A sleeping giant: Beautiful Mt. Baker considered a ‘very high threat’ for eruption

BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- "Mountains are unpredictable, and there's no guarantee of anything," says John Gargett. He's sitting in a massive empty room with rows and rows of empty computer docking stations.

Gargett is talking about Washington's third highest peak, Mt. Baker, which sits on the ridge line of many communities in Whatcom and Skagit counties and southern British Columbia, too.

It is most well-known as holding the record for the snowiest spot in North America, but Mt. Baker is more than just a place for good skiing. The beautiful snow-capped mountain also has hidden dangers. It's ranked towards the top of the U.S. Geological Survey which labels the mountain with a "very high threat" for eruption.

"A volcano is basically a pile of rotten rock," says Gargett. "Particularly with the acids and the chemicals that come out of volcanoes itself -- and they can fail at times."

Gargett is on the front lines of a campaign to make people in the danger zone more aware of this mostly sleeping giant.  And on the day when this giant pile of rocks stacked 10,741 feet tall does eventually fail, the now empty Emergency Operation Center will be filled with hundreds of people coping with a massive crisis. It's a crisis that's expected to cost Whatcom County $10 billion in damages and lost economic activity, according to a Western Washington University study.

"Just a tremendous amount of infrastructure, schools, whole school districts, and the Nooksack Indian Tribe are all within that area," he says.

For decades, Gargett traveled the world helping communities prepare for and recover from disasters. Now he's back at home in western Washington to help out here. He's working for the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office in the Division of Emergency Management.

"We're undertaking a pretty aggressive public outreach ," says Gargett. "We've interviewed a lot of people, and it's always surprised me that we find a lot of people that don't know it's a volcano."

He says about 30-40 percent of the folks they've talked to don't know Baker is a volcano, even though the sleeping giant sends some pretty obvious signs.

"It's constantly steaming," he says. "Sometimes we can see that if the atmospheric conditions are right. We're always reminded about it."

The real threat in Whatcom County wouldn't be the cloud of ash from the volcano. It'd be a lahar, a wall of fast moving muddy waters carrying rocks, trees and whatever debris it could find along the way downstream, devastating communities in its path.

Every drop of Baker Lake and Lake Shannon downstream could be pushed down the Skagit River heading towards Sedro-Wooley, Burlington, Mount Vernon, and LaConner. Communities on the Nooksack River, like Everson, could be devastated if it flowed off Mount Baker that direction. And all the vast acres of productive farmland planted on fertile volcanic soils could be wiped off the map in an hour or two. Plus it could take out the pipeline that delivers 40 percent of natural gas to the western United States.

"Everything we know about a lahar," says Gargett, "that it would take 30 minutes to an hour before it would affect populated areas."

The good news is that while the danger is very real, geologists think the last time Mt. Baker had a large eruption was six to seven thousand years ago. And the best news of all: this sleeping giant would likely wake up slowly. 

"It's a pretty high probability we'd get a fair amount of time before we'd actually see an eruption. It begins with a swarm of earthquakes, a little bit of ash coming out, maybe more steam than normal," Gargett says.

Those weeks or months of warning would let scientists swarm in with more sensors and monitors and give residents plenty of time to get out of the way.