This map shows Glacier Peak’s volcano hazard zones. (USGS)
                                This map shows Glacier Peak’s volcano hazard zones. (USGS)

This map shows Glacier Peak’s volcano hazard zones. (USGS) This map shows Glacier Peak’s volcano hazard zones. (USGS)

Cloaked in ice, Snohomish County’s volcano is a future danger

The U.S. Geological Survey says Glacier Peak poses a “very high threat” and needs better monitoring.

GLACIER PEAK — As the eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has triggered evacuations on the Big Island and drawn international attention, Snohomish County’s own volcano slumbers in the wilderness east of Darrington.

Glacier Peak is considered a “very high threat” volcano by the U.S. Geological Survey, and the agency has labeled it a priority for improved monitoring. Threat levels are based on frequency of activity, types of eruptions, the hazards of those eruptions and how many people would be affected.

Glacier Peak doesn’t have the level of exposure Kilauea does, where fissures are opening in neighborhoods, said Seth Moran, scientist-in-charge of the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory. But volcanic mudflows from a large eruption of Glacier Peak could reach communities in the Stillaguamish and Skagit valleys, and the volcano could spew ash as far as British Columbia.

It would be starkly different than what’s happening in Hawaii, Moran said.

An update from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on Monday described “lava fountaining, explosion of spatter more than 100 feet into the air, and an advancing lava flow.”

“The main thing that would be in common is that (Glacier Peak and Kilauea) are both volcanoes,” Moran said. “We wouldn’t see lava fountaining, we wouldn’t see fissures. The lava in Glacier Peak is much, much stickier than what’s in Kilauea.”

Glacier Peak as seen from the east, from Buck Creek Pass, in July 2007. (Wenatchee World file)

Glacier Peak as seen from the east, from Buck Creek Pass, in July 2007. (Wenatchee World file)

The two biggest hazards from Snohomish County’s volcano would be ash and lahars, or volcanic mudflows, which would be fed by glaciers melting on contact with hot volcanic rock. Mud, melt and debris roughly the consistency of wet cement would rush down the mountain.

“Lahars can go for a while and they can be very destructive,” Moran said.

Several communities, including Darrington, sit atop the remnants of such flows from millennia past.

Of Washington’s five active volcanoes, Glacier Peak is the most remote. The peak is named for more than a dozen glaciers that cling to its sides. It has produced some of the largest, most explosive eruptions in the continental U.S. and has erupted at least six times since the end of the last ice age, according to the USGS. Researchers estimate the most recent was less than 300 years ago.

More than a decade ago, an assessment by the National Volcano Early Warning System found that Glacier Peak needs better monitoring. A single seismometer, installed in September 2001, is the only station there.

The goal is to add four more monitoring stations. That project is in the permitting phase with the U.S. Forest Service, Moran said.

Glacier Peak as seen from the east, near Darrington, in 2004. (Michael Martina / The Herald)

Glacier Peak as seen from the east, near Darrington, in 2004. (Michael Martina / The Herald)

In 2014, researchers used Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, to map Glacier Peak and hundreds of square miles around the volcano.

“It was a really successful survey,” Moran said. “Glacier Peak is a wilderness area with lots and lots of tall trees. It’s really hard to do field geology out there and see subtle land changes associated with volcanic activity. The LiDAR allows you to kind of strip away the trees and map the layers.”

The detailed elevation information on drainages coming off Glacier Peak allows researchers to better map the potential paths of lahars.

“Another episode could happen conceivably in our lifetimes,” Moran said. “One of our roles is to ensure that we’re ready when something happens at Glacier Peak, and to make sure that the community is ready.”

The monitoring station has tracked some small quakes, including a short-lived sequence around Thanksgiving of 2015, Moran said.

Mostly, though, Glacier Peak is quiet. More monitoring equipment would be needed to better pinpoint small quakes and determine their significance.

Moran urges people to know if they are within reach of Glacier Peak or other volcanoes, and to understand the type of eruption that could happen and what hazards might affect them. He also reminds them it could be a long time before Glacier Peak awakens.

“Part of being prepared is understanding what can happen, and the likelihood that it will happen,” Moran said. “Volcanoes have some mystique. They’re the tallest mountain we see on the horizon … Take them into account, keep them in mind, but don’t be running around thinking (an eruption) is something that could happen the next day.”

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray @heraldnet.com.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Traffic’s creeping back and some transit to collect fares again

Community Transit and Sound Transit are set to resume fares June 1, but not Everett Transit.

Neil Hubbard plays the bagpipes in front of a memorial at Floral Hills cemetery in Lynnwood Monday morning. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Memorial Day tradition continues in Lynnwood amid pandemic

Loved ones placed flags at Floral Hills cemetery as bagpipes played in the distance Monday morning.

COVID-19 and domestic violence

Public Health Essentials! A blog by the Snohomish Health District.

Counting COVID deaths isn’t as simple as you might think

State relies on results of tests and death certificates in calculating the daily toll of the disease.

Stillaguamish Tribe gives $1M to food banks, fire services

“I had to do a double take,” said the director of the Stanwood Camano Food Bank, which received $300,000.

Island County gets go-ahead for Phase 2 of reopening economy

People can gather in groups five or fewer. Some businesses can open, if they follow guidelines.

The town the virus seemed to miss: No cases counted in Index

Some in the town of 175 fear outsiders could bring in the virus. Others just want things to get back to normal.

Worst jobless rate in the state: Snohomish County at 20.2%

In April, 91,383 were unemployed in the county. The aerospace sector was hit especially hard.

Boeing worker accused of murder after Everett party shooting

Police say the suspect, 35, made sexual advances and opened fire when he was turned down.

Most Read