Category Archives: Climate change

Puget Sound farmers expected to change as climate changes

I’ve been going through the new report about climate change in the Puget Sound region, and I can tell you that the most optimistic chapter is the one on farming. Check out the story I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

To be sure, farmers will have plenty of problems to contend with. Rising sea levels and more intense rainstorms will probably causing flooding and seawater intrusion where it has never been seen before. Some of today’s farmland could become unsuitable for agriculture, and drier summers will force much better management of limited water supplies.

Temperatures are rising in the Puget Sound lowlands. Graphic: Climate Impacts Group
Temperatures are rising in the Puget Sound lowlands. // Graphic: Climate Impacts Group

But as the climate undergoes change, farmers can change with the climate, growing crops suitable for the conditions they face, said Kelly McLain, senior natural resources scientist with the Washington Department of Agriculture.

“Farmers are extremely adaptable,” Kelly told me. “I think water is going to be the limiting factor for almost all decisions.”

It’s hard to find that kind of optimism anywhere else when it comes to climate change in the Puget Sound region. The story I wrote to accompany last week’s release of the new report discusses the likelihood that landslides will increase because of more intense rainfall patterns. See “Shifting ground: Climate change may increase the risk of landslides” and the Water Ways post on Nov. 19.

My third and final story in the series, which will be published next week, talks about coming changes in habitats — and thus species — expected in Puget Sound as air temperatures increase, sea levels rise, rainstorms grow more intense and oceans undergo acidification.

Total annual precipitation does not appear to be changing in the Puget Sound region. Graphic: Climate Impacts Group
Total annual precipitation does not appear to be changing in the Puget Sound region.
Graphic: Climate Impacts Group

I took on this writing project as part of my work for the Puget Sound Institute, which publishes the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. PSI commissioned the climate report with funding from federal and state governments. The Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington compiled the best scientific knowledge into a very readable report, which can be found on the encyclopedia’s website or on the website of the Climate Impacts Group.

One interesting chapter of the report, called “How is Puget Sound’s Climate Changing?” (3 mb) supports the understanding that climate change is not something we need to wait for. It’s something that scientists can measure now, although climatologists expect the changes to come faster as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase.

Here are a few of the changes that can be measured, along with a bit of explanation about the uncertainty:

  • Average air temperatures have been increasing in the Puget Sound lowlands and are currently about 1.3 degrees higher than in 1895. Higher temperatures have been found to be statistically significant for all seasons except spring, with the overall increase shown in a range between 0.7 to 1.9 degrees F.
  • Nighttime air temperatures have been rising faster than daytime temperatures. Nighttime lows have been increasing by about 1.8 degrees since 1895, while daytime highs have been increasing by about 0.8 degrees.
  • The frost-free season has lengthened by about 30 days (range 18-41 days) since 1920.
  • As in other areas, short-term trends can differ substantially from long-term trends. Cooling observed from 2000-2011, for example, has not altered the long-term temperature increase.
  • An ongoing debate questions how much, if any, of the long-term warming trend is a result of natural climate variability. One study says up to 80 percent may be natural, caused by atmospheric circulation, not by greenhouse gas buildup. Other researchers have been unable to replicate the findings for other data sets.
  • Total annual precipitation does not appear to be increasing or decreasing over a long time scale. Spring precipitation has increased at a statistically valid 27 percent for the months March through May.
  • Most studies are finding modest increases in the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation compared to historical levels, but results depend on the time period and methods of analysis.
  • Ongoing variability in weather patterns related to El Nino and the Pacific decadal oscillation will continue to strongly influence temperature and precipitation for relatively short periods. It is not clear how long-term climate change will interact with these more variable climate patterns.

Climate report describes changes coming to the Puget Sound region

How climate change could alter life in the Puget Sound region is the focus of a new report from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned for safety reasons. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns. Kitsap Sun file photo
A 1997 landslide on Bainbridge Island killed a family of four and resulted in five homes being condemned. Landslides can be expected to increase in the future because of changes in precipitation patterns.
Kitsap Sun file photo

In concert with the report’s release, I’m writing three stories for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, all focusing on specific aspects of the report, beginning with landslide risks. See “Shifting ground: climate change may increase the risk of landslides” on the Puget Sound Institute’s blog.

As the new report describes, increased flooding, more frequent landslides and decreased salmon runs are likely, along with declines in some native species and increases in others. We are likely to see more successful invasions by nonnative species, while summer drought could cause more insect damage to forests and more forest fires.

The report, “State of the Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound,” pulls together the best predictions from existing studies, while updating and expanding the range of topics last reported for Puget Sound in 2005.

