Podcast Episodes

The Sleeping Volcano

On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted — it was the “deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, generating “about 500 times the force that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima,” it killed 57 people and thousands of animals and lopped 1,300 feet off the top of the mountain.

Still, there’s another volcano that is much more concerning to volcanologists. On this episode of America’s National Parks, Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, and its namesake volcano’s potential for mass destruction.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


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You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Mount Rainier National Park – National Park Service Website

This May Be the Most Dangerous US Volcano – National Geographic

That Fissure Opening “Near” Yellowstone? Not a Sign of an Impending Eruption. – Discover

Mount St. Helens and the Worst Volcano Eruption in U.S. History – Time

The historic inns at Rainier – Rainier Guest Services

 


Transcript

The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

L.L.Bean believes the more time you spend outside together, the better. That’s why they design products that make it easier to take longer walks, have deeper talks, and never worry about the weather. Discover clothing, outerwear, footwear and gear made for every type of adventure, with the outside built right in. Because on the inside, we’re all outsiders. Be an outsider with L.L.Bean.

—–

About a month ago a large fissure opened up in the wall of a cliff face at Grand Tetons National Park. A fissure is a separation in rock caused by geological movement and is a fairly normal occurrence. The park closed off the surrounding area because loose rock can dangerously tumble for extended periods after a fissure opens up. Again…this was a totally normal occurrence.

But you can’t tell that to a conspiracy theorist.

Grand Tetons National Park neighbors Yellowstone National Park, full of all its wonderful, dramatic geothermal features. All of that bubbling and gurgling and spraying is caused by a plume of molten rock that rises beneath the surface – a Supervolcano.

The first major eruption of the Yellowstone volcano occurred 2.1 million years ago, and it’s one of the largest volcanic eruptions we know of, covering over 5,790 square miles with ash. So if you do a quick google search for the Yellowstone Supervolcano, you’re going to find some pretty terrifying theories about what will happen when the Northwest corner of Wyoming erupts again.

What’s more, you’ll find a heck of a lot of articles, and youtube videos, in particular, about how the government is keeping the signs of an impending eruption secret. They’ll point to the changes in Old Faithful’s predictability, increased earthquakes, and other totally normal geothermic occurances that they can make sound uncommon.

So it was no surprise that, when that fissure opened up 60 miles from the Yellowstone caldera in the Tetons, the conspiracy theory machine kicked into hyperdrive:

[Youtube clip montage]

The government, of course, is hiding all of this from you for some reason.

Unfortunately, this completely normal occurrence was also picked up by some more mainstream media. Especially in the UK, where the Daily Mail headline read: “Rock fissure sparks URGENT closure at Grand Teton National Park, just 60 miles from Yellowstone supervolcano.” “Urgent is in all caps. It’s accompanied by a scary map showing waist high ash covering the country as far as Chicago and Los Angeles. Epcot could be blanketed in as much as 3 inches. In the Daily Express: “Yellowstone Volcano latest: 100-FOOT fissure sparks URGENT park closure“ — “Urgent” again in all caps — and after an explanation from park officials the article went off on its own tangent — I’m quoting here:

“If the Wyoming volcano were to erupt an estimated 87,000 people would be killed immediately and two-thirds of the USA would immediately be made uninhabitable. The large spew of ash into the atmosphere would block out sunlight and directly affect life beneath it creating a ‘nuclear winter.’ The massive eruption could be a staggering 6,000 times as powerful as the one from Washington’s Mount St Helens in 1980.

End quote.

The reality is that the most recent major eruption was 640,000 years ago, and it was on nowhere near that scale. Since then, 80 smaller eruptions have occurred, most recently 70,000 years ago, partially filling the caldera. A cataclysmic eruption is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. If an eruption were to happen, what we’re more likely to see is some smaller lava flows, similar to the most recent eruptions in Hawaii. And just to be safe, monitoring of all sorts of volcanic eruption indicators is constantly underway at Yellowstone. Worrying about the “big one” isn’t too dissimilar from worrying about an asteroid crashing into the planet. There’s nothing you can do, so why bother?

