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What Happens If Mount Baker Erupts? Officials Prepare For Cross-Border Cooperation

John Scurlock
Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey
Fumaroles steaming within Sherman Crater, Mount Baker, Washington in March, 2005.

This week in Whatcom County, officials are staging an emergency response drill to test and increase their preparednesss in the event that Mount Baker blows its top.

That might seem unlikely, but Baker is considered an active volcano. In fact, it has the second most thermally active crater in the Cascade range.

“If you’re ever up there on a clear, cold day, you can actually see some steam coming out of the crater – just got to have the right atmospheric conditions for it,” says Brian Terbush, Earthquake and Volcano Program Coordinator at the Washington State Emergency Management Division.

Every two years, Whatcom County does large-scale disaster response exercises.  In 2016, responders joined the Cascadia Rising earthquake drill. This year, it’s a week-long simulation of a volcanic eruption that causes the collapse of Sherman Crater on the flank of Mount Baker.

More than 100 governmental, business and citizen volunteer organizations are taking part.

Terbush says Baker’s extensive snow cover means high potential for volcanic mudslides, or Lahars.

“This would be a mix of mud, debris, when it starts erupting, it puts out some volcanic ash and heat and that just melts the snow and it comes cascading down the river valleys,” he says.  

In this week’s scenario, the resulting lahar flows down the Nooksack River toward the Canadian border, which is why the drill includes agencies from British Columbia.

The exercise was developed with help from the U.S.  Geological Survey, to provide a realistic test of situational awareness and inter-operability in such a disaster. Search and rescue, communications, recovery center setup and volunteer mobilization are among the topics covered during the week-long drill.

Mount Baker is one of five volcanoes that are considered active in Washington state. In 1975-76, abnormally high levels of hydro-thermal activity and heat flow from the snow-covered peak put officials on high alert and led to its continuous monitoring.  

The state’s other active volcanoes are Mount Rainier, Mount St. Helens, Glacier Peak and Mount Adams.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to