Mount Baker, an active glacier-covered stratovolcano, is part of Washington’s North Cascades Mountain Range. Standing tall at an elevation of 10,781 feet (3,286 meters), Mount Baker is the highest peak in the North Cascades. Stratovolcanoes––like Baker’s neighbor, Mount St. Helens––are infamous for their highly explosive eruptions, which are often accompanied by hazardous pyroclastic flows, lava flows, flank failures, and devastating mudflows called lahars.
Last week, Mount Baker began venting steam from Sherman Crater, which is situated close to the mountain’s peak. In response, several people took to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, sharing photos and videos of the steam plume. This event prompted some to ask the question: Could Mount Baker be poised to erupt?
The Washington State Emergency Management Division was quick to respon, in an attempt to quell any fears about an imminent eruption.
At openings on the volcano’s surface called vents, various gases can be released at any time, even continuously, and do not have to be connected to eruptions. A combination of good weather, light winds, and the position of Sherman crater near Mount Baker’s peak made for perfect conditions to observe this plume.
The US Geological Survey (USGS) categorizes Mount Baker’s eruption potential as “very high,” the agency’s highest category. To determine a volcano’s threat level, the USGS assesses exposure of people and property to potentially fatal volcanic hazards like pyroclastic flows and lahars. Volcanoes in the “very high” category “require the most robust monitoring coverage.”
Increased seismic activity is a telltale sign of an upcoming eruption. The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) and Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) are in charge of operating stations that can measure earthquakes as small as magnitude 1.0. At Mount Baker and several other high-risk volcanoes in the United States, however, monitoring is currently insufficient. Volcanoes in the two-highest categories should have 12-20 permanent seismic stations within 12.4 mi (20 km); Mount Baker has only two.
Despite these deficits in monitoring, PNSN and CVO detected no increase in seismic activity occurring alongside the plume––in fact there has been no recent seismic activity recorded in the area at all. Considering this lack of seismic activity, Mount Baker’s steam plume is likely nothing short of business as usual.
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