There are 169 active volcanoes in the United States, most of those are in Alaska, and Yellowstone doesn’t even break the top ten of the ones that scientists consider the most dangerous. On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted — it was the “deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, generating “about 500 times the force that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima,” it killed 57 people and thousands of animals and lopped 1,300 feet off the top of the mountain.

Still, there’s another volcano that is much more concerning to volcanologists. On this episode of America’s National Parks, Washington’s Mount Rainier National Park, and its namesake volcano’s potential for mass destruction.

The picturesque wonder of Mount Rainier looms in the background of most postcard photos of the Seattle skyline, like God’s reminder of the trivial accomplishments of man. What does the Space Needle have on a 14,000-foot volcano?

The 3.7 million people of the largest metropolitan area in the Pacific Northwest go about their days, generally without a thought of the danger that lurks to the southeast.

“Mount Rainier is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world,” Volcanologist Janine Krippner told National Geographic. A significant eruption of Mount Rainier could result in one of the worst natural disasters in US history.

To understand why you only need look at the icy cloak that Rainier wears. Over 35 square miles of permanent ice and snow cover it. Of all the glaciers in the contiguous U.S., Mount Rainier’s Emmons Glacier has the largest surface area. Carbon Glacier is the longest, and the thickest at 700 feet deep.

What happens to that ice under a major volcanic eruption is worse than the layperson can imagine. For an analogous event, Krippner pointed to the story of Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz volcano which erupted 33 years ago.

Beginning in November 1984, geologists observed an increasing level of seismic activity near Nevado del Ruiz, as well as increased fumarole activity, deposits of sulfur on the summit, and small explosions where magma came in contact with water, instantly turned it into steam.

A year later, volcanic activity once again increased as magma neared the surface. The volcano began releasing gases and the springs in the vicinity became enriched in magnesium, calcium, and potassium, leached from the magma. The gas releases caused pressure to build up inside the volcano, which eventually resulted in the explosive eruption.

At 3:06 pm, on November 13, 1985, more than 35 million tons of material ejected 19 miles into the atmosphere. That may sound like a lot, but it’s only about 3% of that of the Mount Saint Helens eruption.

Pyroclastic flows — or fast-moving streams of gas and molten rock — began to melt the summit glaciers and snow, and the water mixed with rocks and clay as it traveled down the volcano’s flanks, in four thick flows — like rivers of uncured concrete. It’s a phenomenon known as a lahar.

The violent lahar mudflows ran down the volcano’s sides at nearly 40 miles per hour, breaking off more rock and soil and vegetation in their path. At the base of the volcano, the lahars were directed into all of the six river valleys, which grew to almost 4 times their original volume.

One of the lahars swallowed a town nearly whole. One-quarter of its 29,000 inhabitants survived. Another killed 1,800 people and destroyed 400 homes. In total, over 23,000 people were killed, and approximately 5,000 were injured in the eruption, and more than 5,000 homes were destroyed. It’s the deadliest volcanic disaster in the last 100 years and the fourth-deadliest eruption in recorded history.

Since the volcano’s last substantial eruption occurred more than 140 years earlier, it was hard for many to accept the danger the volcano presented, even though it was known that an eruption was highly possible due to the increased activity the year prior. Maps showing completely flooded areas in the case of an eruption were distributed more than a month before the eruption, but the Colombian Congress criticized the scientific and civil defense agencies for scaremongering. The town of Armero’s mayor and religious authorities kept residents calm after the initial eruption, and then a storm hit that evening, causing electrical outages and hindering communications. The lahars hit the town of Armero at about 30 miles an hour as its residents slept.

At Rainier, The US Geological Survey has mapped and studied the sleeping volcano, and it’s clear that lahars are an extreme danger. At least 60 lahars have dramatically altered various portions of Mount Rainier during the past 10,000 years.

