Monday, February 5, 2018

The Mystery Tree Fall Near Lake Quinault: Why Did It Happen? Part I.

Update: The final solution is here.

There is nothing I like better than a meteorological mystery ...particularly one that is not easily solved.

And here is a recent one, which I am working on now...a massive tree fall on the north side of Lake Quinault on the SW flanks of the Olympic Peninsula (see map) that took place on Saturday, January 27th just after midnight.


The center of the action was around the July Creek campground on the north side of the Lake (see close-in map), where hundreds of massive, old-growth trees were snapped off.  And there were lesser tree falls on the southern side of the lake, all of which caused the loss of power in the area.


Here are few pictures around the North Shore road, on the northern flank of the Lake. Pictures courtesy of Bill Baccus, Olympic National Park.  Some of the trees were huge.





And here is a video from Grays Harbor PUD

Why did this event happen?   Some, such as a story in the Daily World (see below), suggests\ that the event was the result of a microburst, a downward push of air out of a convective system that produces very strong winds in a limited area.

But I suspect the true explanation is different...

First, how strong did the winds have to be to do such damage?  I spoke to Logan Johnson, Meteorologist in Charge, at the NWS Seattle Office.  He suggested that to snap off such big trees would take winds of at least 70-80 mph.  Maybe more.

Many of the big tree falls on the north side of the Lake were limited to a roughly 1/2 stretch of the North Shore Road near the July Creek campground (see map above).  But there were some scattered tree falls elsewhere, such as on the south side of the lake.

Most of the trees on the north side fell towards the lake (to the south), which suggests the super-strong winds there were northerlies (from the north).

Isn't this fun?  Just like Sherlock Holmes---pulling the clues together.


A big clue:  the timing.  According to the folks at Olympic National Park and Grays Harbor PUD, the big tree fall occurred between 1:30 and 2:30 AM on January 27th.

What could cause winds that would produce limited tree falls in a broad area and catastrophic winds in a small one?  The Daily World and some folks at Olympic National Park suggest a microburst.

The definition of a microburst is:

microburst is a localized column of sinking air (downdraft) within a thunderstorm and is usually less than or equal to 2.5 miles in diameter. Microbursts can cause extensive damage at the surface, and in some instances, can be life-threatening.

They are associated with thunderstorms and strong convection.   Such storms have a characteristic look on weather radar...and we have good radar coverage in the area thanks to the Langley Hill Radar and Senator Maria Cantwell, who got the funding for it.   Here is a radar image at 1:30 AM that day, with a circle indicating the region of interest.  No hint of instability and thunderstorms.

And you would not expect it since a warm or occluded front was moving in.

OK... so it wasn't a microburst.  What else could it be?  My attempt at an answer will wait until Part II of this blog.  But keep this Holmes' quote in mind:


Those willing to guess, please feel free to leave your ideas in the comment section of this blog....


84 comments:

Stefan said...

My best guess is we had a standing mountain wave setup that suddenly "broke" or toppled over like a ocean wave the surfers look for...

Renegade Blogger said...

North Korean ICBM

RGP said...

Excessive moisture in trees with minors wind event ??

Maybe Millennium Falcon landed.

Sillz said...

I vote for Bigfoot.

Jon Lindstrom said...

I recall a similar tree fall near here a decade or more ago and that the winds were terrain driven. Quite violent and a whole forest flattened.

Unknown said...

I'd say that looks like a mating lek of a sasquatch. probably a large one.

Alternatively, i'd go with something like geographically driven forcing/enhancement of wind speed. With the right wind hitting the right geography at the right interval, seems like there are some potential for very high, yet transient, wind speeds. Its anecdotal, but i was once in a roughly circular mountain basin on a dark gusty, non thunderstorm day, and within about 10-15 minutes of increasing gusts speeds, i watched, from far too close, a pretty decent sized waterspout form up right in front of me. Observationally, i always felt like the valley shape did it, forcing a series of straight line wind energy gusts into an ever accelerating circular vortex. From the ground, it felt like every wind gust just bent a little circular and fed into the last wind gust until a series of forcing gusts all made the cyclone funnel form up and start sucking the pond up into the sky there.

So those trees have a certain set of heights and a specific set of sway frequencies. Right series of gusts, hitting at the right intervals, and accelerated by the local geography, hit the critical threshold for that wood, and down they came.

