Coming on fast

The women’s fastpitch softball category led the growth in the diamond sports industry in 1994. As a result, retailers are focusing their marketing strategies on the upcoming Women’s Professional Fastpitch, which will be held in June 1996. Industry experts attribute the significant growth of ther sport to the creation of baseball products specifically for women and the use of women as image models for baseball merchandise. The industry also witnessed a significant increase in the sale of baseball equipment, from $20 million in 1993 to $348 million in 1994.

The diamond sports category is expected to enjoy another solid year at the plate, with women’s fastpitch softball taking the industry by storm and technological advancements in bats scoring runs.

Despite of the negative press Major League Baseball (MLB) has generated over the past year, the diamond sports category enjoyed another solid season at the plate. And while early attendance figures for MLB have been off dramatically, suppliers continue to post runs on the retail scoreboard due to the increased popularity of women’s fastpitch softball as well as technological advances in baseball equipment.

American Sports Analysis, a trend report conducted for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) by American Sports Data, indicates that softball saw its player base increase 2.2 percent to 30.8 million in 1994 over the previous year. Baseball participation increased 9.4 percent from 15.6 million players in 1993 to 17.0 million last year.

Similarly, the U.S. wholesale value of annual manufacturer’s shipments, according to the SGMA, was consistent with participation growth. Overall, diamond sports equipment increased $20 million to $348 million in 1994. For the one-year period, gloves and mitts were up $7 million to $94 million in 1994; baseballs/softballs increased $7 million to $119 million; bats climbed $3 million to $83 million; and batter’s gloves jumped $2 million to $31 million.

Although males continue to make up the majority of players on diamonds throughout the country, the industry’s most significant growth area is now in the women’s fastpitch softball category. In 1994, fastpitch softball registered the most substantial gains in girls high school athletic programs, according to a report from Women’s Professional Fastpitch, a top division league set to begin play in June ’96 (see sidebar on page 42). Currently, there are more than 250,000 women varsity softball players active in more than 15,000 high school programs. The numbers are equally impressive at the college level, with more than 1,300 collegiate fastpitch programs at all levels, involving more than 29,000 players.

“Fastpitch has just gone through the roof in the past several years. Title IX helped spark the movement in women’s fastpitch for years. But we are past Title IX, and now women are playing the game because of the competition and fun the sport provides,” explains Jim Darby, senior vice president of promotions, Easton Sports, Inc.

FAST TRACK

Unlike years past, when the industry simply gave lip service to fastpitch softball, manufacturers have taken aggressive steps in the past 12 months to more effectively address the market.

Hillerich & Bradsby, Dudley Sports, Easton and Worth, Inc. have all employed a hit-and-run strategy of signing top-performing fastpitch players – expected to make the U.S. Olympic Team in 1996 – to endorsement contracts. And in each case, the relationships have resulted in signature lines of either fielder’s gloves or bats, or both.

Hillerich & Bradsby, manufacturer of Louisville Slugger baseball and softball equipment, was the first company to sign a woman softball player to an endorsement contract when it inked Olympic hopeful Lisa Fernandez to a deal last year.

Jay Strange, Louisville Slugger’s sales manager, says retail performance of the Fernandez line of single wall softball bats has been tremendous this past spring season, and is likely to prompt the company into adding products to the collection.

“It is a fair assessment to say that the Lisa Fernandez collection has done so well because girls now look to Lisa in the same way that boys look to a Cal Ripken, Jr. or Frank Thomas,” says Strange. “Girls’ heroes are now the Lisa Fernandezes, not the major leaguers.”

Earlier this year, Dudley Sports signed a multi-year endorsement contract with Julie Smith, the number one ranked defensive player in 1994. And similar to the agreement between Louisville Slugger and Fernandez, Smith has had a direct hand in the development of the company’s gloves and bats.

“For too long, women had to accept product that was designed by men, for men. The recognition by Dudley and a number of other suppliers to create product specifically for women by women has been a tremendous step in the overall growth of the sport,” Smith tells SGB.

Ken Baker, Dudley’s managing director, adds that the signing of Smith is just the tip of the iceberg in the company’s strategic plan to be the number one supplier of women’s softball equipment in the years to come.

“Two years ago, Dudley had no product in its line designed specifically for a woman. In 1996, we expect that 80 percent of sales will be in our women’s products,” explains Baker. At The Super Show in February, Dudley unveiled its Thunder Heat Series of women’s softball bats and gloves, and the Fast Pitch Series of bats.

