Should I be worried about Mt. Rainier erupting?
May 31, 2007 6:47 AM   Subscribe

Seattle: seems like a nice place to live. But I'm somewhat concerned about Inevitable Volcanic Death. Should I be?

Apparently Mt. Rainier is several hundred years overdue for a cataclysmic explosion. But everything else about the city and the situation just sounds so good! Seattlites (?), how can I learn to stop worrying and love the bomb, so to speak?
posted by electric_counterpoint to Science & Nature (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You're way more likely to die of a hundred other causes...
posted by DarkForest at 7:16 AM on May 31, 2007

The primary danger is to certain parts of Tacoma. When Rainier goes active again, there could be a huge mud flow, and it would run down a particular valley, right through the middle of Tacoma. Seattle itself isn't really in too much danger; the primary concern there would be massive ash falls. But that isn't really very much of a danger: Yakima got covered with 3 feet of ash in 1980 and it's still there.

That article isn't lying, quite, but it's definitely sensationalist and I think it is exaggerating the danger, or at least you've come away with an exaggerated sense of the danger.

Let's put it this way: no matter where you live there's at least some kind of improbable but fantastically destructive risk. The Cascade volcanoes are less of a danger than tornadoes or top-class hurricanes or earthquakes. Or drought. Or crime. Or...
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:18 AM on May 31, 2007

I lived there from 2002 to august of last year, and unless you are living on the south end of seattle, more towards Tacoma & Federal Way, you don't have much to worry about from the lahars. The prevailing winds are still out of the west, so you shouldn't get too much ash.

I'd be more worried about the traffic. Seattle is a pretty populus area, and it is squished between the Cascades and Puget Sound, so options for road building are limited, and so are alternate routes. There was always traffic on I-5, even late at night. Most people are pretty good about making gaps for you though.

If you do decide to take your chances, don't neglegt the Olympic Penninsula, it is beautiful.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:24 AM on May 31, 2007

Yeah, as a Minnesotan turned Seattleite, I'm much more worried about earthquakes and the 520 bridge falling into the lake than I am Rainier. You couldn't pay me enough to live in one of the tiny towns at the mountain's foot, don't get me wrong, but 60+ miles away, in north Seattle? I'm not too worried.
posted by GaelFC at 7:35 AM on May 31, 2007

I also heard (and can't source it) that seismologists monitor the mountain's every ache and groan so carefully that they think they'll have two weeks notice before anything major. Unsure if this is accurate, but there you go. I never had two weeks notice before a Minnesota tornado.
posted by GaelFC at 7:37 AM on May 31, 2007

In trying to find the source for GaelFC's statements, I dug up this interesting little nugget, from NBC nightly news, September 20th, 2003:

"JOHN SEIGENTHALER, anchor: ...if Washington State's Mount Rainier were to erupt, the concern isn't fire, but ice. Here is Dr. William Scott of the US Geological Survey in his own words.

Dr. WILLIAM SCOTT (United States Geological Survey): The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was highly explosive. We think it much more likely that Mount Rainier will have small explosions and eruption of lava flows from here to the summit. An eruption that--that brought home some of the hazards that are present at Mount Rainier was an eruption of a volcano named Ruiz in Colombia in 1985. And their relatively small explosive eruption melted much of the summit's snow and ice and sent large floods of water down the canyons, made then into concrete-like slurries that we call lahars. They move down the valleys for tens of miles, running over several cities, and in total almost 25,000 people were killed. We foresee that an ex--similar explosive of Mount Rainier in the future would also melt a large quantity of snow and ice and create lahars that would move far down the river valleys.

You see the very smooth snow field at the summit. The areas of greatest concern are the dark cliffs just below the summit ice field, and parts of that have been weakening. The largest lahar that we know of at Mount Rainier was formed about 5,000 years ago when most of the summit of the volcano collapsed and formed lahars and covered most of the major rivers valleys to the north of Mount Rainier in which, perhaps, something on the order of a hundred or 150,000 people now live.

We monitor Mount Rainier for earthquakes and for ground deformation and for the release of volcanic gases. We've worked to establish a lahar warning system in one of the valleys that drains Mount Rainier. Lahars have a size that affect the populated areas. The large ones occur perhaps on the order of every 500 to 1,000 years. So these don't occur very often, but we know that they will occur in the future. We don't know exactly when. But Mount Rainier will erupt again or have a large landslide again and send lahars down into these populated areas."
posted by cashman at 7:58 AM on May 31, 2007

If you lived here you'd realize that the dominant paranoia is earthquakes. Actually, any little freak event like a windstorm will get a barrage of over-the-top news coverage. Or snow - laugh all you want, but it takes surprisingly little to nearly shut the city down.

For the record, I live in Tacoma. I didn't realized that makes me theoretically more "screwed". Considering that volcanic activity is actively monitored, the thought doesn't even enter my mind, honestly. Check out the USGS page on monitoring Mount Rainier, if you're interested.
posted by O9scar at 8:08 AM on May 31, 2007

Well, not just Yakima... my street was piled with ash too and I'm still here.

