What does the future hold at Mount Rainier?

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” — Laozi

Mount Rainier, the great icon of our region, dominates our eastern skyline, rearing nearly three miles into the sky above tidewater. Its profile is instantly recognizable, even on our license plates. On sunny summer days, we jam area highways, drawn to the massive volcano for both recreation and inspiration.

But what does the future hold for basic access to the National Park? In November 2006, a wet Pacific storm pushed inland, stalled over Mount Rainier, and dropped 18 inches of rain. The devastation was incredible. Roads, trails, and utility lines were cut. The entire park was closed for six long months. The repair bill came to some $36 million.

The former Carbon River road is now a trail, closed to vehicles at the park boundary. The West Side road is now truncated, no longer allowing vehicle access to an entire suite of trailheads along its former route. The Sunshine Point campground is no more, gobbled up by the rampaging Nisqually River.

What’s happening in our beloved park? Mount Rainier carries roughly a cubic mile of permanent snow and ice on its shoulders, more than all the rest of the Cascade region’s volcanoes combined. But over the past century or so, some 14.5 square miles of snow and ice have vanished. That’s about the same surface area as the entire city of Tumwater — gone. The rate of loss has accelerated in recent years.

That snow melt in turn exposes large expanses of glacial deposits, loose gravel and boulders, resting on steep slopes above the park’s rivers. As this material is washed into the rivers, the sediment builds up, causing aggradation.

What’s that? Time to learn a bit of hydrology. We normally think of rivers as cutting deeper into their channels. Aggradation is the opposite. When a river is overwhelmed by sediment, its stream bed actually rises as more material accumulates.

Here’s an example: In the upper Nisqually River within the park, scientists measured the increase in height of the river bed at more than 5 feet after one storm. In that same vicinity, over about the last century, the river has aggraded 38 vertical feet. Picture a cross-section of the river valley. It’s now filled with gravel and boulders to about the height of a four-story building above its former level. This portion is right next to the main park road leading to Paradise.

On the east side of the park, the story is much the same. The White River, starting from the Emmons Glacier on the volcano’s northeast flank, is also aggrading. In places, the river bed is now 16 feet higher than Highway 410, the road that leads past the turnoff to Crystal Mountain ski resort and through the park to the popular Sunrise area.

Remember that 2006 storm that closed the park and caused so much damage? Over a decade later, the rivers in the park are even more impacted by enormous sediment loads. Their stream beds are higher. The upper areas of their watersheds have lost more snow and ice cover, exposing more loose sediments.

We are now one big Pineapple Express rainstorm away from major floods in the park that will destroy roads and other park improvements, cut off access to this place we love, and cost millions of scarce federal dollars to repair.

People tend to choose up sides when the term “climate change” is used. That’s unfortunate. Facts do not cease to exist, even if they are ignored. There are careful studies documenting the change. The data showing what is changing at Mount Rainier is there to see, review, and debate.

The dilemma of climate change, and what we do — or fail to do — to respond, is far beyond the scope of this column. But for starters, we can educate ourselves to the reality of change. We learn from examples, especially when those examples are something we care about. Next time you see The Mountain filling the sky, think about what it can teach us, if we are willing to learn.

Cleve Pinnix is a retired State Parks Commission director, a Panorama resident, and a member of The Olympian’s 2019 Board of Contributors. Reach him at cfp.ranger44@gmail.com.