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THOMPSON: One of the world's most dangerous volcanoes

December 07, 2020 - 12:00 PM

OPINION


I don’t remember too much about my first trip to Portland, Oregon. After all, it was 40 years ago. There on business, I do recall finishing early on a Thursday instead of Friday, which allowed me to grab a flight other than my scheduled “red eye” back to Philadelphia and enjoy a full weekend.

That Sunday I was enjoying brunch with friends in Wilmington, Delaware when our server asked, “Did you hear about the volcano?” We all looked at each other...and collectively responded, “What volcano?”

It was noon back East, but 30 minutes earlier nearly 2,800 miles away....Mount St. Helens had blown its top. Volcanic ash spewed 12 miles - well into the stratosphere - in ten minutes in a plume that looked much like a mushroom-shaped cloud from an atomic blast.

In the next eight and a half hours, Mount St. Helens would shoot 540 million tons of ash into the atmosphere. If you’re like me, that sounds like a lot...but it’s almost unfathomable. If it helps, that’s roughly the weight of 3,500 Blue Whales...or 5,000 Boeing 757-200 aircraft.

Ash - anywhere from 1/2 inch to two inches thick - covered nine western and mid-western states.

I had missed seeing a volcano erupt from 50 miles away by just a few days. And while I like volcanoes...I prefer to study them from afar. Which brings me to the actual topic of my column...one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes.

Mount Rainier - less than an hour southeast of Tacoma, Washington - last erupted in 1895, though it rumbles with earthquakes today that might signal a rebirth. Indeed, there were a dozen earthquakes beneath the mountain last week alone, including a 3.6 magnitude quake last Sunday. Rainier averages one earthquake every week, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Mount Rainier in Washington State is seen in this September 2013 photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Mount Rainier in Washington State is seen in this September 2013 photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Image Credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / Walter Siegmund

Still, people shouldn’t sell their homes and move from the area. It has been at least a thousand years since the last major eruption on Mount Rainier. Odds are a catastrophic blast won’t happen soon...but most experts agree that it could happen before the super-volcano in Yellowstone National Park.

People often think of Yellowstone National Park - largely in Wyoming and Montana - as the likely spot for a cataclysmic volcano eruption, but some volcanologists say Mount Rainier poses the bigger threat with its proximity to a large number of people who live in valleys where last-minute escapes would be virtually impossible.

The Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia in 1985 was the world’s last catastrophic eruption...it killed more than 23,000 people...not with lava flows and poisonous gases...but with powerful slurries of melted glacial ice, rocks and sediment called lahars. The lahars filled entire valleys nearly 500 feet deep before anyone could even think of leaving.

Mount Rainier is similar to the situation in Colombia...a volcanic mountain with year-round ice and snow...with lots of people in nearby valleys. There are 25 major glaciers on Mount Rainier...covering 35 square miles...some hundreds of feet thick. A major eruption would send lahars down Mount Rainier into multiple valleys in the Seattle-Tacoma area.

Being swept away by viscous floodwaters isn’t what comes to mind when people think about the dangers of volcanoes. We’ve become conditioned to thinking of volcanoes as red-hot lava flows and suffocating gases...maybe from regular videos of Hawaii’s Kilauea and Maunaloa volcanoes. But mudslides?

Volcanoes have always been with us...in fact, they were here before there was us. In ancient times, people lacked the knowledge and history to escape most catastrophic volcano eruptions. Last week, archeologists uncovered more evidence of the blast from Mount Vesuvius that buried Pompeii and other villages in 79 AD.

Layers of fine ash covered the bodies of Pompeiians - more than 1,000 - and over the centuries they calcified, forming a protective shell around their bodies. When the skin and tissue eventually decayed, they left voids in the layer of ash around them.

Archeologists then poured plaster into those voids...and after removing the ash layer they found figures in the exact shape of the victims in their final moments. Most died instantly...some with their hands held in front of their faces...or trying to protect their children.

We’ve learned a lot about volcanoes over the years, especially since Mount St. Helens, which obliterated millions of trees, actually blew away top soil all the way to bedrock, and caused 57 deaths. It could have been much worse. And experts say a Mt. Rainier blast would likely dwarf that of Mount St. Helens.

Forty years ago, technology meant placing a few scientific instruments on a volcano’s flanks.

Today, there’s an integrated network of monitoring devices that measure earthquakes, deformation and volcanic gases...eruptions and changes on the Earth’s surface are detected...from space.

Last year, the U.S. Geological Survey initiated the National Volcano Early Warning System, which involves geologists, seismologists, geophysicists, hydrologists, geochemists and biologists who work together routinely. Research, monitoring and communications have improved dramatically...using GPS and other precise technologies. Knowledge is power.

For example, there are four major valleys in the Seattle-Tacoma area that would be affected by lahars from a Mt. Rainier eruption. Three of the four have rivers with dams and reservoirs and because coordination has improved between government agencies those reservoirs could be emptied to accommodate the slurries of water and mud.

Many of us are intrigued by volcanoes...their power...their unnerving beauty. I remember driving near the Kilauea volcano crater years ago...then revving the engine in my rental car to make clouds of sulphur and other gases escape from cracks in the ground. Of course, I was younger then and probably thought I had a higher threshold of death.

We will always share the planet with volcanoes...but we’re better prepared than ever. Technology, cooperation and communication mean people will have days...possibly weeks advance notice that an eruption is coming. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about volcanoes...for most of us they’re best viewed from afar.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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