Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Dear Washington State: All is Forgiven...The Airliner Chronicles Returns

The Pacific Northwest has this problem. It has two particular things in great abundance: trees and clouds. It also has volcanoes, but much of the time the first two obscure the latter. At Christmas I drove to the Seattle area and spent three days, and never laid eyes on Mt. Rainier, the gigantic stratovolcano that looms over the Puget Sound region. In the last week I had occasion to fly to the Seattle area, and being the month of May, I figured I had a pretty good chance of seeing some of the Cascade volcanoes. It started out pretty well as we left Sacramento, since I could see Lassen Peak off in the distance and then it disappeared. The clouds obscured the views all the way to Washington with the sole exception of a brief look at Mt. Adams, and the view below of Mt. Rainier.
Yeah, somewhere in there is the summit of Mt. Rainier.


That was okay. I had four days of walking and driving around Kent and Renton, and figured there would be a view once in awhile of the massive volcano. Nothing doing. There were tantalizing glimpses while driving around, but there were always trees in the way. Washington was disappointing me.
The flight home was scheduled to take off at 7:50PM so I figured there were too many things that would happen to either delay the flight until after sunset, or the clouds would be there again. But we boarded the plane on time and while taxiing down the runway I got the best ground-based picture of the mountain on the entire trip. It wasn't much, but it was something. 
And then we took off. It was hazy, and we took off towards the north and did a long turn towards the south, long enough to make me wonder if we were going to pass Rainier on the wrong side. But as the plane banked there was suddenly a very big mountain in the window, and Washington with all her trees and clouds were immediately forgiven. The mountain was stunning in the evening light.
Mt. Rainier from the runway at SeaTac.

At 14,411 feet, Mt. Rainier is the tallest volcano in Cascades Range, and is exceeded in volume only by Mt. Shasta in Northern California. It was once even higher, but glaciers have removed 1,000 feet of rock or more from the summit.  Because it is by far the tallest mountain in the Pacific Northwest it is completely covered by the largest mass of glacial ice in the lower 48 states, about a cubic mile (I read somewhere that it contains half of the all the glacial ice in the lower 48, but I can't find the source and would welcome any corrections from those who know such things). Aside from the "normal" threats that volcanoes might present to a given region (lava flows, ash flows, and that sort of thing), the snow makes the mountain far more dangerous. It's not hard to imagine why: any small eruption would melt a vast amount of ice, forming volcanic mudflows called lahars that are capable of flowing for many tens of miles, and threatening many of the cities along the southern part of the Puget Sound. The entire city of Tacoma is built on a mudflow that thundered down the mountain 5,000 years ago. The last major eruption occurred around a thousand years ago, although minor activity may have occurred several times in the 1800s. 

We flew south as the sun was sinking below the horizon and several other volcanoes appeared out of the gloom. Those pictures will come later. By way of explanation, the term "Airliner Chronicles" refers to the very first blog series I ever put together way back in 2008. One of my earliest posts in the series was also an evening shot of Rainier. By some strange convergence, that post received its first and only comment just two days ago!