So i guess i am going with a highly infrequent, highly stochastic site and event specific explanation. Wood was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

At least that insomnia logic makes sense to me right now.

But my first impression was definitely sasquatch mating lek. I'm good with that too, for a nice cohesive causal story. Holmes would definitely agree.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Either a large herd of Mastodon headed down the hill in mass for a swim in the lake, or else a microburst out of a squall line? Two fronts slamming each other? The broken off trees rather than uprooted trees is a clue to a violent wind. I watched this (following) little video a night or two ago. Little of it has to do with weather, but at 2 minutes 23 seconds into the video there is some footage of trees coming down all around a car on a road! Appears to be in the Pac. NW! No explanation in the video of why, and no hint as to why! Was it a saturated ground with weakened tree roots that caused the trees in the video to come down? A small landslide? Microburst? Strange, check it out; https://www.facebook.com/1641202616116209/videos/2014603628776104/

jayemarr said...

I'm not sure exactly, but I feel a topographical map coming on.

Unknown said...

I'll try again (don't know why my original comment was removed)! Squall line micro burst! Trees broken, not uprooted. Quite possibly even a tornado touch down! We on occasion do have those in our state, and they do originate most often out of squall lines, do they not?

jimijr said...

I saw little evidence of rotation so let's say straight-line winds. The trunks were snapped at the base, not part way up, which suggests that the wind did not arise rapidly (gust front) but built up gradually. So maybe it was some kind of katabatic downslope wind. If we had temperature data from the campground it might show a spike although with the rain, maybe not. Wish you had shown us velocities from the radar. As other posters have noted, you can get a 'funnel effect' due to terrain, which goes along with the highly localized nature of the event.

But what would initiate this?

Unknown said...

The Hallmarks of a sinister Tornado generated off of a squall line?

Schrauf said...

Clearly the logging industry devised a new way to mimic wind events, enabling them to harvest trees in normally closed areas.

Jake Morrison said...

My guess is a thunderstorm cell was affected when it pushed up against Higley Peak and caused the isolated burst of wind. This doesnt make the most sense, when you look at the direction that the trees are lying, which are mostly south. However, we have been getting lots of recent isolated heavy winds when these strong cells move over the valley.

I have been affected by a few of them out and about in the woods. Out walking around and a typical winter day in the forest, then you can hear the sound of a steady roar coming from the distance. Before you know it, sudden heavy winds pick up, enough to sway huge old growth and throw branches out of the trees. Quite spooky to be in one actually and dangerous. Then quick as it came, its gone. Like a little tornado-like thunderstorm downdraft?

I dont know much about the science part, I just know how to read the weather from spending so much time in the woods and mountains.

Anyways, the above photo with the dude standing next to the big old growth is mine, I'd appreciate a photo credit. Thanks for featuring it :-)

B Williams said...

Perhaps there was a fire or flood on the north side of the lake that weakened one side of the trees 100 years ago. Now a 40 MPH wind and rain (rather than 80 MPH wind and rain) would topple the compromised trees.

knainak said...

A failed Tunguska event? Maybe the aliens forgot to charge batteries on their "Forest Obilterator 18k" and had only a little fart of an event.
Whatever it was, being there surely would've left lifelong impressions and a strong desire for desert living.
BTW, my guess is some form of wind channeling relating to terrain.

Lee Benda said...

Possibly a southeasterly cyclonic low pressure, creating a cutoff low, which then triggered a a local high velocity mountain wave event. Something similar happened near Mt Zerkal in the Routt National Forest (but larger, 6 million trees knocked over in 30 min) in CO in '97....scary. Leeb

William said...

A Katabotic wind. A wind with massive downward acceleration also known as a drainage wind. This would make sense given the topography and wind direction.

garyl said...

Beaver attack...

Joshua said...

Warm air from the front coming due west displaced cool dense air at the head of the valley causing a northerly flow out of yhe valley into the lake basin. Thats my guesd.

John Vidale said...

There's a seismometer about a mile northeast of Lake Quinalt.

https://pnsn.org/seismogram/2018/01/27/b014

There noise starting about 1:27am lasting 4 minutes perhaps corresponding to the tree fall. A couple of pops around 2:15am might be related.

