Snow angels on the beach, frozen dog water, and other rarities of this past week have got me to thinking about what we often take for granted - our amazing locale.

If there is anything to revitalize our interest in where we live, it appears to be the weather, or more specifically, weather anomalies. For those asking, "Why are we worried about global warming when we have freezing temperatures at the beach?" - I respond that people in the know are now talking about 'climate change,' rather than the oft misinterpreted 'global warming.'

Ricky Rood, a blogger on the Weather Underground site, puts it this way, "if the atmosphere gets stuck, a characteristic sometimes known as a "persistent anomaly," the air can take on more and more extreme characteristics [like these recent frigid conditions]. We believe, for sound physical reasons, that extreme events will get more extreme, persistent patterns of drought and flood will amplify. These changes in extreme events are consistent with persistent anomalies becoming more persistent."

In other words, get used to more surprises like spectacular winter beach walks - with sun glaring off the snowdrifts.

A few notes about our beaches, the beach berm is the term for the sand and other material comprising the active shoreline. Sand - which is generally made of particles of rock, minerals and shells - is a mixture unique for every beach. (Grains of sand can range in size from 1/16 of a millimeter to 2 millimeters. The next smaller size, in geological terms, is silt - particles smaller than 0.0625 mm down to 0.004 mm in diameter.)

Sand is moved and shaped primarily by the waves below the drift line (or high tide line, which moves inland in the winter) and by the wind above. Where wind is the force distributing sand, the inland deposit behind the beach becomes a dune. Our beach has a primary and secondary dune, with a low spot in between (which is called the 'beach profile'). These features protect us from the big winter storm surges - as can be clearly seen if you walk to Full Circle in Ocean Park on a winter high tide.

Because the access road is cut right through both the primary and secondary dunes to the beach, the storm waves surge right up the road. The drift-line came up to the 25 mph sign, nearly into the front yard of Gary and Colleen's restaurant.

Sand moves all the time. Notice that Kathleen Sayce said last week, "Winter beach profiles are short (narrow) and steeper than summer profiles. Also, small cliffs can emerge as sand moves off the beach into the nearshore water. Benson Beach usually sees cliffs, plus the quartz sand goes away and leaves the black sand behind for the winter."

George Kaminsky, coastal engineer for the Washington State Department of Ecology, has been studying the beach sand and its movements for decades. I reached him by phone a couple weeks ago because I wanted to know about the sand fences erected on Benson Beach. (Benson Beach, named after the American Steamer the Admiral Benson which grounded on Peacock Spit in the fog on Feb. 20, 1920, extends for two miles from the North Jetty to the rocky base of the North Head Lighthouse.)

Kaminsky says, "We've been studying the beaches for a long time and making shoreline predictions for the State Parks. The peninsula - especially the southern end - has been eroding now since the 50s and that process is continuing. The jetties, built in the early 1900s, have changed the distribution of sand on our peninsula."

"There is less sand [or silt] coming out of the Columbia so the beach sand is not being replenished. If the river were not dammed, there would still be large floods; but with no floods, there is no sediment moving onto our beaches."

Kaminsky goes on, "We'd like to be able to strategically use material dredged from the mouth of the river. But right now dredged material goes either to a shallow water site north of the river entrance and or to deep water where it is lost to the system."

"What we'd like to have is half a million cubic yards going onto the beach and the rest to the near shore area. It's perfectly good clean sand. But we are at a net loss."

And why can't the dredged material be used to support our beaches?

Kaminsky explains, "The Army Corps of Engineers have regulations that require the disposal of the material in the least costly way. Although it would save money to designate a site close to the beach and the mouth of the Columbia for a near shore disposal - and everyone including the Corps would like to see the end of the era of dumping sand into deep water - it's a complex situation. The biggest challenge is the concern about crab habitat and near-shore fishing grounds."

"But even if we used all the sand being dredged, it wouldn't be enough - we are losing our beaches."

Which is why there are sand fences on Benson Beach. The fences - built by the Washington State Department of Ecology's Coastal Monitoring and Analysis Program, with assistance from the Washington Conservation Corps - are made of wooden slats linked with wire and secured with stakes. Overtime, sand builds behind the fence and forms a dune. Theoretically, the fences will help keep the sand from being blown away back into the Columbia River.

Nature probably has a better way to do it, but we are managing the best we can. I can't help wondering though, why do we still see truckloads of sand being excavated and taken off our beaches?

It was no surprise to anyone that the Leadbetter Point Christmas Bird Count was cancelled.

According to Alan Richards, bird count chair, "We decided it was just too dangerous, especially for the people who needed to travel. We have a lot of members who drive from Seattle, Portland, Longiew, Cathlamet. The highways were just too icy and dangerous."

"This year we had 35 counters lined up and another five to six people who volunteered to do bird counts at their feeders. But we have to consider all the people who would have had to go back home after the count."

"I live in Naselle and we still have 15 to 20 inches of snow on the ground. And even today, the road from Naselle to Astoria - 11 miles - is still closed. We were all disappointed, but I got e-mails from people saying 'Thank you. We're happy to stay home and be warm.'"

"The count area is specified by Audubon Society rules and must be 15 miles in diameter or 176 square miles. This is a large area to cover and includes all the peninsula and both sides of Willapa Bay. And I heard from some people on the peninsula that on Saturday, the day we were supposed to have the count, the visibility was less than 200 yards."

"This is only the second time the Christmas Count has been cancelled since 1995."

For those of you who were disappointed by this year's Leadbetter Count cancellation, you'll be glad to know there are two more Christmas Bird Counts coming up in surrounding locations. The Wahkiakum Count takes place on Dec. 30 - for information, contact Andrew Emlen at 360-795-8009. The Cowlitz-Columbia Count, in the Longview-area, takes place on Jan. 1. For information on this count, contact Bob Reistroffer, 360-636-5125.

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