The Messy Encounter of Volcanoes and Glaciers

Lahars, or mudflows from the eruptions of glacier-covered volcanoes, are a threat that the communities of Skagit Valley in northwest Washington live with. These destructive mudflows can be triggered during volcanic eruptions when hot water and debris rush downslope from the volcano and mix with glacial water. A recent study from the Journal of Applied Volcanology by Corwin et al., identifies ways to improve hazard management and community preparedness in Washington’s Skagit Valley, home to Mount Baker, the second most glaciated volcano in the Cascade Range, and Glacier Peak, the second most explosive. The highly populated communities within Skagit Valley remain especially at risk for dangerous mudflows since both Mount Baker and Glacier Peak are considered active lahar hazard zones.

Mount Baker in Washington state (Source: Jerry Meaden/Creative Commons).
Mount Baker in Washington state (Source: Jerry Meaden/Creative Commons).

All five of Washington’s Cascade Range volcanoes are active. These volcanoes are especially dangerous because in addition to flowing molten lava and spewed ash that can destroy everything downhill, volcanoes with snow and ice at their peaks can create additional perils. Heat from the eruption can melt the snow or ice that has accumulated, create mud, and pour down narrow mountain valleys. This mixture of water and rock fragments that flows downslope of a volcano into a river valley has dangerous repercussions for communities like those in the Skagit Valley.

Destruction from a lahar in Washington (Source: Mitchell Battros/Creative Commons).
Destruction from a lahar in Washington (Source: Mitchell Battros/Creative Commons).

While lahars can be visually stunning when the volcanic material interacts with glaciers  see the remarkable images in GlacierHub’s recent article on these events in the Kamchatka Peninsula in Far East Russia lahars can cause extensive damage to the built environment as boulders destroy structures and mud buries entire communities. Moving lahars appear as a roiling slurry of wet concrete and can grow in volume as they incorporate everything in their path  rocks, soil, vegetation, and even buildings and bridges.

Mudslide from a lahar 55 miles northeast of Seattle (Source: Mitchell Battros/Creative Commons).
Mudslide from a lahar 55 miles northeast of Seattle (Source: Mitchell Battros/Creative Commons).

Corwin et al. determined that a crucial disaster risk management strategy for lahar events is “whole community” training programs, which emphasize household preparedness and help disaster responders better perform their duties. Since lahars can cause widespread damage to the surrounding environment, it is important for community members to understand how to address the hazard before it occurs.

The focus of the research was on the ascription of responsibility on preparedness and the influence of professional participation in hazard management on household preparedness and risk perception. Disaster response professionals know  the best household preparedness measures, yet they sometimes fail to implement these measures in their own households. The study found that this may be a result of professional disaster responders being out in the field during a disaster, instead of in their homes.

Even more surprising, response professionals failed to interpret local volcanic hazard maps more accurately than laypeople. There could be several reasons for this that need to be explored in a subsequent study, but as Kimberley Corwin, a geoscientist and the leading author of the study,  explains, it could be because “people in both groups drew on outside information such as what they remembered or learned about the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.”

When asked by GlacierHub about her familiarity with lahars, Corwin described her closest experience with an active volcano in Chile’s March 2015 Villarrica volcano eruption. Corwin was in Pucón, Chile, for a volcanology course with Boise State University. The group of academics arrived two weeks after the main fire fountain event, which triggered a lahar. There was still active ash venting in the area.

“While we were there, the alert levels in the town were elevated and a 5-kilometer exclusion zone was set up around the vent,” Corwin explained. “It offered a great opportunity to observe the reactions of locals, tourists, and officials.”

Corwin’s further research found that preparedness measures are crucial in areas that are prone to natural disasters, as they can help professional responders and other community members protect themselves and their families.

A video of a 2003 lahar event in East Java, Indonesia, at the  Semeru volcano (Source: adripicou/YouTube).

In the Skagit Valley, nearly all the community members correctly identified that lahars pose a risk to the region. However, when questioned about their confidence level on how to respond to a lahar, the participants demonstrated decreased self-assurance. They answered by saying that they have higher confidence when responding to floods, as these natural events occur more frequently than lahars.

