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The Geologic Story of Mount Rainier

January 1, 1994

Ice-clad Mount Rainier, towering over the landscape of western Washington, ranks with Fuji-yama in Japan, Popocatepeti in Mexico, and Vesuvius in Italy among the great volcanoes of the world. At Mount Rainier, as at other inactive volcanoes, the ever-present possibility of renewed eruptions gives viewers a sense of anticipation, excitement, and apprehension not equaled by most other mountains. Even so, many of us cannot imagine the cataclysmic scale of the eruptions that were responsible for building the giant cone which now stands in silence. We accept the volcano as if it had always been there, and we appreciate only the beauty of its stark expanses of rock and ice, its flower-strewn alpine meadows, and its bordering evergreen forests.

Mount Rainier owes its scenic beauty to many features. The broad cone spreads out on top of a major mountain range - the Cascades. The volcano rises about 7,000 feet above its 7,000-foot foundation, and stands in solitary splendor - the highest peak in the entire Cascade Range. Its rocky ice-mantled slopes above timberline contrast with the dense green forests and give Mount Rainier the appearance of an arctic island in a temperate sea, an island so large that you can see its full size and shape only from the air. The mountain is highly photogenic because of the contrasts it offers among bare rock, snowfields, blue sky, and the incomparable flower fields that color its lower slopes, shadows cast by the multitude of cliffs, ridges, canyons, and pinnacles change constantly from sunrise to sunset, endlessly varying the texture and mood of the mountain. The face of the mountain also varies from day to day as its broad snowfields melt during the summer. The melting of these frozen reservoirs makes Mount Rainier a natural resource in a practical as well as in an esthetic sense, for it ensures steady flows of water for hydroelectric power in the region, regardless of season.

Seen from the Puget Sound country to the west, Mount Rainier has an unreal quality - its white summit, nearly 3 miles high, seems to float among the clouds. We share with the populace of the entire lowland a thrill as we watch skyward the evening's setting sun reddens the volcano's western snowfields. When you approach the mountain in its lovely setting, you may find something that appeals especially to you - the scenery, the wildlife, the glaciers, or the wildflowers. Or you may feel challenged to climb to the summit. Mount Rainier and its neighboring mountains have a special allure for a geologist because he visualizes the event - some ordinary, some truly spectacular - that made the present landscape. Such is the fascination of geology. A geologist becomes trained to see 'in his mind's eye' geologic events of thousands or even millions of years ago. And, most remarkable, he can 'see' these events by studying rocks in a cliff or roadcut, or perhaps by examining earthy material that looks like common soil beneath pastureland many miles away from the volcano.

Our key to understanding the geology of Mount Rainier is that each geologic event can be reconstructed - or imagined - from the rocks formed at the time of the event. With this principle as our guide, we will review the geologic ancestry of this majestic volcano and learn what is behind its scenery.