The North Pacific Coast

United States Geography

Cold, clear mountain streams tumble down rock-strewn courses. The destination: a rugged, unused coastline where precipitous, fog-enshrouded cliffs rise out of pounding surf. Mountains are visible in the distance--lofty, majestic, covered with snow. Tall needleleaf evergreens cover the land between with a mantle of green. Cities, where they exist, give the impression that they are new. This is America's North Pacific Coast, or more popularly, the Pacific Northwest --the coastal zone that stretches from northern California through coastal Canada to southern Alaska.

An important element of its regional character is the North Pacific Coast's relative isolation from the rest of America. Less than 3 percent of the American population lives there. Populated sections of the region are separated from the other principal population centers by substantial distances of arid or mountainous terrain. Residents of the region often view this isolation as positive, a geographic buffer against the rest of the world. Economically, however, it has been a hindrance. High transportation costs inflate the price of Pacific Northwest products in distant eastern markets and discourage some manufacturers from locating in the region.


The North Pacific Coast is defined primarily on the basis of its physical environment. Stated very simply, it is a region strongly subject to maritime influence and rugged terrain. Precipitation is high, and vegetation associated with heavy moisture is located near the coast but with marked variation over short distances because of the influence of surrounding mountains on the region's climate.

The greatest average annual precipitation in the United States is found in the Pacific Northwest. Averages above 190 centimeters are common, and averages are double that amount on the western slopes of the Olympic Mountains in northwestern Washington. During the winter, the cloud cover is almost constant.

The northern Pacific Ocean is a spawning ground for great masses of moisture-laden air. As these air masses move, they are pushed south and east by the prevailing winds onto America's Pacific shores. A high-pressure system located off the coast of California in summer and off northwestern Mexico in winter prevents many of these maritime air masses from drifting farther southward and ensures that most of their moisture falls over the North Pacific Coast. Winter precipitation amounts are everywhere higher than summer levels, but the seasonal difference is more marked on the southern margin of the region. The coast of southern Oregon and northern California receives less than 10 centimeters of precipitation during the summer months of July and August, only one-tenth of the amount that falls there between December and February.

Although this area has generally high precipitation, considerable portions are semiarid. Parts of the borderlands of Puget Sound in Washington receive only about 60 centimeters of precipitation annually. Precipitation seldom falls in the form of heavy thundershowers; more typical is a gentle, light, frequent rain that feels like a heavy mist. One consequence is that runoff, so normal in heavy rains, is lessened, and vegetation can make maximum use of the moisture.

The region's mountains are the main reason for both the high precipitation along the coast and the substantial climatic variations that exist in close proximity. As a Pacific air mass passes over land moving eastward and southeastward, it strikes the mountain ranges that line the North Pacific Coast and is forced to rise. As the air rises, it cools, and its moisture-carrying capacity is reduced, resulting in precipitation.

Along a belt extending from south-central Oregon to southwestern British Columbia in Canada, the Coast Ranges are backed by a trough of low-lying land, including the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Puget Sound lowland in Washington. As the east-moving air descends into these lowlands it warms, and its moisture-carrying capacity is increased. Because additional moisture is not introduced into the air, little precipitation occurs.

To the east of the lowland is a second north-south trending range of mountains called the Cascades. Mount Rainier in Washington has an elevation of 4,390 meters, and many peaks are between 2,750 and 3,650 meters high. Winter precipitation in the mountains falls in the form of snow, making this the snowiest portion of the country.

Finally, in the eastern extension of the region beyond the Cascades in interior Washington, air masses again descend and warm. The little moisture that remains in the air is retained, and most of eastern Washington averages less than 30 centimeters of precipitation yearly.

South and north of this mountain-valley-mountain system, the mountain ranges merge and the separating valley disappears. Heaviest precipitation amounts are concentrated in a single band along the northern coast, including Alaska's "Panhandle," which is dominated by moisture and cloudiness. Average precipitation levels drop sharply along the coast in Alaska north and west of the Panhandle; most of the southward-facing coast of central Alaska averages 100 to 200 centimeters annually.

In addition to bringing rain, the region's maritime location provides a moderate temperature regime. Summers are cool. Winters are surprisingly warm, although the dampness means that the air can feel raw and less comfortable than the thermometer might suggest.

The seasonal movement of air masses means frequent periods of high winds along the region's coastal margin. It is not uncommon during the winter months for winds to exceed 125 kilometers per hour during the stormier periods. Although the coastal mountains provide some protection and winds are generally lower in the summer, high winds can reach the eastern portions of the region even in the summer. When they do, the danger of fire is worsened.

