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Here’s why you saw Mount Baker belching steam last weekend

Video shows steam vents in a crater on Mount Baker

Steam vents, known as fumaroles, are shown just inside the west rim of Sherman Crater on Mount Baker in 2010. The trip was organized by the Mount Baker Volcano Research Center at Western Washington University. More information: http://mbvrc.wwu.edu
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Steam vents, known as fumaroles, are shown just inside the west rim of Sherman Crater on Mount Baker in 2010. The trip was organized by the Mount Baker Volcano Research Center at Western Washington University. More information: http://mbvrc.wwu.edu

It’s possible that even Mount Baker hates the persistent cold weather, because Bellingham’s neighborhood stratovolcano snorted in apparent disgust over the weekend.

It wasn’t an eruption, but rather a puff of steam or gas that occurs daily — although we lowlanders don’t always notice the difference between regular clouds and a hiccup from Sherman Crater astride the mountain’s snowy peak.

“The lighting made it a bit harder to distinguish if the cloud was a steam cloud at first,” said Nadja Rua of Anacortes, who saw the volcanic belch during a morning ferry ride to Orcas Island.

It came almost a year to the date after Western Washington residents noticed an impressive venting on the morning of March 17, 2018.

“The lighting wasn’t as good as last year, but my hubby and I were commenting on it and I took a few pics from the outside deck,” Rua said via Facebook Messenger.

Mark Swenson of Bellingham photographed the venting about a half-hour before dawn from Ferndale Road, as a small lenticular cloud swirled in the golden sky above the 10,781-foot mountain that’s about 30 miles east of Bellingham.

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A small lenticular cloud forms above Mount Baker as steam or gas vents from Sherman Crater before dawn on Saturday, March 2, 2019, east of Bellingham, WA. Mark Swenson Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“It was (Saturday) early in the morning and lasted for a good couple hours,” Swenson said via Messenger. “I’ve a seen a little venting in the past, but not to that degree.“

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Mount Baker vents steam or gas from Sherman Crater on the morning of Saturday, March 2, 2019, east of Bellingham, WA. Mark Swenson The Bellingham Herald

Dave Tucker, of the Mount Baker Volcano Research Center and a research associate in the Geology Department at Western Washington University, said the active volcano vents gas constantly.

“(It’s) sometimes visible, sometimes not. But gas clouds are always present,” he told The Bellingham Herald in 2018.

After seeing steam venting from Mount Baker on Saturday, March 17, Austin Breckenridge of Bellingham created this video. Baker is the Cascade Range's second most-thermally active crater and regularly lets off steam due to geologic activity.

In an email Monday, Tucker said winter is often the best time for lowland residents to see the gas plumes.

“Gas plume visibility is enhanced in winter with temperature contrast between the gases (largely steam) and the atmosphere,” Tucker said. “Sunlight from behind the plume helps with visibility, so it is usually more notable in the morning.”

Geologists say the biggest threat from Pacific Northwest volcanoes like Mount Baker is not lava, but mud and debris flows.

Mount Baker, known to indigenous people as “Kulshan,” last erupted in 1843, but the U.S. Geological Survey recently told The Associated Press that Washington state’s third-highest peak remains a serious threat because of its proximity to people.

No recent earthquake activity has been recorded near Mount Baker, according to the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, a University of Washington center that monitors the region.

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A map of Mount Baker hazards shows the potential impact area during a volcanic event. U.S. Geologiocal Survey Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The date of Mount Baker’s last eruption was corrected March 5, 2019.

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.

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