Volcanoes - Mt. Saint Helens And Mt. Rainier

No matter how much power humanity has accumulated, natural calamities are still stalking humans in many parts of the planet. The Washington State is no exception.

One of the foremost potential sources of disaster is the two mountains located within the state borders - Mt. Saint Helens & Mt. Rainier. These two giants have the explosive power possessed by all volcanoes, even if they are sleeping. Exploration of the challenge posed by these two natural objects is the way to prepare effectively for the possible calamity in case it strikes unexpectedly.

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier was called “the sleeping giant” since it has not had an eruption for 150 years. This is not, however, such a long time from the geological point of view, and most scientists expect the mountain to come to life again some day. In the USGS survey, it comes up as the 3rd most dangerous mountain in the US because of its proximity to a large number of people.

The disaster can happen not just because of a large-scale explosion. The top of Mt. Rainier is crowned with a larger accumulation of ice and snow that of any other of the Cascade volcanos and even all of them together. Therefore, “it would not take an explosive 1980-style St. Helens eruption to create a disaster for people downstream of Mount Rainier, even if just part of the huge ice cap were to melt” (“Mount Rainier: The sleeping giant”). There is also the danger that a portion of the mountain will break off from the crater if the mountain starts to heat up and will destroy communities in dangerous proximity to Mt. Rainier. A stream of lahar, or the mixture of mud and water can come down resulting in the flow thicker than the one that slid down the slope of Mt. St. Helens in 1980.

Surprising or not, evacuation danger signs posted on settlements do not prevent people from settling in the area that enjoys lower housing prices than in the surrounding pricey Puget Sound. As a result of thriving construction, “roughly 30,000 Puyallup River Valley residents are in direct danger in a volcanic eruption, along with more than 100,000 people living in Mount Rainier's six other valleys” (“Mount Rainier: The sleeping giant”). Despite the authorities’ strenuous efforts to integrate the latest scientific discoveries with evacuation plans, Puyallup remains their “big public safety issue” (“Mount Rainier: The sleeping giant”).

Mount Saint Helens

Mount St. Helens demonstrated its danger in 1980 when a massive eruption “killed 57 people when it blew 1,300 feet off the volcano's top, devastating a vast landscape and spewing ash around the world” (Paulson 2005). Although from these days scientists moved forward with their predicting technology, one still remembers that 1980 was a failure for seismologists eager to avert the calamity.

In 2004, there was a red alert as there occurred a series of earthquakes and a steam rose over the mountain. The authorities evacuated the 2,100 inhabitants of Castle Rock, Washington, and the total five-mile observatory zone around the mountain. The inhabitants of Vancouver, Washington, were not evacuated because their city was located within the safe 30-mile distance from the mountain. Tourists rushing to see the possible eruption on St. Helens were forced to “a lookout point several miles below the observatory, causing a deep traffic jam on the one winding road that leads from [Castle Rock, Washington] in southwestern Washington up to the mountain” (Kershaw 2004).

This reminded of the situation in the 1970s when the first signs of the approaching eruption appeared, and the “USGS recommended that the U.S. Forest Service close the mountain, disrupting tourism, hurting businesses and prompting a power company to draw down a dam in case of a massive mudflow” (Paulson 2005). However, because the volcano was then silent for months, scientists were blamed for overreaction, and monitoring activity was reduced. This was partly the reason why the 1980 explosion was largely under-monitored, and caused a reaction that proved a surprise to many scientists. The largest landslide in the recorded history of seismic activity was caused by a large lateral blast on the northern side that came amidst reduction in quake activity.

Coping with Disasters

Since monitoring volcanoes proves a challenging task, significant investment has to be made in this challenging area. Paulson (2005) states that “before St. Helens' 1980 eruption, only a few U.S. scientists could find funding to study volcanoes”. Although the situation has changed considerably and USGS surveys monitoring volcanoes all over the nation are an important guide to the future behavior of volcanoes, still more has to be done. Development of workable methods for detecting future volcanic eruption can become a viable solution that will permit time for organization of the evacuation efforts.

Second, the authorities need to organize emergency medical units that can render effective assistance to people suffering from respiratory diseases such as asthma. Their health is endangered by particles rising up in the sky or ashes from the eruption. A supply of protective face masks has to be ready in case of emergency.

Another challenge is organization of effective evacuation. Given the problems arising from accumulation of tourists eager to see the rare event, authorities need to take effective measures to block off the arrival of tourists to places where their high concentration can prove a challenge to the evacuation operations. Viewing should only be allowed from safe points to avert possible danger to the lives of adventure-seekers.

Besides, movement of tourists has to occur only along the roads that are outside the evacuation routes and do not intersect them. Effective planning of evacuation operations will include the usage of more than one route (at least the primary and the secondary) route in case one of them is blockaded for some reason. Vehicles for transportation of victims should be equipped with first aid kits and tools for shielding people from potential disastrous consequences of the eruption, such goggles, breathing masks, supplies of water and food and so on.

Besides, the authorities need to conduct a campaign in the area that is exposed to danger of a volcanic eruption, alerting people to the danger they are in. Individuals and households should make stacks of supplies at home that are packed into bags stored in an easily accessible place of the house. The packs should include a flashlight with batteries, a disposable breathing mask, a radio set, first aid kit and food and water supplies. People need to be instructed to keep track of warning signals and educated about their meaning. Educational sessions have to be displayed on TV and in community gatherings.

Speaking of communities located within miles of Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens, authorities can legally restrict construction of additional housing on the territories. Thus, in Castle Rock, Washington and Pullyap River Valley, construction can be limited to a certain number of houses a year to avoid the complication of the problem. Although this is hardly a democratic solution, it can nevertheless help save thousands of people. Alternatively, the local authorities can choose economic incentives, raising the cost of living in the area through taking a extra duty on compliance with safety standards.


Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens are a serious challenge to public safety in Washington State. Their presence, as well as population concentration in dangerous proximity of the mountains, is an ever-going concern. Balancing monitoring and preparation activities can help the local government prepare effective solutions for the problem. These efforts can help save lives of thousands of people.


Kershaw, Sarah. “Bigger Eruption Predicted at Mount St. Helens.” New York Times 3 October 2004. 24 May 2006 <http://travel2.nytimes.com/2004/10/03/national/03volcano.html?ex=1148616000&en=278da45c6cc9f9fb&ei=5070>.

“Mount Rainier: The sleeping giant”. 17 May 2005. 24 May 2006 <http://www.krem.com/sharedcontent/northwest/volcano/stories/NW_050505WABmtrainierEL.2469135af.html>.

Paulson, Tom. “Mount St. Helens still shrouded in secrets.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer 18 May 2005. 24 May 2006 <http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/224735_helenscience18.html>.