The smug notion that the Pacific Northwest, compared to the rest of the quickly deteriorating occupied world, is some sort of geographic Safe Zone from natural calamities is laughably false.
SOME UNSETTLING NEWS for the many, many of you who are newly arrived: You might be a danger to yourself and others.
Pacific NW magazine writer Ron Judd, regionally known as the inventor of the pejorative but descriptive term “Left Lane Camper,” is a Puget Sound native and veteran Seattle Times reporter/columnist who will be dragging explanatory journalism to new depths by adding a quarterly humor piece to his repertoire. Send your caustic remarks, suggestions for story topics and favorite savory appetizer recipes to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is not necessarily your fault; it’s simply a result of your status as one of the more recently deposited lumps bobbing around near the surface of our big, bubbling Jet City Metroplex melting pot. In the interest of keeping you alive and vital at least until your stock options kick in or your product goes live, it might be useful to ponder a common misconception about life here in the country’s upper-left-hand Dismal Nitch:
The smug notion that the Pacific Northwest, compared to the rest of the quickly deteriorating occupied world, is some sort of geographic Safe Zone from natural calamities is laughably false. The opposite, in fact, is true. Danger swirls all about!
Look: We’re not trying to cause undue stress here (although a little never hurts). But on a planet rife with potentially deadly natural calamities (tornadoes; lightning storms; lethally poisonous spiders, snakes and Ivy League execs, to name just a few), it’s easy to get a false sense of security here in our humble cocoon of compost and kombucha. It’s true that, compared to most places from which people hail, Northwesterners — perhaps as compensation for stupid-high housing prices and left-lane campers — get something of a pass on imminent natural disaster.
But don’t get too comfortable.
Even local old-timers, e.g., those who know to order only the fried stuff first when standing in line at the Ivar’s fish window, have long been kidding themselves about how scary it should be to simply walk around this place.
Northwesterners are every bit the target for mortal demise as folks in, say, Fort Lauderdale or Dubuque. It’s just that the stuff that’ll get you in these parts is, sort of like the preferred traffic route from Ballard to I-5, far from obvious to most.
So: As part of our ongoing, indefatigable quest to A) provide a helpful public service, B) meet interglobal modern journalism Listicle Quotas and C) perhaps just ruin your Sunday, we hereby offer up a list of 10 Underappreciated Things in the Northwest That Possibly Could Kill You. (Note: These are listed in order not of likelihood, but in the sequence in which they occurred to us while waiting for a side of fried tots at the Lunchbox Laboratory in what used to be the Cascade Neighborhood.)
1) The Big 9.0 Quake, and Requisite Tsunami
Likelihood: Yah, sure, you betcha!
Unpleasant facts: If you haven’t heard about the Giant, Civilization-Flattening Earthquake for Which We Are LONG Overdue, you haven’t been paying attention. Most people know that a “subduction zone” quake is likely to occur here at some point. It will flatten most things above about 3 inches tall and then, just as a punctuation point, perhaps prompt a tremendous, destructive tsunami. The caveat is that the vaunted “point” of occurrence could be another 500 years from now, or somewhere around the end of this sentence. Either way, good luck with this! (If you think the fight over the last seat on the Metro Friday night was “Lord of the Flies” revisited, wait until we’re down to our last can of LaCroix.)
The bright side: Many of us have expressed a desire to take a “time out” from electronics. How does 17 years sound?
2) The Let’s-Go-Surfin’-Now-Everybody’s-Surfin’ Lahar, or Jökulhlaup
Likelihood: About 30 times greater than the Mariners ever winning a pennant.
Unpleasant facts: Lots of people worry about the violent, volcanic eruptions of mounts Rainier, Baker or Adams. Duly noted (see below), and yes; this is definitely something that should wake you up in a cold sweat at 4 a.m. tomorrow, says a friend who is a therapist and bills by the quarter-hour. But similarly catastrophic, noneruptive events — massive mud/ice debris flows with the consistency of wet concrete, called lahars — are far more likely, and could happen at any time simply because local mountains that have been shouldering millions of tons of crumbling rock and ice for eons simply get tired. Gravity-induced collapses on Rainier have created lahars that have launched thunderous, 400-foot walls of mud all the way to Puget Sound. Tens of thousands of people now live atop the pathways. Hello, Farmers?