“When you look at the projected changes, it’s dramatic,” said lead author Guillaume Mauger in a news release. “This report provides a single resource for people to look at what’s coming and think about how to adapt.”

The report includes examples of communities taking actions to prepare for climate change, such as merging flood-management districts to prepare for increased flooding in King County and designing infrastructure to contend with rising sea levels in other areas.

“In the same way that the science is very different from the last report in 2005, I think the capacity and willingness to work on climate change is in a completely different place,” Mauger said.

Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, said the people of Puget Sound must be prepared for changes that have already begun.

“To protect Puget Sound, we need to plan for the ever-increasing impacts of climate change,” she said in a news release. “This report helps us better understand the very real pressures we will face over the coming decades. The effects of climate change impact every part of what we consider necessary for a healthy Puget Sound: clean water, abundant water quantity, human wellbeing, and a Puget Sound habitat that can support our native species.”

Work to compile the report was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency via the Puget Sound Institute at UW Tacoma, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Washington.

The report will become part of the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, where my climate-change stories will reside after publication over the next three weeks. I’m currently working part-time for the Puget Sound Institute, which publishes the encyclopedia and is affiliated with the University of Washington — Tacoma.

For other news stories about the report, check out:

Olympic Mountains deliver huge rainstorm on cue for researchers

Atmospheric scientists with NASA and the University of Washington chose a doozy of a week on the Olympic Peninsula to launch their four-month effort to measure precipitation and calibrate the super-sophisticated Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) system.

The heart of the GPM system is an advanced satellite called the GPM Core Observatory, designed to measure rainfall and snowfall from space. If the system can be perfected, meteorologists and climatologists will have a fantastic tool for measuring precipitation where no ground-based instruments are located.

When the Doppler-on-wheels radar system arrived at Lake Quinault, skies were clear and the ground was dry.
When the Doppler-on-wheels radar system arrived at Lake Quinault, skies were clear and the ground was dry. // Photo: UW Atmospheric Sciences

To improve the satellite system, ground-based radar and other equipment were moved to remote areas of the Olympic Peninsula to take measurements (see video below). Meanwhile, aircraft flying above, below and inside the clouds were taking their own readings.

The program, called Olympex for Olympic Mountains Experiment, is impressive. Researchers chose the west side of the Olympics because that’s where storms arrive from the Pacific Ocean, laying down between 100 and 180 inches of rainfall each year. Sure, these folks were looking for rain, but did they really know what they were getting into?

Heavy rains arrived, raising the waters of Lake Quinault and nearly flooding the equipment.
Heavy rains arrived, raising the waters of Lake Quinault and nearly flooding the equipment on Friday. // Photo: UW Atmospheric Sciences

On Friday, a Doppler-on-wheels radar system was nearly flooded when between 4 and 14 inches of rain fell in various portions of the Quinault Valley, raising Lake Quinault by about six inches per hour over a period of several hours. For details, check out science summary for the day, which describes some of the measurements that were taken.

“We’re not just checking the satellite’s observations, the way you might double-check a simple distance measurement,” said project manager Lynn McMurdie in a news release from the University of Washington.

“We’re checking the connection between what the satellite sees from space, what’s happening in the middle of the storm system and what reaches the ground, which is what most people ultimately want to know,” McMurdle said. “So we’re not just improving the satellite’s performance — we’re learning how storm systems work.”

NASA’s “Precipitation Education” website explains how weather systems from the Pacific Ocean are experienced on land and how Olympex will sort things out:

“Large weather systems arrive in the Pacific Northwest from the ocean, and not all parts of the system are equal. The leading edge, called the pre-frontal sector, tends to be warmer and have steady rainfall. Next, the frontal sector marks the transition from the warmer air to the colder air and processes that produce rainfall are often most intense in this region. Finally the post-frontal sector, characterized by colder temperatures, will often bring showery rain and snow, and can produce large snowfall accumulations at higher elevations.

“The (Olympex) field campaign will be looking inside these storm clouds with ground radar and aircraft instruments to determine the accuracy of the GPM satellite constellation in detecting the unique precipitation characteristics in these different storm sectors.

“One of the aircraft will be flying through the clouds to make detailed measurements of raindrops, ice particles, and snowflakes as they are falling to Earth’s surface. Combined with data from the ground radars and the total amounts caught by the rain gauges and other instruments on the ground, scientists will be able to improve the computer models of precipitating clouds – the same types of computer models used to forecast the weather and project future climate.”

If you’d like to learn more about Olympex, check out these sources:

Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory NASA graphic
Global Precipitation Measurement Core Observatory // NASA graphic

Drones may address mystery of early deaths in killer whale calves

Being able to measure a killer whale’s girth and observe its overall condition without disturbing the animal is an important advancement in orca research.

