The greatest threat to the busiest road in Mount Rainier National Park is the mountain itself.
Receding glaciers, loose rocks and boulders, glacial outbursts and debris flows could combine to cut off Nisqually-Paradise Road. Half the 1.2 million people who typically visit the park each year travel that roadway.
Yet the threat is not limited to the 18-mile road.
Nearly every major roadway in the park – including Westside Road, Stevens Canyon Road, state Route 123, state Route 410 and Carbon River Road – is threatened.
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Portions of the Carbon River and Westside roads have been closed because of flooding. Stevens Canyon and state Route 123 are susceptible to landslides. State Route 410 could be flooded should the White River jump its banks.
“It’s almost historically unprecedented the conditions Mount Rainier (National Park) has to manage in terms of access,” said Paul Kennard, the park’s geomorphologist.
Closures of park roads could mean lost revenue to the park, from entrance fees to hot chocolate bought at a snack bar or nights spent at the Paradise and National Park inns. Extensive flood damage to the infrastructure in the southwest corner of the park – including park operations buildings and the National Park Inn at Longmire and the roadway – could exceed $100 million.
But the impact of road closures extends beyond the park boundary.
Each year, according to a 2002 study by Michigan State University researchers, park visitors spend $30 million at places such as the cabins at Jasmer’s at Mount Rainier, eateries such as Copper Creek Inn & Restaurant and gift shops such as Wapiti Woolies.
To protect Mount Rainier’s main thoroughfare, park geologists this summer identified six locations along the road they believe are the most threatened.
The study – prompted by the historic November 2006 flood and additional floods in 2008 and 2009 – comes as the park develops a proposal for a $30 million, three-phase project to repave Nisqually-Paradise Road.
Yet rules governing use of the federal funds will prevent the park from spending much of that money to protect the threatened locations.
The sites include Tahoma Creek, where rocks and debris constantly fill the space under the bridge, and the confluence of Van Trump Creek with the Nisqually River, where debris flows have raised the streambed 38 feet, well above the level of the road.
“When it’s raining really hard, we wake up in the morning thinking of those (six) spots,” said Kennard, who studies the natural processes that shape our landscapes, especially the effects rivers have on the land. “Those are the first spots you want to check.”
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Still fresh in the minds of many is the park’s six-month closure after the November 2006 flood. The unprecedented flood caused $36 million in damage, including every major road in the park.
“The word ‘closed’ is viral,” said Mary Kay Nelson, executive director of Visit Rainier, a marketing arm of businesses outside the park.
“The lesson we learned from the flood of 2006, we need to do a better job of telling people what’s open,” she said. “When people here the word ‘closed,’ they assume it’s all closed.”
Bob Grubb, co-owner of Wapiti Woolies in Greenwater, said his business relies on state Route 410 remaining open. The store offers souveniers, snacks and information for wayward tourists.
“We rely on (park workers) for everything up here, keeping the roads open, keeping the trail open,” he said. “It’s just like the weather, though, you just have to deal with it.
“I wish they could put more priority on the national parks. Those guys are working on a tight budget.”
For Eric Simonson, co-director of Ashford-based International Mountain Guides, it’s a matter of priorities.
“I keep thinking on one hand you’re spending a lot of money to fix a road that might need some fixing,” he said of the planned repaving of Nisqually-Paradise Road. “And then you’re going to turn around and abandon access on the Carbon River side. I mourn the loss of any access to the park.
“These glaciers and rivers, we know they move around. Rather than a perfect road, a more rugged road that can be rebuilt at a modest cost might be a better option.”
Carolyn Driedger is a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an expert on the volcanic and glacial nature of Mount Rainier. She has been studying the mountain since 1979.
She said while these changes are the norm at a location such as Mount Rainier, their pace has quickened.
“We recognize the Earth is certainly not static, it’s ever-changing,” she said. “The mountain you see today is a little different than the mountain your grandparents saw and what your grandchildren will see.
“But as we seek to understand Earth systems, how climate changes geological and hydrological processes, (the access issue) comes into play,” Driedger said.
Driedger was referring to the cascading effect of climate change that starts with shrinking glaciers and ends with destructive torrents of debris racing downstream toward key points throughout the park.
It all begins at the top of the mountain. The 26 major glaciers and unnamed snowfields cover about 36 square miles with a volume of about one cubic mile, making it the most glaciated mountain in the lower 48 states.