The malcontent little cousin of the lahar is the Jökulhlaup, pronounced “Little Joe Cartwright,” and translating from the original (frozen) Icelandic tongue to either “glacial run” or “Nice knowin’ ya!” A jökulhlaup, not to be confused with Seahawks offensive lineman Luke Joeckel, is a giga-normous floodburst of water from a glacier, usually occurring during periods of unusually intense melting, or as we call that now in the Northwest, “summer.”
The bright side: You may claim your belongings in Commencement Bay.
Likelihood: Fair to middlin’.
Unpleasant facts: Full-on volcanic eruptions don’t occur often, but when they do, Oh, Holy Cow (see: Mount St. Helens, 1980). The Northwest as we know it was literally formed by millions of years of Earth-burps of lava and ash from the “Ring of Fire” volcanoes we now pay handsomely to slide upon. One of the largest events, the massive eruption of Mount Mazama in Oregon, occurred some 7,700 years before present, causing the massive peak to collapse upon itself, creating today’s Crater Lake. Fortunately, volcanic dyspepsia, which of course holds the capacity for spectacular regional damage, has been sporadic, with long spans of slumber between big blasts. But keep in mind that most nearby volcanoes within proximity of major population centers last got rowdy before there were any major population centers here, so the impact of a big one today is not easily predicted.
Rainier last erupted in the 1850s, although some belching was observed later in the century. Mount Baker erupted in the mid-19th century for the first time in a few thousand years; it’s still active enough to produce puffs of steam from Sherman Crater. Mount Adams hasn’t blown chunks for several thousand years. Mount Hood last did its thing a couple hundred years ago. Watch out for the underdog, Glacier Peak, which has erupted a half-dozen times in the past several thousand years. None of these is likely to wipe out Seattle, but if it does, take comfort in knowing that we all went out doing what we apparently love most — sitting in traffic.
The bright side: Puts all current squabbles about upzoning in laughable context.
4) Ash Cloud
Unpleasant facts: Most west-siders who lived through the St. Helens showstopper were barely inconvenienced, while our friends on the more-God-forsaken east side of the state were completely buried in layers of choking, gritty ash. (Sorry, folks; it’s gotta go somewhere.) But those billowing clouds of grit are a good reminder that dangers from our local volcanoes are multidimensional, and the stuff gives new meaning to long-distance flight. Volcanic ash clouds can blot out the sun, soar to the stratosphere and eventually circle the Earth. Your “duh” reminder of the day: If this occurs, try not to breathe the stuff. And keep in mind that the fine grit will destroy automobile engines, so be sure to line up a rental.
The bright side: Volcanic ash is certified gluten-free.
Unpleasant facts: These happen all the time, and are a reality of life and death in the mountains, particularly those subject to the wet snow and constant freeze/thaw cycles of near-sea ranges such as the Cascades and Olympics. The North and Central Cascades, in fact, are among the snowiest places on Earth. The world record for measured snowfall (snowfall depths in years before invention of rulers not applicable) was set in the winter of 1998-99 at Mount Baker: 1,140 inches, or 95 feet, in a single winter season. What piles up must come down, and all too often, thanks to gravity, this occurs all at once, in a single place. Obviously, the trick is to avoid being on, near or below it when this occurs. Avalanches are of primary concern to backcountry explorers, but also claim their share of cars and even homes in mountain areas.
The bright side: Not terribly likely to get you inside city limits, and unlike most natural calamities, very predictable. Those who stay home when advised by the Northwest Avalanche Center shall live long and prosper.
Likelihood: Higher than you like to think, which, once it strikes, you can’t do.
Unpleasant facts: Sadly, this is one of the most-common fatality facilitators in the region, thanks to the cold/damp winter climate. Most people get hypothermia by getting trapped outside, in the mountains or in the year-round icy waters of Puget Sound. But, you also could get it simply via exposure in any cold, damp place. Common signs of hypothermia are shivering, slurred speech or mumbling, lack of coordination, confusion and an inexplicable desire to listen to the Dori Monson talk-radio show. Keep your wits about you and dress accordingly, and this is something you will only read about in your favorite magazine.
