Mount Rainier: The American Volcano That Could Spell Disaster

By: Georgia | Published: Jun 24, 2024

Perched majestically at 4.3 kilometers above sea level, Mount Rainier has remained quiet for over a millennium. 

Despite its serene appearance, its storied past and impressive size mark it as a significant concern for U.S. volcanologists, who see it as a sleeping giant capable of future fury.

The Looming Threat Over Puget Sound

“Mount Rainier keeps me up at night because it poses such a great threat to the surrounding communities,” confessed Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist and advocate, in the CNN series “Violent Earth With Liv Schreiber.” 

Aerial shot of Mount Rainier showing its snow-covered peak and surrounding lower mountains under a cloud-filled sky

Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s the history of lahars—massive volcanic mudflows—that makes it particularly dangerous for Tacoma and South Seattle.


It's Not the Lava to Fear

When you think of volcanic eruptions, you might picture rivers of lava.

A dynamic view of a volcanic eruption with molten lava spewing and smoke rising under a cloudy sky

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet, at Mount Rainier, the real danger is lahars, devastating flows of mud and debris triggered by the rapid melting of the mountain’s significant snow and ice reserves during an eruption.

The Impending Rush of Destruction

Mount Rainier’s unique risk comes from its icy cloak. “The thing that makes Mount Rainier tough is that it is so tall, and it’s covered with ice and snow, and so if there is any kind of eruptive activity, hot stuff … will melt the cold stuff and a lot of water will start coming down,” noted Seth Moran from USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory. 

Mount Rainier reflected in a serene lake at twilight, surrounded by lush forests and a colorful sky

Source: Intricate Explorer/Unsplash

This creates a dire situation for thousands living below.

Remembering Nevado del Ruiz

The 1985 calamity at Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia, where a lahar obliterated the town of Armero and killed 23,000 people, stands as a stark warning. 

Historical photo of Mount St. Helens during its eruption, showing a massive plume of ash and smoke rising from the crater

Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s a brutal demonstration of how swiftly lahars can form and the catastrophic toll they can exact on communities.

The Perilous Aftermath of Lahars

Bradley Pitcher of Columbia University vividly described the peril on CNN’s “Violent Earth,” stating, “When it comes to rest … you’ve got this hardened almost, like, concrete substance that can be like quicksand when people are trying to get out of it.”

An aerial view of Mount St. Helens post-eruption, showing the devastated landscape with ash covering the snow and a new crater formed at the summit

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This encapsulates the daunting challenges faced during rescue and recovery efforts after a lahar.


Ranked Among the Nation's Most Dangerous

The latest assessments by the US Geological Survey place Mount Rainier as the third most hazardous volcano in the United States, right behind the infamous Kīlauea and Mount St. Helens.

Bright orange lava erupts violently against a dark sky, with lava splattering high into the air

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This ranking demonstrates the potential for disaster due to its proximity to populated areas.


A Long History of Devastation

Studies have tracked multiple large lahars from Mount Rainier flowing into the Puget Lowlands over the past 6,000 years.

Aerial view of a glacier with intricate blue ice formations and crevasses, spreading out like a frozen river system surrounded by rugged mountain terrain

Source: Wikimedia Commons

“The volcano is potentially capable of doing it again,” warned Moran, illustrating the ongoing geological instability around the mountain.


The Threat of Spontaneous Lahars

Not all lahars require volcanic eruptions to begin. Moran emphasized that landslides on Mount Rainier’s west flank could also set off these deadly flows.

A muddy lahar flow cutting through a barren landscape, showing the path of devastation with dried mud and scattered debris along a once verdant valley

Source: Wikimedia Commons

These events are unpredictable and could happen suddenly, presenting an immediate hazard to nearby areas.


Forecasting Future Catastrophes

Recent simulations have painted a grim picture: a colossal lahar originating on the western slopes of Mount Rainier could devastate areas far from the peak within an hour. 

Warm sunset light bathing Mount Rainier, highlighting its snowy peak above lush green forests and rugged mountain terrain, viewed through silhouetted pine trees

Source: Devin H/Unsplash

The findings highlight the urgent need for community preparedness and robust evacuation plans.


Cutting-Edge Detection Systems

Efforts to safeguard the region began in 1998 when Mount Rainier was equipped with an elaborate lahar detection system, now featuring broadband seismometers, infrasound sensors, and other high-tech tools. 

Sweeping aerial view of Mount Rainier's snow-covered peak, showcasing its massive glaciers and crevasses amidst the surrounding mountain ranges under clear blue skies

Source: Peter Hulce/Unsplash

This network is vital for providing early warnings that could save thousands of lives.


Training for Survival

In March, the largest lahar evacuation drill ever was held, involving 45,000 students across several school districts.

A serene winter scene at Mount Rainier with a snow-covered landscape reflected in a clear, calm lake, while a person in a red jacket kneels by the water's edge

Source: Joshua Earle/Unsplash

This large-scale practice session tested local emergency responses and heightened community awareness about the very real risks of residing in the shadow of Mount Rainier.