Exploring the Effects Wind Has on our Forests

By Kyle Smith, Washington Forests Manager

Early morning on Oct. 12, 1962 , one of the most powerful and destructive windstorms in recorded Pacific Northwest history hit Washington, Oregon and Northern California. The “Columbus Day Storm,” or “Big Blow” as it was soon to be called, was a result of the after-effects of Typhoon Freda that began out in the Pacific Ocean.  

Blowdown from Columbus Day storm that happened October 12, 1962. Hebo Ranger District, Siuslaw National Forest, Oregon. Photo by Wally C. Guy

Near our Ellsworth Creek Preserve in Southwest Washington, wind gusts on Oct. 12 exceeded 160 miles per hour, snapping trees like toothpicks and blowing over thousands of acres of forest up and down the coast. Twelve hours later once the winds receded, 46 people had died, 1 million people were without power and an estimated 15 billion board feet of timber was blown down.

Wind and Forests

In Western Washington, and more specifically within 30 miles of the Pacific Ocean, wind is the primary natural disturbance for our westside forests. Much like how forest fires are the natural disturbance in Eastern Washington forests, wind is one of the largest drivers that shapes our PNW forests and their ecology.

Each year, the coast receives one to four major wind events exceeding 60 miles per hour with Category 5 hurricane force winds (greater than 158 mph) typically occurring on average every 25 years. Notable windstorms over 100-plus miles per hour occurred in 1880, 1921, 1962, 1979, 1981, 1990, 2002, 2007, 2015 and 2016. These wind events normally come during the fall and wet winter months when the soils are saturated with rain and trees are easily blown over in large swaths like during the Columbus Day storm or in pockets when wind microbursts hit the forest.

Ellsworth Creek project at Willapa Bay in Washington. Photo © Harley Soltes

The after-effects of these storms leave clues of the history of disturbance in the forest. Trees such as Western hemlock and Sitka spruce thrive growing on blown over trees from windstorms. These logs on the forest floor are known as nurse logs, as they provide a rich organic and saturated substrate where seeds can germinate.

Nurse log in Washington state. © The Nature Conservancy

Being raised off the forest floor in the dense vegetation of the coast environment, nurse logs also gives these seedlings a fighting chance against the competition for light with other shrubs and plants that dominate the forest floor. As these trees grow and mature, you can spot the rows of trees known as a forest colonnade and see where the nurse log has decayed beneath the trees and left the trees standing on their own root stilts.

Come out for a hike in our forest preserves on the Washington Coast including the Hoh Recreation and Conservation Area and the Ellsworth Creek Preserve and see for yourself the effects of wind and rain and how these elements shape the forest ecology of the Washington Coast — but don’t forgot to bring a raincoat.