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Originally published May 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 1, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Geologists study Mt. Baker's volcanic activity

More than three decades after steam bursts from Mount Baker resulted in a temporary evacuation of the Baker Lake area, geologists are trying...

BELLINGHAM — More than three decades after steam bursts from Mount Baker resulted in a temporary evacuation of the Baker Lake area, geologists are trying to determine what is happening beneath the volcano.

The research by scientists from Western Washington University is at the center of a Geological Society of America meeting Friday through Sunday in Bellingham.

Initial findings indicate the volcano will remain quiet for awhile but not forever, said Juliet G. Crider, an associate professor of geology who led a recent study into the steam and ash spurts.

"People are beginning to recognize there's a lack of understanding of Baker," Crider said. "Among the Cascade volcanoes, I would say it's one of the more active. That doesn't mean an eruption is imminent, but it means it's interesting. Something is happening there."

The 10,778-foot peak is one of 27 major volcanoes in the Cascade Range.

Baker's antics drew headlines in 1975 but were largely forgotten after Mount St. Helens blew its top five years later and in the ensuing concern that Mount Rainier, the highest volcano in the Cascades at 14,411 feet, could unleash an even more destructive blast that could affect suburbs south of Seattle and east of Tacoma.

Small earthquakes that may indicate underground activity now occur once or twice a month beneath Baker, compared with as many as 10 times that number beneath Rainier and thousands beneath St. Helens.

Volcanic activity at St. Helens dates back less than 40,000 years, compared with more than a million years at Baker.

Geologists think the largest eruption from Baker blanketed areas more than 20 miles to the east with gritty volcanic ash 6,600 years ago.

At the time of the eruption that created the Sherman Crater in 1943, explorers said rock fragments fell like snow and set trees on fire for miles around.

Steam puffs from the same crater in 1975 raised fears that rising heat could melt glaciers and cause lahars — torrential flows of mud, debris and water — but the steam dissipated.

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