No idea what it would be due to. Maybe ask Paul Bodin to pull out the seismogram to see more details.

Cynthia said...

The bigger mystery is this: did anyone hear it? And did it make a sound?

Bruce Kay said...

Looks like a Willywa - typically encountered at sea but in proximity to mountainous terrain which in the right flow / terrain configuration results in compressed down flowing wind. I've seen these well inland and at elevation too. One blowdown behind the Squamish Chief resulted in a goldmine of ready fallen fir for the local loggers who slung it all out by helix

Eido Gamer said...

Full moon around that time, right? Therefore, it was a fight between werewolves and vampires.

Richard said...

Mountain Wave? I had to google that, and voila, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdAiKYWAlok Apparently does not happen very often, in fact quite rare so as to manifest in such spectacular and probably instant extremely local destruction. Very compelling and gets my vote. What a strange strange world we live in at times. Imagine hiking and/or camping in that neck of the woods at the time! See more related videos in the same video stream from the link above.

don said...

This is better known as a "blowdown.

Rabbits' Guy said...

There is a surge of popcorn sales as we get ready for the next installment of this fine serial mystery story!

David Riley said...

Something strange was going on around that area at that time.

Here is the trace for a PWS station in Quinault: https://tinyurl.com/y77fghvq . Note the interruption that started a bit before 3am.

The same interruption happened at two PWS stations a few miles to the west in Talolah: https://tinyurl.com/ybsbetrv and https://tinyurl.com/ybq9qpz4, also a bit before 3am.

And here are the data for a Pacific Beach station https://tinyurl.com/yaht82ps and Aberdeen station https://tinyurl.com/yajqxo8x that are somewhat to the SW. Look at that 10F temperature increase in like 15 minutes a bit after 4am.

My conclusion: Power downslope winds being sucked into the low.

David Riley said...

Note the PWS data from Pacific Beach (link) and Aberdeen (link) a bit after 4am. Massive temperature increases (>10F in just minutes) with NE or NNE winds.

I would think downslope winds did it, not a downburst. It took a bit of time for the winds to get down to the coast.

If you look at traces closer to Lake Quinault, a few of them were knocked offline a bit before 3am.

Ben Martens said...

Sasquatch stampede!

Dale K. Smith said...

From the couple of pictures of the breaks, it looks like twisting was involved. A few years ago I watched a neighbor's tree break and fall like this in a moderately gusty wind storm. What really caught my attention was the violent rotation of the top of the tree just before it snapped a few few above the ground. Looked like the wind gusts set up a perfect harmonic, the same that causes an otherwise mundane Tilt-a-Whirl to all of a sudden that a few fast rotations. Akin to flutter. Perhaps the whole stand of trees was caught up in the rotation.

pat herron said...

Sasquatch gathering firewood sounds reasonable to me. They do live in the area...

sunsnow12 said...

I have seen this happen on lake shores where the lake sits in a basin... with the surface of the lake playing a role in that there are no impediments to the wind speed. I.e. the lateral wind slams into the shoreline at full force without being impeded by any surface features...

Steve Allwine said...

I also vote for katabatic winds

Patrick Daly said...

ET was picked up from there.

Ricky Poole said...

Tornado

Ansel said...

Ideas: (1) Tornado; (2) UFO; (3) The Sasquatch got real mad; (4) A mini- meteoric explosion like Tunguska; (5) Military secret experiment ;-). Of these, number 1 is probably most plausible.

Luke Keenan said...

A williwaw wind. Interesting fact, you can hear the wind whistling and growing louder right before the event. Was in one in an Alaska bay and it went from 5mph to 60-or 70 in minutes or a normal looking afternoon

Bruce said...

I’m surprised that no one has commented on the story form yet. It’s a Cliff Hanger!

Carl Dinse said...

Could this be some unusual set up that it was actually a southerly wind that caused all of the trees to twist, and once the wind gust let up they rebounded and snapped falling in the opposite direction of the wind? I too noticed most of the broken trunks appear to have twisted before snapping.

ginnaville said...

Cliff, was there any useful data recorded at the USCRN site located just off of North Shore Rd, NE of Lake Quinault?

Dave Taflin said...

