Mount Rainier, the majestic icon of the Pacific Northwest, stands tall at 14,410 feet. It serves as both a source of wonder and, potentially, immense danger! Mount Rainier is a favorite amongst hikers, photographers, and nature enthusiasts. But, there’s another side to Rainier that few contemplate: its potential to erupt. What would happen if the Mount Rainier active volcano were to erupt right now? Let’s dive in!
“Rainier is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. It’s a huge concern,” says Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University.
Seattle, Tacoma, and Other Cities in Danger!
Firstly, it’s essential to grasp the scale of an eruption. Depending on the size and intensity, the immediate vicinity could experience massive pyroclastic flows, ash clouds, and, potentially, lava flows. These can obliterate everything in their path. It can destroy ecosystems and cause unfortunate fatalities if not evacuated in time. Tacoma and Seattle, major cities nearby, would certainly feel its devastating impacts.
“I do think it is one of the most hazardous volcanoes in North America,” a hydrologist and outreach coordinator at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory, Carolyn Driedger.
Melting Of 28 Major Glaciers!
Lava or ash but the lahars, or volcanic mudflows aren’t the only thing to be terrified of. Rainier has extensive glaciers. Mount Rainier has 28 major glaciers and an uncounted number of snow or ice patches. The glaciers cover about 30 square miles (78 km2). That is five times as much snow and ice than any other cascades of volcanoes combined.
The melting of even a small layer of this glacier will create a damaging flow of Lahars. Lahars from eruptions in the past have filled up valleys to heights of almost 500 feet alongside Mount Rainier. A massive eruption could rapidly melt all the major glaciers on top. The melting will mix the water with ash, dirt, and debris. The massive, destructive torrent would flow downstream. It could quite literally devastate everything in its path.
“Lahars can lift houses. They can overtake a bridge. They can take the bridge with it. Imagine if you were in that valley today. Can you climb 150 meters [490 feet] particularly quickly?” says Krippner.
Currently, 80,000 people reside in the Zones that Lahars are capable of reaching. Communities such as Orting, Sumner, and Puyallup lie directly in the potential path of these lahars! Sadly, they will be particularly vulnerable.
Historically, lahars from Rainier have reached as far as Puget Sound, nearly 50 miles away.
Ashfall – The Sky Turns Gray!
The volcano is still highly active and thick pyroclastic flows are still hovering over the glacier basin. Imagine if it ended up in a massive explosion. Ash clouds can stretch for hundreds of miles from the eruption source. Pyroclastic flows and debris will build up to thousands and thousands of feet. Output of lava up to 24 km (15 miles) from the mountain summit or the top.
Depending on the wind patterns, cities even as far away as Spokane or Portland will feel the effects of dust and debris. Ash can clog air filters, damage engines, reduce visibility, and cause respiratory issues.
The immediate destruction would be followed by a massive economic cost. Infrastructure damage, home and business destruction, and the potential halting of air and road traffic could cost billions. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens caused over a billion dollars in damage, and that was a relatively isolated area compared to the populated regions around Rainier.
Besides the immediate devastation, the long-term environmental consequences could be profound. Forests could be wiped out or damaged, rivers and water systems could be altered or contaminated, and wildlife could be severely affected.
What Will Be The National Response?
A disaster of this magnitude would require a significant national response. Federal agencies like FEMA would be immediately activated, and there would likely be an outpouring of support from across the country. Think of the responses to Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Hilary. But potentially on a larger scale given Rainier’s proximity to major urban areas.
How Prepared Are We?
The good news is that scientists and emergency managers are well aware of the risks posed by Mount Rainier. Monitoring systems are in place to detect early signs of an eruption, and there are evacuation plans for communities most at risk. USGS is keeping an eye on all possible changes. That said, predicting the exact timing and scale of a volcanic eruption remains a challenge.
While the thought of Mount Rainier erupting can be terrifying, it’s crucial to approach the topic with a sense of preparedness rather than panic. Understanding the potential consequences allows communities, authorities, and individuals to prepare adequately. In the end, while Rainier is a symbol of the Pacific Northwest’s grandeur, it’s also a reminder of nature’s immense power.
For residents in the vicinity, it’s always a good idea to be informed, have an emergency plan in place, and regularly review and practice it with family members. The beauty of Mount Rainier should be revered and enjoyed, but always with respect for its dormant, yet fierce, potential.