Both Easton and Worth have also signed top women players to endorsements contracts. Easton has developed a signature bat for Sheila Cornell, a two-time All-American at UCLA and an Olympic hopeful, and will involve her in an advertising campaign leading up to the games. And Worth has tapped the services of Michele Smith, also an Olympic hopeful, who now has her name on the company’s Supercell fast-pitch bat and a softball glove.

Beyond signing specific players to endorsement contracts, a number of companies are directing their marketing dollars at the team level. Franklin continues to place strong emphasis on its Amateur Softball Association (ASA)-endorsed bats, fielder’s gloves and batter’s glove, and its sponsorship of the U.S. Olympic team.

In addition, Mizuno Sports USA recently announced an agreement with the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Properties to serve as a supplier of softball and baseball equipment for the 1996 games in Atlanta.

According to Lisa Kantor, Mizuno’s assistant marketing manager/baseball & softball, the company will back its sponsorship with its first retail offering of women’s specific softball equipment, which will include a softball glove and a batter’s glove.

“We plan to go after the women’s market aggressively in the years to come,” comments Kantor. She adds that the company will utilize Jill Justin, an Olympic candidate, in a number of advertisements to break in the near future.

THE NEW ALUMINUM

Another anticipated boost for the diamond sports category this year will be in the power of bats. A number of models are incorporating the C405 aluminum alloy, a material originally created by the aerospace industry.

“C405 is a major benefit on two counts. First, the aluminum on its own is lighter and stronger than anything else on the market. Second, we are able to enhance other areas of the bat, through such features as end-caps, without the issue of the bat ultimately being too heavy,” comments Doug Bennett, Worth’s senior vice president/marketing. Worth has incorporated the C405 alloy in its new line of Supercell bats.

Easton also utilizes the C405 alloy in its Reflex Series of baseball and softball bats. According to the company, C405 has tested to be nine percent stronger than Easton’s exclusive EA70 alloy and 13 percent stronger than CU31 alloy.

“The C405 alloy is a major advancement in bat technology, and we expect that it will be around for a long time,” comments Easton’s Darby.

Louisville Slugger’s most significant introduction incorporating C405 is its Power Dome Advanced Player bat. It is now the company’s lightest bat in the 2 3/4[inches] diameter category, while still featuring a full-barrel and Louisville Slugger’s “Concentrated Velocity Load” design for increased energy transfer upon contact.

Titanium – the category’s most advanced material – continues to be embroiled in controversy. ASA has ruled that titanium bats are legal in play leading to nationally-sanctioned tournaments, but that in other league play, an organizer can rule whether or not the bat can be used.

The U.S. Slo-Pitch Softball Association (USSSA), however, has not approved the use of titanium. Based on ASTM’s softball bat performance study, which USSSA adheres to, titanium bats do not meet a “Bat Performance Factor” of 1.20 or less.

Nevertheless, titanium bat suppliers indicate that early sales have been very encouraging, despite the controversy and high-price tag these models carry. “We have already sold approximately 90 percent of our titanium bat inventory,” says Worth’s Bennett. The company’s bat sells between $500 and $600.

Easton’s Darby adds that it has been a struggle for the company to keep up with consumer demand for its Tiphoon bat, which retails between $400 and $500. And Louisville Slugger says it has been surprised by the performance of its TPS Titanium, which sells at retail for approximately $600.

“It’s like any industry. If you can provide a better performing product, there will be a market for the item no matter what the price tag,” states Louisville Slugger’s Strange. “What has happened in many cases is that a team has bought one bat for the entire squad. And once players try out the bat, they want one of their own.”

CATCHING PRICE POINTS

Where the major action in bats is at the high-end, a number of manufacturers are trying to get a firm grip on the competitive price point market in the fielder’s glove category.

Wilson Sporting Goods will introduce two new lines of fielder’s gloves in 1996, which will both be priced under $80. The Staff Series is a collection of eight pre-oiled leather gloves that will be priced between $50 and $80, and sold primarily to the sporting goods channel.

The company will also offer the Elite Series of nine softball gloves, suited for every level of player, and priced between $50 and $80. The models will feature Wilson’s Pro Back with Velcro closure, ranging in size from 13[inches] to 14[inches].

Mizuno is targeting the younger consumer with the introduction of its Power Close concept featuring the company’s V-Flex notch, providing an easier closure. In addition, Mizuno will offer a first baseman glove and catcher’s mitt, retailing between $50 to $70.