By running a small hexacopter, also known as a drone, at a safe level over all 81 Southern Resident killer whales last month, researchers came to the conclusion that most of the orcas were in a healthy condition. Seven whales were picked out for further observation, including a few suspected of being pregnant.

I was especially intrigued by the idea that researchers could track the progress of a pregnancy. It has been long suspected that the first calf born to a young female orca often dies. A possible reason is that the calf receives a dangerous load of toxic chemicals from its mother. With this “offloading” of toxic chemicals from mother to first calf, later offspring receive lesser amounts of the chemicals.

Miscarriages and even births often go unnoticed, especially in the winter when the whales travel in the ocean far from human observation. If the young ones do not survive until their pod returns to Puget Sound, we may never know that a young whale was lost. Now, this remotely operated hexacopter may provide before and after pictures of a pregnant female, offering evidence when something goes wrong with a calf.

Images of the whales can be combined with skin biopsies and fecal samples collected by boat to provide a larger picture of the health of individual whales and the overall population.

Images of the whales collected this fall can be compared to those collected by conventional helicopter in 2008 and 2013 to assess any changes in the animals. Because of the noise and prop wash of a conventional helicopter, pilots must stay at a higher elevation to keep from disturbing the whales. There seems to be general agreement that drones are the way to go.

John Durban of NOAA Fisheries, who piloted the drone on 115 flights over the Southern Residents, said he was encouraged that their overall condition appeared better than in the past few years.

“Most individuals appear to be fairly robust this year, which is good news, but it’s also very important baseline information to have if the next few years turn out to be difficult for salmon and their predators,” Durban said in a news release.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has a somewhat different take on this new tool. The high rate of miscarriages and neonate deaths have long been known, Ken told me in an email. It is the only way that they are able to control their population within the carrying capacity of their food supply.

“I am more excited about five whales being born and surviving since last December than I am about an unproven morphometric surmise that additional whales are in some stage of a seventeen-month pregnancy,” he said. “It is not wise to ‘count your chickens before they hatch,’ as the saying goes.”

The goal should be to recover the population, Ken said. When it comes to recovering salmon and killer whales, resource management has been a dismal failure. His suggestion: Remove the Snake River dams and allow the salmon numbers to rebuild naturally while fixing Canada’s Fraser River.

“With climate change well underway,” Ken wrote, “we cannot fritter away golden opportunities to restore viability in what little is left of a natural world in the Pacific Northwest while counting unborn whales.”

Other aspects of this new effort involving the hexacopter were well covered by news reporters this week. Check out the list below. The new video with John Durban and NOAA’s science writer Rich Press can be seen above. Last month, I provided other information and links about the new tool. See Water Ways Sept. 9.

Recent news coverage:

Kitsap precipitation nearly normal during
the past water year

Despite concerns about drought in much of Washington state, Kitsap County came through the water year (ending Sept. 30) with precipitation just about normal.

Precipitation at Hansville over the past water year.
Precipitation at Hansville over the past water year. (Click to enlarge) // Graphic: Kitsap PUD

As you can see from the graphs on this page, precipitation in 2015 (blue line) fairly well tracked the average (pink line). The previous water year (orange line) was more concerning, although both 2014 and 2015 water years ended in fairly decent shape.

Areas in North Kitsap ended the year somewhat above average. In Hansville, the annual total was 34.3 inches, compared to an average of 30.2 inches. In Central and South Kitsap, many areas were slightly below normal. In Holly, the annual rainfall was 69.4 inches, compared to an average of 76.6 inches.

Hansville precipitation over the past water year.
Precipitation at Bremerton National Airport over the past water year. (Click to enlarge) // Graphic: Kitsap PUD

The Kitsap Peninsula largely relies on groundwater for its water supplies, and we have gotten enough rains to keep the aquifers in fairly decent shape, according to Mark Morgan of Kitsap Public Utility District.

“Aquifers experienced their typical summer drawdown, driven more by demand than by drought, but (it was) nothing exceptional,” Mark said in a summary of the water year.

Concerns about drought in other parts of the state were largely based on a lack of snowpack coming out of last winter.

Precipitation at Bremerton National Airport over the past water year.
Precipitation at Holly over the past water year. (Click to enlarge) // Graphic: Kitsap PUD

Meanwhile, flows in many streams hit low-flow conditions a month earlier than normal this past summer, but some maintained their typical flow, Mark said. Adequate streamflows are critical for coho salmon, which spend a year in freshwater, as well as for year-round residents, such as trout.

The forecast for the winter is based on strong El Nino conditions (see map below), which means that sea surface temperatures off the coast of South America will be significantly higher than usual — up to 3.4 degrees F (2 degrees C). Above-normal temperatures are expected across the western U.S. as well as the northern tier states and Eastern Seaboard, with the greatest chance of above-normal temperatures in the Pacific Northwest.