Wife and I tried to drive around Lake Quinault that day. The last time we tried to do that, we were also stopped by treefall. So I think it's us.

PeteSL said...

I wonder if this is something that could have been caused by EA-18G Growlers.

drysider said...

Downslope winds channeled down the Olympics with the occluded front.

Patrick Cummins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
marie said...

Try GOD

Tom Butler said...

Since it appears the trees were south of a ridge line; vortex shedding from the north that matched the natural frequencies of the trees?

W7ENK said...

There was a similar event back in February 2002 down in the Eugene, Oregon area. What basically happened was a rare, but violent and sudden kink in the Jet Stream, which caused it to buckle and momentarily dip down to the surface. There was a very brief — maybe 4 minute — period of devastating winds that produced a localized tree fall in the Willamette NF, the Cascade foothills just to the East of Eugene.

My guess is this turns out to be something very much the same.

Unknown said...

Same night we lost power twice in Shelton. Strongest winds in this area all winter, so I'm thinking it was part of the same frontal passage. Didn't make the news much, other than a tree falling on a house in Tacoma.

ibSkyBlue said...

Let's see. Cliff tells us of a very unusual direct hit of water and the next post is about falling trees during a storm where the wind is not strong enough to cause the damage . . . hmmm

occam's razor guess: The water did it!

Super saturation in a specific location weakened root structures. This along with the winds toppled trees onto trees that caused snapping?

Best I could do!

t.r. said...

http://a123.g.akamai.net/7/123/11558/abc123/forestservic.download.akamai.com/11558/www/nepa/97011_FSPLT3_1665844.pdf

http://www.kxro.com/110867-2/

???

Liane Aigner said...

Pacific cyclone? You mentioned it on the radio on the day before.

Steve said...

https://www.facebook.com/NWSBurlington/videos/1733041900101037/?hc_ref=ARSwLQcAjIE76RBEszVZqX7fakazdaFBm0VfRPEmMX5w2Du-AmR_k0YmTbNXjIq6mNE

NWS Burlington has some interesting talk about this regarding a wind event this past October 30th. I like the talk (linked recorded lecture/powerpoint) about the mountain barrier being convex to the flow / concave towards the area of max damage. Not just your usual venturi discussion.

shallen hogan said...

I dunno but i def think x-files should make this an episode

Patrick Cummins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J Bombzilla said...

Definitely Bigfoot.

D L said...

Cynthia’s comment gets my vote.

Joel said...

Smaller version of December 2-3, 2007 event, mentioned in your book?
In your book, you described a large pressure difference, that was sustained for an unusual amount of time. It also was described as highly localized. The storm also followed an unusual track for a wind event.
Was there evidence of localized, large pressure gradients, nearby? Can you share pressure data? :)

Lee said...

Is a micro burst always vertical to the ground? Perhaps it came at an angle from the north.

Bald Eagle

Roscoe said...

First, those are not old growth trees. The entire NS was logged before ONP was designated. Those trees are mostly hemlock and originate from the windstorm in 1921 ('21 Blow). Also, the density of wood in a tree is lowest just below the base of the live crown; when wind slams into a tree from the side, they'll break at that point. This should be more true for hemlock which are more brittle than Douglas-fir. So if they broke near the base, then the force was coming more from above than from the side. However, conifers fight wind by laying more wood down on the leeward side of the tree (compression wood); and when the wind comes from the opposite direction - which is what CM indicates by noting the trees fell southward - then they'll be more likely to fail. late night winds = cold downslope, I say Chinook winds.

Colin said...

I'm thinking it was a williwaw. Cold dense air in the mountains and hills to the north descended down the slope towards an approaching warm front perhaps with lower surface pressure.

Colin said...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=42&v=2H8Y5ptn9Cs

Michael Snyder said...

METARS just AFTER the event:
This shows a warm frontal passage just after the event for KHQM.
Possible that it was terrain enhanced winds (The Valley lies inline with the NE winds at the time) Possibly convectively initiated.
METAR KHQM 271153Z AUTO 16016G21KT 2 1/2SM -RA BR BKN006
OVC010 08/07 A2976 RMK AO2 WSHFT 1139 SLP082 P0006
60042 70069 T00780072 10078 20044 56023=
METAR KHQM 270953Z AUTO 05012G20KT 3SM -RA BR OVC016 04/04
A2980 RMK AO2 SLP096 P0004 T00440039=


KSHN had a rapid wind shift to the SW a few hours later showing that the warm front was followed by a cold frontal passage.

