How would an eruption of Mount Rainier compare to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens?

Eruptions of Mount Rainier usually produce much less volcanic ash than do eruptions at Mount St. Helens. However, owing to the volcano's great height and widespread cover of snow and glacier ice, eruption-triggered debris flows (lahars) at Mount Rainier are likely to be much larger--and will travel a greater distance--than those at Mount St. Helens in 1980. Furthermore, areas at risk from debris flows from Mount Rainier are more densely populated than similar areas around Mount St. Helens.

Learn more: USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory

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What is the greatest hazard presented by Mount Rainier?

Debris flows ( lahars ) pose the greatest hazard to people near Mount Rainier . A debris flow is a mixture of mud and rock debris that looks and behaves like flowing concrete. Giant debris flows sometimes develop when large masses of weak, water-saturated rock slide from the volcano's flanks. Many of these debris flows cannot be predicted and may...

How dangerous is Mount Rainier?

Although Mount Rainier has not produced a significant eruption in the past 500 years, it is potentially the most dangerous volcano in the Cascade Range because of its great height, frequent earthquakes , active hydrothermal system , and extensive glacier mantle. Mount Rainier has 26 glaciers containing more than five times as much snow and ice as...

How much ash was there from the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens?

During the 9 hours of vigorous eruptive activity on May 18, 1980, about 540 million tons of ash from Mount St. Helens fell over an area of more than 22,000 square miles (57,000 square kilometers). The total volume of the ash before its compaction by rainfall was about 0.3 cubic mile (1.3 cubic kilometers), equivalent to an area the size of a...

How many eruptions have there been in the Cascades during the last 4,000 years?

Eruptions in the Cascades have occurred at an average rate of one to two per century during the last 4,000 years. Future eruptions are certain. Learn more: Eruptions in the Cascade Range During the Past 4,000 Years USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory

How far did the ash from Mount St. Helens travel?

The May 18, 1980 eruptive column at Mount St. Helens fluctuated in height through the day, but the eruption subsided by late afternoon. By early May 19, the eruption had stopped. By that time, the ash cloud had spread to the central United States. Two days later, even though the ash cloud had become more diffuse, fine ash was detected by systems...

Why is it important to monitor volcanoes?

The United States and its territories contain 169 geologically active volcanoes, of which 54 volcanoes are a high threat or very high threat to public safety. Many of these volcanoes have erupted in the recent past and will erupt again in the foreseeable future. As populations increase, areas near volcanoes are being developed and aviation routes...

Can lakes near volcanoes become acidic enough to be dangerous to people and animals?

Yes. Crater lakes atop volcanoes are typically the most acid, with pH values as low as 0.1 (very strong acid). Normal lake waters, in contrast, have relatively neutral pH values near 7.0. The crater lake at El Chichon volcano in Mexico had a pH of 0.5 in 1983 and Mount Pinatubo's crater lake had a pH of 1.9 in 1992. The acid waters of these lakes...

How can we tell when a volcano will erupt?

Most volcanoes provide warnings before an eruption. Magmatic eruptions involve the rise of magma toward the surface, which normally generates detectable earthquakes. It can also deform the ground surface and cause anomalous heat flow or changes in the temperature and chemistry of the groundwater and spring waters. Steam-blast eruptions, however,...

Is it dangerous to work on volcanoes? What precautions do scientists take?

Volcanoes are inherently beautiful places where forces of nature combine to produce awesome events and spectacular landscapes. For volcanologists, they're FUN to work on! Safety is, however, always the primary concern because volcanoes can be dangerous places. USGS scientists try hard to understand the risk inherent in any situation, then train...

Can an eruption at one volcano trigger an eruption at another nearby volcano?

There are a few historic examples of simultaneous eruptions from volcanoes or vents located within about 10 km of each other, but it's very difficult to determine whether one eruption caused the other. To the extent that these erupting volcanoes or vents have common or overlapping magma reservoirs and hydrothermal systems, magma rising to erupt...
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Date published: May 16, 2017


Which sounds more dangerous, lava or mud? The answer may surprise you...

