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“It was November--the month of crimson sunsets, parting birds,

deep, sad hymns of the sea, passionate wind-songs in the pines." - L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Mount Rainier: Deceptive enchantment of the most prominent Washington State Mountain

Created: 25 December 2015

Photo from Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State

No one will deny the fact that Mount Rainier is one of the most beautiful and magnificent peaks in the whole world. The highest mountain in Washington State and number three mountain in the list of American ultra-prominent mountain peaks, this amazing natural giant (which has 14, 410 feet at its highest point) on a day with clear sunny weather can be well seen from such remote places as Portland, Oregon State or even from Vancouver Island, Canada. Mount Rainier in the sunlight looks powerful and mysterious. 

Being a central natural feature of Mount Rainier National Park, it is well-known for its unique plant and animal life. Pristine forests covering its hills and ridges, fascinating alpine meadows, hundreds of mountain rivers, streams and of course the enchanting alpine lakes, numerous campgrounds and great skiing possibilities, offered by Mount Rainier, attract millions of tourists every year. Because of such a variety of entertainment options the tourist flow doesn’t subside at any season.

But hardly even half of all the tourists and visitors know and understand with what danger this highest mountain of the Cascades Range of the Pacific Northwest is fraught. Because, on top of everything else, Mt. Rainier is one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. And in reality its beauty and enchantment are deceptive, as no one can predict when this sleeping volcano will wake up.

General Information and Historical data 

The present-day Mount Rainier has 26 principal glaciers; each of them has its own name. With all the snow and ice (amounting to 36 sq mi) they create a huge glacier system of the mountain. Volcano summit has two large overlapping craters with the diameters of more than a thousand feet. Being located on a subduction zone, the volcano permanently experiences geothermal activity. Due to this geothermal heat the crater lips are remaining free of snow. It also created a huge network of caves in the glaciers filling the craters.

Mount Rainier is the highest composite volcano (or stratovolcano) of the Cascade Volcanic Ark. The scientists claim that the eruptions of the ancient, primordial Rainier volcano started more than 800,000 years ago, but that volcano cone was almost completely destroyed by one of the eruptions and a new cone (the one that we can see today) was created by lava and debris flows as well as by some pyroclastic ejecta about 500,000 years ago, and since then it has been showing volcanic activity. 

Geologists assume that Mount Rainier used to be about 1,500 ft higher, but about 5,000 years ago an eruption and huge debris avalanche (which led to Osceola Mudflow) removed the upper part of its cone. 

Since then Mount Rainier had numerous eruptions, some of which were quiet, lava-producing, and some – explosive. The latest eruptions were recorded in the second part of the 19th century. And though the volcano keeps quiet since then, the scientists started a more detailed studying of its history and possibility of imminent eruption after the devastating eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.

When people talk about the most menacing volcanoes, they, first of all, mention Yellowstone or Mount Tambora, which in 1815 took more than 50 000 lives. However, geologists today are more concerned about other mountain peak, the eruption of which could cause the death of tens of thousands of Americans. "A Ticking Bomb" is the name which recently stuck to Mount Rainier, located just 54 miles from Seattle. According to volcanologists, even its minor activity could result in serious disaster, not to mention the full-scale eruption of the same power as the latest eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Photo from Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State

What threats carries the eruption of Mount Rainier?

When Mount Rainier erupts (and the scientists insist that it is definitely a question of “when”, not of “if”), and it will be an explosive type of eruption, first of all a huge column of ash, gas and hot rocks will blast up to the sky for more than ten miles. This turbulent cloud of ash mixed with mud will cover the sky, turning day into the night and putting in danger all the aircrafts being in flight. Its fallout will cause a lot of inconveniences to the residents of nearby towns and cities, possibly disrupting the transportation system and incurring considerable expenses for cleaning.

But ash or possible lava flows are far from the main dangers of such an eruption. Strange though it may sound, but the major danger will come from one of the least recognized and least known of all the hazards presented by a volcanic eruption. And its name is Lahar. Many people have never heard of lahars and have no idea about what it is. 

Lahars are thick mixtures of water, ash, rocks, mud and debris, flowing fast from the mountain hills. They are usually formed on the volcano’s steep slopes after the rapid melting of glaciers. This huge mud flow, which has a consistence of wet concrete, runs down the mountain slopes with the average speed 40-50 miles per hour, using the numerous canyons and river courses as its path, and destroying everything on their way. Along the way the mud flow excavates a big amount of the material, like boulders, woods, etc., thus adding to its destroying potential by increasing its volume twice or three times from its initial size.

According to the scientists, more than 100,000 people, residing at the base of Mount Rainier, live on deposits from the lahars which solidified after the eruptions thousands years ago, the biggest of which was the Osceola Mudflow.

And now try to imagine what will happen when Mount Rainier erupts… As we’ve mentioned before a huge column of ash will go up in the sky, causing almost simultaneous extensive melting of all 36 sq mi of Rainier glaciers, thus creating an unbelievably huge water flow turning into an unstoppable lahar. This raging mud flow will go down to the heavily populated area near the foot of Mount Rainier. 

Photo from Mount Rainier National Park, Washington State

Extensive experience in volcanology and physics as well as modern technologies allow the scientists creating the computer lahar simulations, which help to predict the behavior of lahars after the volcano eruption. Such simulations show that a lahar from Mount Rainier, resulting from an explosive eruption, will destroy Orting, Buckley, and will damage even big cities, such as Tacoma, Puyallup and Auburn, reaching also the southeastern part of Seattle. At the speed of 20-40 miles per hour, lahar will get to the towns faster that in twenty minutes. That means even with a good warning system it will be extremely hard to evacuate all the population having so little time for this. There is no way anyone can run away from a lahar. The only possibility to be saved from it is to climb some hill or eminence.

There is a possibility that the mud flow will reach the Puget Sound and Lake Washington, creating there a tsunami, flooding the nearby territory.

It was calculated that such a lahar will cause the damage to the property exceeding ten billion dollars, taking tens of thousands of people lives, thus becoming the most terrible natural disaster in the history of the United States.

Of course different measures are taken to decrease the disaster, such as creation of lahar barriers, development of early warning and escape routes. But unfortunately this will not help to avoid the consequences of this most violent natural catastrophe completely.

Below you will find a documentary, describing the possible eruption of Mount Rainier and the consequences of it.

 

One more documentary, describing one of the lahar simulations, explaining what a lahar is and showing what regions would be damaged by it if Mount Rainier erupted:

 

We have also created a great movie in fabulous 4K quality, which will take you along more than 20 most beautiful trails of Mount Rainier. Enjoy the beauty and grandeur of the most spectacular parts of Mount Rainier area in the coziness and safeness of your home. 

http://www.beautifulwashington.com/shop/washington-movies/mr-tvseries.html

 

And remember, if Mt. Rainier erupts, the only thing that will be left from its beauty and scenery is numerous photos and videos made by the tourists and visitors of Mount Rainier National Park, as its landscape would be changed forevermore by lava flows and lahars, destroying everything on their way. No vegetation or wildlife would be left on the mountain hills after such a natural disaster.

 

 

Photo: Roman Khomlyak

Photo Editing: Juliana Voitsikhovska

Information: Svetlana Baranova

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