Dudley will also make a play at the youth market in Spring ’96, with the rollout of an 11[inches] glove for approximately $29.99. “We will take the same strategy with the youth market that we have with women. Our main priority will be fit and performance, but we will also make sure that the glove is visually exciting,” explains Dudley’s Baker.

Worth’s plans call for an extension of its Red Dot fielder’s line to hit the $29 to $39 category, a price point the company has never addressed before.

And Spalding Sports Worldwide will now offer a softball performance series of six gloves that will retail between $59 and $79. According to Joe Baltronis, Spalding’s business manager for diamond sports, the line will be directed at both the men’s and women’s market, incorporating top-grain leather, Velcro closure and a darker tan leather.

GLOVE IN HAND

In addition to the fanfare that the latest stock of fielder’s gloves and bats traditionally receive, batter’s gloves have also become a focal point for manufacturers.

“I think consumers now understand the key benefits that batter’s gloves can provide. It has also provided many younger players with increased confidence at the plate, because of the reduction in sting and vibration,” explains Chuck Quinn, Franklin’s vice president of marketing and sourcing.

This past spring, Franklin launched its most aggressive marketing campaign ever for its line, airing four 15-second spots on ESPN featuring Barry Bonds and Cal Ripken, Jr. The spots will run throughout season.

In addition, the company inserted an eight-page “Guide To Hitting” insert with Barry Bonds in approximately 1.3 million April issues of Sports Illustrated For Kids magazine. The insert not only provided tips on how to be a better hitter, but promoted the company’s line of batter’s gloves, which is led by Franklin’s Diamond Digital Series, licensed for MLB’s Authentic Diamond Collection.

Wilson is also registering positive sales in the category, and hopes returns will get even stronger with the redesign of its Staff Elite series for introduction next season. The collection of 11 gloves will include Pittards Oil Tack leather, a two-finger design with leather reinforcement on the back fingers and TL-4 Way stretch back and thumb for a better fit.

“We continue to see double digit growth (in sales) in the category, so we are going to continue to address this market very aggressively,” says Wilson’s Fiorini. He adds that the company currently has 50 major leaguers wearing the Wilson batter’s glove.

Wilson is also introducing its Underglove, specially designed to be worn under a baseball glove for enhanced grip and control. It will feature DuPont’s Thermostat material to wick away perspiration, as well as a PVC matrix grip.

Recrafting makes pricey shoes bargain

Recycling has become a popular trend in the footwear industry. Footwear companies including Johnston and Murphy Shoe Co, Allen-Edmonds Shoe Corp and Lucchese Boot Company Inc are offering recrafting and repairing services for its consumers. These companies have found that recrafting is beneficial to both consumers and manufacturers alike. It is financially beneficial to consumers who expect more quality and service from their products. Manufactures, on the other hand, will reap profit from the program which provides consumers with the incentive to buy more expensive footwear items.

Recycling has become one of the buzzwords of this decade. And the footwear market is no exception.

Johnston & Murphy and Allen-Edmonds, as well as Western bootmakers such as Lucchese, are among those companies offering consumers a new lease on the life of their footwear while turning a profit for the company.

Recrafting services offer value to consumers, agree both Johnston & Murphy and Allen-Edmonds. Today’s shoppers expect both quality and service when buying products, and providing refurbishment programs on the part of manufacturers can give them the incentive to indulge in a pair of pricey shoes, the firms reported.

As products become more expensive, said Lou Ripple, national sales manager for Allen-Edmonds, Port Washington, Wis., people want to keep them longer. If a man pays $230 for a pair of casual shoes for plantar fasciitis knowing that he can send them back for repair, it makes them a good value, he added.

Fowler Lowe, chairman and ceo of Johnston & Murphy, Nashville, dispels the theory that people who resole their shoes do not buy new ones, since Johnston & Murphy’s new footwear sales have not been conversely affected even though the service has been promoted more heavily. He explained that when a company charges the better price points Johnston & Murphy does, it needs to offer a service such as this.

Johnston & Murphy receives thousands of worn shoes a year in need of restoration. It has been a steady business the past two or three years, growing about 15 percent, according to Lowe, who noted the company receives an average of five to six dozen pairs of shoes a day directed through its Consumer Services department.

While the program is not a viable source of profit for Johnston & Murphy retail accounts, but rather a customer service, it has become a profitable business for the company, which obtains customers mainly through its direct mail catalogs and its retail stores.

