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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.


Few would criticize the raining of public attention and funds on national parks like Rainier and Olympic, where key roads were also closed for months after the November 2006 storm. But the region's national forests sustained similar damage and suffer from crippling maintenance backlogs that will severely limit access for years. Since the 2003 floods, hikers haven't been able to reach many trails on the west and north sides of the nearby Glacier Peak Wilderness, and two key roads there remain closed. Mudslides caused by the 2003 storm also obliterated seven footbridges and many miles on the Pacific Crest Trail; backpackers are still following a 50-mile detour.

And these examples represent just a small fraction of the outstanding storm damage. According to the Washington Trails Association, the 2006 tempest affected 150 paths around the Northwest. The tab for fixing roads and trails might reach $70 million. Five debris flows took big bites out of the 41-mile Timberline Trail looping Mt. Hood; the segment between Cloud Cap and Elk Cove isn't expected to reopen before this summer. Damage in Washington's Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest alone totals $11 million, and crews there haven't even finished cleaning up from 2003.

While the wreckage has been leavened by a massive outpouring of volunteer labor, the future of trail rebuilding in the Northwest looks bleak. Despite the destruction, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie's 2007 budget for repairs was a paltry $15,000. And experts say that even well-funded parks will struggle to keep pace with more frequent monster floods.

The Union of Concerned Scientists says it expects warmer temperatures to crank up the hydrological cycle, pumping more moisture into the atmosphere and spawning more huge storms. Various studies support that prediction. A 2005 analysis forecast a 140 percent leap in "extreme precipitation events" in the Pacific Northwest–primarily between November and January. And in a 2006 study, Oregon State University climatologist Anne Nolin predicted that, by mid-century, 22 percent of Oregon's Cascades and 60 percent of the Olympic Mountains–an area exceeding 3,500 square miles–could see rain falling in winter at elevations that now get snow. Even where the white stuff holds out, it will fall in temps closer to freezing, making it more susceptible to rapid melting. As for the so-called Pineapple Expresses, Portland State University's Andrew Fountain simply told me, "You're going to see more of that." Even if the scientists are wrong and climate change doesn't trigger more-frequent superstorms, the drain plug has already been pulled on the Cascade volcanoes. Glacial recession, aggradation, debris flows–they've all accelerated to a point where reversal (and maybe even stasis) is at least a century away, and only if we cap CO2 emissions now. Of course, moraines left behind by retreating glaciers will eventually stabilize, cover with vegetation, and spawn fewer debris flows. But with glaciers marching uphill for decades to come–exposing more moraine, incubating more lahars–terrain stability seems a very distant resolution. It seems clear that hikers and park officials will have to adapt to more road and trail closures, to floods that come closer to houses and other facilities, and to a landscape that looks and behaves unlike anything we've known. In the meantime, another 100-year storm could strike.

And it did. On December 3, 2007, a titanic storm slammed the Northwest. Rainier saw six inches of rain, and the Olympic Peninsula was pounded by 14 in 48 hours. Mudslides tore up roads and campgrounds in the Olympics and flattened thousands of trees; several rivers breached 500-year flood levels. The combined repair tab for the peninsula's national park and forest: $19 million.


Gazing at Rainier's tattered cape of glaciers, too immense for the eye to measure, it seems at once impossible, amazing, and frightening that we are capable of affecting the climate in a way that could alter the topography of this mountain. But our complicity in the crisis feels almost irrelevant when you visit Rainier and stand beside an enormous toothpick pile of giant trees laid flat in a single instant of muddy devastation.

Clearly, we'll have to adapt our vision of wilderness to a new reality. The usual global warming stories about rising sea levels and endangered polar bears require a certain intellectual patience, a faith in science. Those changes happen slowly, distantly, somehow out there. Rainier's debris flows illustrate the vicious messiness and proximity of climate change.

There's a rock on a mountainside. It is very, very old. But in many respects, its story has only just begun.

Northwest editor Michael Lanza lives in sunny and lahar-free Boise, Idaho.

A look inside the work done by crews to repair Rainier's trails after the November 2006 storm.

As the flood's damage became better known, park officials received thousands of calls and emails offering help. Nonprofit groups pitched in, too. The Student Conservation Association set up an office at Longmire and led a volunteer effort that pulled in crews and funding from the Washington Trails Association, The Mountaineers, and the National Parks Conservation Association. The free labor nearly offset the storm's destruction: In 2007, 1,724 volunteers contributed more than 84,000 hours of trail work, worth $1.5 million and roughly twice the park's volunteer output in a typical year. At press time, officials expected 2008 volunteer hours to reach 60,000.

Once completed, the Rainier project will rival the Yellowstone recovery effort after the fires of 1988. Jay Satz, SCA's chief organizer on Rainier, also led SCA's push in Wyoming. While the breadth of damage in Yellowstone was greater, he says, more people have already served at Rainier. "In 2007 alone," he recounts, "SCA volunteers cleared 335 campsites, 222 road culverts, and 90,000 feet of trail–and built 3,600 feet of new trail." (The work continues. For information or to volunteer, go to

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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

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