Few places in the Pacific Northwest do not offer a view of neighboring mountain peaks when the weather is clear. Mount McKinley at the region's northern extremity is, at 6,200 meters, the highest in North America. The peaks of the Coast Range of Oregon are fairly continuous in that state, with elevations reaching about 1,200 meters. In Washington they are discontinuous, with several rivers, notably the Columbia and the Chehalis, cutting pathways across them. Coast Range elevations in Washington are seldom above 300 meters.

The Klamath Mountains of northern California and southern Oregon offer a jumbled topography. Little pattern is apparent in the terrain. This is a wild, rugged, empty area.

The lowlands of Oregon are part of a structural trough that was created when that area sank at the same time that the Cascades to the east were elevated. This trough extends northward in the form of straits separating Canada's Vancouver Island from the rest of British Columbia, then passes through the complex of islands that line the Alaska Panhandle and provides the Inside Passage north as far as Juneau.

Farther inland, the Cascades extend from the Klamath Mountains northward into southern British Columbia. The southern section of these mountains appears as a high, eroded plateau topped by a line of volcanic peaks. Between Mount Lassen in California (one of the few volcanoes in the United States to have been active in historic time) and Mount Hood in Oregon, these peaks are especially splendid in their isolation above the surrounding plateaus. The northern Cascades are more rugged and have long proved a difficult barrier to movement eastward from the populous Puget Sound lowland. Here, extinct volcanoes, most notably Mount Rainier, provide the highest elevations and best defined peaks.

Beyond the Alaska Panhandle and the massive, glacier-covered St. Elias Mountains, the mountains divide in southern Alaska. The Coast Ranges, notably the Chugach and Kenai Mountains, decline in elevation from east to west. The interior mountains, the Alaska Range, are much higher and more continuous. A large lowland at the head of Cook Inlet is south of a gap through the Alaska Range, and here Anchorage, easily the largest city in Alaska (with an estimated population of 226,000 in 1993), is located around its good harbor and with easy connection to the interior.

Juneau, the capital of Alaska, is located on a narrow coastal lowland on the Panhandle; its only transportation connections to the rest of the state are by air or water. The farthest one can drive from town is about 15 kilometers. This location for the capital was reasonable when Alaska's wealth was in the Panhandle's forests and salmon fisheries and when access to the Yukon gold fields through Skagway was a consideration. As the state's economy changed and other resources became more important, the Panhandle languished. Fairbanks (with an estimated population of 32,300 in 1989), in central Alaska, and Anchorage, which is accessible to the southern portion of the state, outstripped Juneau in population growth; the capital city still had fewer than 29,000 people in 1989.

In terms of vegetation, there are magnificent redwood stands in the Klamath Mountains; Douglas fir, hemlock, and red cedar in Washington and Oregon; and Sitka spruce on the Alaska peninsula. This is a land not just of forest, but of beautiful expanses of tall trees reaching straight for the sky.

Except for the drier lowlands, where the normal vegetation of the Willamette Valley is prairie grass and that of the land east of the Cascades a mix of grass and desert shrub, and except for the tundra above the tree line, all of the Pacific Northwest is, or was, covered by forest. Tree growth is encouraged by plentiful moisture and moderate winter temperatures. Forest products were long the economic mainstay of the region. Even today, while the southeastern United States produces more wood for pulp and paper products, no other part of the country provides as much lumber as the North Pacific Coast.


No other coastline, except for the polar areas, was explored by Europeans as late as was the North Pacific Coast. Vitus Bering had claimed the Alaska coast for Russia by 1740, but it was not until 1778 that Captain James Cook sailed the coast from Oregon to southeastern Alaska. By the time explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark worked their way across the Cascades to the mouth of the Columbia River in 1805, Philadelphia and New York City, each with about 75,000 people, were vying for the title of the country's largest city. By the mid-1840s, when American settlers began traveling the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley, New York's population was fast approaching 500,000.

The pre-European population of the region was relatively large. The moderate environment provided a plentiful supply of food throughout the year. Deer, berries, roots, shellfish, and especially salmon represented a natural bonanza of food that seemed without limit. The American Indians responded to this with a hunting and gathering economy, and no food crop cultivation. Concentrated along the coast, they were divided into many distinct ethnic groups, each occupying their own, often small, coastal valley. They constructed large, impressive houses of red cedar planks and went to sea in dugout canoes made of the same wood.

Along most of this coast, the Indians seemed simply to melt away when Europeans arrived. Because their extreme isolation made organized opposition impossible, each small tribe succumbed quietly, making little impact on European settlement. Today, few Indians remain in the south. Farther north, the Indian population remains a substantial ethnic group in the Panhandle of Alaska.