Sea surface temperatures are above average across most of the Pacific Ocean. NOAA map
Sea surface temperatures today are above average across most of the Pacific Ocean. (Click to enlarge) // NOAA map

Below-average temperatures are expected in New Mexico and West Texas. For details, see the prediction maps at the bottom of this page or check out NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

While much of the country will benefit from greater rainfall, below normal precipitation is expected for the Northwest and areas in the Eastern Great Lakes, New York and northern New England.

Climatologists predict with 95 percent certainty that the El Nino will continue through the winter in the Northern Hemisphere before gradually weakening in the spring.

Temperatures are predicted to be warmer this winter across the northern states. NOAA graphic
Temperatures this fall are predicted to be above average across the northern states. // NOAA graphic
Precipitation is predicted to be less than normal in the Pacific Northwest. NOAA graphic
Precipitation is predicted to be less than normal in the Pacific Northwest. // NOAA graphic

Low-oxygen scenario following unusual course this year in Hood Canal

Death came early to Hood Canal this year, demonstrating just how odd and unpredictable ocean conditions can be.

Fish kills caused by low-oxygen conditions in southern Hood Canal usually occur in late September or October. That’s when low-oxygen waters near the seabed are pushed upward by an intrusion of heavier water coming in from the Pacific Ocean and creeping along the bottom. Winds out of the south can quickly blow away the surface waters, leaving the fish with no escape.

That’s basically what happened over the past month, as conditions developed about a month earlier than normal. South winds led to reports of fish dying and deep-water animals coming to the surface to get enough oxygen, with the worst conditions occurring on Friday. Check out the video on this page by Seth Book, a biologist with the Skokomish Tribe, who found deep-water ratfish swimming near the surface.

The story of this year’s strange conditions actually begins about a year ago and involves a 1,000-mile-long “blob” of unusually warm ocean water off the West Coast. State Climatologist Nick Bond, who coined the term “blob,” explains its formation in an article in Geophysical Research Letters with a summarized description by Hannah Hickey in UW Today.

The warm, low-density coastal waters related to the blob came into Hood Canal on schedule last fall, but they were not dense enough to flush out the low-oxygen waters, according to University of Washington oceanographer Jan Newton.

Hood Canal entered 2015 with the least-dense waters at depth over the past 10 years. They remained in a hypoxic state, meaning that levels were below 2.5 parts per million. Sea creatures unable to swim away can be unduly stressed and unable to function normally at that level. Conditions worsened into the summer, when the hypoxic layer at Hoodsport grew to about 300 feet thick.

By then, the annual intrusion of deep seawater with somewhat elevated oxygen levels was on its way into Hood Canal, spurred on by upwelling off the coast. This year’s waters are more normal in density, though their arrival is at least a month early. By August 9, the hypoxic layer at Hoodsport was reduced from 300 to 60 feet, pushed upward by the denser water.

It’s always interesting to see this dynamic play out. The layer of extreme low-oxygen water becomes sandwiched between the higher-oxygen water pushing in from the ocean and the surface water, which ordinarily stays oxygenated by winds and incoming streams. Without south winds, the middle low-oxygen layer eventually comes up and mixes into the surface layer.

If south winds come on strong, however, the surface layer is blown to the north, causing the low oxygen water to rise to the surface. Fish, shrimp and other creatures swim upward toward the surface, trying to stay ahead of the rising low-oxygen layer. When the low-oyygen layer reaches the surface, fish may struggle to breathe in the uppermost mixing layer. Unfortunately, the fish have no way of knowing that safer conditions lie down below — beneath the low-oxygen layer and within waters arriving from the ocean.

Jan Newton reported that the low oxygen levels in southern Hood Canal earlier this year were the most extreme measured over the past 10 years. So far, however, the fish kills don’t seem as bad as those in 2003, 2006 and 2010, she said.

The graph below shows how the deep layer coming in from the ocean at 279 feet deep contains more oxygen than the middle layer at 66 feet deep. The surface layer, which normally contains the most oxygen, dipped to extremes several times near the beginning of August and again on Friday, Aug. 28. These data, recorded from a buoy near Hoodsport, are considered unverified.


NASA researchers measure sea levels, predict faster rise

A new worldwide map of sea level rise, plotted with precision satellite instruments, shows that the Earth’s oceans are rising faster with no end in sight.

Sea levels have gone up an average of 3 inches since 1992, with some locations rising as much as 9 inches. Meanwhile, some limited areas — including the West Coast — have experienced declining sea levels for various reasons.

