This photo was taken by Dr. Sarah Sterling a few weeks back in a salt marsh west of Port Angeles. The sand layers at inch 26 and inch 28.5 on the ruler are unequivocally related to tsunamis, which push marine sands up into the salt marsh. Nearly identical sand layers are found in Discovery Bay, east of Port Angeles. The layers shown here are probably from tsunamis that happened hundreds of years ago.
The scale of these layers suggest a pretty substantial tsunami that may be associated with a rupture along the Cascadia subduction zone, just 50 miles off of our coast. Seeing these layers was a reminder to me that someday - perhaps sooner, or perhaps later - we (the Olympic Peninsula) are going to experience another of these big earthquakes and/or tsunami. And the evidence from this photo and from Discovery Bay suggests that tsunamis here can be of a scale to powerfully affect the entire shoreline of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
I bring this up as a reminder - the news is filled these days with hand-wringing and nail-biting regarding the landfall of debris from the March 2011 Tohoku tsunami on our shores. Tsunami debris is a hazard, no doubt. Pile enough plastic on the beach and bad things happen. Enough of it in the water probably poses a toxicity risk, not to mention endangering wildlife and even creating navigation hazards. But I find that I cannot wholeheartedly agree with Chris Pallister, who runs an organization dedicated towards cleaning debris from the shores of Prince William Sound, who was quoted in an article today saying, "I think this is far worse than any oil spill that we've ever faced on the West Coast or any other environmental disaster we've faced on the West Coast". That statement ignores the environmental problems associated with the huge volumes of marine debris that enter the ocean EACH YEAR (far more plastic debris is probably released into the ocean as non-point pollution than from the Tohoku tsunami)and also downplays the devastation associated with large oil spills. The statement also seems to downplay the risk that we face from seismic events and tsunami, and I can't even give Chris the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is talking about events only in recent memory. Its only been 48 short years since an earthquake and tsunami wrecked SE Alaska, killing 119 people in the process.
The calls for greater preparedness for the tsunami debris are warranted. We will have to put our collective shoulder to the wheel to get beaches cleaned up, and some intervention by state and federal government may be necessary to deal with big items, toxic material or invasive species. But those loud calls, in my humble opinion, should be accompanied by, and I would argue overshadowed by, louder calls for better preparation for a local seismic event and tsunami...
While the removal of the Elwha dams is not yet complete, we are already getting a taste of the potential restoration benefit and scale of this project. Starting a few months ago we started to see sand on the beach in places where we never had before. Every few weeks I head down to the Elwha delta and measure a beach profile and collect grain size imagery at 3-4 set monitoring locations (the ones in red in the photo below):
On 24 April 2012 I put together a little summary based on some observations of NEW sand, tentatively attributed to the dam removal, at one of three sites that I monitor every few weeks. This is from Line 164, just to the east of the river mouth, and you are looking at a profile collected on three different dates, plus some grain size photos and oblique photos of the beach:
This sand accretion was relatively high up on the profile, around 0.5m (1.5 feet or so) above MLLW. While very cool (this was, after all, some of the first sand that I could attribute to the dam removal that I observed on the beach), the amount of sand, and its extent along the beach, were both pretty minor.
Now, though, the lower tides of May and June have given us a better view of sand accretion lower down on the profile - and it turns out that this is where a lot of the action is. Right around the river mouth there is a substantial body of sand that I first observed at the beginning of May:
(Sorry about the wind and bad audio in this vid).
At the time it wasn't clear if this sand would persist, or if it was a temporary blip in a longer-term reconfiguration of the Elwha delta in response to the addition of new sediment from the dam removal. It now appears, though, that the various sand bodies are growing and seem to be set to stay. For example, this set of profiles from today, and 5 July 2011 (about a year ago), suggests there has been substantial profile accretion below about 0 MLLW (where the black line, representing the surface today, is well above the gray line, representing the surface in July 2011):
and the grain size shift associated with that accretion is readily apparent in these "before and after" photos taken at an elevation of -0.15 m MLLW at line 164 on 5 July 2011 and today:
I was also surprised to find that the fine sand depositing down low on the beach extends far to the east. At Line 204 the profile was covered with fine sand below a depth of about -0.25 m MLLW, as you can see in this series of photos taken at 0.25 m elevation increments starting at -1.00 m MLLW:
While I don't have any grain size photos from earlier dates to compare to for this relatively low part of the profile (today's low tide was exceptionally low - I don't often get the opportunity to sample below MLLW), my own observations after 5 years of work out there suggests that this sand is NEW.
While the upper beach itself looks about like it always has around most of the delta, at line 164 that small sand body that I originally reported on at the end of April (see above) seems to have grown and has now welded to the base of the foreshore. Here you can see a photo taken from low on the profile looking towards the shore, with a bar of sand that has attached to the upper part of the beach. Comparing profiles from today and two weeks ago (May 20), that profile growth is very clear...all sand.
This observations is particularly interesting in light of one of my major motivations for doing this - this beach is seriously erosive, and I am interested in "if, how and when" the sediment associated with the dam removal may act to reverse the chronic erosion that causes all sorts of problems on the delta. This sand accreting to the foreshore is some of the first evidence that the upper part of the profile, which is the part that erodes so rapidly, might enjoy some sort of restoration benefit from the dam removal...very cool stuff.
Thanks to colleagues at the US Geological Survey and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe for helping to collect and interpret some of the data you see here...
As the Coastal Hazards Specialist for Washington Sea Grant I spend my time on research, education and outreach on topics like chronic erosion, climate change, tsunami and other coastal hazards. Current projects include:
1) monitoring the shoreline of the Elwha River delta to detect changes due to the Elwha Dam Removal
2) Assessing the influence of climate change on the resources of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary
3) Evaluating the impact of debris from the Tohoku tsunami on the shorelines of the Olympic Peninsula