Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Friday, June 22, 2007
Olympic National Forest receives over 100 inches of rain each year, caught from the Pacific winds by the tall coastal mountains. You can't walk without stepping on many kinds of lifeforms growing on top of each other.
The forest is a green cathedral - a cliche, no doubt, but very true. As a nature lover, it is a wonderful experience to walk through the cool shady paths, looking at the fern and moss varieties beyond counting. If I didn't like birds so much, this would inspire me to become a "fernologist", or whatever you call someone who studies ferns and mosses. Some ferns grow stems like bushes, then branch out, while others stay close to the ground. You need a magnifying glass to really see the mosses distinctly. This primitive plant life was dominant on earth for millions of years, and still dominates the forests in my view.
As a photographer, however, the forest is frustrating because it is usually too dark to get good photos. It is hard to make the camera pick up the height and sheer mass of the trees. Either the trees are too tall, or too big around, or too crowded against other trees. Trees die from wind damage, most often, but they contribute more to the life of the forest after death than while they stood upright. A "nurse logs" supports the growth of ferns, mosses, and tree seedlings of all kinds. More importantly, when they fall, a space in the canopy is opened to let light in, allowing young plants to sprout and grow as they could not do successfully on the shaded forest floor. Some trees have roots growing in an arch above the ground. They started growing on a nurse log, and reached the ground as the nurse log rotted away.The cascading forest streams are great photographic topics. Not only is there enough light, but you can make the water blur or stand out in stop action as it tumbles down the mountainside. Mosses and other plants growing on the tree trunks and branches hold water gathered from the air. Rufous hummingbirds feed directly from this stored water, since there aren't many blooming plants. What a thrill to find a salamander under a wet rock or a Banana Slug on the trail. After a wonder-filled, awe-inspiring day in the forest, we drove back to our lodgings outside the park. Unfortunately, most of this drive is through areas that have been heavily timbered. In Washington, this means clear cutting of the forest. In many areas, only piles of branches remain on the ground. The larger companies make an effort to replant as soon as possible, but the smaller tracts lay bare for years. Replanting helps some, but trees that are all the same age do not make a forest, even when they become 30 or 40 years old. The death and varying sizes and ages of the trees are essential to many life forms in the forest. As we drove past these areas, I still had to ask myself if I wanted to give up books and newspapers, paper towels and toilet paper and paper towels, and 2x4's for houses. Isn't there some other way to provide wood products without such devastation? I'm sure greater voices than mine have argued this for years, without much influence apparently.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
We tend to think of life as being safe and ordered most of the time, and instead, we are just really, really lucky. Our visit to Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument emphasized how quickly life can turn completely upside down. 27 years after the eruption, this volcano seems a peaceful place, but the evidence of absolute destruction is everywhere. The horseshoe shape of the crater can be seen from satellite pictures, along with the snow covered peaks of neighboring volcanoes Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams. This picture is taken from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, five miles away, and the devastation is still everywhere. If you click to view an enlarged version, you can still see a plume of steam rising from the lava dome.
The ranger talks to visitors made it very clear. If you are in the path of an eruption, you will suffocate or bake to death, even if you go to a shelter. There's nothing you can do about it. Debris traveled down the Toutle River, carrying a wall of mud, trees and rocks at speeds of 110-115 miles per hour, endangering the I-5 bridge many miles downstream and filling the valley up to 150 feet. The lateral blast, traveling at up to 670 miles per hour, quickly over took the initial landslide, affecting land up to 19 miles away. The sound of the explosion, however, was not heard locally, but only by those at a distance, strangely enough. Those 57 persons who died mostly suffocated in the hot ash. Two weeks after the eruption, scientists measured the pyroclastic deposits at temperatures of over 600 degrees, so they were much higher when actively flowing. Click to see the amazing pictures of the initial minutes of the eruption.
As volcanic eruptions go, Mt. St. Helens was moderate in size, but compared to other volcanoes in the Cascades range, it is much more active. The damage was from land and mudslides, rock and ash. Any lava that actually flowed was the consistency of toothpaste, we were told, unlike the Hawaiian volcanoes. This eruption was unique in that it has been closely studied by modern scientists. Past eruptions of this and other volcanoes were in non-populated areas, or in a time when people just ran for their lives instead of watching to see what happened. In addition to the eruption itself, scientists have explored the recovery of the area in different ways. Timber companies, such as Weyerhauser, experimented with replacing trees which had been destroyed, which I appreciate since the hills are green again, even if the trees aren't all that tall. In the protected areas, scientists are letting nature take its course to see what happens, and have been amazed at the speed of the recovery. Spirit Lake was completely sterilized and filled with dead trees, mud and ash. Yet in no more than 3 years, bacteria were bringing the lake back to be supportive of life, and within 5 years they were almost back at pre-eruption levels for the water chemistry. Plants and animals moved back in faster than anyone anticipated.
27 years seems like a long time, but geologically, it is only the merest fraction of a blink of an eye. Mother Nature will take all the time she needs to restore this area. The question is, when will this volcano, or any other in the Cascades range erupt again? When Mt. Rainier blew the last time, its flow went all the way into Puget Sound. It is so surprising to a Kentuckian like me, to be able to see three snow covered volcanoes while standing in one spot. The area is active. There ain't no place safe.