I hope the comparison to 9/11 isn't crass because I think it's apt... so many of us went through that process of moving from that initial distorted perception (the city we loved was now connected with a new threat of random violent death) back into logic (the city we loved was still the city we loved, the chance of death was minimal statistically, and the value of nyc culture was higher than the fact of nyc's being a terrorist target).

I say live in Seattle if you want to live in Seattle -- live the life you want, and in the case of dramatic-yet-very-unlikely possibilities, don't let the "dramatic" outweigh and camouflage the "very unlikely."
posted by allterrainbrain at 8:29 AM on May 31, 2007

Inevitable Volcanic Death is my favorite band.
posted by ORthey at 9:09 AM on May 31, 2007

We moved from Minneapolis to Seattle two years ago and are now moving back for family reasons. My dad is a geologist and gave me a printout from the USGS website showing neighborhoods that would be most and least stable in an earthquake. It's best to live on bedrock, rather than fill. He was far more concerned about the earthquake than the volcanoes. In fact, Mt. Rainier is more like eye candy here than anything else. It's pretty spectacular and exotic to a midwesterner.

The real problem is the traffic. It's kind of intertwined with the earthquake threat, because some roadways aren't safe if the ground shakes. For example, it's better to take the I-90 bridge than the 520, but it's kind of a hassle to drive the extra distance just for that momentary safety. Also, the Alaskan Way Viaduct is quite dangerous in an earthquake, but it's my only route to work that won't take an hour. So I drive it every day. I only get uncomfortable when traffic stops there, and I have to sit and think about what I would do if it collapsed. This happens every evening at rush hour, which I usually avoid because I hate traffic.

The risk is still pretty minimal. We just keep bottled water and PowerBars in our cars and basement in case we get stranded for a couple days. Oh, and now that we're moving, we have a lot of water and PowerBars to give away....
posted by aimless at 9:15 AM on May 31, 2007

aimless: Another Minnesotan turned Seattleite that I never met, and now you'ra outta here!

Enjoy Minnesota, and have a White Castle or two for me...Dick's is no replacement.
posted by GaelFC at 9:54 AM on May 31, 2007

You're scared that Mt. Rainer is going to erupt and kill you, but you're not living in a reinforced concrete hut in case lightning strikes an airplane which then falls on you? There's lots of planes flying over Minnesota, you know...

If you're going to worry about something with a probability having dozens of zeros after the decimal, at least sort them in the right order...
posted by dmd at 11:21 AM on May 31, 2007

I think global warming is working to reduce the risk of lahars.

My biggest concern about Rainier erupting is the disruptions to infrastructure, which is why we have some emergency rations to get us through the likely chaos that will follow.
posted by Good Brain at 11:48 AM on May 31, 2007

Really, as has been stated, earthquakes and tsunamis should be your biggest natural disaster fears. Volcanoes are not only relatively predictable but the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory is located in Vancouver Washington and they've learned a lot since Mt. St. Helens. Plus, there are lot of places that will be worse off than Seattle when Mt. Ranier blows. If you are adequately prepared for an earthquake (as you'll want to be if you move to Seattle) you should be able to weather the service disruptions, etc. caused by a volcano -- just add some high quality dust masks to your emergency stash.
posted by rosebengal at 1:01 PM on May 31, 2007

tsunamis should be your biggest natural disaster fears

No Pacific tsunami would be able to get through the Puget Sound's twists and turns before impacting Seattle in a way that's meaningful for the average Joe, and the faults in and around Seattle proper aren't the kind that generate tsunamis themselves.

Earthquakes, windstorms (lotsa trees to fall) and garden-variety flooding are the natural-disasters-of-choice here.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:45 PM on May 31, 2007

Good point about the tree-falls. When we moved up here, my wife, who grew up in West Texas, kept wondering who these idiots were who kept getting hit by trees. Then one day, reality sunk in - - there are a hell of a lot of trees here, and they don't care one bit whether you live, or die.
posted by Good Brain at 2:20 PM on May 31, 2007

What kills me here is the absolute STEEP streets that people live on. Which they cheerfully take for granted until that one day a year when it ices up.
posted by GaelFC at 2:37 PM on May 31, 2007

I'd worry more about Earthquakes.

Been through three since living here and only one Volcano eruption.

However what is most likely to get you will be the heart attack you suffer dealing with the slow meandering and oblivious passive aggressive drivers.
posted by tkchrist at 3:03 PM on May 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Figure on an earthquake big enough to upset you about once every 5 years. It's Pacific Rim.

Trivia: The town of Orting has lahar drills in the schools. They do not say "move calmly to the door." They yell, "run like the devil is chasing you, for it is, and don't look back." Then they stuff their little asses into school buses and drive for high ground with little regard for anything except speed. This has not happened for real, yet, although if I remember, there was a lahar a few years back that went someplace else, and didn't hit occupied country, much.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 6:38 AM on June 1, 2007

The Kid tells me you turn on the furnace when the wind starts to come up, to warm the house for when the power goes out, "because the treehuggers won't let them trim the trees around the power lines, and it's going to go down." The Kid likes trees and did not mind this, and usually if it runs one cycle first, you won't freeze before it comes back on.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 6:41 AM on June 1, 2007

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