Next up on our National Park tour was historic Mount Rainier. Established in 1899, Rainier is the fifth area to be designated as a National Park in the United States. Today Rainier, not far from metropolitan Seattle Washington, is a popular attraction. In 2010, the park recorded 1,191,754 visits, 17 out of the 58 National Parks. In 2011, at the height of a short season, the park felt busy.
We passed into Mount Rainier National Park through the southeast entrance. At 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier’s namesake peak is the most topologically prominent mountain in the contiguous United States. Not that we could tell when we entered. Low clouds and fog obscured any view of the peak. Our trip schedule slotted three nights inside the park’s borders. For a while it seemed like we might not be able to see the summit of Rainier at all during our stay. But finally, after 24 hours of overcast skies, we found a spot to view this most viewable of mountains.
Under sunlight, the alpine terrain that surrounds Mount Rainier is peaceful and bucolic. We visited in early August. The meadow wildflowers were in full bloom. Spring came late this year. In the distance, high up on the mountains slopes, long chains of mountain climbers worked their way across the snowfields to the summit.
The peacefulness of the scene is deceptive. Mount Rainer is an active volcano. In fact, Rainier is the only volcano in the contiguous 48 states that is on the Decade Volcanoes list. The Decade Volcano classification signifies that Rainier has a geological history of large, destructive eruptions and is proximate to a heavily populated area.
It is not the frequency of Rainier’s eruptions that warrants the Decade classification. Rainier’s last eruptive activity occurred in the 19th Century, the last significant activity occurred more than 500 years ago, and the last major eruptive episode ended around 1,000 years ago. What is a concern is the mountain’s snow pack. Mount Rainier has 26 named glaciers amongst its large snowfields. When Rainier does erupt, the result is devastation. The enormous amount of heat released during volcanic eruptions quickly melts the mountains thick snow pack. Massive lahars, fast moving volcanic mudflows with the density of wet concrete, result.
The scale of the Rainier’s lahars is staggering. On occasion, the mudflows have reached the sea in Puget Sound over 40 miles away. One lahar, the Osceola Mudflow, covered more than 200 square miles of lowland. This event 5,600 years ago reshaped the mountain; calculations suggest that 2,000 feet of material was removed from the top of the mountain. Prior to the Osceloa eruption, Rainier’s peak is thought to have been over 16,000 feet.
Rainier’s massive mudflows are not necessarily linked directly to a volcanic eruption. About 600 years ago, a slope failure on Rainier’s west flank triggered a large mudflow that reached Puget Sound near the village of Electron. Today the USGS estimates that 150,000 people live on the debris fields from Rainier’s lahar’s. It is no wonder that Rainier is considered to be such a hazard.
“A home built in any of the probabilistically defined inundation areas on the new maps is more likely to be damaged or destroyed by a lahar than by fire…For example, a home built in an area that would be inundated every 100 years, on the average, is 27 times more likely to be damaged or destroyed by a flow than by fire. People know the danger of fire, so they buy fire insurance and they have smoke alarms, but most people are not aware of the risks of lahars, and few have applicable flood insurance.”
Snowfall is a big factor in the lahar risk. Rainier gets plenty of snow. Until recently, Mount Rainier claimed the world’s record for the amount of snowfall in a season. In 1971-72, 1122 inches or nearly 94 feet of snow was recorded. (Nearby Mt. Baker surpassed this mark with 1140 inches in the 1998-99 season.) This season, Rainier made another run at the record recording over 800 inches. The season’s heavy snow limited our visit. Even in early August snow banks remained near the alpine visitor centers and many trails were under snow and closed. There was so much snow that it seemed that many trails might not clear before the next seasons snowfall starts. To see more of the park we will need to return in a drier year.
Though Rainier is a mountain shaped by fire and ice, the visitor experience is much more benign. It feels more like the Alps than an inhospitable volcanic landscape. It’s more like The Sound of Music than from the volcano disaster movie Dante’s Peak. Perhaps that’s a good thing.
Additional pictures are on Picasa.