That ice blanket is shrinking.
Research by Portland State University doctoral student Thomas Nylen shows that between 1913-1994 the mountain lost 25 percent of its glacial volume.
A study by Jon Reidel, geologist at North Cascades National Parks, indicates the rate of loss from 2003-2009 was 4.2 times faster than the rate through 1994 and there has been another 10 to 18 percent decline in volume.
“That is a shocking amount of lost water in a very short period of time,” Reidel said.
“As a glacier retreats, it exposes a huge amount of material that can be washed downstream,” Kennard said.
Rocks and sediment created by the grinding effect of glaciers are suddenly exposed to the elements, needing only water to begin moving down the mountain.
Finding sources of water are fairly easy on Mount Rainier. Kennard, Driedger and others point first to the glaciers themselves.
Of greatest concern is stagnant ice – where the glaciers have stopped flowing down the mountain. As snow and ice accumulation slows on the upper mountain, a glacier cannot replenish itself as the lower portions melt away.
“The ice stops flowing,” said Edward Josberger, a glaciologist with the geological survey’s office in Tacoma. “The body of ice has been disconnected from its source, so it just sits there.”
At some point, the stagnant ice separates from the retreating main glacier.
Scientists now believe the lower 2,500 feet of the Nisqually Glacier is stagnant.
“There certainly is a threat,” Driedger said. “There is a section of the Nisqually Glacier that is in large part disconnected from the upper glacier.”
‘LIKE GOD HAD A FIRE HOSE’
As these stranded masses of ice sit, they slowly collect water as they melt and as rain falls upon them. The water is stored inside or below the glacier until something triggers a sudden release of water.
The so-called “glacial outbursts” can be minor or significant.
A 1951 flood at Longmire, the only known flooding of the parks’ operational center, was blamed on a glacial outburst from the Nisqually Glacier. Although the 2006 flood came within feet of washing away buildings such as the emergency operations center, no water made its way into Longmire, where many buildings sit 35 below river level.
The water in an outburst is the final element needed to spark powerful and destructive debris flows capable of carrying tons of boulders, trees, rocks and sediment downstream at speeds up to 20 miles per hour.
“Debris flows are the most destructive and most erosive form of landslides,” Kennard said. “They start out really small, but within 100 yards they’re 100 feet deep or so. For every meter it moves downstream, it bulks up by 10 cubic meters.”
Kennard talked about a debris flow on Van Trump Creek in 2001.
It began with water melting from the Kautz Glacier on a hot summer day. The water found a weak spot in the moraine – the rocks pushed to the side as the glacier made its way down the mountain – and flowed into the Van Trump drainage.
“It was like God had a fire hose,” Kennard said, describing the force of the water hitting rocks downstream.
The resulting debris flow helped raise the level of the streambed at the confluence with the Nisqually River – a total of 38 feet since 1900.
The largest known debris flow in park history occurred Oct. 2-3, 1947, when heavy rains fell on the end of the Kautz Glacier.
The ensuing debris flow traveled 5.5 miles and buried Nisqually-Paradise Road under 28 feet of mud and debris, according to a report by Driedger and fellow scientist Joseph Walder.
About 50 million cubic yards of sediment were moved by the flow.
“They have a density that allows these boulders to float,” Driedger said. “They can girdle trees, can move bridges.”
A 12-foot-high boulder sits amid the Tahoma Creek bed filled with watermelon-size rocks, perhaps four miles upstream from the Nisqually-Paradise Road. A debris flow pushed it downstream in 2005. Since then, subsequent flows have carried it another 300 yards downstream.
A new concern, based on recent field studies, is surges of sediment, said park geologist Scott Beason.
Walking along Tahoma Creek, about two miles upstream from where it crosses under the Nisqually Road, Beason pointed out new mounds of sediment that recent debris flows had left behind. There have been at least 30 debris flows down the creek since 1967.
“It’s like a mouse swallowed by a snake,” Beason said. “These surges keep pushing the sediment downstream, right toward the bridge.”
THE NEXT STEP
Dave Uberuaga has seen the power of debris flows and flooding, as well as the mountain’s ability to absorb the damage. As the park’s superintendent, he also understands the threat such occurrences pose to visitor access.
“We are going to have events in the future that will cause damage,” he said. “It’s just a question of how much and where, and how you deal with it.
“Our strategy is thinking about it now before we get hit so we can decide how we’re going to react.”
