clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Seattle's Backyard Sleeper

<em>(via <a href="" target="new">Wikipedia</a>) </em>
(via Wikipedia)

People who have visited and read this blog more than zero times know that I am absolutely fascinated by volcanoes. Some time ago, I got the idea of writing about what might happen with regard to area baseball in the event of a Mount Rainier eruption. I very quickly came to realize that I am not a volcanologist. So I consulted with an expert who agreed to contribute a guest post on the matter, which you may find below. Erik Klemetti is a professor of Geosciences and a baseball fan who roots for the Mariners. He is pretty much my favorite person on the planet.


These days, the Mariners have a lot about which to be concerned. Beyond the fact that Jack Z has created an offense that, beyond Kyle Seager and [REDACTED*], doesn't seem to know that scoring runs helps in winning games, the Mariners are in one of the most precarious positions in all of Major League Baseball. Unlike all of the other teams, the Mariners must plan for the future with the threat of UTTER VOLCANIC DESTRUCTION.

Okay, that is a tad overstated. To say that the Mariners (and the Rainiers# - talk about putting all your eggs in one basket, folks) are in imminent threat to be wiped off the face of the Earth by a volcanic eruption is kind of like saying that Felix Hernandez pitches every game with the fear that his elbow will pop on every pitch. Sure, the danger is there and with a pitcher, the danger is higher than if Felix played left field or something, but the likelihood of such an event happening during each of his starts is low. However, when you take his whole career in aggregate, then you can see that the potential for catastrophic elbow ligament damage for a starting pitcher in baseball is high.

This is pretty much the situation that the Seattle-Tacoma region faces from Mt. Rainier. From almost anywhere in the area, the volcano is there, looming. Well, actually, most of the time it is quite picturesque (one of the perks of my days working at UW was seeing Rainier from campus almost every day). However, it is also one of the largest volcanoes in the Cascade Range - and a potentially active one.

Let's back up a bit. Lookout Landing is about baseball, not volcanology. Why do we have volcanoes near Seattle anyway? That is thanks to a tiny tectonic plate (the Juan de Fuca plate) off the coast of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia that is subducting under North America - that is to say, it is slowly sliding under the North American continent. To make a long story short, this causes magmas to form under North America and form the chain of volcanoes that span from Garibaldi in the north to Lassen Peak in the south and includes famous volcanoes like Mount St. Helens and Hood outside of Portland (see, the Padres decided they didn't want to risk losing their AAA team to a volcano. Smart thinking.).

Anyway, back to Rainier. After California's Shasta, Rainier is the largest volcano in the Cascades and has produced multiple large eruptions that have sent ash as far east as Montana. It has been remarkably quiet for the last 100 years and the last possible eruption occurred during the mid 1800's (and that is even unconfirmed and likely very small). The big threat from Rainier isn't the ash, though. It is the potential for volcanic mudflows (lahars) to form at the summit and come rushing down river valleys that lead from the summit. Ever been in Tacoma? Sure you have. If so, you've unknowingly stood on the lahar deposits from Rainier. That mudflow, the Osceola mudflow, took place 5,600 years ago and filled a sizable chunk of lower Puget Sound and the lowlands with meters of mud and debris after an avalanche removed a 1.8 km-wide gash on the side of Rainier.

Seattle is lucky. Unlike Tacoma, no known Rainier mudflows have ever reached Seattle. Seattle is doubly lucky because the prevailing winds in Washington push ash eastward, so most of the time, ash will head towards the (un)lucky folks in Yakima and beyond. In fact, when I was thinking what the main hazard to Seattle might be from an eruption from Rainier and any mudflows created, the best I could come up with might be a tsunami forming in Puget Sound caused by the lahar reaching the Sound - but this scenario is pretty unlikely. Seattle could also shake pretty good from earthquakes generated by the magma rising up under the volcano.

