Glacier Peak — nearly lost behind its shorter but much closer sister, Mount Pilchuck — is the county’s tallest mountain at 10,540 feet. It also has the potential to be the deadliest volcano in the state if not the West Coast and why the rumblings beneath its ancient rock should be closely monitored.
Glacier Peak is very old, estimated to be some 700,000 years, compared to a much younger Mount St. Helens at a spry 300,000. But Glacier is far from dormant and has remained active, last erupting about 240 years ago, with its last major eruption occurring about 1,800 years ago. In the past 5,000 years, it blew with a force five times the eruption of Mount St. Helens in May 1980, which obliterated the top of the mountain, killed 57 people and sent ash aloft that circled the globe and blanketed portions of states south and east of it.
The U.S. Geological Survey has listed Glacier Peak — Tda-ko-buh-ba in the Sauk-Suiattle Lushootseed dialect — as one of 18 volcanoes in the U.S. that pose a “very high threat,” because of their geological history and the scale of eruptions.
Yet, it is also among the least studied. The volcano has only one seismic monitor, sitting on its western flank. And that monitor’s batteries no longer hold a charge well from its solar panels and need to be replaced.
That one monitor provides scientists an incomplete picture of the magma that moves beneath the mountain and limits the ability of scientists, officials and communities to prepare for a range of potentially disastrous events.
Cascade volcanoes don’t typically produce the kinds of slow-moving but still destructive lava flows seen most recently in Hawaii. What they do often result in are lahars: mud flows of ash, rock, water from melted snow and glacial ice, trees and other debris that roar down the river valleys that lead from the mountain to the Salish Sea.
Like “The Really Big One,” the feared earthquake between magnitude 8.0 and 9.2 on the Richter scale that could strike the Cascadia fault along Washington’s Pacific Coast, when Glacier Peak will next erupt can’t be predicted. We only know that it will. Someday. And a system of monitors, equipped with GPS location devices that can better track the geologic activity beneath the surface, would provide some advanced warning of a building eruption.
Better monitoring of Glacier Peak has long been sought by residents of Darrington, as reported last week by The Herald’s Kari Bray. The town council for the community of about 1,400 people is urging support for a USGS 20-year permit that would allow the agency to place and maintain five GPS-equipped stations throughout the Glacier Peak Wilderness that surrounds the mountain.
The hangup with the proposal — beyond the speed of a federal government that is best measured in geologic epochs — is the wilderness part. The wilderness status of the 566,057-acre Glacier Peak Wilderness in the North Cascades preserves it as such. The Wilderness Act of 1964 was meant to protect backcountry regions “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
In that interest, there are rules about the activities allowed in designated wilderness. For the most part that has meant, along with prohibiting road construction and the use of motorized equipment, that no permanent structures be allowed in wilderness areas. But exceptions have been made in the courts and in the law itself for public purposes of recreation, science, education, conservation, historic preservation and public safety.
With the U.S. Forest Service’s preparation of an environmental review of the proposal, groups including Wilderness Watch and the Pilchuck Audubon Society have objected to the monitors because of their permanence and the need to use helicopters to fly in the nearly 1,900 pounds of equipment and materials needed for each station. The groups have objected to the potential impacts to wildlife, specifically Northern spotted owls and marbled murrelet, both listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.
The Forest Service, in the review, acknowledges the presence of both owl and murrelet, but said construction and helicopter flights would be confined to periods and times to limit impacts, particularly to avoid times when the birds are nesting.
The work of Wilderness Watch, based in Missoula, Montana, has been valuable in protection of the nation’s 110 million acres of designated wilderness, but the organization has been overzealous at times in that role, unwilling to concede reasonable exceptions. Recently, that brought its opposition to work that restored the historic Green Mountain fire lookout in the Glacier Peak Wilderness east of Darrington.
Wilderness Watch was successful in a 2010 lawsuit that resulted in a judge’s order to remove the lookout, because a helicopter was used in the restoration. But an act of Congress in 2014 saved the lookout, which Darrington residents consider a valuable tourism draw.
The Glacier Peak monitors represent another of those reasonable exceptions to the wilderness rule. Beyond the peace of mind provided by some warning of pending disaster, the monitors also will be valuable to the study of volcanoes and geologic forces.
In objecting to the monitors, Wilderness Watch insists that installation of the monitors could wait “until indications that they are needed.”
The problem is that without the monitors there might be little indication of their necessity until a lahar is tumbling down the Sauk River on its way to Darrington.