Sea level change over 22 years. Map: NASA
Sea level change over 22 years. (Click to enlarge) // Map: NASA

Two years ago, climatologists released an international consensus, which predicted a sea-level rise of between 1 and 3 feet by the end of this century. It was a conservative estimate, and new evidence suggests that ocean waters are likely to meet or exceed the top of that range, possibly going much higher, according to four leading researchers speaking at a news conference yesterday.

The implications are huge and growing more important all the time. At a minimum, waterfront property owners and shoreline planners need to begin taking this into consideration. It doesn’t make sense to build close to the shoreline if extreme high tides will bring seawater to one’s doorstep.

If we hope to avoid local extinctions of key intertidal species, we must start thinking about how high the waters will be in 50 to 100 years.

For clues to the future, we can watch Florida, where vast areas stand at low elevations. Even now, during high tides, Miami is beginning to see regular flooding in areas that never got wet before. This is the future of low-lying areas in Puget Sound, such as estuaries. In the Pacific ocean, the threat of inundating complete islands is becoming very real.

Along the West Coast, sea levels have actually declined over the past 20 years, largely because of the cooling effect of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a warming/cooling cycle that can remain in one phase for decades. The cycle appears to be shifting, with the likely effect that sea levels on the West Coast will soon rise as fast or faster than the worldwide average, according to Josh Willis, an oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Global sea level has been measured accurately and continuously by satellites since 1993. Graphic: Steve Nerem, University of Colorado
Global sea level has been measured accurately and continuously by satellites since 1993.
Graphic: Steve Nerem, University of Colorado

The cause of sea level rise is attributed to three factors. Scientists estimate that roughly one-third of the rise is caused by thermal expansion of ocean waters, which absorb much of the energy from global warming. Another third comes from the melting of the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. The remaining third comes from the melting of mountain glaciers throughout the world. Researchers at yesterday’s news conference said they expect the melting to accelerate.

Measuring the change in sea-level rise has become possible thanks to advanced technology built into altimeters carried aboard satellites. The instruments can distinguish changes in elevation as small as one part in 100 million.

“The instruments are so sensitive that if they were mounted on a commercial jetliner flying at 40,000 feet, they could detect the bump caused by a dime lying flat on the ground,” said Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division.

While sea level rise can now be measured, predicting the rate of future rise is difficult, because much of the melting by ice sheets occurs out of sight under the water.

The Greenland ice sheet covers 660,000 miles — nearly the size of Alaska. Satellite measurements have shown that an average of 303 gigatons of ice have melted each year over the past decade. The Antarctic ice sheet has lost an average of 118 gigatons per year, but some new studies suggest it could begin to melt much faster.

In Greenland, researchers are reporting that one of the largest chunks of ice ever to break away from land cleaved from the Jakobshavn glacier in a “calving” event that left researchers awestruck. More than 4 cubic miles of ice was loosed quickly into the sea. Check out the news release by the European Space Agency.

“This is a continuing and evolving story,” glaciologist Eric Rignot said during yesterday’s news conference. “We are moving into a set of processes where we have very tall calving cliffs that are unstable and start fracturing and break up into icebergs …

“We have never seen something like this on that scale before,” said Rignot, associated with JPL and the University of California at Irvine. “Personally, I am in awe at seeing how fast the icefall, the calving part of the glacier, is retreating inland year by year.”

Other new information from NASA, including lots of graphics:

The following video tells the basic story about sea level rise.

Have we turned the corner on Puget Sound bulkhead construction?

It’s hard to describe the surprise I felt when I first glanced at a new graph plotting bulkhead construction and removal along Puget Sound’s shoreline since 2005.

On the graph was a blue line that showed how new bulkhead construction had declined dramatically the past two years. But what really caught my eye was a green line showing an increase in bulkhead removal. Amazingly, these two lines had crossed each other in 2014, meaning that the total length of bulkheads removed had exceeded the total length of bulkheads built last year.

Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Graphic: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Not only was this the first time this has ever happened, it was totally unexpected. Few people really believed that bulkhead removal could exceed construction anytime soon. I was happy to write up these new findings in the latest newsletter for the Puget Sound Institute, where I’m now employed part-time.

“It was pretty shocking — in a good way,” said Randy Carman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, who coordinated the data based on state permits. “It makes me optimistic going forward.”

Randy helped develop the “vitals signs indicator” for shoreline armoring, along with a “target” approved by the Puget Sound Partnership. The target called for the total length of armoring removed to exceed the total length constructed for the 10-year period from 2011 through 2020.

Like many of the vital signs indicators, this one for shoreline armoring was far from a sure thing. In fact, like most of the indicators, the trend was going in the wrong direction. Some people believed that the Puget Sound Partnership was setting itself up for failure.