So, let's say you've settled into your seat at Safeco to watch the Sunday afternoon game against the Royals (why not?) and Rainier decides to erupt**. Rainier isn't easily seen from Safeco, but if you're in the top deck, then you might get a good view of the volcano (the magic of telephoto can make it look like the slopes of Rainier end at the gate). Most likely, you'd notice the steam coming off the top or slopes of the volcano as the snow/ice melt from the increased heat from magma rising up in the volcano. You might even notice the occasional vibration of your seat from earthquakes centered under Rainier (they should be getting shallower and stronger as the eruption gets closer, but nothing like the major Cascadia earthquake that could shake the whole Pacific Northwest). Now, if we assume that an eruption of Rainier starts with a small "throat-clearing" explosion, you might notice that the steam at the summit*** has been disrupted and there are clouds of grey coming from the area. These clouds could reach a few thousand meters above the volcano. If magma is very close to the surface, then you might see that smaller plume develop into a taller plume - possibly as high as a few kilometers (tens of thousands of feet) if it is a moderate eruption (see this shot of an ash plume from Indonesia's Merapi). You'd likely notice the plume before any sounds from the explosions reach Seattle, but some booms could resonate across the city (and might even been loud enough to break windows in towns closer to Rainier). If you're "lucky" and new magma has reached the surface, once night falls, the summit of Rainier would glow red (like Fuego in Guatemala earlier this year).

Now comes the fun part. As the prevailing winds push the ash to the east, much of the airspace to the east of SeaTac would need to be closed, so only planes diverted far north and south and then up along the coast would likely be able to land at the airport (if at all). Depending on the ash fall and lahars, rail and highways between Seattle and points south could be closed. Cheney Stadium in Tacoma could be wiped out if the volcano produces a very large lahar, but some of the low hills around the stadium could protect it. However, if a lahar like this occurred during the season, the people in the stadium would only have a few hours to evacuate the whole Tacoma region to get out of the path of the lahar.

Depending on how long the eruption lasts, getting to/from Seattle would be very tricky. Likely, flights would need to be diverted on a long-term basis to Bellingham or Portland if the ash were persistent. How would MLB handle this? Could you have a season of baseball with a direct view of an erupting volcano within 40 miles of the stadium? Would the Mariners become an itinerant team, wandering the countryside in search of a stadium or could they be a symbol of normalcy in what is likely to be a turbulent time near the Sound^? Likely the eruption would wax and wane, so I would likely try to have as many home games as permissible, but you might need to move some home games to other locations. As for the Rainiers, they might be really in a world of hurt - my bet would be they would need to be moved to another city during the course of the eruption - which could be weeks, months or even a year.

I do wonder if the Mariners have a contingency plan for an active Rainier. Heck, even an eruption from other nearby Cascade volcanoes like Baker or Glacier Peak could affect air travel in and out of Seattle, so just like a hurricane can disrupt games in Miami or Tampa, a volcanic eruption is a real (albeit likely lower probability) hazard for teams between Vancouver BC and northern California. The team and stadium in Seattle isn't likely to be in direct danger, but Cheney Stadium does have a non-zero chance of being hit by a lahar or flooding associated with these volcanic mudflows (along with Auburn, Sumner, Enumclaw, Puyallup and more).

So, fear not! Seattle would have a great view and even with disruption to air and land traffic, the port location of Seattle would likely mean that those pinches might not be as apparent as it might seem. Rainier is likely not the biggest hazard that the Mariners face (probably much smaller than the inability to produce a decent hitting prospect).


* All right, I admit, I started writing this before Ichiro was traded to the [^&amp;#$] Yankees and I drew a blank on what to fill in here beyond "that guy who gets hits sometimes, you know, the one with the shirt".

# Taking a quick look, the Tacoma Rainiers might be the closest MLB or MiLB team to an active volcano. The Yakima Bears are also close to Rainier, but they are likely moving to Hillsboro, Oregon ... which is about the same distance to Hood. I guess they love to be near an active volcano.

** Unless you're the type who doesn't watch the news or talk to anyone else, any potential eruption from Rainier would be noticed by the US Geological Survey months in advance. Precursors to eruptions - earthquakes, deformation, degassing (and more) are all monitored even when Rainier is quiet.

*** Assuming the eruption comes from a summit crater. Rainier is a compound volcano, so there is a small but real chance an eruption could come from lower on the slopes of Rainier.

^ Alternatively, the Mariners could say "we're playing in Seattle. If you're too chicken to show up, too bad!" They could forfeit their way to the top!


Erik Klemetti used to live in Seattle, but now he finds himself in the middle of Ohio, where he is a professor of Geosciences. He writes a blog about volcanoes for Wired Science and mostly watches sad teams like the Mariners, Red Sox, and Indians. He is also on Twitter at @eruptionsblog.