“Lahars can lift houses. They can overtake a bridge. They can take the bridge with it,” Krippner said. There’s evidence that in the past, lahars filled Rainier’s valleys to heights of almost 500 feet. “Imagine if you’re in that valley today,” Krippner said, asking if you could climb to that hight faster than a 40 mile per hour mudflow.

At least 80,000 people sit in zones that lahars are capable of reaching. But are those people prepared?

Rainier’s glaciers and proximity to large amounts of people led to its inclusion as one of the sixteen volcanoes worldwide studied through the United Nations Decade Initiative aimed at leveraging a partnership between science and emergency management to reduce the severity of natural disasters. In 1992, a plan was developed through the National Academy of Sciences for researching the hazards and risks connected with Mount Rainier. The US Geological Survey has an extensive strategy to communicate warnings and aid authorities, but many people remain blissfully unaware of the real dangers Rainier represents. That’s compounded by the popularity of the Pacific Northwest in recent years.

Rainier last threatened to blow in 1895, when minor explosions shook the summit, but it hasn’t significantly erupted for a thousand years or so. Still, a cataclysmic eruption isn’t required for a lahar. In 1947, massive amounts of water discharged from a Rainier Glacier, channeling a one-mile canyon in the ice. The resulting mudflow moved 50 million cubic yards of debris, drastically changing the topography of the area. Several smaller debris flows followed.

Rainier is one of the most monitored volcanoes on the planet, but the next eruption or lahar could come with little to no warning. Evacuation routes are in place, but it’s unlikely that it will be possible to evacuate thousands of people in minutes. If they even listen to the warning. It’s often assumed that in the face of a disaster, people panic. History tells us that they’re more likely to shrug off a warning.

____

It’s not lost on me that we started this episode of belittling conspiracy theorists and fear-mongerers, and then gave you a terrifying story. The Danger at Rainier is real, but it shouldn’t stop anyone from visiting or living there. Preparation is the key to surviving any disaster. The local municipalities and science communities are doing everything they can to help keep people safe. They’re learning how lakes upstream of dams on the lahar paths can be drained to stop them cold. They’re creating information campaigns and awareness plans. And hopefully, we will have warning of an imminent eruption, and when we do, people will heed it.

Mount Rainier is one of the oldest national parks, and one of the most visited. The park is famous for its wildflowers, and is home to a vast array of Pacific Northwest wildlife, including Mountain Lion, Bobcat, Red Fox, Coyote, Black Bear, Deer, Elk, Mountain Goats, Porcupine, Marmots, and Beaver. And, of course, if you’re a mountaineer, you can attempt to summit the 14,410-foot active volcano. Reaching the summit requires a vertical elevation gain of more than 9,000 feet over a distance of eight or more miles.

On weekend days in the summer, parking lots can fill by mid-morning. Try to visit on weekdays, or arriving in the early morning or late afternoon when people begin to leave.

The weather is generally cool and rainy even during the peak of the summer. Visitors should always bring rain gear. Backcountry camping is allowed with a permit, and the park has four campgrounds open during the summer months, three of which can accommodate RVs. There are also established campsites along many trails. All require reservations.

There are two inns located inside the park, the National Park Inn, located in the Longmire district is open year-round, and the historic Paradise Inn, Designated as one of the “Great Lodges of the West,” sits at an elevation of 5,420 feet, with hiking trails just outside the door. Here you’ll find no televisions, telephones, or Internet, just the tranquility of nature.

At an elevation of 6,400 feet, the Sunrise area is the highest point that can be reached by vehicle. In summer, mountain meadows team with wildflowers. Sunrise Point offers nearly 360-degree views of the surrounding valleys, Mount Rainier, and other volcanoes in the Cascade Range such as Mount Adams.

