Saturday, March 26, 2016

Should Seattle Close Its Parks During Windstorms?

There's nothing a Pacific Northwest meteorologist likes more than a big windstorm. Flooding rains are interesting, but they make for terrible skiing (something many meteorologists like to do!) and are not nearly as vicious and intense as a windstorm. Snowstorms are awesome because they are so rare, and there's nothing more beautiful than Seattle with a fresh coat of snow on it, but they still lack the intense cyclogenesis that weather geeks rave about. I personally prefer snowstorms to windstorms (skiing down a hill is more fun than living without power), but when it comes to weather events that meteorologists go ga-ga over, windstorms generally take the cake.

However, I'm beginning to feel a little apprehensive about wishing for these big windstorms. It seems like every windstorm that hits us results in at least one tragic fatality. Recently, most of these have been due to falling trees, but I recall back during the Hanukkah Eve Storm that the majority of deaths were actually due to carbon monoxide poisoning in the days after the storm, as people left their generators running inside their homes and carbon monoxide built up throughout the house. Regardless, I am no fan of any windstorm when it results in loss of life. Damage is inevitable, but loss of life can usually be avoided.

The windstorm on March 13th killed somebody in Seward Park when they were crushed by a falling Douglas Fir, and this has sparked concerns over whether Seattle should close its parks during these windstorms. One of my friends actually went to Seward Park to go storm chasing, and although he planned to get there well ahead of the storm and set up in an area clear of trees, the storm moved faster than expected and he got there right about the time that this fatality occurred. Many trees were down throughout the park, and based on the damage, he estimated that gusts were reaching 55-60 mph. He recorded a gust to 49 mph, so winds above the surface impacting the trees were likely higher.

Credit: Seattle Times

On Thursday, I read an interesting article in the Seattle Times. The article stated that while many other parks and cities close their parks when severe weather strikes, Seattle does not. Seward Park remained open throughout the storm, while other parks like Olympic National Park closed well before the storm hit and others like Point Defiance Park in Tacoma closed as soon as the winds picked up. This begs the question: does it make sense to close parks in Seattle like Seward Park when the winds get too high? Or is this not necessary, and should we let people decide on their own if they want to go to parks during a storm?

My opinions are mixed. I identify as a liberal who likes small government. I am not a libertarian by any means, but in my opinion, government and public agencies should be as streamlined and efficient as possible while still fulfilling certain basic needs. I don't consider deciding whether to keep parks open or not a basic need. On the other hand, organizations like the Washington State Department of Transportation close roads when they are deemed unsafe (ex: the 520 bridge, which was closed during the height of this storm). The Coast Guard can close certain ports to prevent ships from going out if there are rough ocean conditions. The Forest Service can close certain trails, like they did last summer with the Big Four trail near Mt. Baker due to people illegally venturing into the ice caves there and being killed by collapsing ice. So, why shouldn't Seattle Parks and Recreation close certain parks during severe weather?

Credit: Washington Trails Association

It would be hard to enforce these closures, especially on places like the Burke-Gilman trail, which according to UW professor Cliff Mass is one of the most hazardous places to be in a windstorm. So I don't think that closing the parks is the most efficient way to go about solving this problem.

Cliff Mass actually got to this topic before I did, and he suggested that Seattle develop a "Seattle Environmental Hazard App" that would warn you of any threats of severe weather based on your exact location. I think this would be a good idea, and if it is done I'd definitely check it out.

However, at this point, I think the main thing we should be doing is educating people about what to do during severe weather. People should know not to drive or walk in areas with lots of trees when there is high wind, and they should not be out in small boats. For example, last spring, a group of kayakers were caught unaware by strong westerly winds coming down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, even though models predicted the winds perfectly. And that's another thing - we need to be better at communicating what the weather forecast is to the public (I could write a dozen blogs about this).

The number one weather-related killer in the Pacific Northwest is roadway ice, and it is how I almost died while traveling near Blewett Pass when I was 5 years old. But with our large, shallow-rooted trees and often-saturated soils, falling trees are a real danger to lives and property, and we must be better at limiting the frequency of these tragic deaths, because we have had far too many over the past year.

Rest in peace.

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