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Why Mount Rainier is the American volcano that keeps scientists up at night

Why Mount Rainier is the American volcano that keeps scientists up at night
Why Mount Rainier is the American volcano that keeps scientists up at night


The CNN original series Violent Earth with Liev Schreiber explores heartbreaking weather events, such as hurricanes and wildfires, that are increasingly common in our changing climate. The final episode airs Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.


The snow-capped Mount Rainier, which rises 2.7 miles (4.3 kilometers) above sea level in Washington state, has not produced a significant volcanic eruption in the past 1,000 years. Yet more than the boiling lava fields of Hawaii or the sprawling supervolcano of Yellowstone, it is Mount Rainier that worries many American volcanologists.

Mount Rainier keeps me up at night because it poses a great threat to surrounding communities. Tacoma and South Seattle are built on ancient 100-foot-thick mudflows from Mount Rainier's eruptions, Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist and Union of Concerned Scientists ambassador, said in an episode of Violent Earth With Liv Schreiber: a CNN original series.

The destructive potential of the sleeping giants lies not in the fiery lava flows, which, if erupted, would likely extend no more than a few miles beyond the boundaries of Mount Rainier National Park in the north -west Pacific. And the majority of volcanic ash would likely dissipate downwind, to the east, away from population centers, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Instead, many scientists fear the prospect of a lahar, a fast-moving slurry of water and volcanic rock from ice or snow melted quickly by an eruption that picks up debris as it flows through through valleys and drainage channels.

What makes Mount Rainier difficult is that it's so high and it's covered in ice and snow, and so if there is any eruptive activity, the hot things will melt the cold things and a lot of water will start to go down. said Seth Moran, a research seismologist at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington.

And there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people who live in areas that could potentially be hit by a large lahar, and it could happen quite quickly.

The deadliest lahar in recent memory occurred in November 1985, when Colombia's Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted. Just hours after the eruption began, a river of mud, rocks, lava and icy water surged through the town of Armero, killing more than 23,000 people in minutes.

When it comes to rest, you have this hardened almost concrete-like substance that can be like quicksand when people try to get out of it, said Bradley Pitcher, a volcanologist and lecturer in earth and marine sciences. environment at Columbia University, in one episode. from CNN's Violent Earth.

Pitcher said Mount Rainier has about eight times more glaciers and snow than Nevado del Ruiz did when it erupted. There is a much more catastrophic risk of mudslides.

In the U.S. Geological Survey's most recent threat assessment, from 2018, the federal agency considered Hawaii's Klauea the most dangerous U.S. volcano, given the number of people living nearby and the frequency of its eruptions. Mount St. Helens, which experienced a cataclysmic eruption in May 1980, ranked second most dangerous, ahead of Mount Rainier in third place.

Lahars typically occur during volcanic eruptions, but can also be caused by landslides and earthquakes. Geologists have found evidence that at least 11 large lahars from Mount Rainier reached the surrounding area, known as the Puget Lowlands, over the past 6,000 years, Moran said.

Scientists have not established a link between the most recent of these lahars, which occurred around 500 years ago, and any volcanic activity. A large landslide on the western side of the mountains may have caused this flow, according to the researchers.

Loose, weak rocks remain there, and it is the threat of a similar lahar triggered by a spontaneous landslide that particularly troubles Moran and other volcanologists.

We now know that the volcano is potentially capable of starting again. And then, in this world, it could happen at any time, Moran said.

If it is the same size, then it will take 10 minutes to get to the places where the nearest people live and 60 minutes to get to the nearest large communities. And these are very short deadlines, he added.

A 2022 study modeled two worst-case scenarios. In the first simulation, a 260 million cubic meter, 4 meter deep lahar (9.2 billion cubic feet, 13 feet deep) would originate on the west side of Mount Rainier. The debris flow would be equivalent to 104,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to Moran, and could reach the densely populated Orting Lowlands, Washington, about an hour after an eruption, where it would move at speeds of 13 feet (4 meters). per second.

A second area of ​​pronounced risk is the Nisqually River valley, where a massive lahar could displace enough water from Alder Lake to cause the 100-meter-high Alder Dam to overflow, according to the simulation.

Mount Rainier's cousin, Mount St. Helens, farther south in the Cascade Range, unleashed a devastating lahar when it erupted four decades ago, although it did not reach any densely populated areas.

Venus Dergan and her then-boyfriend, Roald Reitan, were captured in the Mount St. Helens lahar during a camping trip and are two of the few people known to have survived a debris flow.

I tried to hold on as we were carried downstream, the bark of the trees only scraped. I could feel it on my legs, on my arms,” she recalled in an interview with CNN’s Violent Earth.

And at one point I went under the logs and the mud, and I resigned myself to saying that that was it. I wasn't going to make it and I was going to die.

Reitan managed to pull her out of the mudslide and they went down the river on a huge log. When the log stopped, they jumped onto an embankment and crawled up the side of a hill, where they were rescued. It took Dergan two years to fully recover from his injuries.

Following the eruption of Mount St. Helens, the US Geological Survey established a lahar detection system at Mount Rainier in 1998, which has been improved and expanded since 2017.

About twenty sites on the slopes of the volcanoes and the two trails identified as most at risk of lahar now have broadband seismometers that transmit data in real time and other sensors, including trip wires, infrasound sensors , web cameras and GPS receivers.

The system is designed both to detect a lahar if the volcano awakens in the future and for the specific scenario of a lahar triggered by a landslide, Moran said.

The original system had low bandwidth and power requirements due to the limitations of 1990s technology, which meant data was only transmitted every two minutes.

There is a lack of historical reference data as there are not many lahars worldwide recorded by monitoring stations, so a wider range of instruments will help determine whether a seismic signal received from one stations actually came from a debris flow, not an eruption or earthquake, Moran said.

Infrasound instruments, for example, would tell researchers that there has been a disturbance at the ground surface rather than at depth.

In March, some 45,000 students from Puyallup, Sumner-Bonney Lake, Orting, White River and Carbonado, Washington, participated in a Lahar evacuation drill. It was the first time multiple school districts practiced on the same day, making it the largest lahar exercise in the world, according to the USGS.

About 13,000 students walked up to 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) to designated locations outside the mapped lahar zone, while the rest of the schools outside the lahar zone set out to shelter in place.

Moran said the security portions of the lahar detection system are located about 45 minutes from the nearest large community, which is the time frame communities had to work with.

Most of what happens on volcanoes happens close by, and that's why you try to keep people away because things happen quickly, but lahars can travel very far from the volcano and have a big impact.

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