Our Northwest

How ice caves form, recede – and crumble

Friday, July 10, 2015by  Jon Osterberg

Officials revealed today that the person who died July 6 when a Big Four Ice Caves ceiling collapsed was a 34-year-old California woman from Riverside County.
     The caves claimed three lives in the 1990s when ice crashed down.
     Big Four can be dangerous because “ice caves” is a misnomer. The caves lie at the base of a shaded avalanche gully on Big Four Mountain, and they’re actually formed from compressed snow, not ice, which would be more stable.
     The caves enlarge as meltwater increases, carving a widening trough that fills with warmer air. The larger the caves become, the less stable they are.
     I visited Big Four Ice Caves in 1987 with my small children. I stepped inside, but not for long, while I made the kids wait outside.
     I was eager to see those caves because in my youth I yearned to visit Paradise Ice Caves, a longtime tourist attraction on Mt. Rainier. I never did. The Paradise Glacier retreated significantly through the 1980s, and in the fall of 1991 the Paradise Ice Caves collapsed. Today they exist no more.
     Read about how ice caves form, and see how the Paradise Glacier and Paradise Ice Caves changed over the years.

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