Any day now--at least according to government geologists--the little town of Orting, Washington, will cease to exist. Located in the thriving Seattle-Tacoma area, Orting, with its low crime rate and pleasant neighborhoods, has long been thought of as a delightful place to live. But it's also an endangered place.
Like so many other towns in this part of the Pacific Northwest--including Microsoft's hometown, Redmond--Orting was built in the shadow of Mount Rainier, and Mount Rainier has a nasty little secret. Beneath the 14,410-ft. mountain's sugary caps and forested flanks lies a mammoth, smoldering pot of magma. Summoned up from the earth's subterranean ovens perhaps 40 miles below, the molten rock simmers under the mountain at up to 3600[degrees]F. As the magma cooks the rocky innards of Mount Rainier, it slowly helps turn them into unstable clay. At the same time this internal furnace corrodes the mountain from the inside, rain and melting snow have been softening it up from the outside. The result, in the surprisingly colloquial argot of the geologist, is a mountain gone "rotten." So rotten, in fact, that a mere seismic hiccup is all it would take to unleash an avalanche of mud on the homes below.
In 1980 another Northwestern peak--Mount St. Helens--went bad the same way, leading to a volcanic explosion that blew out the north face of the mountain, killing 60 people. While the more stable magma in Mount Rainier makes an eruption unlikely, the corroded state of the mountain could make a landslide even more devastating. Mount St. Helens, after all, had been baking for 100 years after its last blast; Mount Rainier has cooked for 500. "It's only a matter of time," says Dan Miller, a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), "before those towns near Rainier are buried."
Washington State is not the only place where volcanoes loom. There are explosive mountains in every corner of the world. Late last week, Alaska's Okmok volcano coughed a cloud of ash nearly a mile into the sky, perhaps presaging a period of increased volcanic activity. Near Mexico City, Popocatepetl, a 17,887-ft. volcanic peak, has begun to smoke and churn, threatening 500,000 people who live beneath it. In Italy five active volcanoes are being watched, the most menacing of which is the temperamental Vesuvius. In Japan 86 active volcanoes are packed onto an archipelago smaller than California. Other volcanoes sputter and steam in places as diverse as Ecuador and Alaska, Iceland and Indonesia. All told, there are more than 1,500 active volcanoes around the globe--550 or so on land and the rest underwater--that could put the lives of 500 million people at risk.
The threat volcanoes pose is nothing new, but popular appreciation of it is. The warning bell this time is being sounded not by scientists but by the entertainment industry. Two weeks ago, Universal Pictures released its heavily promoted volcano film, Dante's Peak, and in April, 20th Century Fox will release its more prosaically named Volcano. abc television will air a documentary on the world's most dangerous volcanoes next week, followed by a drama about an eruption at a West Coast ski resort.