Washington’s forgotten volcano before St. Helens

Jul 12, 2017, 5:40 AM | Updated: Sep 7, 2022, 3:48 pm

One day in March around 40 years ago, a huge peak in the Cascades suddenly showed signs of volcanic life. Steam and ash erupted from atop the cone, with a plume that was visible for miles. Scientists from universities and government agencies swung into action, moving swiftly to begin gathering data, and to eventually close off nearby recreation areas in the name of public safety.

And no, we’re not talking about Mount St. Helens.

It was almost exactly five years before that infamous peak in southwest Washington rumbled to life when Mount Baker, east of Bellingham in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, belched steam and ash into the air one day in March 1975.

The episode at Mount Baker in 1975 turned out much differently, of course, but it set into motion a chain of events that would function as something of a dry-run for what happened in 1980 at Mount St. Helens, at least in terms of the science.

Don Easterbrook is Professor Emeritus of Geology at Western Washington University and a fourth-generation Whatcom County resident. He’s lived in the shadow of Mount Baker for most of his 82 years.

Easterbrook says that Mount Baker, like many Cascade volcanoes, has always had some baseline amount of thermal activity going on in its crater, with steam occasionally rising from the top of the 10,781-foot peak.

“Mount Baker has been sort of steeping like a teapot for many, many years,” he said.

So maybe it’s appropriate that this teapot of a mountain was named for Lt. Joseph Baker, a member of the British expedition led by Captain George Vancouver that explored the waters of what’s now Washington and British Columbia in 1792. Natives had called it “Koma Kulshan” for thousands of years, which is sometimes translated as “White and Steep.” Two years before Baker spied the peak, Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper had called it La Montana del Carmelo or “Great White Watcher,” but the British five-letter handle stuck.

When Easterbrook got word on March 10, 1975 that the ‘teapot’ at Mount Baker had, essentially, boiled over and belched steam and ash from the part of the summit called Sherman Crater, he knew this was something different.

He also knew exactly what he had to do.

“We were very excited, obviously,” Easterbrook said. “Because this was possibly a major event happening or about to happen, and we were really anxious to get up there.”

Fortunately, Easterbrook’s colleague at Western, Dave Rahm, was a pilot.

“So we flew up there as soon as the weather cleared the next day, and we were able to fly and get good photographic coverage of Sherman Crater and what was going on there,” Easterbrook said.

Rahm, as Easterbrook tells it, wasn’t just any old kind of pilot. He was a champion stunt pilot.

“We would take the doors of the airplane so we wouldn’t have to photograph through glass,” Easterbrook said. Once they reach the top of Mount Baker and determined wind direction by locating the volcano’s sulfur dioxide plume – from its odor – Rahm’s stunt pilot experience came in pretty handy.

“Dave would fly into the crater below the rim, and he’d flip the plane up on end, so the wings were now vertical instead of horizontal, which would leave me with nothing between me and the floor of the crater,” Easterbrook said. “So I would get great close-up photography of what was going on [down] on the floor of the crater.”

Easterbrook says that what they saw that day in March 1975 was significantly increased steam activity, as well as signs of melting going on in the huge glacier inside the crater.

Of course, Don Easterbrook wasn’t the only scientist paying attention to Mount Baker in the 1970s.

Just months earlier, in the summer of 1974, Eugene Kiver, a scientist at what’s now called Eastern Washington University, led an expedition down to the floor of Sherman Crater.

“There’s a bunch of ice caves up there that have been melted out,” Kiver said recently from his home near Puget Sound. “There’s steam coming out from the crater, and it melts the lower part of the ice” and this creates caves, many that are large enough for a person to enter.

Over countless years, the steam in Sherman Crater had “melted out a bunch of passageways, so we went up there and explored them and mapped them,” Kiver said. “I thought this might be a way to see if there’s a way in which we can detect some new heat coming up [from] watching the caves” – that is, looking for subtle changes over time.

Kiver had earlier done similar ground-breaking exploration and mapping at Mount Rainier, where there are also caves in the crater. But Rainier wasn’t about to undergo the rapid and unanticipated changes the way that Baker would. As it turned out, the measurements and maps that Kiver made at Mount Baker in the summer of 1974 provided an invaluable baseline when the new steam activity started in 1975.

“It was a very fortuitous thing that I got the timing just right – to get the ‘before and the after,’” Kiver said.

But the need for monitoring subtle changes fell by the wayside.

“We didn’t really need [to measure] the caves, because in March of 1975, [the steam] just started belching out,” Kiver said. Kiver says the melting even created a temporary “crater lake” where the venting steam melted a giant vertical hole all the way through hundreds of feet of the glacier.

