances in LAMIRDs. initial posturing comments but some council members suggested an appeal to the courts. One hopes that cooler thinking will prevail particularly given the narrowness of the differences. Does keeping business use wide open in rural areas worth tax payer money in court appeals that would almost be guaranteed to drag out for years all for a very select number of developers that will not be contributing to the defense of the County's position. I would note that the particular beneficiaries of the County's action did not even bother to intervene to assist in the case.


Friday, January 11, 2013

73 Railroad Landslide Closures and Rainfall Threshold

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has developed a landslide warning system for the bluffs in the Seattle area based on historic records of landslides combined with rainfall. In general, the Puget Sound area does not get very intense rain fall events that often. But the area does get periods of extended wet weather with lots of small rain fall events that can be accumulative. Hence, one of the key predictors is combining rain fall accumulation as presented in the chart below.

By way of example: if 3 inches of rain feel over a 15 day period and then a big storm came in and 3 more inches fell over a 3 day period, the threshold would be exceeded and landslides in the area should be expected. It does not mean every slope will be unravelling, but it does mean that slopes considered at risk are much more likely to fail during these types of events.

The other predictor is a rain fall intensity over time approach.

Relative to many locations around the country and even in areas of Washington State 0.1 inches of rain per hour is not very intense, but if it rains at 0.1 inches per hour for 30 hours there is a very likely risk that some slopes sensitive to rain fall will fail. Again, this is not for any given slope. And I suspect this pattern is not a stand alone event as most of the time in western Washington when an intense rain fall takes place there have been previous storm events already making slopes wet.

One can go on line and check out the rainfall monitoring using the above threshold tools Here is the plot of the 3-day and 15-day rainfall accumulation totals for January 10. The Seattle-Tacoma Station is just below the threshold.

In addition, the monitoring site has an antecedent water index plot that serves as a warning for when the landslide risk is primed and at risk of being bumped over the two limits as presented above.

As can be seen by the plot the stations had antecedent water indexes above the warning threshold in late December and got pushed back above the threshold from the heavy rain on January 9.
With drying conditions expected landslide events should taper off next week, but the area has had a long spell of wet weather where the antecedent wetness has been frequently above the warning level when storms have arrived.
Since Thanksgiving there have been 73 landslide closures on the rail line between Everett and Seattle. This stretch of rail passes along miles of high steep bluffs many of which are susceptible to landslides from just the type of rain fall accumulations presented above. With 27 days of measurable rain in Seattle during the month of December (an all time record), the USGS warning system is getting a good test sample. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Lummi Island Ferry and Fossils

A trip to Lummi Island involves a ferry trip across Hale Passage between Lummi Island and Lummi Peninsula. The ferry is operated by Whatcom County. A commitment of resources and a level of expectation of service that has eaten up many hours of County Council meetings. The biggest latest challenge was paying a lease to the Lummi Tribe as the ferry landing on the mainland side is on the Lummi Reservation. This along with a variety of required safety upgrades and dock improvements has driven the cost of the ferry ride with car to $13 round trip and $7 per person round trip. The County Road fund covers 55 45% of the cost.
Lummi Island Ferry landing at Gooseberry Point
While waiting for the ferry I tried my hand at finding fossils in the limestone rip rap rock at the dock. My fossil finding skills are rather poor so I am in need of practice.
Whitish boulders of limestone

Crinoid stem in limestone

Muscle shell and crinoid fragments?

Crinoid fragments and belmenite?

I don't know where these particular boulders came from. There are limestones with similar fossil assemblies in Whatcom County, but it would be a bit of a haul by truck to the ferry dock. Another source would be via barge from a quarry in the islands of British Columbia or perhaps from a limetsone quarry in the San Juans. Ages of these limestones are very old - roughly 250 million years. If I knew my fossils better maybe I could nail that date down a bit better and the source of the limestone rip rap.
The Lummi Ferry and dock on the Lummi Island side

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sun! and Bellingham Bay

December and well November were remarkably cloudy and wet in 2012. Long stretches with little to no sun. One gets used to it. Sun is not expected so it is not missed. But the New Year started out with sun. And what are those white areas on the horizon. Mountains, oh that is right we live surrounded by mountains. Nearly forgot them.
Bellingham is in a spectacular setting, but in a way that is its problem as a town - it is in a great setting. I can see the summit of Mount Baker from my office window, but just the uppermost summit. To see the great setting of Bellingham requires heading a bit west. A drive on the north shore of Bellinham Bay allows one to see the mountain and the setting.
Bellingham Bay, Bellingham with patches of fog, Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters Range

And a drive around the north shore of the bay provides an opportunity to see some engineered shore works.

