Photo Friday: Glaciers Smile Down on Electric Ferries

In late April 2018, Washington State Ferries (WSF), the operator of the largest fleet of ferries in the United States, announced plans to convert the three largest boats in its fleet to electric power. WSF uses 18 million gallons of diesel fuel each year, more than any other consumer in Washington state. Consequently, it is also the largest producer of greenhouse gases in the state’s transportation system, generating 73 percent of annual emissions. 

Washington is the second most glaciated state in the US. One of the most common routes taken by the three ferries to be converted is between Seattle and Bainbridge Island, with the snowy peaks of Mount Baker and Mount Rainier visible to passengers on the route. Washington also has glaciers in the Olympic Mountains and the North Cascades. 

WSF plans to swap two of four diesel engines in its Jumbo Mark II ferries for battery packs, which will power the motors needed for propulsion. The changes to the first boat will be largely funded with money from a federal settlement with Volkswagen as a result of its 2015 violation of the Clean Air Act. 

Assistant Secretary Amy Scarton and Director of Vessel Engineering and Maintenance Matt von Ruden with one of the batteries that will be used. 
Source: WSF

The three Jumbo Mark II ferries, Puyallup, Tacoma, and Wenatchee, were chosen to be the first converted because they are the largest boats in the fleet and are responsible for 26 percent of WSF’s fuel consumption. The vessels each have a carrying capacity of 202 cars and 1,800 passengers. They are due for 20-year propulsion system replacements so the changes can be made with few impacts on ferry service. Additionally, the ferries are relatively young and can be used for another 30-40 years. The list goes on, including benefits like reducing engine noise to decrease disruptions to marine life, increasing engine reliability, and decreasing ferry operation costs. 

Washington State Department of Transportation officials estimate that converting all three ferries will be equivalent to taking more than 10,000 cars off the road. 

Until WSF can have charging infrastructure installed, the two remaining diesel engines will charge the batteries. The hybrid system will still reduce emissions. Ian Sterling, a spokesperson for the state ferries, told the Daily Herald that “It will take a long time to be all-electric, but that’s ultimately where we want to be.” Once charging stations are operational, charging times will only take about twenty minutes. 

All of these benefits come with a learning curve; the batteries will need to be replaced every four to five years and crews will need to master the new technology. Nevertheless, WSF aims to have 22 of 26 vessels in its fleet operating as plug-in hybrids by 2040.

Photo Friday: Mount Baker Is Letting Off Some Steam

Mount Baker, an active glacier-covered stratovolcano, is part of Washington’s North Cascades Mountain Range. Standing tall at an elevation of 10,781 feet (3,286 meters), Mount Baker is the highest peak in the North Cascades. Stratovolcanoes––like Baker’s neighbor, Mount St. Helens––are infamous for their highly explosive eruptions, which are often accompanied by hazardous pyroclastic flows, lava flows, flank failures, and devastating mudflows called lahars.

Last week, Mount Baker began venting steam from Sherman Crater, which is situated close to the mountain’s peak. In response, several people took to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, sharing photos and videos of the steam plume. This event prompted some to ask the question: Could Mount Baker be poised to erupt?

The Washington State Emergency Management Division was quick to respon, in an attempt to quell any fears about an imminent eruption.

At openings on the volcano’s surface called vents, various gases can be released at any time, even continuously, and do not have to be connected to eruptions. A combination of good weather, light winds, and the position of Sherman crater near Mount Baker’s peak made for perfect conditions to observe this plume.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) categorizes Mount Baker’s eruption potential as “very high,” the agency’s highest category. To determine a volcano’s threat level, the USGS assesses exposure of people and property to potentially fatal volcanic hazards like pyroclastic flows and lahars. Volcanoes in the “very high” category “require the most robust monitoring coverage.”

Increased seismic activity is a telltale sign of an upcoming eruption. The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) and Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) are in charge of operating stations that can measure earthquakes as small as magnitude 1.0. At Mount Baker and several other high-risk volcanoes in the United States, however, monitoring is currently insufficient. Volcanoes in the two-highest categories should have 12-20 permanent seismic stations within 12.4 mi (20 km); Mount Baker has only two.

Despite these deficits in monitoring, PNSN and CVO detected no increase in seismic activity occurring alongside the plume––in fact there has been no recent seismic activity recorded in the area at all. Considering this lack of seismic activity, Mount Baker’s steam plume is likely nothing short of business as usual.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Photo Friday: Popocatépetl, Mexico’s Glacier-Covered Volcano

Photo Friday: These Glacier-Covered Volcanoes in Chile Could Soon Erupt

Images Show Active, Glacier-Covered Volcanoes in the Russian Far East

Roundup: Mysteries, Past and Present, Abound

Climate Experts Removed from Zuckerberg Delegation

From the Washington Post: “Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg flew to Glacier National Park on Saturday to tour the melting ice fields that have become the poster child for climate change’s effects on Montana’s northern Rockies. But days before the tech tycoon’s visit, the Trump administration abruptly removed two of the park’s top climate experts from a delegation scheduled to show him around, telling a research ecologist and the park superintendent that they were no longer going to participate in the tour.”

Read more about this unusual move here.

Grinnell Glacier basin in Glacier National Park (Source: Tim Rains/National Park Service).

 

Water Rights Hold Up Washington State Budget

From the Seattle Times: “$4 billion in new construction projects and money for a few hundred state jobs still hang in the balance while the capital budget has been held up by a dispute over water rights. Senate Republicans say they won’t pass a capital budget without legislation aimed at overturning a recent state Supreme Court known as the Hirst decision. That ruling effectively limited the use of new domestic wells in certain rural areas when they may harm senior water rights.”