With all that was going on around that one peak, was there competition among the various scientists vying to get close to the volcanic action at Mount Baker in 1975?

“There were no rivalries [because] we were all doing something a little bit different,” Kiver said. “Nobody wanted to go into the caves, so they left that up to me,” he said, laughing.

One of the other scientists closely involved in the response to both Mount Baker and later Mount St. Helens was Steve Malone, now Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington.

Malone had been among the first people to hear that something was going on Mount Baker back on March 10, 1975. An operator at Puget Sound Energy’s Upper Baker Dam at the south end of Baker Lake had witnessed a plume coming from the mountain. The Puget employee had gotten in touch with the UW, and in a phone call to Malone had described a darkening of the snow near the top of the cone, as if from volcanic ash.

“He had seen what looked to be a black cloud coming from the area of Sherman Crater, and on further discussions with him and a follow-up phone call, it indeed seemed like this was something quite unusual,” Malone said. “The operator was quite used to what the view should look like, and he said there were dark patches on the snow.”

In those days, there was no monitoring equipment atop Mount Baker, but Malone acted quickly to install remote reading seismometers. He got help from the US Navy at Whidbey Island, who flew Malone and his team to the top of the mountain via helicopter to place the equipment there within a few days of March 10.

Malone’s seismic monitoring equipment quickly showed a significant fact that, in retrospect, was the biggest difference between Mount Baker’s volcanic activity in 1975 and what would happen at Mount St. Helens in 1980: there was no earthquake activity taking place at Mount Baker. As it turned out, this was a purely thermal event, and thus on the less dangerous end of the volcano spectrum.

And that trip to the crater by Navy helicopter trip produced one more significant finding.

Investigation of the material spit out along with the steam during the March 10 episode – collected by Malone on that same day he installed the seismometer, and then analyzed back at the lab by a colleague – showed that the material was old and decomposed rock, not new or “juvenile” volcanic ash.

It was another sign that what had happened at Mount Baker were changes in what Malone calls the volcano’s “plumbing.”

“It was just one of those spontaneous things can take place in which likely a pocket of water became superheated to the point where the pressure built up on the overlying rock that caused it to fracture and blow out,” Malone said.

But what had the dam operator seen that prompted the call to the UW in the first place?

Malone says the thermal pressure built up and rock within the crater gave way suddenly and violently.

“This generated a cloud . . . and spread what we call ‘tephra,’ just very fine ash,” Malone said, from pulverized pieces of the mountain.

“It was just old rock blown around into the air and spread around on the glaciers leaving a black swatch that was really obvious,” he said.

Seismic activity around a volcano generally indicates the presence of molten rock and the possibility of a violent eruption. Malone’s instruments showed that there was none of this at Mount Baker in 1975. Also, Baker had been relatively quiet for thousands of years, with its most recent previous eruption an estimated 6,700 years ago.

But still, the situation in 1975 at Mount Baker was something new to deal with for the scientists and agencies involved, and it was still potentially dangerous.

“The steam eruptions in and of themselves were not really a threat,” said WWU’s Don Easterbrook. “But what was a threat was the rock on the east rim of the crater, where there’s an opening and the Boulder Glacier comes out of the crater and goes down the side of the mountain . . . and so the fear was that a big chunk of that rim of the crater might slide down the mountain and engulf campgrounds . . . downstream at the toe of the Boulder Glacier and onto Baker Lake.”

A landslide that big could potentially create a wave that would wipe out anything along the shores of Baker Lake, and even damage or possibly destroy the Upper Baker Dam. Puget Sound Energy (which was then known as Puget Power) lowered the level of the lake considerably to help lessen the threat.

In response to the steam activity and acting on the advice of the US Geological Survey and others, the US Forest Service in April 1975 closed the Boulder Glacier area on the east side of Mount Baker and Boulder Creek Campground about eight miles east on Baker Lake. Then, in late June, just as camping season and boating season were heating up, all of Baker Lake, including several popular campgrounds and trails and the old Tarr’s Baker Lake Resort, was also shut down by the Forest Service.

The nearby Skagit County town of Concrete was hit hard by the loss of tourism dollars. One estimate at the time pointed to an 18% drop in economic activity during the summer of 1975.

Looking back 42 years, lifelong Whatcom County resident Don Easterbrook says that he agrees with the decision to close Baker Lake in 1975, even though there was ultimately no eruption and no collapse of the crater rim.