These were “aspirational” targets, Randy recalled, and meeting them would be a tremendous challenge for many individuals, government agencies and organizations.

As I described in some detail in the article for PSI, the number of new bulkheads has declined, in part because of new government rules. Meanwhile, the number of bulkheads removed has increased, in part because of government funding.

But something else may be afoot, as pointed out by Sheida Sahandy, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, and David Price, habitat program manager for WDFW. A new “culture” may be taking hold in which people realize that bulkheads are neither good for the environment, attractive nor functional when it comes to people enjoying their own beach.

Before and after composite view of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project at Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County. Original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group
Before and after composite view at the site of a 2013 bulkhead-removal project on the shore of Penrose Point State Park in Pierce County.
Composite: Kris Symer, PSI; original photos: Kristin Williamson, South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group

When talking to shoreline property owners who have removed a rock or concrete bulkhead, often the first thing they tell me is how much nicer their beach has become. No more jumping or climbing off a wall. No more rickety stairs. One can walk down a slope and plop down a lawn chair wherever the tide tells you is the right spot.

“The factors are all in place for a paradigm shift,” Sheida told me. “When people see the geotech reports for their own beach, they can see there is a different way. People can take off their shoes and put their toes in the sand.”

Getting contractors and real-estate agents to understand and support new methods of beach protection and restoration is one strategy being considered. Personally, I was impressed with the change in direction by Sealevel Bulkhead Builders. Check out the story I wrote for the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

It takes a little land to create the right slope to dissipate wave energy without any man-made structure. In some cases, large rocks and logs — so-called “soft shore protection” — can help reduce erosion. In some situations where land is limited and wave energy is high, a solid wall may be the only remedy. No matter which option is used, one must consider the initial cost and long-term maintenance — including consideration of sea-level rise caused by global warming.

“The secret,” said Dave Price, “is less about the strong arm of regulation and more about helping people understanding what they are getting.”

Scientific evidence about the damage of bulkheads has been building for several years. Among the impacts:

  • Loss of beach and backshore, which reduces the area used for recreation, shellfish, bird habitat and forage-fish spawning.
  • Loss of slow, natural erosion, which helps maintain the quantity and quality of sand and gravel along the shoreline.
  • Alteration of wave action, which can impede natural movement of sand and gravel and scour the beach of fine sediment, leaving hardpan and scattered rocks.
  • Increased predation of juvenile salmon by larger fish where high tides leave deep water along the bulkhead, plus fewer insects for food caused by loss of shoreline vegetation.

See Washington Department of Ecology’s Frequently Asked Questions (PDF 640 kb)

Bulkheads can cause a coarsening of a beach over time, with harder and harder substrate becoming evident. Damage from one bulkhead may be slow and limited, experts say, but alterations to more than 25 percent of the shoreline, as we see today, has taken a serious toll in some parts of Puget Sound.

Dave told me about the time he stood next to a concrete bulkhead and watched the tide coming in. Large fish, such as sculpins, were able to swim right up to the wall.

“I stood there and watched these fish come right in next to shore,” he said. “These were big fish, and they came up right next to the bulkhead. There was nowhere for the juvenile salmonids to get out of there.”

The cartoon below was part of this week’s “Amusing Monday” feature, and it illustrates the situation that Dave described. I could say much more about changing trends in bulkheads, given new studies funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, but that can wait for future blog posts.

How did one magazine article generate such a tsunami of public alarm?

I am still baffled, as are the folks at the University of Washington’s Seismology Lab, why people freaked out over the earthquake article, titled “The Really Big One,” published this month in New Yorker magazine.

Could it be that Northwest residents were unaware or had forgotten about the risk of earthquakes in this area until a national magazine called attention to the problem?

Was it the lack of credible details about earthquake risks in the original article, which included this quote from an emergency-management official: “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”

Or maybe it was the rapid spread of information via social media and the huge number people living in other parts of the country who texted, tweeted and inundated Facebook with worries about their relatives in the Pacific Northwest.

“I don’t really know what it was,” said Bill Steele, my longtime contact at the UW’s Seismology Lab. “We are a bit baffled by it. There is nothing really new.”

Hazard maps are used by structural engineers to design building to withstand shaking. This map depicts maximum ground acceleration (measured in gravitational pull) predicted in a rare earthquake with a 2 percent chance of occurring in the next 50 years. Hazard maps of more likely earthquakes are similar but with less emphasis on the Seattle and subduction fault zones. Kitsap Sun graphic
Hazard maps are used by structural engineers to design buildings to withstand shaking. This map depicts maximum ground acceleration (measured in gravitational pull) predicted in a rare earthquake with a 2 percent chance of occurring in the next 50 years. // Kitsap Sun graphic

Although the author, Kathryn Schultz, left out specifics about which areas might be affected more than others, she did tell a compelling — and fairly accurate — story about what could happen when the North America plate breaks free of the Juan de Fuca plate, which is sliding underneath it.