Read about the complexities of this issue here.

The state capitol in Olympia, Washington (Source: John Colella/Creative Commons).

 

Retreating Glaciers Solve a Family Mystery

From The Telegraph: “The frozen bodies of a Swiss couple who went missing 75 years ago in the Alps have been found on a shrinking glacier, Swiss media said on Tuesday. Marcelin and Francine Dumoulin, the parents of seven children, had gone to milk their cows in a meadow above Chandolin in the Valais canton on August 15, 1942.”

Read about what this means to one of the couple’s surviving children here.

The couple’s remains were found on Tsanfleuron Glacier (Source: MattW/Creative Commons).

 

 

Glacier Counties in Washington Give Strong Support to Sanders

You’ve heard of red states and blue states–but what about glacier states and non-glacier states?

Most political analysis focuses on voters’ age, gender, race, or other demographic characteristics. But looking at voter proximity to glaciers is also a fascinating metric. In fact, last weekend’s caucuses in Washington state point towards an association between glaciers and support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. In counties with glaciers in them, Sanders scored almost three percentage points higher on average than he did across the entire state.

County map of Washington, with locations of major glacier peaks Baker, Rainier and Adams indicated by their initial letters (source: Washington Office of the Secretary of State)
County map of Washington, with locations of major glacier peaks Baker, Rainier and Adams indicated by their initial letters (source: Washington Office of the Secretary of State)

Sanders performed well in Washington state overall, receiving 72.7 percent of the vote, much as he has done in the other states with glaciers (Colorado 58.9 percent, Alaska 81.6 percent). In fact, Clinton, despite her wins in a number of other states and her lead in the delegate count overall, has so far failed to defeat Sanders in a state with glaciers. The only exception is Nevada, in which she achieved a small majority, 52.6 percent. Since this state contains only one tiny glacier, Wheeler Peak Glacier, with an area just over 0.01 square kilometers, its results may not seriously challenge this possible relation between glaciers and support for Sanders.

To explore this relationship in greater detail, GlacierHub examined the results at the county level in Washington. We decided to focus on the state’s three most glaciated peaks, Mt. Rainier (88 square kilometers of glaciers), Mt. Baker (49 square kilometers) and Mt. Adams (24 square kilometers), since we hypothesized that this association would be weaker for smaller glaciers.

(source: Washington State Democrats)
(source: Washington State Democrats)

These three glaciers all straddle the borders between counties. We used this information to establish a set of six glacier counties (Whatcom and Skagit at Mt. Baker, Lewis and Pierce at Mt. Rainier, Yakima and Skamania at Mt. Adams). We use the term “non-glacier counties” for the other 33 counties in the state.

The county-level results tabulated by the Democratic Party in Washington show that Sanders outperformed his main rival, Hillary Clinton, with particular strength in these glacier counties. The proportion of caucus participants in these counties who cast their votes for him ranged from 73.3 percent in Pierce County to 90.2 percent in Skamania County. These figures are all higher than Sanders’ lead in the state as a whole, which is 72.7 percent. Taken as a set, 75.4 percent of the caucus participants in these six glacier counties voted for him. (A two-tailed chi-square test indicates that this association is significant at the p <.01 level.)

Continuing to drill down on this question, GlacierHub examined preliminary caucus returns from one glacier county, Skagit County, the only glacier county for which these results are available, and found that they support the relationship as well. The caucuses pick delegates to upcoming county conventions, as one step in a long process that leads to the final selection of the state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Candidates were awarded the proportion of delegates from a caucus that corresponds to their percentage of support at that caucus.

As shown by data provided to GlacierHub by Bob Doll, chair of the Skagit County Democrats, the votes of 3818 residents at 17 caucuses determined the allocation of 438 delegates, with 73.5 percent going to Sanders. The proportion was higher—82.4 percent—in Concrete and Rockport, the two caucus sites closest to Mt. Baker.

These findings can invite speculation of factors that could have caused them: perhaps the residents of the areas closest to glaciers are concerned about the changes in streamflow associated with glacier retreat, or its effects on tourism, in ways that might influence them to favor one candidate over another. It might be that the immediate visibility of climate change’s effects influenced their voting patterns.

To be sure, this association might not reflect any specific glacial influence. The glacier counties have a higher proportion of white residents than the state as a whole (78.9 percent vs. 77.3 percent), a population among whom Sanders is widely recognized to do well. Moreover, these are rural counties, another region that has tended to support Sanders. Or perhaps the residents of these counties might identify with Sanders as a fellow mountain resident, since his state, Vermont, is one of the most mountainous states in the country with the smallest proportion of its territory in flat areas. (In contrast, his home borough, Brooklyn, may be judged the least mountainous of New York City’s five boroughs, since it has the lowest high point, but this fact may not loom large for Washingtonians, many of whom do not have a detailed knowledge of the city’s topography.)

We may gain some insight to this relationship later this spring, when caucuses and primaries, with hundreds of delegates at stake, will be held in several other glacier states, including Montana, Oregon, and California. In the meantime, there is at least one piece of anecdotal evidence that points to the importance of glaciers in Washington State. As the attached image shows, a Washingtonian, preparing for activity at a caucus, noticed that the state’s highest peak had emerged from the clouds which usually surround it, and paused to record the view that she saw. The words that she chose to describe this moment—playful as they may be–attribute an awareness to the mountain. Perhaps such engagements with the natural world could play a role in voting, and in other political action as well.