It has to be one of America’s most diverse national park landscapes. If you walked from west to east across Olympic National Park, you would start at the rocky Pacific shoreline, move into rare temperate rainforests and lush river valleys, ascend glaciers and rugged mountain peaks, and then descend into a comparatively dry rain shadow and alpine forest. From the beach to the top of Mount Olympus, you would rise 7,980 feet (2430 meters) above sea level.
Situated on the Olympic Peninsula in northwestern Washington, these lands were first set aside as a national monument in 1909 by Theodore Roosevelt. Twenty-nine years later, his cousin Franklin officially established Olympic National Park. International institutions have also made a case for treasuring this land, as the area was declared an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976 and a World Heritage Site in 1981. The park encompasses nearly 923,000 acres of wild lands, including 60 named glaciers, 73 miles of coast, and 3,000 miles of rivers and streams.
The natural-color images above were acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8. The top image was acquired on February 22, 2015. The second image was acquired on October 4, 2015. (The images were among very few clear looks at the park in the past year, as it is so often shrouded in clouds.) Yellow lines mark the official boundaries of the National Park, though much of the land just outside those lines is national forest or wilderness, and also protected.
The visual centerpiece of the park, Mount Olympus, is surrounded by the third largest glacier system in the contiguous United States. It is flanked to the northeast by Hurricane Ridge, the park’s main winter sports area (skiing, snowboarding, and sledding). Note that the winter snow cover in the top image was significantly below the norm for the region; in fact, northwest Washington saw its lowest snow cover on record in the spring of 2015.
To the west of Olympus, spreading out in all directions toward the sea, stand some of the world’s most unusual landforms: temperate rainforests. Between 150 to 180 inches (380 to 450 centimeters) of rain fall on these coniferous and deciduous forests each year, as warm, moist air from the Pacific Ocean rides up the cool, rising landscape and drops rain, snow, and mist most days of the year. According to National Park Service estimates, Olympic includes 366,000 acres (572 square miles or 1480 square kilometers) of old-growth forests. These ancient trees and the copious moisture keep the forest floor—and even their own trunks—covered in lichens, mosses, and ferns.
Three glacial rivers—the Hoh, Queets, and Quinault—run westward from the mountains through these forests, which stretch right down to the coast in many areas. Though it is hard to see on the map, thin slivers of the coastline are also included in Olympic National Park; Kalaloch and Ruby Beach stand at the water’s edge next to a vast marine sanctuary. As a whole, the park includes more than 1,200 native plant species and hundreds of fish, mammal, and animal species. Olympic shelters at least 22 species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Olympic also preserves human history. The park includes 650 archaeological sites documenting more than 12,000 years of Native American and European settler history. Another piece of human history was recently made when two dams were removed from the Elwha River to restore the ecosystem. Dam removal freed the Elwha River, allowing Pacific salmon to return to a pristine watershed and the river's natural sediment flow to rebuild beaches at the river's mouth.
Olympic National Park was recently the site of a NASA-funded study—the Olympic Mountain Experiment (OLYMPEX). From November 2015 through February 2016, researchers flew over the region in instrumented airplanes and set up other observatories on the ground in order to calibrate and test the skill of the rain- and snow-observing satellite known as the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) core observatory.
NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Caption by Mike Carlowicz, with image interpretation from Barbara Maynes (National Park Service) and Lynn McMurdie (University of Washington).