Category Archives: Photo

We got a lot of snow

And it’s almost all gone, thanks to the usual mild winter temperatures here in the Pacific Northwest.

019 Then we got more snow.

Dam!

In my last post, I talked about how we get tons of rain here in western Washington. The combination of all of that rain and elevation is what makes Washington the number one state for dams and hydroelectric power in the United States.

(Map from http://www.eia.gov)

Unfortunately, those hydroelectric plants have been implicated in some not so great environmental impacts. Particularly on one of our major exports: Pacific salmon.

A salmon making it's way from Puget Sound to Lake Union, at the Ballard Locks.

Recently, the largest dam removal project in U.S. history began on the Elwha River in the Olympics. My husband, Larry, has worked on part of the project, as have many other folks in Washington state. There is no shortage of news coverage on the project: Here’s a really good synopsis of what’s going on; there is some very good information is here; even the New York Times has coverage. Here are some gorgeous photos from the Seattle Times. The one of the salmon sitting at the base of the dam is amazing.

And here’s a video of the blast.

Fire in the Hole from John Gussman on Vimeo.

One of the sources I posted up there talks about why they’re removing the dam in pieces, rather than all at once. That’s because they know there are significant amounts of organic and fine-grained material behind the dam. 100+ years of holding water back will do that. Another Washington dam that was recently removed, the Condit, had that exact problem. Here’s a video of that dam being removed.

I don’t know what’s more amazing. The fact that these amazing pieces of engineering went up in the early part of the 20th century and have been working ever since? Or the fact that nature continues to run it’s course, regardless of what we do.

What the heck is a Convergence Zone?

This isn’t a weather site, but weather is really heavily influenced by geological things, like mountains. Whenever your mountains are big enough to do cool things like this:

shadow of Mt. Rainier

Photo of Mt. Rainier sunrise by Troy Mason

…you know you’ll have some interesting weather. This is no exception in the rainy wonderland of the Pacific Northwest.

Before I talk about what a convergence zone is, I should mention quickly that western Washington is very wet.

Washington's state mascot

It rains a lot here. October through May is pretty dreary. There’s a reason for that. We have a large mountain range, the Cascades, that spans the length of the state and is pretty massive. The normal pattern of wind and weather across the region is west to east. As the wet air off of the Pacific Ocean rises and hits the Cascades, it cools and condenses. Rain is dropped on the windward side of the mountains (the part closest to Seattle). As the air continues on toward the east, toward the leeward side of the mountains, less moisture is available for rain. In summary: west of the Cascades, we get lots of rain; east of the mountains, there’s desert.

Further west of Seattle, there is a different mountain range, the Olympics. Unlike the Cascades, they’re just a big, circular blob, not a nice north-south mass. Because they’re west of us, they have a more dramatic affect on the weather coming in to the Seattle area.

Specifically, they create a neat system called a convergence zone. What’s that? Here’s the basic answer from one of our local news outlets, KOMO. It happens whenever a strong storm front moves in from either the northwest or southwest and hits the Olympic Mountains, which are large and due west of Seattle. The mountains act like a giant road block, so the mass of unstable air goes through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north, and around the mountain range to Olympia to the south. From these spots, the air currents are funneled through the narrow, deep fjords of the Puget Sound back into each other, roughly over the Seattle area, where they collide and produce all kinds of stuff, mainly thunderstorms and freak snow, but occasionally some rotation (funnel clouds!).

I'm not an artist, but here's a little Google maps/Photoshop action for you.

It’s unlike anything you might experience in the rest of the country, and it leads to all sorts of really strange microclimates in Seattle. The convergence zone is usually responsible for the area around Everett (where I live) getting nailed by freak snowstorms in the winter, while the rest of the Puget Sound stays dry Actually, Seattle is specifically where it is because some folks a long time ago decided it was a good place to camp, probably because it’s usually in a partial rain shadow from the Olympics. On a wet day in Everett, if you drive down to Seattle, you’ll probably find a little bit of sun.

But just how big are the Olympic Mountains? The National Park Service says that Mount Olympus, the largest peak in the range, is 7,980 feet.

The big mountains view from downtown Seattle, looking west, are the Olympics.

You can see the snow-capped peaks of the Olympics from Alki Beach in West Seattle.

The surrounding Strait of Juan de Fuca (to the north) is…sea level. And much of the land south of the mountain range is dominated by the Chehalis river valley, and the Satsop and Skokomish rivers to a minor extent. The elevation around those rivers doesn’t average much higher than 200 feet. That’s a very big difference in elevation! And there are coastal ranges to the north (Vancouver Island) and south (in Oregon) that are significantly higher than those low spots, which causes something of a wind tunnel affect.

It’s pretty fascinating.

Fern Tip

Fern Tip from flickr user Ryan Lµdwig

Going back to that discussion of rain in the Seattle area, as wet as Seattle is, we have nothing on the windward side of the Olympic Mountains. Because the Olympics go straight up from sea level, most of the rain gets dropped right there before anything gets through to the Seattle area. It’s the reason we have a rain forest on our coast!

greens

Rainforest by flickr user scpgt

We have tons of rain on the coast, lots of rain in the Seattle area, and convergence zones in the Everett area. Is it any wonder why we love our coffee so much?

Latte

Mmm…coffee…