The Paradise area is also famous for its wildflower meadows and stunning views. The park’s main visitor center is here, and it’s the prime winter-use area in the park, receiving on average 643 inches of snow a year. Winter activities include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and tubing. The road between Longmire and Paradise is plowed throughout the winter.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Rangers Make the Difference

July 31st of each year is set aside by the International Ranger Foundation as World Ranger Day to honor park rangers around the globe who are on the front line in the fight to protect our natural heritage. It’s also an opportunity to pay tribute to rangers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

To honor this past Tuesday’s World Ranger Day, on this episode of America’s National Parks, we highlight three stories of National Park Service rangers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

The Dutch Creek Incident — National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Notable Women in Yosemite’s History — National Park Service Article

Ozark National Scenic Riverways Rangers Honored with Valor Award — National Park Service Article


Transcript

The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

L.L.Bean believes the more time you spend outside together, the better. That’s why they design products that make it easier to take longer walks, have deeper talks, and never worry about the weather. Discover clothing, outerwear, footwear and gear made for every type of adventure, with the outside built right in. Because on the inside, we’re all outsiders. Be an outsider with L.L.Bean.

—–
July 31st of each year is set aside by the International Ranger Foundation as World Ranger Day to honor park rangers around the globe who are on the front line in the fight to protect our natural heritage. It’s also an opportunity to pay tribute to rangers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

To honor this past Tuesday’s World Ranger Day, on this episode of America’s National Parks we’re going to highlight three stories of National Park Service rangers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty.

Fighting forest fires is one of the most dangerous occupations there are. With the wildfires raging across the country, we begin with the story of a Wildland Firefighter whose tragedy led to massive changes in wildfire fighting protocol.

Here’s Abigail Trabue
——
Andrew Palmer was 6-foot-5 and 240-pounds, with a winning smile. He was hired to be a firefighter by Olympic National Park just four days after he graduated high school at age 18, ten years ago this June.

Twelve days later he had completed his basic training, and was assigned to an engine crew. On July 22, less than a month after he joined the National Park Service, Andy’s eager four-person team was dispatched to assist in fighting the Eagle Fire that was raging in northern California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

The team headed out at 9pm, and after four hours of driving, they stopped at a motel to catch some sleep. Six hours later, they were back on the road. On the way, the tailpipe of their new truck fell off. They reported the problem but kept going. The check engine light came on, but they still carried on.

They arrived at the fire’s Command Post near Junction City, California at 6 p.m. The team’s captain left to get the truck repaired for two days while Andy and the rest of the group were sent to the fire line to begin cutting trees, with the specific instructions not to cut trees over 24 inches thick, because they were not certified to do so.

The captain was on his way back to the crew, having procured a loner truck, and just as he was stopping for lunch, a heartwrenching call came over his radio.

“Man Down Man Down. We need help. Medical emergency. Dozer pad. Broken leg. Bleeding. Drop Point 72 and dozer line. Call 911, we need help.”

The team had cut a Ponderosa pine 37” in diameter. Downslope from that tree was a 54” diameter sugar pine that had an uphill lean and a large fire scar on the uphill side. The Ponderosa pine fell toward the sugar pine, and its impact caused a 120-foot span of the sugar pine to split off. When it hit the ground, another portion of the trunk, about 8 feet long, broke off, crashing right into Andy.

A request for a helicopter evacuation went out quickly, but the smoky conditions were too risky for an air rescue. A team of ground paramedics reached Andy 55 minutes later, with a vacuum splint and a trauma bag, but they found that his injuries were much worse than were described in the original radio call for help. Along with the broken leg, he had a fractured shoulder, and was bleeding heavily.

Air evacuation was essential. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter was called in but was told to stand down because a Forest Service helicopter was closer. But the Forest Service unit did not have a hoist and would need a clear landing zone, something the tree-packed mountain slope didn’t offer. The Coast Guard unit was recalled, losing valuable time. Paramedics debated whether it was even wise to even move Andy without further on-site treatment when they decided to clear a zone for the helicopter to hoist him out. The process took twenty minutes while the helicopter waited. Two hours and 47 minutes after being struck by a massive log, Andy was hoisted into the aircraft. He was pronounced dead Thirty-nine minutes later, before he even reached a hospital.