I was pleased to see that she came back this week with a follow-up article describing where the greatest shaking would occur and which areas would be at greatest risk from a tsunami unleashed by slippage along the Cascadia subduction zone. She also suggests steps that people can take to protect themselves and their property — something I have always felt is a mandatory part of any story I write about earthquakes. Review a webpage put together by the Kitsap Sun.

I’ve been very fortunate to have worked as a news reporter during a time when many important discoveries were made in Northwest seismology. I accompanied researchers digging in swamps, riverbanks and man-made trenches, where they found traces of ancient earthquakes. That work and much more comprises a body of evidence across many disciplines that helps us understand how bad our “big one” could be.

In 1999, I paused from covering individual discoveries about earthquakes to write a story for the Kitsap Sun focusing on a few of the researchers and their key findings. We called the story “Finding Fault: 13 Years of Discoveries.”

I can’t begin to recount all the stories I’ve written about earthquakes through the years, but I do recall warning people a few years ago to get prepared after the massive Japanese earthquake made headlines across the the globe (Kitsap Sun, March 11, 2011):

“While Japan struggles to recover from one of the greatest earthquakes in world history, West Coast seismologists are warning that a quake just like it could occur at any time off the Washington and Oregon coasts.

“In broad-brush terms, ‘the two earthquakes are very similar,’ said John Vidale, director of the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network at the University of Washington. ‘As a first guess, what might happen here is what happened there.’

Of course, we have had our own earthquakes that should give us plenty of reason to get prepared. The 6.8-magnitude Nisqually earthquake on Feb. 28, 2001, occurred in the Puget Sound region and served as a powerful wakeup call for many people.

During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, many roads were damaged. Here, Janine Morris, right, and her daughter, Erin, 12, explore a section of Highway 302 near Victor in Mason County. Kitsap Sun file photo, 2001.
During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, many roads were damaged. Here, Janine Morris, right, and her daughter, Erin, 12, explored a section of Highway 302 near Victor. // Kitsap Sun file photo, 2001.

The Nisqually quake was called the “miracle quake” because nobody was killed, although one man died from a heart attack that could have been related to the event. About 400 people were injured and damage estimates ranged up to $4 billion. (U.S. Geological Survey)

In the Puget Sound region, the shaking from the Nisqually quake could be something like area residents will experience in a Cascadia subduction-zone quake, though shaking from a subduction quake is expected to last longer, depending on how much of the plate breaks free. Things will not be the same in all places, and communities closest to the Olympic Mountains might experience the most damage from a subduction quake.

Five years after the Nisqually quake, Phyllis Mann, who was director of Kitsap County Department of Emergency Management at the time, was still wondering why many people were not prepared for an earthquake in Kitsap County.

“Kitsap has never depended on the federal government as part of its plan,” Phyllis told me in a Kitsap Sun story published Feb. 28, 2006. “The federal government can’t be with us the day of the disaster. With the exception of the military, which is part of our community, you can’t count on the feds early on.”

Mann used our interview to direct pointed questions at Kitsap County residents:

“Why aren’t you ready? What is it going to take? We keep asking this question and finding out that people aren’t prepared. Where is your food and water for three days? (A week is the latest recommendation.) Where are your reunion plans? Is it my responsibility as the county emergency manager to make sure everyone does it?”

The New Yorker article failed to mention an earthquake threat that should be of equal concern to residents of the Puget Sound area. You may have heard of the Seattle fault, which runs from Seattle across Bainbridge Island and Central Kitsap to Hood Canal.

Although the frequency of huge earthquakes on the Seattle fault appear to be less than those along the Cascadia subduction zone, we must not forget that a quake on the Seattle fault about 1,100 years ago lifted up the south end of Bainbridge Island by 21 feet and created a tsunami that inundated shorelines now occupied by people. By contrast, a tsunami coming from the ocean after a subduction quake might raise the water level quickly in Puget Sound but probably no higher than what we see with daily tides.

In a way, the Seattle fault put the Kitsap Peninsula on the map with a red bull’s-eye, which I wrote about five years ago. See Kitsap Sun, May 8, 2010, along with the map on this page.

Bill Steele told me that he is sure that Kenneth Murphy, regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, regrets saying, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.” That may be a good “operating assumption” for an agency trying to plan for the worse possible emergency, but it is not a very good description of what seismologists predict by modeling various scenarios.

Bill said many people failed to read the New Yorker article carefully and took the comment to mean that most of Western Washington would be hit with a 50-foot wall of water — something that could not be further from the truth.

