Friday, July 14, 2017

California's (not) Biggest, (not) Most Recently Active, and (not) Most Dangerous Volcano


Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
Mt. Shasta is no doubt the most dominating volcano in all of California. It's huge, topping out at well above 14,000 feet, and is visible from over a hundred miles in a number of directions. It was the first main stop on our recent journey exploring the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rocky Mountains, and it really stood out as we essentially circled it on our way to Lava Beds National Monument.

It's big, it's active, and it's potentially destructive. So how bad could it be? Is Shasta the biggest, most recently active and most dangerous volcano in the state? Actually...no. California has a great many volcanic features, and even though some are not as familiar to many of us, they do actually present a hazard for a great many more people than you might suspect. That's not to say that Shasta is not dangerous, however.
Castle Crags in the Klamath Mountains of northern California (photo by Mrs. Geotripper)
As Interstate 5 winds northward into the Klamath Mountains north of Redding, Shasta occasionally peeks out between the trees (the top picture), but for a brief moment near Dunsmuir a totally different set of mountain spires appear off to the west. They are the Castle Crags, a granite stock (an intrusive body of granite exposed over an area of less than 40 square miles; batholiths are larger).

Castle Crags (seen below in a picture from a plane flight a few years back) were relevant to our explorations because they represent a volcano from inside out. About 160 million years ago, the land surface was five or six miles above, and molten magma was moving up through the crust. Some of the magma reached the surface to flow in volcanic eruptions, building up volcanoes maybe similar to Shasta and others of the Cascades. The rest of the molten rock cooled slowly for tens of thousands of years, forming the crystalline granitic rock exposed today at the Crags.

Moments later, we made the imaginary journey up through the crust and onto the flanks of the modern volcanic edifice of Mt. Shasta. We followed the Everitt Highway up the mountain to the about the 7,500 foot level to have a look around. Even though we were on the first day of a crippling heat wave in California, the air was cool, and the snowbanks made it clear that winter was not yet entirely over.
Bunny Flats was the end of the road for us on this particular day. The last two or three miles of pavement above were covered by snow. The road used to end at a ski area, but the resort was closed years ago, due to avalanche danger (as I understand it; there is a newer resort on the lower slopes of the volcano). Working and playing on the slopes of a volcano does have its hazards...

There are a lot of hazards around Shasta. Lava flows might seem to be one of them, but andesite lava tends to be sluggish and slow. Lava doesn't worry me so much. Ash eruptions are certainly a danger, due to their speed and mobility. Shasta has had such eruptions, but they haven't been the usual modus operandi over the years. But...lava or ash flowing onto thick snow: that's a problem. The melting snow and debris quickly turns into a mudflow that can travel for tens of miles at high rates of speed. The Indonesians called them lahars, and the name has stuck. Most of the lower flanks of Shasta are mantled with lahar deposits, and the towns of Weed and Shasta City are built on them. Mudflows have even happened when there have been no eruptions. Meltwater can build up under the glaciers that cover much of the mountain and burst out with no warning (Icelanders call these glacial bursts j√∂kulhlaups). All in all, it's a pretty dangerous volcano.

And it's active. There have been a number of eruptions in the last 10,000 years, including those that built up Shastina and Black Butte. The entire upper part of Shasta, the Hotlum Cone, is less than 9,000 years old. The volcano may have erupted in 1786. So is it the most recently active volcano in California? Nope.
From our vantage point at Bunny Flat, we had an unobstructed view southeast towards Lassen Peak and Brokeoff Mountain. Lassen is the winner of the "most recently active" designation. The plug dome began making noise in 1914, and let loose in 1915 with a lava flow, a destructive lahar, and an ash eruption that interrupted train service out in Winnemucca, Nevada. The eruption produced a mushroom cloud five or six miles high. Geothermal activity continues today in what is now Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Lassen Peak (left) and Brokeoff Mountain (right) from Bunny Flat

