Seven West Coast Volcanoes Worth Watching

Updated on October 4, 2018
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Science has always fascinated me. This includes not only the ecological sciences, which I studied in school, but other endeavors, as well.

Mt. Ranier from Seattle

Because of its proximity to Seattle, Mt. Ranier has always been high on any West Coast Volcano Watchlist Though this 14,000 footer hasn't seen any volcanic activity since  1894, future eruptions are a question of when, not if.
Because of its proximity to Seattle, Mt. Ranier has always been high on any West Coast Volcano Watchlist Though this 14,000 footer hasn't seen any volcanic activity since 1894, future eruptions are a question of when, not if. | Source

West Coast Volcanoes

The current 2018 eruption of Kilauea on the island of Hawaii has focused attention on other volcanoes in the U.S. Many of the most active sites are located in the Cascades of the Pacific Northwest.

Stand atop any one of the Northwest's major mountain peaks and you will be able to view several distinctive snow-capped mountaintops that dot the skyline in a random pattern. Mt. Baker, Mt.Ranier, Mt. Hood, Mt. Ste. Helens and Mt. Adams are all stand-alone summits and each one has a volcanic history.

A Classic Extinct Volcano

The Cerro Pedernal in New Mexico, as rendered by Georgia O'Keefe is a classic example of an extinct volcano.
The Cerro Pedernal in New Mexico, as rendered by Georgia O'Keefe is a classic example of an extinct volcano.

Extinct, Dormant and Active

Currently, volcanoes may fall into one of three categories, extinct, dormant or active. Just viewing a volcano may not give you enough information to correctly categorize the landform (unless of course the volcano is actively erupting), but once given the eruption history, the classification task becomes much easier.

Basically, an active volcano is one that is actively erupting or has done so within the last 10,000 years, which is approximately when the last ice age ended. A dormant situation can said to exist, when a volcano has not shown any geologic activity within the last 10,000 years, but is expected to do so again in the future. On the other hand an extinct volcano is one that is not expected to come back to life at any future date.

After the Blast

This photo from 1982 depicts how much the 1980 blast changed the shape of the mountain.
This photo from 1982 depicts how much the 1980 blast changed the shape of the mountain. | Source

Most Active

Over the centuries, Mt. St. Helens in Southwestern Washington has, by far, been the most active volcano on the West Coast. Not only has the scenic peak drawn the interest of Western pioneers, but over the ages, the striking mountain has also been richly embedded in Native legend. To the Klickitat, it was know as Loowit, while the Cowlitz called the mountain, Lawetiat'la.

This classic stratovolcano erupted many times during the nineteenth century with the last notable volcanic event, occurring in 1857. Then Mt. Ste. Helens went into a slumbering stage, only to be awakened by its violent 1980 eruption that killed over 50 people. Since then Mt. Ste. Helens has been relatively quiet with only a few columns of ash clouds sent up into the atmosphere, gently reminding us that the next destructive explosion might be just around the corner..

California Is Also Volcano Country

A 20th Century California Eruption

Mt. Lassen in northern California last erupted in 1913, making this volcanic mountain the most active in California. Even though the eruptions lasted for many months, there were no fatalities.This mountain has remained quiet since then, but due to its history of frequent activity, Mt. Lassen is most definitely one to watch.

Aerial View of Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta in California is often snow-covered and has a glacier (Whitney Glacier) on its west flank
Mt. Shasta in California is often snow-covered and has a glacier (Whitney Glacier) on its west flank | Source

Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta is a ;landmark 14,000 peak located in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest of Northern California. To the early explorers and settlers, it was a landmark peak, visible for many miles. Today, the remote region is a popular destination for sportsmen and outdoor enthusiasts.

After a thousand years of silence, the mountain came to life back in 1786. The mountain has not erupted since, yet it is still considered an active volcano because future volcanic activity is likely, even though it has not occurred for the past several centuries.

Tranquil View of Mt Hood

This picturesque sunset view of Mt. Hood was painted by Albert Bierstadt, sometime in the 1860s.
This picturesque sunset view of Mt. Hood was painted by Albert Bierstadt, sometime in the 1860s.

Mt. Hood

Shadowing the sprawling city of Portland, Oregon is the snow-covered Mt. Hood. Home to year-round skiing and other outdoor opportunities, this mountain offers a great outdoor escape for city resident.

Also of note,is the possibility that the majestic peak could turn into an urban nightmare should hot lava come shooting out of its summit, like it did back in 1786.

Mount Baker in 1975

Back in 1975, Mt. Baker sent some impressive steam clouds high into the sky
Back in 1975, Mt. Baker sent some impressive steam clouds high into the sky

Mt. Baker

Situated just south of the Canadian border in the state of Washington, Mt. Baker stands as a towering sentinel, visible for many miles in all directions. Originally called "Koma Kulshan" or steep, white mountain, by the Lumni Indians, today, Mt. Baker is a popular destination for skiers and climbers.

Like Ranier, this mountain is covered with a massive amount of snow and ice, so any eruption runs the risk of sending scalding mixes of melted snow and red hot gases down its steep slopes.In recent times, Mt. Baker has erupted several times in the 1800s and just a few years ago in 1975, sent clouds of steam skyward. Even today, Mt. Baker experiences steam vents and an occasional swarm of small earthquakes, reminding us that another eruption could occur in the near future.


Peaceful Ranier

Mount Ranier as viewed from Eliot Bay in 1889, just five years before the mountain underwent a minor eruption at the summot. painting by James Eliot Stuart
Mount Ranier as viewed from Eliot Bay in 1889, just five years before the mountain underwent a minor eruption at the summot. painting by James Eliot Stuart

Mount Ranier

Mount Ranier is a Washington state volcanic mountain that is heavily covered with snow. So much so, that any major change in its current quiet state, could send deadly pyroclastic flows barreling down its western slopes towards the city of Seattle. Ranier was mildly active during the 1800s, but turned silent during the 20th century. There is no telling when Ranier will show major volcanic activity again, and also, there is no way of knowing how destructive any future eruption will be.

A Caldera Filled With Water

In winter, Crater Lake and the surrounding ring of mountains makes for a spectacular panorama.
In winter, Crater Lake and the surrounding ring of mountains makes for a spectacular panorama. | Source

Crater Lake National Park

The tranquil beauty of Crater Lake in Oregon can be deceptive, for in geological years, the ring of mountains, which rim the lake, is very young. Crater Lake was created only 7,000 years ago when an enormous volcano, called Mt. Mazama, exploded into violent fury. The resulting crater or caldera eventually (it took 259 years) filled up with water, creating Crater Lake.

Since Crater Lake has been silent for 5,000 years, it is unlikely to come back to life in our lifetime. Nonetheless, the surrounding ring of mountains and the lakebed are both classified as active by geologists. This means that this area will almost certainly see more eruptions in the future.

Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park

In Yellowstone NP, sometimes geothermal activity comes very close to the earth's surface
In Yellowstone NP, sometimes geothermal activity comes very close to the earth's surface | Source

Yellowstone

Even though, Yellowstone is not located on the West Coast and is definitely not part of the "Ring of Fire", the national park still deserves to be closely watched and monitored. Furthermore, the possibility of a massive supervolcano rising out of the earth and then exploding in a Krakatoa-styled eruption, like a few doomsday soothsayers have predicted, is just about nil. Nonetheless, the geysers and hot pools located within the national park, could be indicators of an increase of seismic events in the region.

One such recent occurrence of note is the resumed activity of the Steamboat Geyser, which after being silent for many years, is now undergoing periodic activity. Nobody seems to know quite why this is happening, yet there is little concern among earth scientists that the geyser's activity is a harbinger of bigger things to come. Nonetheless, there is till the innate curiosity to learn why the geyser is active again.

Volcanic Hazards in the Cascades

Honorable Mentions

Besides the seven listed here, there are several other Cascade volcanoes that deserve at least a passing mention. For if there is anything to be learned in the study of volcanoes, it is how unpredictable these natural phenomena can be. It is true that volcanoes tend to give advance warning, when they are about to come to life, but still, the final big bang can still manage to catch those living under the shadow of a volcano by surprise.

Prime example, is Mt. Ste. Helens in 1980. Plenty of warning signs were available for the deadly explosion that came on the Sunday morning of May 18, but nonetheless, practically no one expected the mountain to burst out of its side, like it did.

Other volcanoes to watch include the Three Sisters in central Oregon, Glacier Peak in Washington and Long Peak and Mammoth Lake in California. Anyone of these geologically active places could surprise us and be the next major headline in next month's newspaper.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Harry Nielsen

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