Modeled inundation limits of potential lahars from Mount Adams in the White Salmon River Valley, Washington

Open-File Report 2018-1013




Lahars large enough to reach populated areas are a hazard at Mount Adams, a massive volcano in the southern Cascade Range of Washington State (fig. 1). It is considered to be still active and has the potential to erupt again. By definition, lahars are gravity-driven flows of water-saturated mixtures of mud and rock (plus or minus ice, wood, and other debris), which originate from volcanoes and have a variety of potential triggering mechanisms (Vallance, 2000; Vallance and Iverson, 2015). Flowing mixtures can range in fluid consistency from something like a milkshake to something more like wet concrete, and they behave like flash floods, in that they can appear suddenly in river channels with little warning and commonly have boulder- or log-choked flow fronts. Lahars are hazardous because they can flow rapidly in confined valleys (commonly 20–35 miles per hour [mph] or 9–16 meters per second [m/s]), can travel more than 100 miles (mi) (161 kilometers [km]) from a source volcano, and can move with incredible destructive force, carrying multi-ton boulders and logs that can act as battering rams (Pierson, 1998). The biggest threats from lahars to downstream communities are present during eruptive activity, and impacts to communities can be dire. For example, a very large eruption-triggered lahar in Colombia in 1985 surprised and killed more than 20,000 people in a large town located about 45 mi (72 km) downstream and out of sight of the volcano that produced it (Pierson and others, 1990).

Mount Adams, one of the largest volcanoes in the Cascade Range, is a composite stratocone composed primarily of andesite lava flows. It has been the most continuously active volcano within the 480-mi2 Mount Adams volcanic field—a region covering parts of Klickitat, Skamania, Yakima, andLewis Counties and part of the Yakama Nation Reservation in Washington State (Hildreth and Fierstein,1995, 1997). About 500,000 years in age, Mount Adams reached its present size by about 15,000 years ago, primarily through the episodic effusion of lava flows; it has not had a history of major explosive eruptions like Mount St. Helens, its neighbor to the west. Timing of the most recent eruptive activity (recorded by four thin tephra layers) is on the order of 1,000 years ago; the tephras are bracketed by 2,500-year-old and 500-year-old ash layers from Mount St. Helens (Hildreth and Fierstein, 1995, 1997). Mount Adams currently shows no signs of renewed unrest.

Eruptive history does not tell us everything we need to know about hazards at Mount Adams, however, which are fully addressed in the volcano hazard assessment for Mount Adams (W.E. Scott and others, 1995). This volcano has had a long-active hydrothermal system that circulated acidic hydrothermal fluids, formed by the solution of volcanic gases in heated groundwater, through fractures and permeable zones into upper parts of the volcanic cone. Acid sulfate leaching of rocks in the summit area may still be occurring, but chemical and thermal evidence suggests that the main hydrothermal system is no longer active at Mount Adams (Nathenson and Mariner, 2013). However, these rock-weakening chemical reactions have operated long enough to change about 0.4 cubic miles (mi3) (1.7 cubic kilometers [km3]) of the hard lava rock in the volcano’s upper cone to a much weaker clay-rich rock, thus significantly reducing rock strength and thereby slope stability in parts of the cone (Finn and others, 2007). The two largest previous lahars from Mount Adams were triggered by landslides of hydrothermally altered rock from the upper southwestern flank of the cone, and any future large lahars are likely to be triggered by the same mechanism. Mount Rainier also has had extensive hydrothermal alteration of rock in its upper edifice, and it also has a history of large landslides that transform into lahars (K.M. Scott and others, 1995; Vallance and Scott, 1997; Reid and others, 2001).

The spatial depiction of modeled lahar inundation zones accompanying this report, shown in two different map perspectives, is intended to augment (not replace) the existing hazard maps for Mount Adams (W.E. Scott and others, 1995; Vallance, 1999). The maps in this report show potential areas of inundation by lahars of different initial volumes, which are determined by a computer model, LAHARZ (Iverson and others, 1998; Schilling, 1998). One map sheet presents LAHARZ-determined inundation areas on a normal plan-view shaded-relief map of the study area; the other gives an oblique perspective of the landscape with raised topography, as if one were viewing the landscape at an angle from an aircraft (Jenny and Patterson, 2007). LAHARZ was developed after the original hazard maps (based only on mapping of geologic deposits) were made. Predicted inundation zones on these maps provide an alternative approach to estimation of areas that could be inundated as lahars of different volumes pass through the valley. However, there is considerable uncertainty in the exact location of the hazard-zone boundaries shown on these maps, as well as on earlier maps.

Suggested Citation

Griswold, J.P., Pierson, T.C., and Bard J.A., 2018, Modeled inundation limits of potential lahars from Mount Adams in the White Salmon River valley, Washington: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2018–1013, scale 1:75,000, 14 p.,

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Modeled inundation limits of potential lahars from Mount Adams in the White Salmon River Valley, Washington
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Volcano Science Center
Sheet: 42.0 x 42.0 inches; Pamphlet: iii, 14 p.
United States
Other Geospatial:
Mount Adams, While Salmon River Valley
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):