Seattle's proximity to volcanoes makes us unlike almost any other city in the world.
Tokyo has Mount Fuji, with its clean lines that seem to have dictated the aesthetic taste of an entire nation, but Seattle has three volcanoes, not just one—making us the largest American city where you can see glaciers from downtown all year-round.
Mount Rainier looms over us from the south. Glacier Peak's explosive summit sits (usually unnoticed) to our northeast. And snowy Mount Baker hangs over our northern horizon.
The entire world was given a violent reminder of the Pacific Northwest's explosiveness when Mount Saint Helens, about a hundred miles south of the city, erupted on May 18, 1980, with a blast that was 1,600 times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The 40th anniversary of this explosion is this spring.
A shocking number of Seattleites don't even realize that Mount Rainier is volcanic. All three of these active volcanoes contain some of the most powerful and violent forces on earth, but you do not need to lose sleep over getting killed by them, according to Carolyn Driedger, a scientist with the Cascades Volcano Observatory.
"You don't have to worry about lava or anything like that coming to your door," Driedger said. "We shouldn't expect a lot of fatalities, necessarily, inside the city of Seattle." In the event of an eruption, the city of Seattle is "probably going to be somewhat of an island of survival."
Scientists will be able to warn us well before any of our three volcanoes explode (unlike the massive earthquake that will likely flatten most of Seattle's buildings when it suddenly strikes). And Seattle's geography isolates us from the two biggest risks the volcanoes pose to humans: lahars and volcanic ash.
Lahars are massive mudflows full of hot rocks, ice, and debris that shoot out from the side of erupting volcanoes. Areas closer to the mountains (for instance Puyallup, in the case of a Mount Rainier eruption) need to be very concerned about lahars, but Driedger said that by the time Rainier's lahars make it to Seattle's Duwamish River, they will no longer be very dangerous. And lahars from Mount Baker and Glacier Peak do not pose a threat to Seattle.
Volcanic eruptions send massive plumes of ash into the sky, but Seattle has a persistent westerly wind, which means the plumes of any local eruptions will almost surely head east, away from Seattle. When Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1980, it sent a plume of ash 80,000 feet into the air and blanketed the Central Washington town of Yakima with five inches of ash.
Seattle's only mountains to our west, the Olympics, are not volcanic. All of which means that while Seattle gets to enjoy views of these mountains and volcanoes, our Republican neighbors on the other side of the state, in the event of any eruptions, get to enjoy the toxic waste. This seems like a fair compromise given Seattle's tax dollars heavily subsidize the eastern side of the state.
But forget about taxes and human concerns for just one minute. Seattle's volcanoes are a benefit to Seattleites precisely because they remind us of nonhuman things; volcanoes are a constant reminder that the land that makes your dull life possible is brought to you by the most violent forces on earth. Seattle is bad at a lot of things (mass transit, cheap food, being friendly), but as Charles Mudede wrote in a 2015 blog post called "Seattle Is Not Beautiful," our city affords a view.
"Seattle is mostly unremarkable as a city," Mudede wrote. "It's not a thing to really look at and remember. It has a spirit that's closer to a wet stone than a sparkling jewel. Our city is for looking outward. It is a platform from which one sees the wonders that surround it."
Here are some more facts you should know about the three volcanoes that you can see if you look outward on a clear day.
Mount Rainier (14,411 feet)
Glacier Peak (10,541 feet)
Mount Baker (10,781 feet)