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Development and persistence of hazardous atmospheres in a glaciovolcanic cave system: Mount Rainier, Washington, USA

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Author(s): Christian Stenner, Andreas Pflitsch, Lee J. Florea, Kathleen Graham, Eduardo Cartaya

Document Type:
Publisher: Journal of Cave and Karst Studies
Published Year: 2022
Volume: 84
Number: 2
Pages: 62 to 82
DOI Identifier: 10.4311/2021EX0102
ISBN Identifier:

Glaciovolcanic cave systems, including fumarolic ice caves, can present variable atmospheric hazards. The twin summit craters of Mount Rainier, Washington, USA, host the largest fumarolic ice cave system in the world. The proximity of fumarole emissions in these caves to thousands of mountaineers each year can be hazardous. Herein we present the first assessment and mapping of the atmospheric hazards in the Mount Rainier caves along with a discussion on the microclimates involved in hazard formation and persistence. Our results are compared to applicable life-safety standards for gas exposure in ambient air. We also describe unique usage of Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) at high altitude. In both craters, subglacial CO2 traps persist in multiple locations due to fumarole output, limited ventilation, and cave morphology. CO2 concentrations, calculated from O2 depletion, reached maximum values of 10.3 % and 24.8 % in the East and West Crater Caves, respectively. The subglacial CO2 lake in West Crater Cave was persistent, with atmospheric pressure as the main factor influencing CO2 concentrations. O2 displacement exacerbated by low O2 partial pressure at the high summit altitude revealed additional cave passages that can be of immediate danger to life and health (IDLH), with O2 partial pressures as low as 68.3 mmHg. Planning for volcanic research or rescue in or around similar cave systems can be assisted by considering the implications of atmospheric hazards. These findings highlight the formation mechanisms of hazardous atmospheres, exploration challenges, the need for mountaineering and public awareness, and the broader implications to volcanic hazard assessment and research in these environments.

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Suggested Citations:
In Text Citation:
Stenner and others (2022) or (Stenner et al., 2022)

References Citation:
Stenner, C., A. Pflitsch, L.J. Florea, K. Graham, and E. Cartaya, 2022, Development and persistence of hazardous atmospheres in a glaciovolcanic cave system: Mount Rainier, Washington, USA: Journal of Cave and Karst Studies, Vol. 84, No. 2, pp. 62-82, doi: 10.4311/2021EX0102.