In March 1975 Mount Baker showed a large increase in thermal emission, which has persisted for more than 1 year. Fumarole ejecta accompanied the thermal activity from March to September, but the ejecta had no constituents that suggest a magmatic source. Estimates of that part of the total heat flux that would account for the observed snow and ice loss show that the heat-flow increase was roughly one order of magnitude, from about 2 megawatts at 10 watts per square meter, averaged over Sherman Crater before 1975, to about 30 megawatts at 180 watts per square meter, during 1975. Almost half of the glacier that occupied the basin of Sherman Crater was melted in 1975.
The new activity generated great concern among the public and the government agencies responsible for geological evaluation of potential hazards and for protection of life and property. The past geologic history, current topography, rock alteration, and location of major fumarolic activity indicate that large rock avalanches and mudflows on the east slope in Boulder Creek valley are the potential hazards of most significance related to present conditions. The most probable types of large mass movements would be mudflows, having speeds of as much as 50 kilometers per hour, that would originate from mixtures of snow, ice, and melt water and avalanches of structurally weak clay-rich rocks that make up the rim of Sherman Crater. Similar mudflows from the volcano have traveled at least 12 kilometers 8 times during the past 10,000 years. A possible worst case event, however, might be a larger, air-cushioned avalanche of as much as 20 to 30 million cubic meters that could hit Baker Lake at speeds of more than 300 kilometers per hour and generate a wave of water large enough to overtop Upper Baker Dam.
At least 30 million cubic meters of potentially unstable material occurs as hydrothermally altered remnants of the rim of Sherman Crater and could provide the required volume for the estimated worst case event or for smaller avalanches and mudflows. An earthquake, steam explosion, or eruption could provide a suitable trigger to initiate movement. Although such triggering events were possible before 1975, the probability might have been as much as 10 times greater in 1975 because of the increased thermal activity. The threat of avalanches and mudflows on Boulder Creek valley and Baker Lake prompted the closure by management agencies of the Boulder Creek drainage and of Baker Lake and its shoreline in the summer of 1975. Additionally, Baker Lake was kept below full pool at a level calculated to prevent overtopping of Upper Baker Dam by waves which could result from a worst-case avalanche.
In 1975 an interdisciplinary program of seismic, tilt, gravity, gas, hydrologic, petrologic, thermal infrared, and photographic studies by Federal and university scientists was initiated to evaluate the impact of the current thermal activity and to monitor changes that might indicate an impending eruption. By March 1976 only one small earth- quake had been identified beneath Mount Baker. Tilt and gravity changes have been observed but cannot be attributed solely to volcanic causes. The data available thus far provide no evidence of an impending eruption, but they cannot be fully interpreted without many additional geophysical and geochemical measurements, as it is not yet possible to clearly distinguish volcanic effects from non- volcanic background effects.
Inasmuch as current activity continues unchanged - without steam explosions, eruptions, or frequent or large earthquakes - the probability of a suitable trigger for large avalanches and mudflows should decrease and should approach that of a more average year. Such an average year would have a hazard probability at least as great as that which existed before 1975, although that level of hazard was not recognized at the time by the public or by administrative agencies. The potential hazard and the uncertainties of future activ
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Assessment of increased thermal activity at Mount Baker, Washington, March 1975-March 1976