Andrew Palmer’s death, which became known as the Dutch Creek Incident, was a wake up call for the wildland firefighting community. Contingencies for medical emergencies were clearly lacking. An inquiry followed from the interagency Serious Accident Investigation Team. The crew captain was the only member of the team who would agree to an interview.

The investigators pointed to a host of problems that contributed to Andy’s death, including: inadequate supervision with the captain away; failure of the second in command to exercise proper supervisory control by allowing the team to cut down trees above their level of certification and an eagerness by the young crew to obtain a line assignment, among other factors.

The Dutch Creek Protocols were issued by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group in Andy’s honor. His story is part of the “6 Minutes for Safety” program used by thousands of firefighters around the world each day. Every year, on the anniversary of Andy’s death, firefighters train in medical emergency response.

The year after Andy died 100,000 pink stickers were sent to firefighters to insert into their Incident Response Pocket Guide, outlining the communication protocol in the event of a medical emergency.

Today, firefighters on the line ask three questions: What are we going to do if someone gets hurt? How will we get them out of here? and How long will it take to get them to a hospital?

The capability of NPS helicopters to extract an injured firefighter by short-haul is now an important consideration in any fire management plan.

On July 25, 2018, 2 tones sounded over firefighter radios “Stand by for a net message,” the voice said, followed by: “Today, July 25, marks the ten-year anniversary of the tragic events on the Eagle Fire. A fellow firefighter has left us…and we continue on…as friends, co-workers and comrades. We are bound by a common thread as we share in this great loss. Today, let unity bring us together in a special way. Reflect on the moments in life when hope and appreciation serve as guides and change us for tomorrow. Now, please join together to respectfully observe a moment of silence in honor of Andrew Palmer, wildland firefighter from the Olympic National Park.”

“Thank you for joining us in this special moment. Resume normal communication.”

—–

We now turn back the clock almost exactly 100 years. It was the summer of 1918, toward the end of World War I. Able-bodied men were fighting overseas, and women were tapped to work all sorts of jobs traditionally held by men at the time, including police officers and factory workers. In California, Yosemite National Park, which had just been transferred to the new National Park Service, needed rangers.

____

Clare Marie Hodges first came to Yosemite when she was 14 years old on a four-day horseback ride. She fell in love with the valley and came back in 1916 to work at the nearby Yosemite Valley School. She learned the park by heart, and dreamed of being a ranger. Towards the end of the Great War, Hodges learned the park service was short of workers and thought she may have a chance. So she went to see Washington B. Lewis, superintendent of Yosemite National Park, to apply for a job.

“Probably you’ll laugh at me,” she said. “But I want to be a ranger.”

Lewis, either ahead of his time, or just so desperate for workers replied: “I beat you to it, young lady. It’s been on my mind for some time to put a woman on one of these patrols.” He hired her as a seasonal ranger, and just like that, Hodges became the first woman to be a fully-commissioned ranger in the National Park Service.

Hodges spent that first summer on mounted patrol, riding through the night to take entrance receipts to the park headquarters, along with patrolling both the valley and some of the more remote areas of the park.

She had the same duties as her male counterparts, the one difference being that she didn’t carry a gun. It’s not that she wasn’t allowed to, in fact, the other rangers told her she should, in order to ward off animals and attackers, but she decided against it. She wore the uniform Stetson hat but rode in a split skirt. Occasionally the people she encountered were confused. They didn’t understand why a woman had a ranger’s badge.

After the war ended, so did Hodges’ temporary service as a ranger. She married and stayed in the Yosemite area, ranching and guiding church groups through the park. Though her time with the NPS was short, she helped open doors for women whose role in the parks had been limited. National Park Service Director William Penn Mott, Jr., later praised Hodges for refusing to accept conventions and possessing the determination to take on a male-dominated profession.

Women began to be more involved in the park service after the war, but most were relegated to jobs like secretarial work and waitressing, wearing pillbox hats and dresses modeled after flight attendant’s uniforms until the 1970s. It would be thirty years after Hodges before another woman would be appointed a fully-commissioned park ranger. Today, only about a third of National Park employees are women.

