This year was going to be different. We worked some flexibility into the schedule, spending two nights each at most of our localities, giving us the chance to postpone a particular plan for a day to allow the weather to clear up. But on our second day out, I was worried. Ever since the longest ten-day forecast, a storm was brewing out in the Pacific Ocean, one that was arriving in waves over several days. We had given ourselves two days on the Olympic Peninsula, and rain was falling on Hurricane Ridge the first day, so we elected to go to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery instead. But that left us just one more chance to have a clear view at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. The sunrise (above) was not promising. According to the forecast, we would have a brief window of maybe three or four hours before the storm closed in, but we drove through light showers on the road up to the ridge.
… but we did! And no matter how many times I've been on Hurricane Ridge, nothing quite prepares me for the view from the end of the paved road. It is simply astonishing. As we emerged from the vehicles I felt the stress falling away, like dropping a particularly heavy load from my shoulders. We gathered the group and said a few words about the geology. We would save the longer presentations for later in the day down the hill. With an impending storm, I didn't want our students to miss any of the dramatic scenery. And it is dramatic.
The mountains exist because of subduction. For most of 200 million years a convergent boundary has been active in the region, as the crust of the Pacific Ocean basin has been sinking against the edge of the North American Continent. In some places, like California, the subduction zone has been replaced by a transform boundary (the San Andreas fault). But in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and part of British Columbia, the subduction zone is still active, still producing earthquakes, and still raising mountains. It's called the Cascadia Subduction Zone (from hence comes the name of this series).
|Source: Geological Society of America|
In a "normal" subduction zone, there are four parts: the trench, an accretionary wedge, a forearc basin, and a magmatic arc. The trench is the deepest part of the ocean floor where the oceanic crust sinks back into the mantle. The accretionary wedge is a collection of seafloor sediments and crust that has been scraped off the subducting plate and added to the edge of the continent. The forearc basin is a shallow sea that may develop inland of the accretionary wedge (California's Great Valley originated in this fashion). The magmatic arc is a system of volcanoes and intrusive plutons resulting from the melting of rocks in the lower crust and upper mantle above the descending slab (water released from the slab lowers the melting point of the rock, leading to the formation of the molten rock).
The geologic map reveals the basic structure of the Olympics. A "horseshoe" of basalt and sedimentary rocks (the Peripheral Rocks, or Crescent Formation) partially surrounds the "Core Rocks", an assemblage of lightly metamorphosed sandstone and shale layers. The Core Rocks are characteristic of the types of deposits that form from underwater landslides ("turbidity currents") within the trench and accretionary wedge of a subduction zone. The fact that these rocks are now thousands of feet above sea level is the interesting conundrum. Accretionary wedges are generally below sea level, or exist as small islands. They can be pushed higher. For instance, the rocks of the Cascadia accretionary wedge are exposed in the Coast Ranges of Washington, Oregon and California, but nowhere are the exposures as spectacular as the Olympic Mountains.
We could easily observe the glaciers that scour the upper reaches of the mountains. Glaciers technically shouldn't exist here. Although we were at a high enough latitude, the nearby Pacific Ocean moderates the climate, keeping things warmer than they would otherwise be (the Olympics are at the same latitude as Great Falls, Montana, or St. Paul, Minnesota). But temperature isn't the only factor in glacier development. The sheer amount of snowfall in combination with temperatures that are just cold enough allows glaciers to exist at these unusually low elevations.