IN OUR RAPIDLY changing cityscape — where viaducts may crumble, buildings may tumble and residents surely grumble — we depend on increasingly fewer fixed points to ground us (Pike Place Market is here to stay). Out on the coast, however, even the points of reference that we perceive as immutable can give way in our lifetimes.
Today’s example is one of the tough rock spires whittled from coastal bluffs and headlands, surely noted by sea captains Cook, Bodega y Quadra, Gray and Vancouver and other meticulous 18th-century mapmakers who sought an elusive Northwest passage and maritime shortcut between Europe and China.
The spires are known as sea stacks. In a landscape slashed and walloped by wind and tide, they generally stand as unyielding sentinels of things past.
Our “Then” photo is one of many I’ve taken at Rialto Beach north of the mouth of the Quillayute River near La Push. It features an intact sea stack, one of many that my extended family has appreciated as we combed the coasts of the Olympic Peninsula for more than 50 years.
Late last summer, however, we initially were oblivious as we passed the jumbled slabs of rock captured in our “Now” photo. Negative space, we discovered, can be hard to comprehend — in particular, the loss of structures of such seeming permanence.
But after a momentary loss of bearings and a literal double take, we noted that one of our reference points — a singular pillar emerging from eroded, softer soils over hundreds of years — had toppled into rubble. Just when did this happen? And was it a rare event?
For answers, I turned to Bill Baccus, the Olympic National Park’s physical scientist. After nearly 35 years, he works in the “vital signs” program, which monitors the parks’ ecosystems over time. His patrols range from remote mountain lakes and glaciers (nearly half of which were lost to global warming during his tenure) to the outer coast’s intertidal zones.
“The coast is a constantly changing landscape, especially in terms of morphology,” he said. “One month, the beach will be totally scoured. You’ll see exposed rocks you haven’t seen for months or years. The next thing you know, the sand or gravel has returned. In contrast, the sea stacks are some of the few static features that don’t really change over time. This is the first time I’ve ever seen one entirely collapse.”
Baccus first noted this stack’s demise in June 2016. He surmises that it must have occurred during an especially violent series of storms the previous winter. The precise date, however, is unknown. We invite readers who regularly visit Rialto Beach to submit an earlier photo of our tumbled spire.