Date published: May 1, 2017

May is Volcano Preparedness Month in Washington State

May is Volcano Preparedness Month in Washington, providing residents an opportunity to become more familiar with volcano hazards in their communities and learn about steps they can take to reduce potential impacts.

Date published: September 12, 2016


It’s not flirting for submarines, but this week’s EarthWord does feature the ocean...

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February 22, 2018

PubTalk 2/2018 — USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory

Title: The USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory - Research, monitoring, and the science of preparing society for low-probability, high-consequence events

  • Volcanoes in the Cascade Range erupt twice per century on average, with eruptions often lasting for years.
  • Although eruptions are generally not as high-consequence as large earthquakes, they are still
Attribution: Natural Hazards
 Mt. Rainier Lahar Hazard Map
November 9, 2016

Mt. Rainier Lahar Hazard Map

Volcano hazard map showing the extent of lahar hazards in towns and valleys surrounding Mt. Rainier in Washington. Image credit: USGS

Photograph of Mount Rainier and Orting, Washington
April 11, 2016

Photograph of Mount Rainier and Orting, Washington

Photograph of Mount Rainier and Orting, Washington, as seen from a ridge to the west. Orting is one of many communities that are in lahar-prone areas below the flanks of Mount Rainier. 

Image: Field Work on Mount Rainier
March 15, 2016

Field Work on Mount Rainier

Researcher Amanda Kissel pauses by a lake in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Attribution: Ecosystems
Large snow-covered, cone shaped mountain in background, looming over urban area in foreground
January 18, 2014

Mount Rainier looms over the Puyallup Valley, Washington

Mount Rainier volcano looms over Puyallup Valley, near Orting, Washington.

video thumbnail: Volcano Hazards
July 30, 2012

Volcano Hazards

The United States has 169 active volcanoes. More than half of them could erupt explosively, sending ash up to 20,000 or 30,000 feet where commercial air traffic flies. USGS scientists are working to improve our understanding of volcano hazards to help protect communities and reduce the risks.

Video Sections:

  • Volcanoes: Monitoring Volcanoes
May 9, 2012

Volcano Web Shorts 5 - Volcanic Ash Impacts

Volcanic ash is geographically the most widespread of all volcanic hazards. USGS geologist Larry Mastin describes how volcanic ash can disrupt lives many thousands of miles from an erupting volcano. The development of ash cloud models and ash cloud disruption to air traffic is highlighted.

May 9, 2012

Volcano Web Shorts 4 - Instruments

USGS technologist Rick LaHusen describes how the development and deployment of instruments plays a crucial role in mitigating volcanic hazards.

May 9, 2012

Volcano Web Shorts 3: Seismology

USGS volcano seismologist, Seth Moran, describes how seismology and seismic networks are used to mitigate volcanic hazards.

May 9, 2012

Volcano Web Shorts 2: Debris Flows

Debris flows are hazardous flows of rock, sediment and water that surge down mountain slopes and into adjacent valleys. Hydrologist Richard Iverson describes the nature of debris-flow research and explains how debris flow experiments are conducted at the USGS Debris Flow Flume, west of Eugene, Oregon. Spectacular debris flow footage, recorded by Franck Lavigne of the

video thumbnail: Mount St. Helens: A Catalyst for Change
May 10, 2010

Mount St. Helens: A Catalyst for Change

The May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens triggered a growth in volcano science and volcano monitoring. Five USGS volcano observatories have been established since the eruption. With new technologies and improved awareness of volcanic hazards USGS scientists are helping save lives and property across the planet.

video thumbnail: Mount St. Helens: May 18, 1980
May 10, 2010

Mount St. Helens: May 18, 1980

USGS scientists recount their experiences before, during and after the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Loss of their colleague David A. Johnston and 56 others in the eruption cast a pall over one of the most dramatic geologic moments in American history.