Scientists believe that Mount Rainier is being altered significantly by climate change. Research shows that Rainier’s glaciers are melting at six times their historic rate.
Mount Rainier is a massive stratovolcano located near Seattle. Like other stratovolcanoes, which the famous Mount Vesuvius falls into this category, it is characterized by periodic explosive eruptions. Rainier has not erupted since 1894, but the U.S. Geological Survey describes it as “an active volcano that will erupt again.” Geologists are unable to predict when this next eruption might occur, but seismic imaging shows an underground reservoir of magma five to ten miles thick.
However, residents of Washington state should be more concerned with the lack of ice on Mount Rainier. Floods can do just as much damage as lava, sometimes even more, assuming that the lava cools and hardens before it gets too far downhill.
Many people think that glaciers melt evenly and measuredly. This is not the case. Typically, large quantities of water build up inside a melting glacier and, when the weight of all this liquid becomes too much for the enclosing ice to bear, it bursts free violently. These outburst floods can have devastating effects on whatever lies below as they morph into debris flows full of mud, downed trees and rocks.
Outburst floods do not happen often, but they are not unusual at Mount Rainier, especially as its prominent glaciers are increasingly altered by climate change. Floods have been recorded at four glaciers on the mountain. While few people have witnessed these catastrophic events, hydrologists say that they are accompanied by strong winds, dust clouds, and a violent shaking of the ground akin to a minor earthquake.
Glaciologists are closely monitoring Rainier’s glaciers, but it is almost impossible to predict when the next outburst flood might occur. There is no way of knowing what will finally trigger the release, but the fact that glaciers are receding at a much faster rate than usual tells them that an outburst flood is inevitable.
The roads in Mount Rainier National Park were mistakenly built in low-lying areas of the park that are vulnerable to floods. Even without the looming threat of catastrophic outbursts, these areas are flooded frequently by glacial runoff during the warmer months. This means that the roads are in a constant state of disrepair.
The irony of this situation comes full circle. The roads were built so that tourists could experience Rainier from their automobiles. The exhaust from automobiles has turned out to be one of the causes of climate change, and the effects of climate change are destroying the roads.
Nisqually Glacier is one of the most closely studied and, not coincidentally, one of the most accessible glaciers in the park. It has been receding since 1983, but this summer it was retreating towards the summitt an unprecedented rate: around three feet every ten days.
Whether or not this generation will see an eruption or an outburst flood is impossible to predict. Nonetheless, one thing is clear: scientists view the altering of Mount Rainier as undeniable evidence for climate change.
By Dac Collins
The Bellingham Herald 1
The Bellingham Herald 2
International Business Times
Photo by josquin2000 – Flickr License