Our second trip was to the Pacific Northwest, in May 2001. Here we saw ecosystems ranging from rainforests to deserts, from the coast to the mountains. A central theme of the trip was the endangered salmon fisheries of the area, and we saw smolt out migrating through urbanized estuaries in Seattle, and adults in the fish ladders in the controversial Snake River dams. We also saw major irrigation projects, logging sites, saw mills, big volcanoes, beautiful waterfalls, and the desolate Hanford reservation, where the federal government is attempting to clean up the contamination caused from decades of plutonium production. Below you can click on any area to see photos from the trip.
Read more about the trip in these articles:
Eastern Washington's climate is in stark contrast to that in the western part of the state. Dry coulees, eroded into thick basalt flows by catastrophic glacial floods, alternate with irrigated areas, generally developed on patches of glacial loess that were not eroded away by the floods. The view of Moses Coulee, above, gives some idea of the nature of the area prior to development. Dry falls, below, was the world's largest waterfall during the Ice Age floods. That these floods occurred was first recognized by Albion College Alumnus, J Harlan Bretz.
Our tour began in the Grand coulee area. We camped at Steamboat rock, a basalt mesa in the coulee. Several students took the trail up the basalt cliffs to view the sunrise. The tiny speck at the top of the cliff below is Ben.
A major environmental issue in the Columbia Basin is the effects of the dams on the river's ecology, especially on the salmon that once were the basis of the Native American's economy. We visited the Grand Coulee, Ice Harbor, Dales and Bonneville Dams.
The fish ladder at the Dales dam (above) and Native American fishing platforms in the shadow of the dam (below) show the stark contrast between traditional and modern approaches to the environment of the river.
All of the dams have windows for counting fish passing up through the ladders. This salmon has made it all of the way up to the Ice Harbor dam on the Snake River.
Our last views of the Columbia basin were in the Columbia Gorge, where the river has cut through the Cascade arch. The tremendous erosive capability of the river has created a spectacular gorge, with magnificent waterfalls where lesser streams meet the Columbia.
We spent a day touring the Hanford Reservation in south central Washington. This was the location of the Manhattan Project's efforts to develop the plutonium bomb during WWII, and remained the site of plutonium production during the cold war. Today it is the site of the most expensive environmental remediation effort in history as the Department of Energy and their contractors attempt to deal with a half century's accumulation of highly toxic and radioactive wastes related to the production and processing of plutonium.
This is the "B" reactor, the first building constructed to be a nuclear reactor. (Enrico Fermi and co-workers hid behind a mountain several miles away when it was first activated). It is one of several reactors on the site. All lack the containment structures we associate with commercial reactors. In these reactors uranium was converted to plutonium via a process of neutron capture.
This is one of the "canyons", totally enclosed buildings in which plutonium-bearing fuel rods were dissolved in acid and processed to separate plutonium from remaining uranium and other isotopes. Because of the radioactivity of the rods, the process was totally enclosed and remotely manipulated.
This is the location of one of the million gallon storage tanks into which the caustic and radioactive waste from the chemical processing was pumped. Unfortunately, many of these tanks have leaked, and contaminated the groundwater with radioactive isotopes. One bizarre problem in the area is that plants such as tumbleweeds (against the fence in the foreground) send tap roots down to the contaminated water, and become themselves contaminated with isotopes such as strontium -90. The bulk of the tanks have been pumped out, but a radioactive and toxic sludge remains in many, and it is unclear how best to deal with this.
In sum, this visit was a sobering experience for us all.
Our last stops were at Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier, two of the Cascade Ranges great strato-volcanoes. The picture above shows St. Helens from the south side; the surrounding countryside appears much as it did prior to the 1981 eruption. The picture below is of the north side of the volcano, and shows the devastation that resulted from the lateral blast of the volcano...two decades earlier!
Students emulate the eruption, below.
Mt. Rainier gave us a view of what St. Helens looked like prior to the eruption; St Helens gave us a sobering idea of the potential for devastation in Rainier. We were blessed with excellent weather on this part of the trip. The tops of the mountains are cloud free only 30-40% of the time. But too much snow remained on the trails for us to hike to see the glaciers on Rainier.
So, as Derek says, below, that was all, folks!