—-

On July 4, four National Park Service Rangers from Ozark National Scenic Riverways were honored at the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C. with Valor Awards for their heroic efforts during a historic flood that impacted much of southern Missouri in April 2017. The Valor Award is the highest honor the department awards and is presented to employees for demonstrating unusual courage involving a high degree of personal risk in the face of danger while attempting to save the life of another.

_____

Over a period of just two days — April 29 and 30, 2017 — the areas in and around Ozark National Scenic Riverways in southeastern Missouri received more than 15 inches of rainfall. Massive flooding set in on the park’s Jacks Fork and Current rivers. The Current River crested at 39 feet near the park headquarters in Van Buren, a full 10 feet higher than the previous recorded high water mark that was set in 1904.

At 5:30 P.M. on April 29, the Carter County Sheriff requested assistance from National Park Service Rangers to perform swift-water rescues of area residents, trapped in their homes with rising and fast-moving flood waters quickly approaching or already upon them. Park Rangers Joshua Gibbs, Lindel Gregory, Patrick Jackson, and Daniel Newberry jumped into action.

The Rangers were all specially trained in swift-water rescue techniques, and regularly performed one a week during the summer months. On this night, they would successfully conduct 30, exposing themselves to extremely high-risk conditions. They ferried from house to house checking for stranded residents using Park Service boats as the floodwaters rapidly rose. They maneuvered under low-hanging powerlines only a few feet above the rushing water, and through fumes from leaking underwater propane tanks.

They then left the boats to wade in waist-deep waters, among the live electricity and propane and raging river, to retrieve people from their flooded homes, secure them on the rescue boats, and guide them to safety.

The conditions were enough to scare even those who had grown up on the rivers, and the Rangers could see it in the eyes of the residents. Three of the rangers grew up in the area, having graduated from nearby Van Buren High School nearby. They were cut off from their own families during the flood.

“Lives were saved because these four rangers risked their own lives to help Missourians in need,” Senator Claire McCaskill said. “No one hopes for disasters like the historic floods we saw last year, but I’m grateful that we have such brave and selfless first responders in our communities—and I proudly join all Missourians in commending them for their bravery.”

After reviewing rainfall data, the National Weather Service says parts of the area experienced a 1,000-year flood event. The heroic actions of these four rangers saved the lives of 30 stranded men, women, and children as entire houses were swept away.

—–

The toll of devastation from the Carr Fire, one of the most brutal fires in California history rose earlier this week to more than 1,000 homes destroyed and almost 200 damaged. More than 4,000 firefighters are battling the blaze, not far from where Andrew Palmer lost his life. Two have died.

Rangers work so many different types of jobs in the National Park Service, but they’re all there to protect our country’s history and treasured natural preserves. The next time you encounter a National Park Service Ranger, make sure to thank them for their service.

And from Abigail and I to any rangers listening, our deepest gratitude goes out to you for your commitment to protect our lands and history.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Podcast Episodes

Unleashing a Tamed River

Over the past century, the United States has led the world in dam construction. There are at least 90,000 dams over six-feet tall in this country and over 2 million shorter than six feet. More than a quarter have passed their 50-year average life expectancy; by 2020, that figure will reach 85 percent. On average, we have constructed one dam over 6 feet tall every day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, the removal of the dams on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park. And if you think it just takes a little dynamite, it doesn’t.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.

Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.


Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Olympic National Park – NPS Website

America’s Rivers – River cleanup, restoration, and conservation group


Transcript

Click the arrow to read the full text of this episode.

Over the past century, the United States has led the world in dam construction. There are at least 90,000 dams over six-feet tall in this country, and over 2 million shorter than six feet. More than a quarter have passed their 50-year average life expectancy; by 2020, that figure will reach 85 percent. On average, we have constructed one dam over 6 feet tall every day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Dams are set in place for irrigation, electricity generation, water storage … they have lots of society benefits. But it’s undeniable that dams cause significant harm to natural ecosystems. They prevent fish migration and limit access to spawning habitats. They decrease the flow of the river. Many fish such as salmon and river herring depend on steady flows to guide them. Irregular releases of water destroy natural seasonal flow that signals the start of growth and reproduction cycles in certain species. They trap massive amounts of sediment, blanketing rock riverbeds where fish spawn. Larger objects, like rocks and logs, get trapped, keeping them from creating complex habitats downstream. Sometimes the river is stopped entirely behind the dam for periods of time, leaving the riverbed dry.

