Computer simulation shows where volcanic ash could go if Mount Baker erupts

A computer simulation delves 6,600 years into the past to show where volcanic ash would go if Mount Baker blew today.

The simulation is on the website of the Mount Baker Volcano Research Center at mbvrc.wordpress.com. Bellingham geologist Dave Tucker, who is an expert on the volcanic history of Mount Baker, is the director of the nonprofit research center.

The model helps answer the question: “If Mount Baker erupted right now, what would happen?” Tucker said.

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory created the animation to show the distribution and thickness of ash from a Mount Baker eruption.

As for the size of the simulated eruption, it’s based on the largest one from Mount Baker preserved in the geologic record. That data came from Tucker’s research, which included finding ash deposits in the soil from 6,600 years ago.

Tucker gives talks about the 10,781-foot volcano’s eruption history and hazards. For him, the simulation is about informing the public about the snow-capped volcano that dominates the Whatcom County skyline.

“It serves as a wake-up call to people around here,” he said. “It’s an active volcano and it presents a hazard.”

To determine ash distribution, the model uses wind directions and velocities at different altitudes from throughout the region. It is updated three times a day with wind data from the National Weather Service.


Where the ash plume goes depends on the weather that day.

Results for the morning of Dec. 14, for example, showed that an eruption as large as the one from 6,600 years ago would “shower Bellingham with 1.2 inches of gritty gray volcanic ash,” Tucker said.

“This is enough to shut down the airport and ruin internal combustion engines, and could short out power lines, transformers and electric substations,” added Tucker, who is a research associate at Western Washington University.

And because the ash would be a very fine-grain dust, people with respiratory issues would have problems.

“People would not be driving around. People would not be going outside,” he said, referring to the Dec. 14 simulation.

Larry Mastin, vulcanologist with the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory, was among the scientists who developed the simulation using Ash 3d software. He also sees it as a tool for public awareness.

“It just gets people thinking about what might happen if an eruption occurred today,” Mastin said.

The animation also will make Whatcom County residents realize that wind patterns usually would blow the ash away from the western parts of the county.

The eruption from 6,600 years ago didn’t send ash to Bellingham or other parts of western Whatcom County, according to Tucker. The geologic record showed ash was blown to the east and northeast.

Such simulations are part of national and international monitoring of volcanoes conducted by scientists for research and for public safety, with Mastin saying that ash is the most widespread of volcanic hazards because it can travel long distances.

The animation found on the Mount Baker Volcano Research Center’s website also is unusual because it’s accessible to the public.

“He (Mastin) has allowed us to post this simulation as sort of a test to see what public reaction is,” Tucker said.

The daily posts offer as much or as little information as people might want.

“It’s technical if you want to understand just how the program was derived, if you want to understand the nitty-gritty of it,” Tucker said.

Or, Tucker added, viewers can simply look at a picture and say, “‘Holy cow, we would get it.’ It’s really educational and it gives them a better sense of what it would be like.”

That in turn “can help allay the disaster freakout scenario that people have,” Tucker said, referring to the impression that many people have that if “Mount Baker blows, we’re all dead.”

As for when Baker could blow: “We can say that Baker could erupt at any time and we would probably have about three weeks notice based on the seismometers that are installed,” Tucker said, adding that more earthquakes in the volcano are a sign that the hot magma inside is moving upward.

Learn more:

• Mount Baker Volcano Research Center:



• Cascades Volcano Observatory:



• Volcanic Ash Advisory Center: