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Backpacker Magazine – January 2009

Mount Rainier: Thunder on the Mountain

Two years after hurricane-force winds and rain ravaged hundreds of miles of trail in Mt. Rainier National Park, the true damage is finally becoming clear. And what it's telling scientists is alarming: Bigger, more frequent–and more destructive–storms may be coming.

by: Michael Lanza, Photos by Gabe Rogel

Lenticular clouds mean high winds on upper Rainier.
Lenticular clouds mean high winds on upper Rainier.
November 2006 storm damage
November 2006 storm damage
The fallen trees forced the author on many detours.
The fallen trees forced the author on many detours.
A work crew member cleaning up.
A work crew member cleaning up.

Visit Mt. Rainier with our online guide to the mountain. Sort hikes by difficulty, mileage, and rating, and read articles on skills and essential gear for the mountain.


How big a hit did Rainier take in the November 2006 tempest? How will it fare in the future? From top to bottom, here's a complete report card.

There's a rock on a mountainside. Maybe it's smaller than a golf ball, maybe it weighs 20 tons. To gravity, size doesn't matter. Whether the rock stays put or tumbles downhill will be determined by an eons-old calculus of shape, location, and slope angle. Soil stability makes a difference, of course, as does the amount of vegetation stitching the earth in place. Rainfall can grease the skids, snowmelt too. And retreating glaciers alter the entire equation, introducing multipliers with enormous erosive force. The rocks on Mt. Rainier have behaved fairly consistently since humans first set foot on its sprawling slopes 7,000 years ago. But something has changed in recent decades, scientists say, something that could profoundly alter the experience–and even the safety–of the millions who live and recreate on the Northwest's most beloved peak. This is the story of The Mountain, as locals affectionately call 14,410-foot Rainier, and the storms that have begun to tear it down.


All mountains crumble to the sea, but glaciated stratovolcanoes like the dozen or so in the Cascade Range have been in the accelerated program since their giant ice fields started receding 150 years ago. From Washington's Mt. Baker to California's Mt. Shasta, the clatter of rockfall loosed by melting snow is an ever-increasing soundtrack.

Rainier is no exception. It wears the most massive cape of ice in the contiguous United States–26 glaciers spanning 35 square miles. However, like most of the planet's glaciers, virtually all of Rainier's are shrinking, a direct and escalating consequence of a warming climate. Seen from Seattle, 40 miles away, the fifth-highest summit in the Lower 48 looks immutable and eternal. In reality, it's as transitory–in epochal terms–as a sand dune.

Across the Cascades, receding glaciers leave behind steep, barren moraines of loose dirt and friable igneous rock that slide at the slightest disturbance. But Rainier's massive size and height spawn weather that intensifies the erosion. Storms that brew deep in the Pacific pound the mountain with up to 90 inches of rain each year, and the popular trailhead at Paradise, located at 5,400 feet on the south side of the peak, averages 58 feet of snow annually. All that precipitation transforms Rainier into a 100-square-mile fire hydrant come spring. Seven rivers and hundreds of streams burst from the melt–470 miles of waterways within park boundaries alone.

The rivers carve sediment from the earth as they descend, and carry it downhill. But as on other glaciated volcanoes, Rainier's water transports so much dirt and rock that its riverbeds rise over time, or aggrade, with the tons of debris that gradually get driven downstream.

This process is normal–a geological cause-and-effect that scientists say happens whenever ice melts. But what's happened on Rainier in recent years isn't normal. Rapidly warming temperatures have changed the seasons, creating more rain (vs. snow) and melt (vs. freeze) days at both ends of winter. The result is a higher incidence of destructive floods. It goes like this: Big rainstorms (that should have fallen as snow) abruptly liquefy so-called "wasting" glaciers–essentially perennial snowfields–creating steroidal stream levels. When enough water starts moving, it can scour the aggraded riverbeds, sweeping surplus sediment at frightening speeds. In extreme scenarios, a flood becomes a massive debris flow known as a lahar–a deadly tsunami of mud, boulders, and uprooted trees that can gouge 100-foot-deep gullies, flatten forests, and jump longstanding banks.

If that weren't enough, lahars also raise riverbed levels farther down the mountain. That may seem innocuous, but it's a concern in places like Rainier, where the human infrastructure–buildings, trails, and campsites–hasn't kept pace with the changing terrain. The town of Longmire now sits 29 feet lower than the Nisqually riverbed, protected by a man-made levee, like an alpine New Orleans.

Paul Kennard, Rainier's geomorphologist, or river specialist, speaks with a scientist's detached calm about the guillotine suspended over Mt. Rainier National Park. He sees debris flows more frequently now–about four a year for the past five years–and says conditions are ripe for a cataclysmic flood. But his biggest worry isn't a flood so much as what researchers don't yet understand: namely, how bad the storms may get, and how soon they'll arrive.

Many, many rocks sit poised to tumble off Rainier. All that's needed to unleash them is a really big rainstorm.

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Mar 03, 2011

Lenticular Clouds are lens-shaped clouds, and are usually formed at a very high altitude. The lens shape of the cloud is often mistaken by people as a ‘UFO’ or unidentified flying object.

Mar 24, 2009

Oh god, another global warming debate. Must... resist..... but I can't. Ok, my two cents:

It has been incredible to me to watch this entire debate unfold over the last 15 years or so. Watching the various opinion camps form and coalesce around various data points, and then attempt to effectively debate each other - almost always using incomplete science and cherry-picked data that seems to support their argument, has been almost as interesting (and disturbing) as watching the actual science of climatology evolve.

And while some positions use more factual evidence than others, no "side" is without fault. Yes, at this point a dispassionate reviewer of ALL AVAILABLE DATA from credible research institutions can reach no conclusion other than anthropogenic warming is real, but that doesn't leave the global warming proponents without fault. Al Gore, for instance, is a bit of a simplistic hypocrite. Yes, "An Inconvenient Truth" brought awareness to the masses... however, it's such dumbed-down science that it almost endangers the whole argument. AND he's profited off it in a big way. AND his own lifestyle reflects almost none of the changes he proposes we must make.

Politics notwithstanding, however, pure science does not lie. So do not get your data on this subject from Al Gore, Rush Limbaugh, or the Heartland Institute. Get it from the source. Start by reading and really UNDERSTANDING the IPCC briefs. Then, realize that the IPCC is not in and of itself a research institution. It's a collaberation between scientists AND industry representatives. That's right, EVERY SINGLE WORD in an IPCC brief has to be signed off on by not only scientists, but reps from the oil companies, power generation utilities etc. THAT'S why the IPCC briefs have been so conservative. They've been the worst scenarios that industry has thus far been forced by a mountain of data to agree to. And they're still pretty scary.
Mar 18, 2009
Mar 18, 2009

Mar 14, 2009

Mar 12, 2009

I'll be dead before the real change happens. And I have no kids. Since 1790 1/4 of the family tree has stopped branching

Mar 11, 2009

There was once a man named Charles Darwin. He saw the processes of evolution within animals and I have seen the same thing in our weather all over the globe. We are not going to heat up globally 10 degrees in our lifetime and it is not going to happen anytime soon.

Storms evolve through the evolutionary pattern of global climate cycles and within those cycles there are extreme cold and warm periods depending on how far we are away from the sun in the Earth's orbit. The Earth's orbit changes over a period of thousands of years and will continue to do so. We have been both warmer and colder in the past than we are now.

Get ready for the climate change ride and learn to deal with it and quit complaining about it.

Yeah Whatever
Mar 07, 2009

Yawn. The 'common sense' global warming denialism is soooo simplistic. Whenever someone says "scientists have just concluded that we are at the beginning of a 30-year-cooling trend..."
I click off.

Why? Because what they would say IF THEY WERE REMOTELY ACCURATE is that a couple aging contrarian scientists, many of them totally unrelated to the disciplines of climatology, botany, biology, or paleontology, have concluded that...usually by doing surveys of existing literature rather than primary research.

And people who buy into that are merely looking for a quick and convenient answer so they can get back to whatever.

It's not about climate change. Duh. It's about the SPEED of climate change...namely, too fast for natural communities to adjust. So we'll see these partial extinctions decimate numerous plant and animals species, along with the constricting habitats.

The only reason pop media punditry (and its slavish fan base) thinks this is normal climate change is because they see any long-term change as slow in relation to the hourly news cycle. But, ice-wise, we've seen about 5,000 years of 'normalish' shrink-back within the last 170 years. And pine beetles aren't about 'beetle infestations,' they're about warm/short/dry winters not killing back the normal population of beetles.

All that is a manifestation of rapid climate change.

Besides, Al Gore isn't the basis for climate change alarmism; Scientific data is. The various IPCC reports, issued periodically, were watered down due to the exact pushback that many posters here display.

Now, year by year, we're seeing IPCC reports revised into more dire - and accurate - orientation as new data comes in and the evidence becomes ever more overwhelming.

Mar 06, 2009

Why don't we blame the cavemen for building too many fires warming the earth and ending the ice age?

Mar 06, 2009

Holly please tell me you are not buying into Al Gore, he is an idiot and an alarmist (I invented the internet). Here in the UP we have had four consecutive years that are probably the coldest and snowiest in 30 years. We are still at the end of an ice age and nature is cyclical. We shall all see in the next 10-20 years. I too have belonged to this magazine for over a decade and there is more green crap in here than backbacking anymore, so I am also probably on my way out.

Ron J..UP, Michigan

Mar 06, 2009

Mar 06, 2009

As noted above there have been numerous ice ages. What stopped them? Global warming. What led to them? Global cooling. Amazing natural changes have occured since the earth was formed.

Nothing is static. Nothing has ever been static. We must be good stewards of the planet, but let's us never shy away from informed debate. Those seeking truth shouldn't fear opposing opinions. Rather we should welcome them.

After all, only with rigorously researched facts can we solve problems, whatever they may be.

Chuck Tate
Mar 05, 2009

Argue all you want about "global warming" but climate change, for whatever reason, is happening with many local changes. Some areas are wetter with stronger storms and some are drier with other problems. Mud Mountain Dam on the north side was rehabilatated to accomodate up to about 200 ft of debris filling in the river. The upper reaches of many ridges are debris flow remains from 5,000 years ago. Mt Rainer is not stable. Get ready for more changes. There was a comment about hydropower but this is the part of the country that wants to remove dams that generate electricity. We do need to make changes but we can not have our cake and eat it too. What to do, what to do?

Mike Farrar
Mar 05, 2009

Scientist have just concluded that we are in the
beginings of a 30 year cooling trend, so you can put your Global Warming scare tactics aside until
at least 2039...


Thad R
Mar 05, 2009

What data over the last decade are you looking at? The top 5 warmest years on record are all within the last 10 years. Computer climate models have accurately predicted or UNDERestimated climate changes due to global warming for years, so why would we question the newer more accurate models when the 20 year old primative ones were close? Oh... its snowing in the east a lot this year... global warming is a myth... come on! I hear this kind of stuff every time is gets cold outside. Its all a bunch of alarmest crap? Go talk to the people living in the Arctic where its now warmer there than it has been in thousands of years. The permafrost that literally holds the ground together is melting. We have lost ice that we know has been on the planet for tens of thousands of years, and from all the science we can muster we have found that this dramatic rise in temprature has only started in the last 100 years and more dramatically the last 50. Natural changes cannot happen this fast. There is no mechanism barring some sort of global disaster (meteor strike, massive volcanic eruption) that can cause the climate to shift in the way we are now seeing. CO2 and methane in the atmosphere have risen sharply, physics tells us that those gasses trap more heat, and the rise can be directly linked to human activities. Global temps are rising, given these facts any rational person must conclued that global warming is real. Knowone seems to argue that CFC's caused the hole in the Ozone layer. So we banned CFC's. The government came to that comclusion using the same science that is now telling us about global warming. Is it that you really don't believe or that actually doing something about global warming in just too much of a hassel?

Joseph Coyne
Mar 05, 2009

I work in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Some of the islands I work with their highest peak is less than 20 feet. These islands are concerned about rising tides which equate to land loss and being submerged. Global warming warming is a natural cycle. Pacific islanders have known this for who knows how long.

Mar 05, 2009

Regarding the comment on Mt St Helens glaciers "recovering" since the May 18th, 1980 eruption; Indeed one new glacier has sprouted - highly unusual and fascinating - but it is NOT due to that fact that climate is conducive to glacier formation but rather to the fact that there is now a brand new 3,000 foot north facing CLIFF that wasn't there before where the new glacier is being created. The previous glacier system around the flanks of the original peak - now 1,300 feet lower than before - have NOT reformed. Let’s get our facts straight, OK folks?
There is no debate that the earth's average temperature has risen and it is only explainable in relation to increased CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions which are themselves indisputably human caused. There is also no debate that even if we ceased ALL GHG emissions today, we are in for additional warming. Glaciers and ice sheets nearly everywhere on this planet are in retreat, and this article describes one serious issue arising from this retreat that I had not considered.

East Coast girl
Mar 05, 2009

Hey Steve - wake up and listen to what all the scientists are saying. Global warming is real. Cap and Trade will help reduce carbon emissions and will raise capital for future energy independence. How can you breathe with your head in the sand?

Mar 05, 2009

I just want to say that Holly B's comments are like a fairy tale - It's pure fantasy.

Beaverton, OR

steve W
Mar 05, 2009

Slow down.. this whole global warming alarmist mentality is doing more damage to our country than natural climate change. Let's not forget there have been ice ages followed by warm ages. Man is not the cause and man is not the cure. I quit reading and subscribing to climbing because of all the political BS espoused in that magazine and this one is next. Stick to what you know and that is backpacking stories. Global weather data over the last decade does not support this idea yet people hold on to if as if it were gospel truth. if Glaciers were is such trouble how has Mt Saint Helen's recovered many of its Glaciers since the 1980 eruption? if you want to do something to help write congress and tell them to block cap and trade tell them to report the real story. not the hype.

Holly Berkowitz
Feb 16, 2009

This is serious. The UN IPCC and Al Gore recommend reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. Contact Congress and White House that we need unprecedented investments conservation strategies and in solar and wind energy now. Cap and trade is not enough. Wind and solar are the best alternatives. Of course we can explore the other alternatives, such as ethanol and geothermal .... but Japan has invested in wind and has almost paid off their initial investments and then the energy is close to free for them. If they can do it, so can we. And what about the many inventions that we haven't thought of yet? The Midwest should look into hydropower :)

Holly Berkowitz
Iowa City, Iowa

Ellen Backy
Feb 01, 2009

This was a great article about something we must all be concerned about and act on NOW. What what was an issue is as predicted, now becoming a situation, and fast. We must get Government to act. And we must do all we can do. Might I suggest PBS'S Artic Bears? We now have live indicators up there now, and they are not surviving man's greed. Thanks for this intelligent and well written article, that is timely as well. Kudos! With your thinking all the way.. Ellen B


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