The mountain in our backyard has been extremely reluctant to give up its secrets.
“When I arrived here in 1998, we knew more about volcanoes in Papua New Guinea than we did about Mount Baker,” says Susan DeBari, professor in geology and expert in magmas and volcanology.
“We knew nothing: nothing about their ages, very little about eruptive history,” DeBari remembers. “And that was true for all Cascade volcanoes. They weren’t studied. Even Glacier Peak, the next volcano south from Mount Baker, had no hazards map—and we still don’t have a sense of exactly when eruptions happened at Glacier Peak, or how frequently.”
DeBari’s former student Dave Tucker (’74, B.S., environmental science; M.S., geology) is now a research associate at Western and wrote “Geology Underfoot in Western Washington.” Tucker also collaborated on a research report for the U.S. Geological Survey, “Eruptive History and Hazards of Mount Baker Volcano,” now under final review by the USGS.
“It’s difficult terrain to get around on,” Tucker says, explaining why Mount Baker wasn’t studied until the ’90s. “Below the tree line everything is covered in our famous Northwestern jungle and so it’s really hard to find deposits. It takes years of dedicated fieldwork.”
The faculty performing research on Mount Baker’s slopes must not only be world-class scientists; they must be adventurers and mountain climbers as well.
“I’m an avid back country skier and alpine climber,” says Robin Kodner, assistant professor in biology, “so it’s fun to go collect samples in places that are hard to get to.”
And some locations are very inaccessible. Mid-April, Kodner and graduate student Rachael Mallon skied out to Herman Saddle, an area between Mount Herman and Mt. Baker Ski Area, to test snow for the famous but mysterious watermelon snow algae. They dug a 13-foot snow pit and probed down 9 feet more but never hit ground.
Any students and faculty performing research on Mount Baker’s most remote peaks have to be certified for glacier travel and, ideally, crevasse rescue.
“We don’t send students up on the ice without training,” says Doug Clark, associate professor in geology and a glacier expert. “Despite the fact these volcanoes look huge and impressive, they’re big piles of remarkably weak rock for the most part. They’re made up of a few strong layers of lava flows but in between those there’s pyroclastic material that’s just loose cinder. It’s not a strong system.”
In other words, even though Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, and the other Cascade volcanoes look beautiful from afar, up close they’re hard to navigate and prone to rock falls, which makes research treacherous for even the most intrepid scientist-adventurers.
‘When is it going to blow?’
Because so little research has been done in the North Cascades, Western’s faculty has decades of hearsay to debunk.
Mostly, when people think about these slumbering, snowladen giants exploding, they imagine rivers of lava. So it’s understandable that Tucker, who is the director of the allvolunteer Mount Baker Volcano Research Center, frequently gets the worried question: “When is Mount Baker going blow? We’re all toast when it does, right?”
But Mount Baker isn’t prone to Hawaii-like eruptions. It’s a volcano on a convergent margin, where two tectonic plates collide to form the continental crust we live on.
“Mount Baker is a very interesting example of Cascadia magmatism,” DeBari says. Her students search for lava flows that are “primitive,” or that come from deep within the mantle.
“We go to (an old, congealed) lava flow,” DeBari says, “and see the characteristics of the uppermost point, the lowermost point, bottom and top, doing some detailed sampling.”
The crystals in the rocks, DeBari says, have growth rings, similar to a tree’s rings, which can tell her how the magma changed as it moved from deep within the Earth’s mantle up to the Earth’s crust. Back at the lab, they slice the rock and examine slivers, first under a regular microscope and then a Scanning Electron Microscope, to learn what each rock’s journey means for the mountain.
Mount Baker, whose oldest lava flows are only 40,000 years old, is the youngest volcano in the Cascades—by comparison, Mount Rainier has been around for hundreds of thousands of years—but Baker stands in the footprint of many other volcanoes that have long eroded away. Geologists have access to about 11,000 years of Mount Baker’s eruption history in the form of ash deposits and more in the millennia worth of lava eruptions that remain as rock.
And that can tell us about what would happen if Baker did erupt.
Mount Baker’s biggest known eruption happened over 6,500 years ago. If Mount Baker were to erupt again, it would mostly deposit ash on its own flanks, though Bellingham might get a dusting and a thin film might land as far south as Seattle. But since winds often blow northward, the ash would most likely fall in the North Cascades.
The largest danger from Mount Baker is actually lahars. A cement-like slurry of mud and debris, a lahar can flow downstream as quickly as 20 mph, devastating all in its path. Deming sits on top of a 6,600-year-old, 30-foot lahar deposit, and a lahar of that size today would most likely kill many people in Whatcom County.
