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Open-file Report 03-368

Debris-Flow Hazards Caused by Hydrologic Events at Mount Rainier, Washington

By James W. Vallance, Michelle L. Cunico, and Steve P. Schilling

Debris flow descending Comet Falls on 15 August 2001 (Photo by J.W. Vallance).Introduction

At 4393 m, ice-clad Mount Rainier has great potential for debris flows owing to its precipitous slopes and incised steep valleys, the large volume of water stored in its glaciers, and a mantle of loose debris on its slopes. In the past 10,000 years, more than sixty Holocene lahars have occurred at Mount Rainier (Scott et al., 1985), and, in addition more than thirty debris flows not related to volcanism have occurred in historical time (Walder and Driedger, 1984). Lahars at Mount Rainier can be classed in 3 groups according to their genesis: (1) flank collapse of hydrothermally altered, water-saturated rock; (2) eruption-related release of water and loose debris; and (3) hydrologic release of water and debris (Scott et al., 1985). Lahars in the first two categories are commonly voluminous and are generally related to unrest and explosions that occur during eruptive episodes. Lahars in the third category, distinguished here as debris flows, are less voluminous than the others but occur frequently at Mount Rainier, often with little or no warning.

Historically at Mount Rainier, glacial outburst floods, torrential rains, and stream capture have caused small- to moderate-size debris flows (Walder and Driedger, 1984). Such debris flows are most likely to occur in drainages that have large glaciers in them. Less commonly, a drainage diversion has triggered a debris flow in an unglaciated drainage basin. For example, the diversion of Kautz Glacier meltwater into Van Trump basin triggered debris flows on the south side of Rainier in August 2001.

On the basis of historical accounts, debris flows having hydrologic origins are likely to be unheralded, and have occurred as seldom as once in 8 years and as often as four times per year at Mount Rainier (Walder and Driedger, 1984). Such debris flows are most likely to occur during periods of hot dry weather or during periods of intense rainfall, and therefore must occur during the summer and fall. They are likely to begin at or above the elevations of glacier termini and extend down valley.

This report discusses potential hazards from debris flows induced by hydrologic events such as glacial outburst floods and torrential rain at Mount Rainier and the surrounding area bounded by Mount Rainier National Park. The report also shows, in the accompanying hazard-zonation maps, which areas are likely to be at risk from future such debris flows at Mount Rainier. Lahar hazards related to avalanches of altered rock and to the interactions of hot rock and ice during eruptions are discussed in Scott and Vallance (1995) and Hoblitt et al. (1998) and are not addressed in this report.

First posted February 4, 2004

  • Plate 1 PDF (34 MB)
    Map Showing Areas of Potential Inundation from Debris Flows for Selected Streams at Mount Rainier, Washington
  • Plate 2 PDF (17 MB)
    Maps Showing Areas of Potential Inundation from Debris Flows for Selected Streams at Mount Rainier, Washington. Detailed maps of 6 selected areas from plate 1.

For additional information, contact:
Cascades Volcano Observatory
U.S. Geological Survey
David A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory
1300 SE Cardinal Court, Building 10, Suite 100
Vancouver, Washington, 98683-9589

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Suggested citation:

Vallance, James W., Cunico, Michelle L., Schilling, Steve P., 2003, Debris-Flow Hazards Caused by Hydrologic Events at Mount Rainier, Washington: U.S. GeologicalSurvey Open-File Report 03-368, 10 pp.,

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