“The good news for us is that we have a pretty good 10,000-year history of what happened on the fault,” Bill said. “We know how the shaking will be distributed.” Again, look at the hazard map on this page and note the strip of red along the coast.

While many earthquake experts are surprised by the reaction to the New Yorker article, it has accomplished one goal of those who understand the risks: getting people to create earthquake kits, secure homes on their foundations and other things that could help prevent damage and get people through the emergency.

“You have to take your hat off to the author,” Bill told me, “because she got a lot of people thinking. It is not like the New Yorker has that many subscriptions.”

Emergency managers may be studying the cascading events triggered by the New Yorker article, including the initial publication, the ripples running through social media and the public alarm that rose up and eventually died down.

Directing public concern into action is what folks like Bill Steele and others are doing right now. Check out the video in the player below for Bill’s appearance on “New Day Northwest,” and visit the webpage of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network for basic information and scheduled discussions about earthquake risks. One public forum is scheduled for Tuesday at the University of Oregon, and other forums are under consideration at the UW.

Clouds at edge of space have been showing up more frequently

These noctilucent, or “night shining,” clouds over the Arctic June 10 are shown as a composite image taken by the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) spacecraft. The mysterious clouds have been showing up with more frequency in recent years, and some scientists speculate that they may be connected to climate change. NASA Earth Observatory map by Joshua Stevens
These noctilucent clouds over the Arctic are a composite image from the AIM spacecraft on June 10. The clouds’ more frequent appearance could relate to climate change. (Click to enlarge)
NASA Earth Observatory map by Joshua Stevens

Unique clouds at the edge of space appear to be showing up in spring and summer more often than ever before, according to NASA scientists, who speculate that climate change could be playing a role in cloud formation.

I like the term “noctilucent clouds” for these night-shining clouds glowing with a tint of blue — although NASA researchers formally call them “polar mesospheric clouds.” That’s because they show up at the poles in the mesosphere at about 50 miles up — the outer edge of Earth’s atmosphere. If you are a scientist with a perspective from satellites, you don’t really think about day or night.

Researchers have learned a great deal about these clouds since the 2007 launch of the Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) spacecraft, but they still seem distant and mysterious.

A notilucent cloud photographed on July 2, 2011, near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Photo: NASA/Dave Hughes
A notilucent cloud photographed after midnight on July 2, 2011, near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Photo: NASA/Dave Hughes

The clouds are actually ice crystals about the size of particles in cigarette smoke, according to an interesting article by NASA’s Tony Phillips, who interviewed cloud-researcher and astronaut Don Pettit in 2003. Because the clouds are so high up, they are seen shortly after the sky turns dark at sunset, a time when sunlight can still bounce off the crystals. Years ago, they were seen only in the far-north latitudes in our part of the world, but more recently they have been seen as far south as Colorado and Utah.

The temperature in the mesosphere is about -125 degrees Celsius, or nearly 200 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Conditions up there are extremely dry — far dryer than any place on Earth.

Like common clouds in the lower atmosphere, noctilucent clouds need water vapor and a “nucleus” upon which the water can attach. In the lower atmosphere, called the troposphere, ordinary dust and many other particles are common enough as a result of winds. Cirrus clouds can form in the highest layers of the troposphere, about 12 miles up. But until data came back from the AIM project, nobody was sure what was happening at 50 miles up. Now, researchers believe the nuclei are mostly space dust pulled in by Earth’s gravity.

The first reports of noctilucent clouds came in 1885 after the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa. Researchers aren’t sure if volcanic dust made it high enough into the atmosphere to form the clouds, but that potential source disappeared long ago.

Noctilucent clouds are observed in late spring and summer when upwelling winds carry water vapor up into the atmosphere. The increasing frequency of cloud formation may be the result of climate change. It turns out that when greenhouse gases warm the Earth’s surface, the upper atmosphere actually gets colder as heat escapes, helping the tiny crystals to form.

Another factor in climate change could be the increasing amount of methane gas in the atmosphere. A complex series of reactions can oxidize the methane to form water vapor, which can then form ice crystals.

One of the unexpected results of the AIM mission has been unusual “teleconnections” between the north and south poles via the mesosphere. It turns out that a slowing of stratospheric winds over the Arctic affects circulation in the mesosphere, causing a ripple effect around the globe. The southern mesosphere becomes warmer and drier, leading to fewer noctilucent clouds.

These high-level connections were not even suspected when the AIM spacecraft was launched, but they are revealing how weather on one part of the globe may be connected to relatively rapid changes in other far-flung regions. (Check out last year’s video below.) Further studies of the upper atmosphere can be expected to bring more surprises.