8 Reasons You Should Care About Washington Geology

8 Reasons You Should Care About Washington Geology…


A plume of steam, gas, and ash at Mount St. Helens in the early 1980s. Photo by Lyn Topinka, U.S. Geological Survey.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and landslides: these are all hazards that people living in Washington need to think about. Many geologists devote their careers to understanding this area’s myriad geologic hazards. Befriend your local geologist!


Drilling allows us to collect cores of rock from the subsurface. Photo by WGS (left) and Joshua Hicks, via Wikimedia Commons (right).

Construction of any building, road, dam, or other structure requires knowledge of the properties of the underlying rocks. Putting in good foundations means having a solid subsurface to build on. For example, tunneling to build a new road through unconsolidated or weak rocks could lead to a really bad day for commuters. Geologists use various techniques such as drilling of rock cores and geophysical methods to map the subsurface because they don’t have laser vision.


The Grande Ronde River Valley. Photo by Marli B. Miller.

Geologic landforms make good vacationing spots! Geology defines where mountains, valleys, waterfalls, hot springs and many other features will appear. Vacationing hot spots such as the Olympic Mountains, the Enchantments, and Mount St. Helens are popular because of the dramatic scenery produced by geologic activity.


Irrigation of fields often uses groundwater. Photo by Wonderlane, via Flickr, under Creative Commons License.

The availability of groundwater determines where we live and raise crops. Geology has a dramatic effect on where groundwater is found and where it isn’t. Sandy deposits are porous and hold water well. Liquids move very slowly through clay layers, making them a poor source of water. In western Washington, glacial sediments from the last ice age hold drinking water for millions of people.


Gravel Mining at the Scatter Creek Quarry, James Hardie Building Products. Photo by N. Damer.

Many of the roads we drive on and the vehicles we use rely on natural resources we extract from the Earth. One of the biggest industries in Washington is aggregate production, which includes the mining of sand and gravel as well as hard rock. Sands and gravels from glacial deposits are recycled into roads, buildings, and everything concrete.


The fertile hills of the Palouse region of eastern Washington. Photo by Lynn Suckow, via Wikimedia Commons.

Crops grow well in fertile soils. The types of soil found in a given location depend on the types of rocks nearby and the geologic processes that have been active in that area. For example, the Palouse region of eastern Washington has a thick layer of loess—fine, glacially-derived, windblown soil—that is very fertile, making the area a major wheat producer. Eastern Washington also has a thriving wine industry; grapes grow well in the well-drained soils above glacial flood deposits.


Rare earth elements must be mined for use in cell phones and other electronics. Photo by Terence Wright, via Flickr, under Creative Commons License.

Our now-indispensable smartphones, tablets, and computers are built with small amounts of precious metals such as silver, gold, and rare earth elements. These minerals must be mined, and the abundance and distribution of these mines depend upon the geology of a region. For example, fault zones can channel hot fluids that help concentrate certain elements, such as gold. Fun fact: Germanium mined in northeast Washington is used to build computer chips. Woohoo!


Mars, the red planet, has captured the human imagination for decades. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Did you know that we have better maps and imagery of the surface of Mars than we do of our own oceans? Before Washingtonians colonize Mars, geologists will first have to do lots more investigation. Understanding the geology of the planet is part of figuring out how we would survive there. Understanding other planets also helps us to understand how Earth formed.