“It’s a judgment call . . . and you want to err on the side of safety because you don’t want a bunch of people getting killed by some kind of eruptive event. And the events that can happen around a volcano aren’t just restricted to a big eruption or explosion like Saint Helens,” Easterbrook said. “There’s always the danger of volcanic mudflows coming off the mountain even if there isn’t an eruption and sometimes these can be exacerbated by increase in steam activity, which tends to decompose the rock and make it weak and more likely to fail.”

Baker Lake remained closed all that summer, and scientists kept watch over Mount Baker as the steam emissions continued at a consistent level. But by the early spring of 1976, Dr. Richard S. Fiske of the USGS told the Seattle Times that a “major eruption or mudflow ‘seems less likely’ than it did a year ago.”

Thus, on April 6, 1976, the US Forest Service reopened most of the campgrounds at Baker Lake, though Boulder Creek remained closed longer.

The imminent danger had passed. Or, as USGS official Fiske told the Seattle Times, “the hazard is one that existed prior to March 1975, although its nature was probably not recognized by the public or by the agencies responsible for land management.”

Cynthia Gardner is a geologist with the US Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/observatories/cvo/ in Vancouver, Washington. She says that for the public agencies involved, responding to a volcano in 1975 was somewhat unfamiliar territory; the most recent volcanic eruption in the Lower 48 had taken place at Lassen Peak in Northern California way back in 1915.

The observatory keeps an eye on St. Helens (and other Northwest volcanoes) and works with local governments to be prepared for the next one. Prior to the observatory’s opening in the early 1980s, the USGS had only a minimal presence in Washington.

Gardner says that in 1975, the lack of seismic activity at Mt. Baker meant a fairly measured response from the USGS. It was very different when earthquakes began rumbling at Mount St. Helens in March 1980. One USGS employee who was around in 1975 and 1980 told Gardner that the agency began planning and moving resources into place for St. Helens immediately, even before its initial eruption on March 27, 1980.

In addition to the persistent earthquakes, Gardner says, Mount St. Helens has a long history of much more recent volcanic activity over the past 3,000 years. These factors made it clear that this was an entirely different situation than what had happened at Mt. Baker.

It was also much more complicated in terms of the political and economic pressures that influenced steps taken by public officials to restrict access to St. Helens in the weeks leading up to the May 18, 1980 eruption. That story was told most recently in Steve Olson’s 2016 book “Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens.”

The perceived danger was, of course, correct, and the May 18, 1980 eruption killed 57 people and destroyed millions of dollars worth of public and private property. Among those lost was USGS employee David Johnston, for whom a ridge and visitor center is now named.

Back up at Mount Baker, Don Easterbrook says the increased steam activity that began in 1975 had settled back down by 1980.

“But steam activity’s still continuing today,” Easterbrook said. “And sometimes on a clear day, you’ll see a big steam jet from the lowlands, from Bellingham . . . [it can] rise as much as a thousand feet above the crater and last for the day.”

And Easterbrook says we’ve not seen the last of volcanic activity at Mount Baker or elsewhere in the Cascades. Not by a longshot.

“It’s not a matter of if any of them are going to erupt again, it’s a matter of when. But fortunately, there are precursors that allow us some time to get people out of harm’s way,” Easterbrook said. “The swarms of earthquakes, pre-steam activity, the harmonic tremor . . . all of that takes place over a matter of maybe days to weeks.”

Steve Malone says one legacy of the work he did in 1975 on Mount Baker was that he knew exactly what to do when Mount St. Helens began coming back to life in March 1980 – get more instruments installed and begin collecting data. When asked, he agrees that there was a certain sense of “Oh no, here we go again” when St. Helens happened.

“My experience dealing with the reaction and the response to Mount Baker – that experience provided a real good practice run for what I did in 1980,” Malone said. “We mobilized again at St. Helens and were able to install instruments the day after the first major earthquake. We’d gone through a practice run in a sense of what it takes to do a volcanic response and it worked very well then.”

Rather than a case of “oh no,” it seems that Malone, Kiver, and Easterbrook all timed their careers brilliantly – to be engaged in geology or other earth sciences research during a brief era when two volcanoes were active in Washington state. And it’s clear that all three men are still excited about their work, even though it sometimes exposed them to danger in the field.

Is it wrong to be excited about something that can be so deadly and destructive? And what does Don Easterbrook say to someone – a reporter, let’s say – who feels guilty being excited about possible future volcanic eruptions in the Cascades?

“I wouldn’t feel guilty because you have absolutely no control over it. You’re just an observer like everybody else,” Easterbrook said, confessing that scientists, too, feel this excitement – along with sadness for lives lost and property destroyed.

“You have no way of stopping it, you have no way of impacting what’s gonna happen, so all you can do is watch and admire the view,” he said.

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Washington’s forgotten volcano before St. Helens