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Modeling the dynamics of lahars that originate as landslides on the west side of Mount Rainier, Washington

April 28, 2022

Large lahars pose substantial threats to people and property downstream from Mount Rainier volcano in Washington State. Geologic evidence indicates that these threats exist even during the absence of volcanic activity and that the threats are highest in the densely populated Puyallup and Nisqually River valleys on the west side of the volcano. However, the precise character of these threats can be difficult to anticipate.

To help predict depths and rates of possible lahar inundation in the area, this report presents the results of simulations of hypothetical future lahars that originate high on the west side of Mount Rainier and travel downstream into the Puyallup and Nisqually River valleys. Many of the results portrayed as still images in the figures of this report are also available as animated files that can be accessed at the web address provided in the figure captions. We simulated eight scenarios, including worst-case scenarios in which the simulated lahars are similar in size and mobility to the approximately 260 million cubic meter (Mm3; 340 million cubic yard) Electron Mudflow lahar that descended from Mount Rainier and inundated the Puyallup River valley about 500 years ago. The other six scenarios place the worst-case scenarios in perspective by simulating lahars that originate from the same source areas but have smaller volumes or lesser mobilities.

We perform our simulations using an open-source software package that we developed called D-Claw. The numerical model composing the kernel of D-Claw solves a system of five hyperbolic partial differential equations that describe the depth-averaged dynamics of static or flowing grain-fluid mixtures interacting with three-dimensional topography. In D-Claw, the volume fraction occupied by solid grains is a dependent variable that can freely evolve, enabling simulation of landslide liquefaction and of lahar interaction with static bodies of water. The latter feature facilitates a seamless simulation of a lahar in the Nisqually River valley entering Alder Lake reservoir.

In the event of an approximately 260 Mm3 high-mobility lahar originating on the west side of Mount Rainier, our results point to two areas of pronounced hazard. One area, comprising the densely populated lowlands of Orting, Washington, and environs, could be inundated by lahars originating from either the Sunset Amphitheater or Tahoma Glacier headwall areas. In the worst-case scenario we consider for the Orting lowlands, which involves a 260 Mm3 high-mobility lahar originating from a landslide in the Sunset Amphitheater, a flow front approximately 4 meters deep and traveling about 4 meters per second reaches the Orting lowlands about 1 hour after the onset of slope failure. After passing through the Orting lowlands, the simulated lahar slows down and comes to rest in the valleys surrounding Sumner and Puyallup. A second area of pronounced hazard is the stretch of the Nisqually River valley beginning in Mount Rainier National Park and extending downstream to Alder Lake reservoir and Alder Dam. This area would be substantially affected in the worst-case scenario that involves a 260 Mm3 high-mobility lahar originating from the Tahoma Glacier headwall area—the locality identified by a previous study as the sector of Mount Rainier most prone to large-scale gravitational collapse. The simulated lahar passes through the area of Ashford, Washington, within about 20 minutes of the onset of slope failure and reaches the head of Alder Lake within about 50 minutes. The lahar ultimately displaces enough reservoir water to cause overtopping of the 100 meter (330 foot) tall Alder Dam, but consequences of such dam overtopping are not addressed in this report.

Publication Year 2022
Title Modeling the dynamics of lahars that originate as landslides on the west side of Mount Rainier, Washington
DOI 10.3133/ofr20211118
Authors David L. George, Richard M. Iverson, Charles M. Cannon
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2021-1118
Index ID ofr20211118
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Volcano Science Center