Rock armored shoreline along Marine Drive

Rock armored shore and rocked slope

The north shore of Bellingham Bay west of the Nooksack River gets pounded by waves driven by strong south winds. Steady erosion began taking out the road along the top of the bluff starting at least in the 1970s and progressively worsened into the 1980s. In the 1990s the shore was lined with rocks for several miles to stop the erosion. A few of the steeper clay slopes were lined with smaller rocks to stabilize the slopes.

The above pictures were taken during a fairly high tide. At other times miles of tide flats extend out away from the bluff. Its a bit of a unique area as there is plenty of sediment from the Nooksack River, but the nature of the periodic waves and shoreline processes has kept the tidal area fairly flat and had maintained a very erosive regime.

The rock work was jointly funded by Whatcom County along with a hefty grant from the Federal government. The shore is part of the Lummi Indian Reservation. That loss of limited reservation land may have played a key role in getting the funding.

Besides the Cascade peaks, other less lofty mountains surround Bellingham Bay.

Lummi Peak rises steeply out of the Salish Sea on Lummi Island.
The forest land under the cloud is Portage Island

Chuckanut Mountains south of Bellingham
The Cascade Range and Olympics are the best known and highest Mountains in western Washington. And because of that the east-west range of folded summits that extends westward from the Cascades to the San Juan Islands has gone unnamed. Locally, a portion of this range is referred to as the Chuckanut Range. The section of the range pictured above is only a bit over 2,000 feet; however, the height is reached in just a hair over a mile from the shoreline.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

62 Years of History: T39 R3E Section 4

I routinely go over sets of historic aerial photographs. The purpose of my reviews varies depending on the project but the exercise provides some accumulated perceptions on how landscapes in Washington have changed over time. This particular set presented below is from Whatcom County.

The area is approximately one square mile Township 39North, Range 3 East, Section 4. Its a bit of a random selection as I was looking at another section within the same collection. This particular section does not tell a particularly compelling story, but perhaps that is a story in and of itself.

 The southwest corner is the intersection of Pole Road and Hannegan Road in Whatcom County. This intersection is one of the infamous LAMIRDs (limited area of more intensive rural development) that Whatcom County's struggles with over the past eight years or more (digesting-lamirds-wonky-long-and-local) is coming to a slow but still a bit bumpy. I can't say if it is representative of any particular land use trend. It is just one square mile randomly selected for historic review.

As can be seen the area was rural in 1950. The predominant land use is pasture and hay, some chicken farms (know this from other historic sources) with scattered farm homes, and tree stands. A few notes on the landscape. The lake in the upper part of the image is Fountain Lake. This lake is located within an old glacial outwash channel. In fact the entire area shown above is located within in an area of glacial outwash channels formed during the late stages of the last glacial period when the glacial ice margin was located a few miles to the north. The younger, lower channels are incised a bit into the older initial outwash plain and these lower channels are mostly filled with organic deposits and very peaty soils. Fountain Lake is of an younger channels that is not quite filled in yet. These younger channels have very organic and somewhat wet soils. The older outwash plain is underlain by gravels and sands with much less organic material in the soils. As the older plain is somewhat elevated, the soils are well drained. The wet organic soils are extend from a bit south of the lake to the north and the well drained elevated old outwash plain covers the are to the south of the lake.  


Not a lot of change by 1961. The markings on the photograph are from a soil survey project that utilized the 1961 photo set. The biggest change is that row crops are now present over a fair bit of the area particularly on the southwest. The tree stands are slightly reduced.

By 1975 more row crop development in the former pasture areas and a bit less trees on the east.

By 1986 a bit more row crop coverage. Larger farm buildings have been built along Pole Road on the south and some small parcelization has increased along the western edge of the area adjacent to Hannegan Road.

Very geometric row crop development. Perhaps the biggest change is smaller lot parcelization with homes on the west side encroaching into areas of former row crops.

2006 (Google Earth)

The pasture on the east side has been converted to row crops. A few more smaller lot residential homes on the southwest as well as some commercial development at the intersection.

2012 (Google Earth)
By 2012 the row crop area on the east has expanded a bit further. The biggest change is on the northwest with a new area of row crops. This area is in organic soils area and there has been extensive conversion of farm land to blue berries in these soil areas over the past ten years.
All in all the biggest change in this little example is the conversion of land from pasture and hay fields to row crops. The LAMIRD on the southwest was parcelized into smaller lot home sites. It should be noted that except for the LARMIRD on the southwest this area is zoned agriculture allowing one home per 40 acres and hence lot divisions has been limited. Past pre zoning lot creation and a period of time when exemptions to the lot creation rules explains some of the smaller lots.