Uberuaga said the park’s top managers will review the report from Kennard and Beason, and then look to determine the best fix for each spot. The park will need to contract with an engineering firm to do that and develop a cost estimate.
Among the options are using more multi-ton jetty rock to shore up riverbanks, building “engineered logjams” to slow and change the course of a river and sending excavators into streambeds to remove rock and sediment.
Raising roadways and installing more and larger culverts also are possible.
In developing possible fixes, Uberuaga faces two challenges – finding money and changing long-held philosophies among his own staff members and in other agencies.
“It’s dialing for dollars,” he said. “I have to go out and look for the money. But we have to compete for so many compelling needs throughout the Park Service.”
The park recently submitted a $5.78 million proposal to build 15 engineered logjams along the Nisqually River from the park entrance to Longmire.
It was rated No. 1 among new funding requests in the Park Service’s West region. Still, under normal circumstances, it might be four to five years before the park sees the money.
“It was recognized as an important need and project for Mount Rainier,” said assistant superintendent Randy King. “But now we have to compete with all these other projects on a national level.”
All the projects are vying for a share of $100 million for capital projects within the nation’s parks.
Mount Rainier’s prospects are difficult when up against requests from locations such as National Park of American Samoa. Staff members there have been working out of a former car dealership an hour from the park since a 2009 earthquake-spawned tsunami leveled the park’s visitor center, destroying all its contents, including the park’s curatorial collections. The Park Service has spent $1.3 million just to replace vehicles. Another $1.3 million has been requested to replace exhibits and find a better temporary location. There is no cost estimate for building a new visitor center.
“The demands for infrastructure improvements – there are hundreds of millions of dollars of backlogged work – are amazing,” Uberuaga said.
Adding to the frustration is that while making a reasonable investment now could save money in the long term, there isn’t money available now to do more than the necessary work.
“If you give us $7 million now so we can save $25 million down the road is a hard sell in these times of tight budgets,” Uberuaga said. “There’s just not a lot of money right now.”
Bureaucratic rules also tie the hands of park staffers when using the $30 million being sought from the federal highway bill to repave Nisqually-Paradise Road.
“Unfortunately we’re working within the (resurfacing, restoration and rehabilitation) program, and it has certain constraints,” said Eric Walkinshaw, the park’s civil engineer.
Funds from the program can be spent only on repair and repaving projects.
Federal Highway Administration officials have relented enough, he said, to allow the park to use some money to do preventative work in the Kautz Creek area.
“We’re not going to spend millions and millions on a bridge, but we’re going to spend some extra money there,” Uberuaga said. “Federal Highways realizes that’s a real threat.”
The plan is to use stone to harden the sides of the roadway and then use riprap to fill some of the ditch on the north side of the road.
“We anticipate when (the ditch) fills up, the water will go over the road, into the forest and down to the Nisqually River,” Uberuaga said. “Yes, we’ll have to close the road, but it will be there when the flood is done.”
Strengthening the road makes sense, because raising the road only increases its damming effect, Uberuaga said.
Such work, he said, reflects a change in thinking. The same applies to the use of engineered logjams. Current practices typically call for more and bigger rocks to armor riverbanks.
Uberuaga uses Sunshine Point Campground as an example.
Plenty of riprap was in place along the Nisqually River bank, he said, but the raging 2006 flood blasted through the rocks, washing away five acres and seven of 18 campsites. The campground has yet to reopen.
In cases where riprap withstands floods, it occasionally shifts the problem downstream.
That was the case at Milepost 6 along Nisqually-Paradise Road. A hardened wall upstream created a firehose effect, cutting into the riverbank at that spot, Kennard said. The park earlier this year installed an engineered logjam to protect the bank.
“We had some good riprap at Sunshine Point, but that didn’t help,” he said. “The same old fixes are not always going to work. Using riprap and large rocks won’t always be the best fix.
“It will be a cultural shift. What can we do differently with wood and rock to protect the park.”
“We’ve learned that many of the traditional methods don’t always work,” King added. “We have to be open to trying new things.”
Events over the last decade have raised awareness of the threats to the park’s main roadway, Uberuaga said.
“I’ve never worried about maintaining (the road) for the long term, but I know we’ll have times with temporary closures like we did in 2006 and 2009,” he said.
“We’ve had a taste of those climatic changes. Our strategy is thinking about it now before we get hit so we can decide how we’re going to react.”