Hydrothermally altered rocks can weaken volcanoes, increasing the potential for catastrophic sector collapses that can lead to destructive debris flows1. Evaluating the hazards associated with such alteration is difficult because alteration has been mapped on few active volcanoes1,2,3,4 and the distribution and severity of subsurface alteration is largely unknown on any active volcano. At Mount Rainier volcano (Washington, USA), collapses of hydrothermally altered edifice flanks have generated numerous extensive debris flows5,6 and future collapses could threaten areas that are now densely populated7. Preliminary geological mapping and remote-sensing data indicated that exposed alteration is contained in a dyke-controlled belt trending east–west that passes through the volcano's summit3,4,5,8. But here we present helicopter-borne electromagnetic and magnetic data, combined with detailed geological mapping, to show that appreciable thicknesses of mostly buried hydrothermally altered rock lie mainly in the upper west flank of Mount Rainier. We identify this as the likely source for future large debris flows. But as negligible amounts of highly altered rock lie in the volcano's core, this might impede collapse retrogression and so limit the volumes and inundation areas of future debris flows. Our results demonstrate that high-resolution geophysical and geological observations can yield unprecedented views of the three-dimensional distribution of altered rock.
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We thank D. Fitterman, V. J. S. Grauch and P. Lipman for helpful reviews. This work was supported by the Mineral Resource and Volcano Hazards Programs of the US Geological Survey.
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Finn, C., Sisson, T. & Deszcz-Pan, M. Aerogeophysical measurements of collapse-prone hydrothermally altered zones at Mount Rainier volcano. Nature 409, 600–603 (2001). https://doi.org/10.1038/35054533
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