There are about six people in Consumer Services handling refurbishment requests, said Lowe, which include everything from simple tassel replacements at $2 to a total makeover. A customer asking for the full treatment, which includes new heels, soles as well as stripping off the old finish and redoing it, pays about $107 for the service.

Prices run as high as $175 for a shoe makeover, such as refurbishing a pair of handmade shoes — a moderate price to pay for stretch fabric shoes for bunions that originally retailed for about $1,000.

Allen-Edmonds, like Johnston & Murphy, does more than use some spit and polish when refurbishing a pair of its shoes. Each pair is checked against their original specifications and goes through the same manufacturing process as when they were first made.

It was Allen-Edmond’s customers who requested the firm offer a recrafting service, which it instituted in ’83, said Lou Ripple, national sales manager. Men were calling and asking if the company would repair their footwear so they wouldn’t have to take their shoes to a local shoe repair shop where they might not be repaired properly.

“We get boxes of them every day,” according to Ripple, at times equaling upwards of 600 pairs a week. The company has even received a pair of shoes from a customer who bought them back in the 1940s. Ripple also has seen lots of good running shoes for high arches in dusty and squashed condition that had been sitting on the bottom of a closet to be recrafted and worn.

It was not until the last 12 to 18 months that Allen-Edmonds started to push its recrafting program, said Ripple. Currently the program is mentioned in print ads from the company as well as through retailers and catalogs.

The company makes it easy for customers to send their shoes in for repair by providing a brochure in the box of each new pair of shoes that explains the service and includes instructions on sending the shoes in to Allen-Edmonds.

To make it even simpler for customers to take advantage of the service, Allen-Edmonds provides retailers with a recraft package to give customers that contains plastic shipping bags for the shoes, postage paid by Allen-Edmonds.

Allen-Edmonds, like Johnston & Murphy, has several services available from its Prestige Package, which features new leather soles, welts, cork lining and laces in addition to cedar shoe tress and cotton flannel shoe bags, all for $105. Less involved procedures include replacing heels and toplifts for $15.

It is usually requests for new soles and heels rather than a total makeover that comes into Lucchese, El Paso, Texas, according to president John Tillotson. There can be as few as six to eight pairs a week coming into the company or as many as 40 or 50, he added.

As the company’s business has grown over the past five years, roughly 35 to 40 percent each year, said Tillotson, its recrafting business also has grown.

The average cost for new soles and heels runs about $130, said Tillotson. Customers are informed by the store where they purchased their boots that the service is available. Retailers also impress upon consumers it is advisable to send the boots back to the company for repairs rather than to a local repair shop as Lucchese makes its boots on an offset, or crooked, last, according to Tillotson, and ordinary shoe repair stores may change the shape of the boot when working on it, causing the boot to no longer fit properly.

Lucchese offers a one-year guarantee with all its boots, explained Tillotson. Customers can return the boots to the store where they purchased them or send them directly to the company’s retail store located near its Texas factory.

Nineteen eighty four turned out to be a watershed year for the Basel Fair.

For the first time jewelry exhibitors outnumbered watch and clock exhibitors. For the first time the watch, clock and jewelry exhibits were separated from the multiproduct Swiss Industries Fair, which is bein held later in the year. And fair officials announced that, starting in 1986, Basel will be open to many new international exhibitors, including firms from Japan and Hong Kong. This year 49 Hong Kong watch firms did travel to Switzerland but they had to show their wares privately in a city hotel.

Last year, Swiss watch producers introduced many quartz designs at the Fair; at Basel ’84, however, they rounded out product lines with more low-priced and mid-range style. The new models demonstrated that quartz analog styling is fully compatible with mutli-function timekeeping. Many had complete calendar, moon-phases, universal time, alarm and chronograph functions… and Swiss producers promised that astonishing new display technologies are around the corner.

Also introduced was a Longines high-precision watch incorporating a thermometer-quartz rate governor; new Nepro sub-assemblies that turn standard quartz movements into alarm watches, as well as casing systems and components allowing volume production of attractively priced quality timepieces.

Two opposite styling trends were evident at Basel this year as manufacturers strove to achieve distinctive looks. Some collections presented strict, unadorned designs with top surfaces entirely protected by scratch-resistant crystal. Others, however, featured dials framed by a variety of decorative elements: Claws, cables, tiny cylinders. What’s more, dials dominated styling with larger, more elaborate, often colored treatments. Top-of-the-line watches, though, still retain a classic spirit.