Russians were the first Europeans to establish permanent settlements along the coast. They came late in the 18th century, motivated by the search for easily extracted riches. These riches proved to be furs, and the Russians established a series of trading posts and missions that were concentrated in southeastern Alaska but that extended as far south as northern California. The outposts never became self-sufficient in foodstuffs, and the cost of maintaining these scattered, distant sites usually exceeded the income from fur sales. Following several earlier Russian attempts to sell the colony to the United States, a $7.2 million sale price was finally agreed upon in 1867.

The Hudson's Bay Company moved its fur-trading operations into the Columbia River basin early in the 19th century. It was the dominant influence in the Pacific Northwest until the late 1830s, when American missionaries and settlers began the long journey across the Oregon Trail from Missouri. Most new American settlers moved into the Willamette Valley, but they quickly outnumbered the small British population of the entire Northwest.

The railroads were of key importance in the eventual growth of Oregon and Washington. In 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad was completed to Seattle and was followed a decade later by the Great Northern. This ended the region's overwhelming dependence on oceanic shipment, which sailed via the southern tip of South America to the eastern United States and European markets.

Today, this land of the great outdoors, like nearly every other part of the United States, has an urban population. Both Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, have metropolitan area populations of more than 1 million people.

Seattle has been the largest city along the North Pacific Coast since the boom era of the late 19th century. Founded as a logging center, Seattle began to achieve regional dominance when it was linked to the transcontinental railroads. The city has been the home of the Boeing (aircraft) Company since the 1920s, and it has been called the world's largest company town. Other of the city's 3,500 manufacturers produce cement, clay, fishing supplies, flour, metal products, textiles, and food products.

Seattle's urban core is tucked onto a narrow isthmus bordered by Puget Sound on the west and Lake Washington on the east. It has a beautiful site, with views of mountains and water offered to the residents of its many hills and pleasant, scattered neighborhoods of tree-lined streets.

Portland is an old city by the standards of the region, new by most others. Its economy is more diversified than Seattle's, and its relations with the region's interior are closer because of the lowland routeway to the east provided by the valley of the Columbia River. Portland is a major transshipment point for grain from eastern Washington, for example, and wood products and food processing are principal activities of the local manufacturing economy. Portland, inland about 160 kilometers from the coast, nevertheless rivals Seattle as an ocean port because the lower Columbia River is navigable.


In many ways, the economic structure of the North Pacific Coast is dominated by the production of staple products and by its isolation from major markets elsewhere in the country. The region has always contained a number of high-demand products, notably lumber and foodstuffs. However, movement costs reduced the ability of producers to get their products to market at reasonable cost. Consequently, market areas turned to other sources of supply that were nearer and less expensive, so that much of the North Pacific Coast's agricultural products are grown for the local market, not for export.

The broad Willamette Valley in Oregon is easily the largest agricultural area near the region's coast. The land has been cultivated for more than a century, and its farms are prosperous and well established. Much farmland is in forage crops, and many farmers still follow the practice of burning their fields in the fall--with the result that for a period of several weeks, large sections of the valley are covered by a layer of smoke.

Dairy products, also generated mostly for the local markets, are of greatest importance to the agriculture of the Willamette Valley; strawberries are perhaps the most important specialty crop. Other specialty crops also thrive in the valley's climate, including hops, grass for turf seed, cherries, and spearmint. Even grape production, supporting a local wine industry, has increased in recent years.

The Puget Sound lowland in Washington is another important dairy area. Again, specialty crops are also grown, with peas leading the pack. Quick frozen and then shipped to markets throughout America, this cool-weather crop is particularly well adapted to the local climate.

The area east of the Cascades in Washington presents a different kind of agricultural landscape. Most of this area is semiarid, and grasses and desert shrubs replace the majestic evergreens of the coast and mountains. Although called the Columbia Plateau, the area has little of the characteristic flatness one expects of a plateau. Much of the area consists of rolling hills. Elsewhere in central Washington, the landscape has been cut by steep-sided dry canyons called coulees. That section--properly called "the channeled scablands" because lava pockets dot the surface with scab-like knolls--is covered by a deep blanket of lava flows eroded by the floods from glacial melt during the Pleistocene ice retreat.

That portion of the Columbia Plateau along the Oregon-Washington border and across much of eastern Washington is a substantial farming area, easily the most important in the Pacific Northwest.

The hilly country of east-central Washington, called the Palouse, averages between 35 and 65 centimeters of precipitation annually, somewhat more than other parts of the interior. Wheat is the primary crop of the area, with both spring and winter varieties grown. Wheat is normally planted on a given field every other year; in alternate years, the land is plowed, but nothing is planted. This practice retards evapotranspiration and allows soil moisture to increase. The large wheat farms of the Palouse are heavily mechanized and highly productive. Most of the product is exported through Portland to Asia.