“That’s the main, practical purpose for studying an active volcano like Mount Baker, so that we can understand what the hazards are,” Tucker says.
But Tucker isn’t the only scientist using the past to predict the future. Doug Clark has both the research and the photos to prove that Mount Baker’s glaciers have been retreating since the Little Ice Age in the 1800s.
Every fall, Clark and his geology students scramble up the loose rocks of a glacial trough to the terminus of Mount Baker’s Easton glacier, which covers its southwest slope, so that his students can track the glacier’s edge over successive years. “Since I first started taking this field trip in the early 2000s,” Clark says, “the ice has retreated several hundred feet—if not more.
“There is this persistent rumor Mount Baker’s glaciers have advanced,” Clark says. While the glaciers did advance a few times in the past century, those advances were small and short-lived compared with the scale of their overall retreat in the past 100 years. Not even a snow-heavy year like this past one can do much to stop their decline. “Even after a really good snow year, a glacier won’t advance from that. It takes at least five to 10 years of above-average snow.”
Students, both undergraduate and graduate, have been hiking regularly up remote locations to do GPS measurements or take core samples in order to monitor the glaciers’ long-term health. Clark, who says that anthropogenic climate change will continue to diminish Mount Baker’s glaciers, predicts that ice melt to the rivers may temporarily increase and then eventually decline as the supply dwindles. The glaciers themselves won’t entirely disappear—Mount Baker is high enough that there will be snow every year—but they’ll be substantially reduced as more snow falls as rain.
“Glaciers are the key source to really cold water to the Nooksack in summertime,” Clark says, “and once they start shrinking or disappearing the amount of cold water that salmon rely on is going to decrease. The temperature of the water is important.”
Additionally, when glaciers retreat, they leave behind loose rubble and debris that can wash downstream and choke up rivers. Western Geology Professor Bob Mitchell and two of his graduate students, Stephanie Truitt and Kevin Knapp, are exploring the Nooksack River’s response to climate change and the potential effects on fish habitat. Truitt is modeling how stream flow and water temperature will change as climate warming melts snowpack and glaciers upstream. And Knapp is looking at how much of the newly exposed glacial deposits may end up downstream as sediment that harms salmon habitat.
Meanwhile, Mitchell says, warmer temperatures mean less snow altogether, exposing more landscape to erosion of sediment.
“It’s not too much of a stretch to say Mount Baker is the heart of what goes on in our community in terms of human water needs and the fisheries,” Clark says. “The glaciers on Baker are a really critical element of water supply in Whatcom County. As these glaciers change in large part due to anthropogenic climate change, it’s going to affect us, our water supply, our agriculture, and our fisheries. These glaciers are changing fairly rapidly; they aren’t getting bigger.”
But salmon and the fisheries aren’t the only ones that will be affected by this change.
“As soon as the snow pack starts to melt,” Kodner says, “the snow algae start to bloom and that melting water is delivered through the Nooksack River to Bellingham Bay. Nutrients delivered by the river also cause algal blooms in the bay.”
Kodner studies algae communities, both in snow and in seawater, and is currently developing algae population models about the phenomenon known as watermelon snow. For Kodner, watermelon snow algae offers a great opportunity to learn more about how organisms evolve in changing environments.
“I don’t think people often realize that watermelon snow is alive,” Kodner says. “They know that the snow turns red but they’re not recognizing it as a bloom of algae.”
Watermelon snow, contrary to belief, neither tastes nor smells like watermelon. It’s not poisonous, either, though Kodner is quick to say that watermelon snow often exists alongside other fungi, amoebas, and bacteria that could make humans ill.
In fact, the watermelon snow algae is closely related to the algae used in dietary supplements and smoothies. Yet its life cycle, how it repopulates the snow every year, is all but unknown. Most of this is due to how, again, watermelon snow is located in areas that are relatively inaccessible.
“Studying snow algae has a lot of benefits because they don’t move,” she says. “Microbes are constantly moving, especially in a place like Bellingham Bay which is very dynamic. The ocean is a much, much more diverse environment.”
Snow algae’s relative simplicity allows Kodner to refine her population models. “We’re interested in biodiversity and biogeographic patterns, but we’re also interested in looking at the population levels in these communities. It will help us understand how they are adapting to changing environments. Of course snowy alpine ecosystems are dramatically affected by changing climate.”
All of these scientists—Tucker, DeBari, Clark, Mitchell, Kodner—are explorers, learning about undiscovered wonders that exist in Western’s backyard, trying to understand the North Cascades’ past in order to predict its future, so the rest of us can better prepare for it.
Or, as Tucker sums it up: “We like to say the past is the key to the future.”