In the reservoir, the water gets warmer than it should, affecting sensitive species and leading algae to bloom. When water is released, it’s often released from the deep, cold, oxygen-deprived depths.

Once past the half-century mark, dams begin to decay. The earth around them erodes and seeps, gates rust, concrete loses tensile strength, and the accumulating settlement reduces the capacity of reservoirs. A feeble dam could fail, causing dangerous flooding.

As costs to maintain dams rise, the economic return is decreased. Many older dams are obsolete. In few other places were these effects so evident than on the Elwha River in the northwest corner of Washington, where 100lb salmon once ran freely upstream from the Pacific Ocean. For millennia these fish thrived in the river and provided food for the indigenous people who lived along its banks until two dams were constructed.

On today’s episode of America’s National Parks, the removal of the dams on the Elwha river in Olympic National Park. And if you think it just takes a little dynamite, it doesn’t.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

In the late 1800s, a growing nation looked to the Northwest to supply the lumber needed to build new cities. Thomas Aldwell was the first to see an opportunity for economic gain in the taming of the Elwha River, making plans to harness the water to generate electricity. With the financial backing of investors, he bought land along the river and began construction of the Elwha Dam in 1910. A state law demanded fish passage devices be built into dams, but Fish Commissioner Leslie Darwin offered to waive that provision if Aldwell built a fish hatchery adjoining the dam. It was abandoned by the state in 1922.

The concrete dam was secured to the walls of the canyon, but not the underlying bedrock, causing the foundation to blow out in 1912 shortly after the reservoir (called Lake Aldwell) filled. It was plugged by adding fill material to the river below and above of the dam.

The Elwha Dam became operational in 1913, bringing electricity to a remote area, spurring economic growth. As demand increased, two additional turbines and a second powerhouse were installed, and then, another dam eight miles upstream in Glines Canyon. Its narrow passage and high bedrock walls promised a large energy yield.

Prior to the dam construction, all five species of Pacific salmon ran the Elwha, along with other river-spawning fish. The failure to build fish ladders left the River with only five miles of available habitat for spawning. Over time, fish populations diminished to less than 10% of their early 1900s levels. The dam flooded lands sacred to the indigenous people of the area, who have long identified with the river, the salmon, and the land.

For decades, experts agreed that removing the two dams were essential for the watershed, in particular, for its trout and salmon. But the idea of eliminating two sources of inexpensive electricity was universally panned by the public.

“Thirty years ago, when I was in law school in the Pacific Northwest, removing the dams from the Elwha River was seen as a crazy, wild-eyed idea,” Bob Irvin, president and CEO of the conservation group American Rivers told National Geographic.

In the 60s, tribes began to protest the loss of the fishing rights promised to them by a federal treaty signed in the 1800s. In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled that Washington tribes were entitled to half the salmon catch in the state. In the wake of the court victory, the tribes began to partner with conservation groups to fight for the restoration of salmon runs and the removal of the Elwha River dams. The Olympic Peninsula had long ago been connected to the regional power grid, and the dams now provided only a small portion of the power used by its residents and industry.

The missing fish passage structures that had never been installed would cause a reduction in energy creation at the dams, sending the power they produce soaring above market prices.

In 1992, the federal government purchased the dams from the timber companies that owned them and ordered a study of removing them. Two decades of planning began for what would be the largest-ever dam removal project in the world.

Still, the timber industry and local communities opposed the demolition, and Senator Slade Gorton blocked federal funding until he was voted out of office in 2000.

