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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.

NOVEMBER 2008

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.

Epilogue

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.


CLEANING UP THE MESS
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 thesca.org/mt_rainier_recovery.)

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