Posted by: Anne Murray | September 21, 2012

Ice and fire beside the Salish Sea

Mount Baker rises above the still waters of Boundary Bay

Mount Baker is a beautiful, snow-capped peak that rises from the North Cascades range in Washington State, about a hundred miles south of Vancouver, B.C.

The 3,286m peak of Mount Baker, an active volcano, formed when eruptions disgorged flows of andesitic lava. This highly viscous, silica-rich lava is produced where the oceanic crust sinks under the continental crust in a subduction zone. Mount Baker is one of a string of such stratovolcanoes that includes Mount St Helens and Mount Rainier, in WashingtonState, and the extinct CoquihallaMountain in B.C. 

 

Mount Baker is a relatively young volcano and is intermittently active. The last notable eruption was about 5,900 years ago, when ash and rock were blasted into the air and debris flows of mud, ice, rocks and trees crashed down its slopes. Spanish explorers, Galiano and Valdez, heard distant rumblings from the volcano in June 1792, and debris flows occurred through the mid-1800s. In 1975, gas escaped from Sherman Crater but the mountain slept on.

Andesite lava cooled into hexagonal forms

The ice sheets of the Pleistocene Ice Age only covered the valleys and lower slopes of the mountains, but alpine glaciers carved the summits. The North Cascades are the most glaciated mountains in the lower forty eight states, and they experience heavy snowfalls due to their west coast location. In 1999, Mount Baker received a staggering 29 m of snow! It has thirteen glaciers on its summit, yet despite heavy snowfalls, all of them are now shrinking.

Paintbrush and other wildflowers in the alpine meadows

The alpine meadows of Mount Baker are an ecological treasure. Hoary marmots and mountain goats live on the rocky slopes and chipmunks scamper among the heather and wild blueberries. Wildflowers abound in the short summer season: blue lupines, red paintbrush, yellow arnica and magenta monkey flower. Fine weather brings spectacular vistas of surrounding peaks, and a chance to hike the alpine trails. At other times, the mountain disappears in mist, rain and snow, and the temperature plummets. It is a harsh environment and only hardy species can survive.

Above: Mountain goats grazing on the alpine meadows

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