The dams would have to be taken down in several stages, allowing for a relatively gradual release of the 27 million cubic yards of sediment that had built up over the course of a century. If the sediment flowed too quickly, it would damage the existing riverbed downstream, and could affect the water quality. Two treatment facilities would be built to protect local water supplies.

Different demolition methods would be used at the two dams because of their unique structural requirements. At the Glines dam, an “in the wet” process would be used, meaning the dam would be removed without diverting the water around it. First, water levels in the Lake Mills reservoir were lowered to the bottom of the spillway gates. Then, on September 15, 2011, giant barge-mounted hydraulic hammers began to remove the top 17 feet of the dam down to the waterline. The next 173 feet would be removed using a notching process. The dam was “notched down” on alternating sides, creating temporary spillways that would gradually drain the reservoir. Demolition was regularly paused for weeks at a time to allow the sediment to run through, and to avoid salmon spawning periods. Other structures were removed during these windows of halted deconstruction.

The Elwha dam would be removed “in the dry” by diverting water around it through a newly excavated channel. The first step was to lower the reservoir’s water level by using the existing water intakes and spillways by approximately 15 feet. The process began on June 1, 2011 following the closure of the powerhouse. The temporary channel was then excavated through the left spillway to allow Lake Aldwell to be further drained. Temporary dams were then installed to direct reservoir outflow into the temporary diversion channel. This allowed the remaining water immediately behind the dam to be pumped out. The fill material behind the dam could then be removed under dry conditions, followed by the concrete dam itself using diamond-wire saws.

35,000 cubic yards of concrete–more than half the amount used to construct the Empire State Building–would need to be broken up and recycled, along with hundreds of tons of metal.

Once the dam was deconstructed, the temporary dams were removed, allowing the river to flow through its original channel for the first time in a century. Earth fill and crushed bedrock was used to reshape the slopes around the dams to their original contours.

On August 26, 2014, the last 30 feet of Glines Canyon dam were reduced to rubble with a final blast of explosives. The largest dam removal in history was complete. The national park service began the process of reintroducing plants to the now barren reservoir bed, and tagging and tracking salmon.

Over the course of the last few years, the sediment has washed downstream, rebuilding riverbanks and gravel bars and creating some 70 acres of new beach and riverside habitat for creatures of all types. Shellfish began to return to the mouth of the river.

Salmon populations continue to recover, and scientists expect the whole food chain to benefit. Almost as soon as salmon returned to the river, birds began to follow the fish and to eat salmon eggs and young, providing essential nutrients. Bigger birds are bearing more young, and moving in to the area permanently. Elk stroll and munch on the vegetation buffet where there used to be a lake.

The river that emerged when the dams were removed didn’t follow orderly down a forgotten channel, however. It was chaotic and wild. Its movements were difficult to anticipate and useless to control. Logs tumble and stack, building complexities into the river’s flow. It has destroyed two campgrounds and washed out a road. But the channel is stabilizing, and the river has gained a teal green color it hasn’t seen in 100 years.

It’s rare that humans have the opportunity to set a river wild again, but on the Elwha, it happened.

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Dams continue to be a hot-button issue along many important waterways, but the public is getting more and more behind their removal. In Washington, the four lower Snake River dams are in the crosshairs of conservationists who are looking to preserve more salmon runs. A recent poll shows that the majority of Washington voters would rather see increased wild salmon runs than preserve the dams, even if it means paying a few dollars more a month on their electric bills.

Visiting Olympic National Park you’ll find a million acres full of several different ecosystems, including glacier-capped mountains, old-growth temperate rain forests, and over 70 miles of wild coastline. It’s a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, serving as a living laboratory for scientists and students, as well as an incredible natural playground for visitors. Millions of people visit Olympic each year to experience its beauty, diversity, and many opportunities for adventure, exploration, and recreation.

Rustic cabins, historic lodges, and charming resorts are available for visits, along with 14 National Park campgrounds, only two of which accept reservations.

Olympic is very large and there are no roads that cross the park, so it takes time to get everywhere, and you need to plan accordingly. June through September, when the weather is mild, are the busiest time of year.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

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