Looming over Bellingham’s landscape sits a unique geological threat: Mount Baker. It hasn’t erupted for over 6000 years, but recent rumblings within are inspiring geologists and emergency management to take action.
Story by Allyse Sullivan | Photos by Clay Dinehart
Driving east on Highway 542, the town of Glacier, Washington winks by as the road twists through the foothills of Mount Baker. In the same crisp breath, the cozy collection of ski shops and eateries nestled into the damp, ferny forest wish adventurers well on their journey into the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Glacier settles into a valley that pours from Mount Baker’s side; the glowing face of its slopes are a deceptively friendly sight. Mount Baker isn’t always serene, but as an active volcano operating on geological time, its volatile nature is nearly invisible to human eyes.
“There’s no history of it, you know?” said Sonya Buckner at the Mt. Baker Visitor Center in Maple Falls, “Your grandparents can’t say ‘Yeah, I was around when it erupted back then.’”
Mount Baker’s last eruption was over 6,500 years ago, and people living in the mountain’s shadow find that distance pretty comfortable. The common inconveniences of living remotely, such as being snowed in, are more concerning to residents than the possibility of an eruption. If the recent grumbling within the belly of Baker is any indication of an impending eruption, then the communities along these valleys have cause for concern. The U.S. Geological Survey and Whatcom County Division of Emergency Management are working together to prepare for a major event should the volcano reawaken.
In 1975, an unusual increase in heat emanating from Sherman Crater near the mountain’s summit alerted experts. This unrest was preceded by a steam explosion from the crater just about a century earlier in 1843.
“That’s a complicated message,” said U.S. Geological Survey Principal Seismologist Seth Moran. “Because on the one hand, you say, well Mt. Baker last erupted 6,700 years ago, so that’s a long time frame to keep in mind, but it’s also true that we know of these two instances in which it was restless.”
Mount Baker hasn’t fallen back into a peaceful slumber, and experts with the U.S. Geological Survey say residents should anticipate seeing more agitation, like steam explosions, within their lifetime. The most dramatic potential activity is an actual eruption, like the one that released lahar flows and ravaged the valleys of Whatcom and Skagit Counties over 6,500 years ago. Lahars are dense mudflows generated by the heat of an eruption, which melt ice and snow atop mountains and sends debris cascading down the slopes. Considering the scars the flows left behind thousands of years ago, lahars are the experts’ primary concern. The U.S. Geological survey measured the depth of lahar flows at over 30 meters near the middle fork of the Nooksack River, and at about 18 meters in Deming, Washington.
Moran is adamant that functioning equipment is essential in ensuring the safety of the 12,500 people directly endangered by Baker’s volcanic activity. The seismic monitoring equipment stationed at two locations on the mountain is expected to provide scientists with weeks, if not months, of fair warning should Mt. Baker threaten to blow. Although the ramifications of Baker’s expected eruption are high, residents would have ample time to evacuate the 16 kilometer radius.
The threat of a potential eruption doesn’t seem to phase those living under the shadow of Baker, such as Nai’i LeDain, who works at the Wake n’ Bakery cafe in Glacier.
“I feel like everyone kind of knows,” said LeDain. “There’s not volcanic action happening every day, so I think it’s kind of in the back of people’s minds mostly.”
John Gargett, the Deputy Director of Whatcom County Division of Emergency Management, sympathizes with the tension between caution and keeping a cool head. Gargett works in concert with the U.S. Geological Survey to organize agencies across 30 different jurisdictions in preparation for an eruption.
An eruption producing lahar flows flooding the Nooksack River could devastate the cities and towns along its banks. The cities of Nooksack, Everson, and Lynden, as well as the Nooksack Indian Tribe, would feel the brunt of such destruction, but the impacts of an eruption are far more pervasive. People can relocate, but farms, pipelines, roads, and hiking trails can’t.
“I think you can begin to get a feel for the impact it could have on us,” said Gargett. “So we have to make those decisions smartly, we want to make them timely, and we want to ensure we aren’t overreacting in the short term.”