Sitka Spruce, Sea Stack, Rialto Beach, Olympic Peninsula, Washington.jpg

Sitka Spruce, Sea Stack, Rialto Beach, Olympic Peninsula, Washington

A lone Sitka spruce grew atop this sea stack, protected on its windward side by the crest of a 50-foot pillar that is the eroded remains of land uplifted by the movement of tectonic plates. On this spring day along Washington’s northwest shoreline, the earth was quiet and the seas calm; a 314-year reprieve from the most recent of violent earthquakes and tsunamis that shaped this region, and a seasonal break from winter’s heavy surf that annually erodes, and then rebuilds, this stony and driftwood mantled beach.

During the 2015-16 winter – a couple of years after this photograph was made – this coast endured a series of unusually intense storms fueled by a strong El Nino climate pattern. On March 13, 2016, an extratropical cyclone made landfall near Rialto Beach accompanied by 80-mile-per-hour gusts and 20-foot swells. Soon afterward, this ancient column was found toppled. An Olympic National Park physical scientist observed, “The coast is a constantly changing landscape. In contrast, the sea stacks are some of the few static features that don’t really change. This is the first time I’ve ever seen one entirely collapse.”

- James Baker