Today’s sand sample is from Clatsop Beach, Oregon, on the Pacific Northwest coast of the US. Last summer I spent several months modelling sediment transport at the mouth of the Columbia River with the US Geological survey, and had the great privilege of making a site visit at the end of my stay.
Working in partnership with Oregon State University and the Washington State Department of Ecology, I assisted with a topographic survey of the beaches surrounding the Columbia. Half the team surveyed the submerged parts of the beaches via jetski, and my group walked transects across the beach and up the dunes using backpack-mounted GPS units.
Starting at far-too-early-in-the-morning, our team split off individually, and I had an entire kilometers-long stretch of the beach to myself until almost lunch time, when we reconvened. I love long walks on the beach and take great pleasure in that sort of solitude in nature, and it was even cooler to do that while collecting data that could help the project I was working on. The digital computer model I had worked on all summer was now suddenly a real place where I could feel the sand between my toes.
Gold in Them Hills
The sand at this beach is interesting because of the black grains we see scattered throughout. This sediment is made of minerals like chromite, magnetite, and garnet, which are heavier than the whitish quartz grains we see around them. These deposits, known as “placers”, were transported to the sea from the mountains inland by the Columbia River. They form on the beach because lighter minerals like quartz are preferentially sifted out by waves and currents, leaving more of the dense particles behind. This even includes trace amounts of gold! Can you see any in the photograph below?
At the end of our survey, I walked along the beach to check out a surprising object emerging from the sand: the wreck of the Peter Iredale, a sailing ship that ran aground there in 1906:
Known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific“, the mouth of the Columbia is truly a “killer ebb-tidal delta”: huge waves and powerful currents meet violently, and have caused dozens of shipwrecks over the past few centuries. This makes effective management of the sediment there crucial for safe navigation, keeping the shipping channel dredged clear and disposing of the sediment in environmentally-friendly, cost-effective, and useful ways.
Strategic placement of this dredged sediment was the focus of my time at USGS last summer, but I will delve into that more in a future post!