Friday, November 25, 2011

Gulf Coast Pure Quartz Sand

On a recent trip to Pensacola Beach, I was amazed at how truly white the sands are on this stretch of the Gulf Coast.  I grew up on the light ruddy brown sand beaches of southern California, refreshed as they are from the crystalline rocks of the Transverse and Peninsula Rages, until recently (geologically speaking) sand delivery was somewhat hampered by flood control efforts.  I now live near the shore of the gray sand beaches of Puget Sound, supplied nonstop by eroding bluffs of glacial outwash sands.  The sands of the Gulf Coast beaches were formed from the wearing down of the Appalachian Mountains, which began their rise some 480 million years ago.  The Gulf of Mexico opened up some 300 million years ago.  The rivers in this neighborhood stopped bringing sand some tens of thousands of years ago.  In sort of a reverse of the Bowen's reaction series, the other mineral grains (e.g. olivines, pyroxenes, amphiboles, mics, and feldspars) weathered and wore down to miniscule particles leaving the highly resistant quartz grains.  This reversal is known as the Goldich dissolution series.  The sand here is almost pure quartz, blindingly white when massed as an endless Gulf Coast beach.
I did see some Deep Horizon oil spill cleanup crews patrolling the beaches in ATVs and just offshore in small skiffs.  I didn't see any evidence of oil spill during my brief beach walks.  I'm sure the oil is out there somewhere lurking.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


For all of you, like me, who have fitfully started keeping a travel journal only to give up around the second day of the trip.  Here's the book for all you erstwhile journalists filled with effective techniques to efficiently maintain a journal without missing a thing on your trip.  Cover the highlights, cut the flab, five a day, and many other techniques presented.  Maybe of real importance is how to elude your inner self as a way toward self-discovery.  I consumed this whole book on a recent flight from Seattle to Dallas-Fort Worth on my way to Pensacola for some project work.  It helped to not have a window next to my window seat; really an annoying let down for any geologist to not have the ability to gaze down at the landscape.  Just a heads up, Seat 10A on an American 737-800 has no window.  At least I got in a lot of reading on that flight.  As it turned out, I kept a journal for the whole week except the last day.  As the book points out, it's OK to go back and journal a long past trip.  Please enjoy this book and don't let another journey go undocumented in your journal.  Start now!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Coal Trains Running

As I've mentioned in prior posts, I live about 700 feet form the shore of Puget Sound as the Northwestern Crow flies.  Along this shoreline the tracks of the BNSF Railway snake their way from Ballard to Bellingham, never straying too far from the water along this stretch.  I like trains and I like watching them as I stroll along the beach; Canadian lumber heading south, Everett's trash heading to the big landfill in Klickitat County, and the Amtrak Cascades carrying its passengers between Vancouver and Eugene.  It is a small hazard to cross over the double-tracks to clamber down the rip-rap to the beach.  The passenger trains are fast and quiet compared to the freight trains.

In the planning works is a proposed bulk terminal to go in up at Cherry Point, just north of Bellingham in Whatcom County.  The project is known as the Gateway Pacific Terminal and the developer is SSA Marine Services, one of the largest shipping terminal operators and stevedores in the world.  The main bulk product planned for shipment out of this facility is coal extracted from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.  The destination for this coal is China.  Why does China want our coal when they have an abundant supply?  The main answer to that question is well explained in this paper: China's Coal Import Behavior.  Basically, it's cheaper for China to buy coal from the Powder River Basin than it is to transport it across China's shaky infrastructure from mine to user.

So why do I care?  Well, on a very local level, there will be increased train traffic along "my" beach and through my bucolic home town of Edmonds.  It potentially means 18 more round-trip trains per day (Everett Herald 5-26-11) and these are long trains, up to a mile and a half.  Whether that ever actually comes to pass is really uncertain given the fickle nature of commodity prices, the instability of coal exports, and whether China finds it cheaper at some point to use their own coal.  China really controls the world coal market now.  Coal export instability and an ill-fated coal bulk terminal at the Port of Los Angeles is discussed here:  Sightline Daily -The Instability of Coal Exports II.

The economics and potential job creation of the Cherry Point project are relevant and must be considered.  However, on a world scale, the generation of carbon dioxide from coal burning and the potential health effect of coal dust generated from a bulk terminal operations and train transport must also be considered.  It will be an interesting couple of years or so as this project plays out.  The opposition has created a website with many good articles and resources here:  Coal Train Facts

On another local level in Whatcom County, Dan McShane discusses the politics (reluctantly) and other implications of the Cherry Point project in his excellent and prolific blog Reading the Washington Landscape.  Some of his Cherry Point related posts:

Kelli Linville: Clearly Opposed to Coal 11-4-11
Coal Politics in Bellingham: Yuk 10-21-11
Coal Stories - Including a Link Showing Local Coal Politics at Work 7-27-11
Coal Politics Comes to Washington and Wonky Process and Diplomacy (update) 6-28-11
Coal Terminal Preemptive Strike 2-28-11

I leave you with the Doobie Brothers: