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‘If we had a sense that Mount Baker was waking up, the local threat would be considered severe’

What would happen if Mount Baker erupted?

With renewed interest following the eruption of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano, geologists say the biggest threat from Pacific Northwest volcanoes like Mount Baker is not lava, but mud and debris flows.
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With renewed interest following the eruption of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano, geologists say the biggest threat from Pacific Northwest volcanoes like Mount Baker is not lava, but mud and debris flows.

Mount Baker remains an active volcano with immense destructive capacity and is among several Cascades peaks that are worrisome because scientists aren’t able to study them effectively, a new report said.

Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey reported last fall that one-third of the 160 volcanoes across the U.S. aren’t being monitored properly, said Seth Moran, a seismologist and scientist-in-charge at the Cascades Volcano Observatory.

Moran discussed the nationwide scope of the situation in a McClatchy story last week and in a separate interview with The Bellingham Herald that focused on Mount Baker’s catastrophic potential.

He said Baker — known as Komo Kulshan to the Nooksack people — is one of eight volcanoes in Washington and Oregon that are a serious threat because they are near population centers and lack adequate instrumentation, including special seismographs to monitor the tiny earthquakes that foreshadow an eruption.

“If we had a sense that Mount Baker was waking up, the local threat would be considered severe,” Moran said. “Very often, when a volcano wakes up, it’s smaller earthquakes that tell us. It can be very subtle.”

Some 12 to 20 instruments — seismographs, gas monitors and other devices — are required to keep tabs on a sleeping giant like Mount Baker, Moran said.

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

Mount Baker has two USGS seismographs on its flanks, supplemented by two others in Deming and Bellingham operated by the University of Washington’s Pacific Northwest Seismic Network.

What areas are threatened if Mount Baker erupts?

A USGS map updated in 2014 shows that the mountain village of Glacier could be wiped out by a pyroclastic flow that Moran said consists of ash, rock, lava and superheated gas from inside the Earth.

Intense heat of a major eruption would melt the glaciers that wrap Baker’s 10,781-foot peak, sending floodwaters and massive volcanic mudslides called lahars sweeping down the Nooksack River’s middle and north forks, inundating the downstream communities of Deming, Everson, Nooksack, Kendall, Sumas, and the riverside cities of Lynden and Ferndale, Moran said.

Similarly, lahars would blast through the Skagit River Valley from Concrete to the river delta — creating havoc in Burlington, Mount Vernon and many small communities.

Population of Whatcom and Skagit counties is nearly 350,000 people, according to 2017 census estimates, so an early warning system is crucial, Moran said.

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A 2014 USGS map shows the danger that Mount Baker presents to populated areas of Whatcom and Skagit counties. U.S. Geological Survey Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“Really, the name of the game is is to give people as much time to respond appropriately to a volcano waking up,” Moran said. “It’s not dead.

About $50 million is required for the nationwide Volcano Hazards Program, a USGS official told McClatchy.

Moran said the volcano’s last major eruption was 6,700 years ago, sending debris flows into Baker Lake.

Mount Baker’s last eruption of any size was in 1843, when a steam explosion from Sherman Crater sent a lahar into the Baker River Valley.

Increased thermal activity on Baker raised eyebrows as late as 1975.

And those who looked toward Mount Baker’s peak in early March may have noticed steam or gas plumes venting from Sherman Crater on the volcano’s southern flank.

It’s an almost daily occurrence that becomes more visible when the steam is backlit near dawn on cold spring mornings, Carolyn Driedger, a USGS hydrologist and public information officer for the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver.

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A former U.S. Forest Service fire lookout at Park Butte sits above a lava flow that erupted around 716,000 years ago near Mount Baker. U.S. Geological Survey Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Driedger said in an interview that scientists are installing instruments at Glacier Peak in Snohomish County, another dangerous volcano.

Mount Baker is next on their list, she said.

“We have a lot to be done in regard to increased monitoring,” Driedger said. “It’s a long haul. We’ve made a lot of progress.”

Moran called Mount Baker an “interesting volcano. There is magma, we think about 10 miles down. It’s not dead. It’s probably reasonable to guess that every century or so we might see something like the 1843 explosion.”

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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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