The bright side: Proven long-term job security for goose-down/PrimaLoft merchants at Eddie Bauer, Columbia Sportswear, Marmot Mountain Works, Outdoor Research and other local companies.
7) Root/Trunk Rot
Likelihood: Scant, but you never know.
Unpleasant facts: Something is killing entire forests of trees in the Northwest from the roots up. What that is is not exactly clear, but the evidence is all around. Countless parks, campgrounds and other public spaces around the region have shut down in recent years because of stated concerns that “root rot” will cause trees to topple without warning on unsuspecting visitors. Whatever ails the trees, it’s just as likely to occur in, say, Volunteer Park as it is in the Icicle River of the Central Cascades, where a spate of root rot has shuttered campgrounds in the recent past. Anyone up for a Sunday afternoon hike?
The bright side: N/A.
8) Toxic Blue-Green Algae
Likelihood: Oh yeah.
Unpleasant facts: This naturally occurring phenomenon is on the rise in the Northwest, likely due to climate change. The green-blue scum forming on local lakes, often in late summer (although it can happen any time), can contain cyanobacteria that are toxic — and even fatal in high concentrations — when ingested by mammals, including us. The rub: Not all algae is toxic, the only way to tell is a lab test, and only a handful of known “trouble” spots are routinely tested. But be advised that poisonous toxins in concentrations higher than anywhere else on the planet have been observed in some places in the Northwest, such as Anderson Lake near Port Townsend. Steer clear when present, and keep your pooch out of the water.
Bright side: Um, nope.
9) The Wind, My God, The Wind
Likelihood: Somewhere over the Pacific, gaining strength and aiming for you at this very moment.
Unpleasant facts: No, we don’t often get tornadoes here, and hurricanes are something we only watch news anchors wade around in on TV. But the Northwest gets more than its share of typhoon-class windstorms, with gusts exceeding 100 mph. The most infamous in these parts, the Columbus Day Storm of 1962, was a remnant of Typhoon Freda. It produced winds in the Willapa Hills clocked at 160 mph, and along with the spectacularly heavy rains and mudslides common with such events, caused dozens of fatalities and $230 million in damage. (Yes, we know Jeff Bezos loses more than this in pocket change every time he meditates while strapped upside-down in one of his space rockets; back then, it was a lot of cash.) Similarly terrifying blasts hit Western Washington in 1991 and 1993, although none produced winds as high as the ’62 storm. So far.
Bright side: It really does air everything out.
10) The Dark, My God, The Dark
Likelihood: Extremely, indisputably, unequivocally, inarguably, certifiably high.
Unpleasant facts: The place many of us call home gets more darkness and less light for a good chunk of the year than anywhere else in the Lower 48 states. You could look this up, if you weren’t so depressed and stuck, standing there with a wall-mounted, full-spectrum daylight lamp and digital timer, trying to keep your vitamin D levels from slipping out onto the veranda and leaping off into the endless night. We kid, but we don’t kid. This won’t take you out with any of the swift cruelty of the events listed above, but it can prove no less debilitating to some of us.
Yes, it’s true that some recent research has cast doubt on the very concept of Seasonal Affective Disorder, the reputed physical/emotional illness stemming from the dank darkness. But one of the most-ballyhooed such studies came from Auburn University, in Alabama, which recently almost elected to the Senate a crazy guy walking around with a little Cowboy Bob hat and a six-shooter. So make of that what you will. And if the dark days start to get you down, just remember: You could live in Montgomery.
Bright side: Spring!
So, there you go. Welcome to the rat race. Keep the faith (and, for the love of God, put away that umbrella). Now that you’re well-versed in what might bring you down, every day you’re up is that much sweeter, no?
Parting thought: Keen observers will note that of the calamities listed above, a large percentage is more likely to occur if you go up in the mountains. Given that, those areas should be avoided entirely by the inexperienced. This greatly enhances your chance for survival to a well-seasoned state. And creates a lot more open space for the rest of us.