Irrigation has played a major role in the area's agriculture in recent decades. Two major irrigated areas have been developed. The water from a number of streams flowing eastward out of the Cascades is used to irrigate their relatively narrow valleys. The result is one of the country's most famous apple-producing areas.

The Columbia River, at Grand Coulee northwest of Spokane, was dammed primarily to provide hydroelectric power. It also made available large amounts of irrigation water to south-central Washington. After these waters became available in the late 1950s, crop acreage in the area expanded considerably in response. Major agricultural products include sugar beets, potatoes, alfalfa, and dry beans.

Washington, California, and Oregon together provide more than half of all timber cut in the United States, and Washington vies for the lead (with the Deep South state of Georgia) in pulp and paper production. Although forestry was the first major industry in the North Pacific Coast, its rich forest did not become nationally important until well into the 20th century, when improved transportation facilities, coupled with the destructive overcutting of many eastern forests, opened the region's woods to lumbering.

Douglas fir (of prime importance as structural supports for houses and for flooring, doors, and plywood) is easily the major lumber tree of the region, although each section has its own mix of trees to harvest. In northern California, for example, redwoods remain locally important; the western red cedar is also widely cut in the area from Oregon northward.

The large size of many of the trees plus the distances to market tends to encourage large-scale logging operations. One major U.S. lumber company, for example, owns some 690,000 hectares of land in Washington, making it the state's largest private landowner. A substantial part of Washington and a majority of all land in Oregon and northern California is government owned. Private logging on government land plays a large role in overall production. Effective marketing has enabled lumber products of the region to penetrate all market areas of the country.

The plentiful precipitation and rugged topography of the North Pacific Coast provide a hydroelectric potential unmatched in the United States--40 percent of the country's potential is contained in Oregon and Washington alone. The Columbia River, in particular, with a flow volume larger than that of the Mississippi River and a drop of nearly 300 meters during its 1,200-kilometer course from the U.S.-Canadian border to the sea, is a power developer's delight.

Begun in 1933 and still the region's largest, Grand Coulee Dam was the first dam constructed on the Columbia River. It was followed by no fewer than 10 dams downstream. British Columbia and the United States agreed to the construction in Canada of three additional dams that would store water during periods of heavy flow and then release the water when flow was low to guarantee consistent power generation.

These developments have provided inexpensive electricity for the North Pacific Coast. Inexpensive electrical power, in turn, has attracted manufacturers that are heavy power consumers; most notable is the aluminum-smelting industry.

Forestry and fishing at one time formed the backbone of the region's economy. Large numbers of whaling vessels were attracted to the cold waters of the North Pacific during the late 18th century and first half of the 19th century. Heavy overharvesting has reduced the North Pacific's whale population to a small fraction of former levels.

Salmon contributed a major part of the foodstuffs of the coastal tribes before the arrival of Europeans, and remains the principal fish caught throughout the region. Salmon migrate upstream from the ocean to spawn in freshwater. Years ago, their spawning runs filled the rivers, and massive catches were easily available to people on the banks.

The size of the salmon catch has declined greatly over the past five decades, and today it is less than half its former level. Most salmon are caught off the Alaska coast. When the region's streams were dammed, access to many traditional spawning grounds was blocked, especially on the upper Columbia and its tributaries. Fish ladders--a series of gradual water-carrying steps that allow fish to jump from level to level and thus bypass a dam--have been constructed around some of the smaller dams, but they do not work on the larger ones. As a consequence, nearly all of the Snake River and its tributaries, plus all of the branches of the Columbia above Grand Coulee, are closed to salmon.


Coastal southern Alaska is clearly a part of the North Pacific Coast, but it must be viewed as somewhat separate from the rest of the region. No railroad connects Alaska with the more populated parts of the continent, and only a single, long highway, part of which remains unpaved, connects coastal southern Alaska through interior Canada to the rest of the United States. People in the Panhandle of southeastern Alaska are crowded by coastal mountains onto a narrow shoreline rarely more than a few hundred meters wide. This portion of the region looks to air and sea transportation for connection with the rest of the world, which leads to an even greater sense of detachment than might be typical of the rest of the region, a greater sense of separation from the activities of the rest of the country, and an economy of high prices resulting from scarcity and high transportation costs.

Many believe that the Alaskan economy is based heavily on minerals, lumbering, and fishing. In fact, the federal government, primarily the Department of Defense, is the dominant employer in the state. Even the petroleum development boom on the state's North Slope has only modified, not eliminated, this orientation.

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Source: U.S. Department of State