KUIL had classic signs of Warm front then cold Front passage.

I only had a few minutes to look at this event, it will be interesting to see what else you come up with!


Jay said...

Here is my story of a micro burst event:

I was under a pop-up tent teaching water quality to 5th graders in the Mercer Slough park at the Bellevue Natural Resources week, May 2005. It was a sunny warm day, clear sky. My talk was going well, at least I thought, when I felt a little breeze. My papers started to blow a little. Then Pop! The 10' x 10' tent was launched 70 feet into the air. We were all frozen as we watched the tent get launched into the sky, seeming to float there. It moved 20 feet horizontal before it came crashing down behind me. When we snapped out of our trance, we realized my papers where flying everywhere. We jumped into action picking them up. Only when we saw the tent crumpled nearby did we realize how close we were to being smashed by the tent weapon. The next year all the tents had large weights attached.

Walt Devaney said...

Replying to Roscoe,
"The entire NS was logged before ONP was designated."
I was always told that the area just around the July Creek Campground was not logged, it was the only old growth left along the NS. As recently as the 1990's the stand stood out from the younger trees around it. Not as obvious now.
I wonder if this difference contributed to the blowdown.

Roscoe said...

There are stumps on both sides of the NS road all the way from Highway 101 to the QR bridge. One factor to keep in mind is that logging was really high-grading, "keep the best, leave the rest", and 10" - 20" trees may have been too small and were left. So some of the down trees might have been leftovers. The point of discriminating from 'old growth' is that OG hemlock is often rotten in the core, and would play a role in the forces that lead to its failure during an event. 80-100 YO hemlock/spruce/fir are robust, sound trees. It would be perhaps more informative to know what happened to any of the spruce in the area, which have a much different failure "signature" in wind (the rarely snap, but rather uproot entirely).

Christopher Thomsen said...

Well, here is the bigger, and more importantly, metaphysical and philosophical question. Because the trees fell in a forest, and no one was there to see or hear them, did they make a sound?

John Beezer said...

Here's an image that describes the best explanation I could come up with. I don't know if it's OK to embed images? But here's a link ...

http://johnbeezer.com/images/quinault-theory.png

Two things to imagine ...

1. This seems like a situation where katabatic flow could occur ... cold air in the glacier fields above the lake can flow down the valley under the right conditions. So, imagine that there is a continuous flow of cold air down the valley, but under normal conditions there are no extreme events, just a constant flow of cold air down the valley.

2. Then imagine a leaf floating in the air and never quite falling to the ground. And it happens to be floating above the eastern end of Lake Quinault at about 1:30 in the morning. As a small compact low pressure center comes through, imagine the path that leaf might take as the shifting winds carry it in all directions over a short period of time. The path will form a tight loop.

So the graphic illustrates the constant flow of cold air down the valley with the blue lines and the path of the shifting winds is represented by the red lines.

The letters A, B, C & D indicate different conditions that ultimately contributed to the wind event.

A. Winds from the west flow directly up the valley and start pushing the normal flow of cold air in the reverse direction and back up the valley. A dense backed-up mass of cold air starts to form west of the lake and up the valley.

B. The wind stops flowing directly up the valley, and this allows the large blob of cold air to begin moving back down the valley. It's a little like a flash flood that's been dammed up and is now breaking free. And since the winds are now coming from the south, the cold blob of air is pushed to the north side of the valley as it begins its descent.

C. As the cold blob starts down the valley and picks up speed, the wind continues shifting to the east. Now, instead of holding up the blob, it's actually pushing the blob down the hill. And the terrain here is such that the blob gets pushed into a spiral-shaped valley to the north of the lake. As the blob gets pushed up the small side valley, it curves around to the south. And as the valley steers the cold blob of air southward, the wind also shifts southward. So at this point, there is a small dense blob of cold air that is being pushed by the winds all the way through (and up) the small valley north of the lake. It's barelling along at considerable speed now because gravity, wind and terrain have all been working together to accelerate it.