So what about the biggest? Surely a mountain 14,000 feet tall is the biggest volcano in the state of California? Well, it's certainly the tallest, and it is the most voluminous stratovolcano in the Cascades, but it actually isn't the biggest volcano in the state. When we camped that evening, we were ensconced on the flank of a massive shield volcano called Medicine Lake Highland. With the gentle slopes composed of basalt lava flows, it hardly looks like a volcano at all, but when you compare the width of the volcano in the picture below (it takes up three quarters of the skyline), you realize it is really big. It consists of around 130 cubic miles of lava, compared to about 108 for Mt. Shasta (which is the snow-capped peak on the right).

So it's the most dangerous, right?

Well...that's a hard concept to quantify. There are lots of volcanoes in California, and some are closer to population centers than others, and some are more capable of chaos and violence than others. The Clear Lake Volcanic Field, north of the Bay Area, has been active as recently as 10,000 years ago, and the Geysers Geothermal Area nearby shows that magma is still present at a relatively shallow depth. Several thousand people live in the general vicinity.

The Lassen Volcanic Center is an obvious threat, given the activity in 1914-17. There are only a few small villages in the immediate vicinity of the volcano, but it is a major tourist destination in the summer season. Lahars could presumably reach the Sacramento Valley.

The aforementioned Medicine Lake Highland is certainly still active, with eruptions as recently as 950 years ago. Although basaltic shields aren't known for violent eruptions, the presence of rhyolite plug domes around the summit area show that such eruptions are not out of the question. Like the others, the region is lightly populated.

Volcanism is also a possibility in Southern California, perhaps to the surprise of some. Young cinder cones dot parts of the Mojave Desert (the Lavic Lake Volcanic Center), and the Coachella Valley (the Salton Buttes). Some of the small volcanic cones are younger than 2,000 years old.

The "elephant in the room" in terms of volcanic hazards of California has to be the Long Valley Caldera, and the nearby Inyo-Mono Craters. Every time there is a jiggle on a seismometer in Yellowstone National Park the internet lights up with predictions of death and destruction, but the conspiracy nuts pretty much totally ignore California's version of a death volcano. An eruption that took place 760,000 years ago produced 125 cubic miles of ash that covered most of the American West (the three Yellowstone eruptions ranged from 67 to 600 cubic miles). Yellowstone has not had a volcanic eruption in 70,000 years. The volcanoes in the Long Valley area of California have erupted as recently as 300 years ago. No one is talking about a repeat of the catastrophe of the 760,000 years ago, but smaller eruptions could certain cause havoc in this very popular tourist area. There was a huge brouhaha in the 1980s that had a lot of implications for how public officials respond to potential geological disasters. I wrote an extensive blog post about the event a couple of years ago; you can read it here (it's one of my favorites).
So Mt. Shasta isn't the biggest volcano in the state, isn't the most recently active, and may or may not be the most dangerous. But does that mean we can disregard the volcano? Hardly. It could cause all kinds of mayhem in the wrong circumstances. And there is one more hazard here that is unique.


The area north of Mt. Shasta is a landscape characterized by a strange hummocky surface composed of volcanic rock, but the hummocks don't look like cinder cones or other volcanic features. Geologists didn't know what to make of this weird topography. Until Mt. St. Helens exploded on May 18th, 1980, that is. One of the most astounding events of that eruption was the collapse of the entire flank of the mountain into a debris avalanche that traveled for twelve miles down the Toutle River. It turned out that an ancient iteration of Mt. Shasta had a similar fate around 300,000 years ago, with a debris avalanche that traveled 28 miles, almost to the present location of the town of Yreka.
The debris avalanche on the north flank of Mt. Shasta. Shasta Lake, a reservoir, is on the left within the debris field (photo by Geotripper)..
It is hard to imagine events on this scale, but the geological world is full of events that challenge our perception. That was one of our themes as we set out on our two week journey, and it was only our first day on the road.

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