Map showing volcanoes in the Cascade Range (Source: U.S. Geological Survey).
Map showing volcanoes in the Cascade Range (Source: U.S. Geological Survey).

Some recommendations for implementing “whole community” training programs involve increasing community participation in hazard management, identifying where community members can access hazard information, and providing instructions on how to interpret this information. Overall, these recommendations would increase household preparedness and allow professional responders to successfully complete their tasks without worrying about the safety of their families back home. In this way, community members would reclaim responsibility for their personal safety, and professional responders could feel more comfortable responding during a hazardous lahar event.


Roundup: Glacier Park, Lahars, and Glacial Ecosystems

Roundup: Glacier Park, Lahars and Ecosystems

Glacier National Park Embraces Sustainability

From Xanterra: “Just 150 years ago, 150 glaciers graced these spectacular alpine summits. Only 25 remain large enough today to be considered ‘functional,’ say scientists who expect the park’s glaciers to vanish by 2030, with many disappearing before that. People heeding the advice to visit soon will find a variety of national park lodging and dining spots that are making environmental stewardship part of the park experience.”

Read more about it here.


Glacier National Park (Source: Gracie Chance/Creative Commons).


Washington State’s Lahar Preparedness

From Journal of Applied Volcanology: “As populations around the world encroach upon the flanks of nearby volcanoes, an increasing number of people find themselves living at risk from volcanic hazards. How these individuals respond to the threats posed by volcanic hazards influences the effectiveness of official hazard mitigation, response, and recovery efforts. Ideally, those who are aware of the hazards and concerned should feel motivated to become better prepared; however, research repeatedly shows that an accurate risk perception often fails to generate adequate preparedness… This study explores the barriers that people in the Skagit Valley of Washington face when deciding whether or not to prepare for lahars as well as the impact of participation in hazard management on household preparedness behaviors.”

Read more about Washington’s lahar preparedness here.

Mount Baker poses a threat from lahars (Source: sworldguy/Creative Commons).


How Changing Climate Affects Ecosystems

From Environmental Research Letters: “Climate change is undeniably occurring across the globe, with warmer temperatures and climate and weather disruptions in diverse ecosystems (IPCC 2013, 2014). In the Arctic and Subarctic, climate change has proceeded at a particularly breakneck pace (ACIA 2005)… However, climate warming is forecast to be even more extreme in the future. In order to predict the impacts of further global change, experiments have simulated these future conditions by warming the air and/or soil, increasing CO2 levels, altering nutrient fertilization, modifying precipitation, or manipulating snow cover and snowmelt timing (Elmendorf et al 2015, Wu et al 2011, Bobbink et al 2010, Cooper 2014). Changes in biodiversity at high latitudes are expected to have profound impacts on ecosystem functioning, processes, and services (Post et al 2009).”

Read more about how changing climate affects ecosystems here.

Small herbs and plants can provide food for animals (Source: Will Stuart/Creative Commons).

Photo Friday: Mt. Baker Glaciers

Washington is the second most-glaciated state in the United States, after Alaska. Mount Baker, located in the North Cascade Range, is an active stratovolcano that contains about 49 square kilometers of glaciers. The region is a popular skiing destination and the surrounding Skagit Valley provides a beautiful location from which to photograph glaciers.

Chris Pribbernow is an outdoor and sports photographer based in Washington. He recently captured the Skagit Valley and Mount Baker glaciers. Take a look at some of the photographs from his visits or see his other images from Washington State @PribbernowPhotography.


A view of the glaciers on Mount Baker from the Skagit Valley in Washington State (Source: Chris Pribbernow)


View of Mount Baker as a flock of birds takes flight (Source: Chris Pribbernow).


The Skagit Valley (Source: Chris Pribbernow).


Wildflowers in the valley (Source: Chris Pribbernow).


Mt. Baker, with farmland in the foreground (Source: Chris Pribbernow).