The Pacific coastal water from south of the Columbia River outfall to the tip of Vancouver Island to the north (see map below), is commonly known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, and for good reason. You start with abruptly rising rocky coasts, add strong winds, and mix in low visibility from incessant fog and rain.
The blue region on the map is known as the Graveyard of the Pacific
Strong winds, sometimes reaching hurricane strength, batter the Washington and Oregon coasts in winter and the foggiest location in the continental U.S. is Cape Disappointment on the northern terminus of the Columbia River (with 106 days a year of dense fog!). The interaction of the westward moving flow of the Columbia River and incoming waves produces the dangerous Columbia Bar (see picture), with large waves and threatening shoals. Strong easterly winds exit the Strait of Juan de Fuca, frequently reaching 60-80 mph.
The Columbia Bar is treacherous for marine passage
A variety of obstacles greet the mariner at the western entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca
These dangerous conditions have produced hundreds, of not thousands of shipwrecks, along the Washington, British Columbia, and Oregon coasts (see figures). Most of these shipwrecks were between 1850 and 1950 and modern navigational aids have dramatically reduced the threat. But the threat is still there...strong winds, low visibility, rocky shorelines.
The Northwest may not get hurricanes, because our water is too cold, but our strongest cyclones have winds equaling that of category 1 or 2 hurricanes, and our storms are far larger in size. Our shores are no stranger to 100 mph winds, as illustrated by the recent December 1-3, 2007 coastal gale (see map)
Our offshore conditions are so severe that the National Weather Service can not maintain our offshore buoys: most are broken or adrift today.
Coal and oil ships from Puget Sound and Northwest Washington (e.g., Cherry Point near Bellingham), must exit the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a waterway infamous for strong and often poorly predicted winds. When air pressure is higher inland and lower offshore (very frequent in winter), the winds accelerate to the west, often reaching 60 mph and more at and east of Tatoosh Island, at the Strait's western terminus--a danger to shipping recognized for many years (see article below)
Here is a simulation from the modern WRF weather prediction model for a modest esaterly case in 2010, with winds only getting to 60 knots near the western entrance.
And when fronts moves eastward across the region or marine air surges into the Strait during summer onshore marine pushes, westerly winds can increase to 60-90 mph over the central and eastern Strait. One of these events destroyed Ivar's Mukilteo Landing restaurant in 2003 and another heavily damaged the Ferry Elwha in Everett Harbor and caused a huge blackout over Snohomish County.
But far more dangers await coal and oil ships heading towards the proposed mega terminal at Cherry Point. First, to get from the Strait to the terminal they have to wend their way through a maze of narrow passages and islands (see map).
And a major meteorological lurks in this area: strong northeasterly winds pushing out of the Fraser River valley. When there is cold, high pressure in the interior of British Columbia and lower pressure over western Washington, air can accelerate down that gap, often reaching 40-50 mph north of Bellingham and out towards the San Juan Islands. Yes, we are talking about right over the Cherry Point terminal. These winds can be as strong as 80-90 mph, as illustrated by the event of December 28, 1990 (see map below). The inner dotted line indicates winds exceeding 40 meters per second--that is about 90 mph!
And here is what happened at Anacortes Harbor that day, or what was left of it. Let's say many of those boats never floated again.
Not only do the Fraser gap winds make marine traffic difficult if not impossible when they are active, but they would blow coal dust from Cherry Point over the San Juan Islands. What's not to like?
Strong winds, dense fog and poor visibility, landslides, sand bars, rocky coasts, strong wind shear, and more. Northwest waters are uniquely threatening to oil and coal ships, at the same time our environment is uniquely vulnerable to a major spill, including a huge shellfish industry and valuable fisheries. Acting as a huge coal/oil port makes no sense for us. And it is particularly senseless because the huge carbon export will come back to harm us in two ways: (1) make a large contribution to CO2 in the atmosphere and thus global warming, and (2 ) some of the the pollution from burning the coal and oil will be spread across the Pacific back over the Northwest.
Marine safety has improved dramatically over the past 50 years, there is no doubt about that. But human error is still with us, as shown dramatically by the recent sinking of a Korean ferry, the grounding of a cruise liner off Italy, and the loss of the Exxon Valdez in 1989, to name only a few. Huge increases in the number of oil and coal ships entering our waters enhance the risk that human error will lead to an environmental catastrophe for our region. And for what?
Life is always about risk versus reward. In this case, the former is far, far greater than the later.
The grounding, break up, and burning of the new Carissa in 1999 show the threat of ship wrecks continues today. Oil from the ship polluted the coastline.
Climate 101 Luncheon on Monday in Seattle
If any of you are interested, I will be participating in a Climate 101 luncheon sponsored by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and mc'ed by Jeff Renner of KING TV. There is some space left. For more information go here.