D. Finally, the dense, cold blob reaches the top of the small spiral valley and launches southward off the top end of it, almost like going off a ski jump. It is now suspended in air, above the ridgeline and catching a strong northerly wind, that will push it swiftly to the south. This heavy blob of air, now being pushed swiftly in a southerly direction, comes crashing down from a higher altitude onto the north shore of the lake, resulting in the very intense, yet highly localized zone of destruction.

I have no idea if this is actually realistic, but it seems plausible?

Icarus said...

Perhaps a combination of extreme pressure differences and an unusual temperature difference combined at the right time and place. Looking at the map it does appear as though there is a valley at that location that could have greatly increased the speed of the wind. We've lived in the forest for 42 years. Have seen trees blow down and snapped off. Nothing as big as an old growth tree though. Wind can do very strange things. Trees that look solid blow down, those that look like they will don't. We've had some winds here that come in powerful quick blasts when nothing is forecast. Terrifying. Like they have a life of their own and deliberate in purpose.

John Beezer said...

In point A, "west of the lake" should be "east of the lake". My apologies.

susan petty said...

Have they flown a drone over the area? I’m thinking explosion or meteor impact. Extremists practicing with explosives?

KAT Pedersen said...

Earthquake or seismic related gets my vote. I think some kind of wave caused them to twist. If you look there were 16 recent quakes in the NW of Wa. See what's close and I know they don't show little bits. I saw a note about some activity near a lake so that might be the cause when combined with the winds was enough to twist or topple he woods. Let me know what you figure out.

Kat

twodux said...

A Williwaw is as good a guess as any. They normally involve mountains and large bodies of water When wind comes over the mountain it shoots downward and gains intensity and speed resulting in violent downward gusts. I've been in several williwaws while commercial fishing in Alaska. One minute you are in sustained winds of 50-60 kts and the next thing a gust of 100 kts hits you and lays the boat over on it's side. Not a fun phenomenon to be caught in. I think Williwas happen in the Quinault valley fairly often in the grand scheme of things. Besides the Dec 2007 large event, back in the late 70s, maybe 78?, there was another occurrence that happened the second day of elk season that year. Our party had downed a couple elk the first day of elk season and we spent the second day packing them out in a huge storm. The group I was with were retrieving an elk from upper Falls creek near the lodge. We started hearing loud explosion like sounds and assumed it was thunder until we started seeing large old growth trees coming down. The sound was these trees snapping off. We got that elk quartered and got out of there as fast as possible. The same storm flattened a few acres of old growth on a nob across Fletcher Creek from the first big switchback in the trail.

Bry Oneil said...

Secureteam10 picked up the story
https://youtu.be/zxiQ8UREnyI

Patrick Cummins said...

Downslope windstorm in the lee of the Olympic peninsula mountains, i.e., the mountain ridge to the north/northwest of the tree fall area.

Shannon said...

Mulder and Scully should look into this. Extraterrestrial involvement is my guess :)

RebelMusic510 said...

It was not a microburst. I can tell you that. Also the last person to tell you the truth is a meteorologist. The trees were snapped at the strongest part of the tree. Not the roots. It was something else that brought these trees down.

Unknown said...

Trolls. They are bigger and don't care much about breaking trees. But I thought they were only in Sweden...

Christina Howard said...

I noticed the twist right away...I agree

nation of gandhis said...

ANY AERIAL RECONNAISSANCE? WOULD APPRECIATE ANY POINTERS THAT WAY. caps oops ;)

jackiesheldon said...

In the 2007 windstorm I lost over 50 trees on the Long Beach peninsula. The trees that fell were in a basket weave, so they were hazardous to cut, as they were spring loaded, due to the way they fell. Did these trees fall in a straight direction, or were they in a basket weave? Did they snap off, or did they fall with the root balls intact?

Unknown said...

So advanced radar shows no signs if microburst activity. Although I love bigfoot those trees were massive and looks like it was done instantaneously like a sonic blast.

Shawna L said...

geoengineeringwatch.org. They'll have answers for you.

Tom Cole said...

My guess- a localized flash tornado within the complimenting terrain topography,given the trees were broken and not uprooted as in a more common "blowdown event", of which I have experienced up close and personal while elk hunting on north Olympic peninsula in years past. A very scary event to be a participant....not to mention being quite the chore to extract from.