New materials–from titanium and light-metal alloys to synthetics–have been used in ’84 entries. Water resistance systems also have improved and, combined with the latest crop of extra-thin Swiss movements, now enable manufacturers to turn out extremely slim yet well-protected timepieces.

Buyers and browsers alike–the public still is admitted to the fair–were excited by the opulent and dazzling jewelry displays. Among the exhibitors were manufacturing jewelers who presented a vast array of creations. Dior, for example, featured 8mm-thick lighters, possibly the slimmest made, with fluted designs or satin-finishes, and matching writing instruments.

Swiss silverware was represented by very complete collections in sterling silver. Swiss jewelry design is in a particularly classic mood this year, notably at the upper end. Jewelry sets were very much in evidence, including Brosshard’s yellow gold necklaces and bracelets ablaze with diamonds, rubies and sapphires.

Colored gemstones–tourmalines, aquamarines and citrines–likewise are in style as are chains. For instance, Gay Freres displayed chains in white and yellow gold with square-section wire spirals. Moreover, visitors to Basel saw lots of Bulova marine star watch and jewelry chain bracelets. Also hot this year are small gold ingots. Pamp SA showed them on jewelry, decorated on one side and even used as pendants. Ingots are available in different shapes, and even come in lozenge and ear pendant sets.

Occupying Basel’s American Pavilion were 10 U.S. manufacturers offering platinum, gold and silver jewelry, as well as men’s jewelry, precious stones and findings–Henry Dunay, Etienne, Hallmark Healy Ltd. and Jabel Inc., among others. The American Pavilion also featured a Manufacturing Jewelers & Silversmiths of America-sponsored audio/slide show depicting U.S. life, cities and jewelry from each of the participating U.S. firms.

Supplementing the main exhibits were special presentations. Among them: One, jointly compiled by the Swiss and German watch industries, which explained how sports events are timed. Another focused on the history of electric and electronic timekeeping. Also exhibited were replicas of famous diamonds and jewelry from the 19th century together with a display of precious metal fakes. In addition, International Gold Corp. held a spectacular live show entitle “Gold in Fashion.”

Another first this year was the extension of services to exhibitors and trade visitors. For example, they were able to use private offices for meetings with reps and buyers, as well as take advantage of expanded bar and restaurant facilities throughout the exhibition areas.

Though next year’s show–scheduled for April 11-18–promises to be better yet, Basel officials are looking toward 1986 when the Fair will open its doors to all western nations as well as some form the Far East. It now restricts participation to a limited number of Switzerland’s trading partners, but Frederic Wathard, director general of the Swiss Industries Fair, said that in ’86 Basel will accept exhibitors from countries that:

  • * Practice liberal trade policies.
  • * Refrain from imposing tariff restrictions or customs barriers against precious goods.
  • * Exercise fair trade and commercial policies
  • * Avoid counterfeiting and the dumping of goods.

“The internationalization of production,” said Walthard, “is a continuous process that has extended beyond Europe itself…and makes it imperative that the Fair remain attractive to buyers worldwide. We must therefore admit important non-European manufacturers and exhibitors as soon as possible.”

Under the new admission policy, eligible countries will include Hong Kong and Japan. Henri Schaeren, president of the fair’s exhibitors’ committee, noted that the free trade criteria might exclude East Germany, Poland and most other East European nations. “It wouldn’t be fair to the others if we allowed them in,” Schaeren said. He added that Taiwan–with its high duties on watches,clocks and jewelry–“probably would be excluded, too.” Schaeren stressed, however, that any country willing to change its trading policies still could be admitted. “If somebody changes prior to our June 15 closing date we’ll receive them for the following year,” he said. Facts and figures

This year’s fair–officially the 12th Annual European Watch, Clock and Jewelry Fair–by most accounts was bigger and better than ever. Nearly 1500 exhibitors from 16 countries were on hand. Together they shared more than 473,600 sq. ft. of net floor space subdivided into clearly separate halls: Watches and clocks, jewelry and related branches such as machines, parts and components, with Swiss displays accounting for about one-third the total.

While Switzerland furnished the largest contingent of Stuhrling automatic watch and clock exhibitors (261), Germany–followed by Italy– most strongly represented the jewelry sector. Show organizers reported a shift in emphasis from watches and clocks to jewelry, which this year comprised 55% of all exhibitions. 5000 years old and still ticking

“It was just a joke,” declares Peter Payack, a 34-year-old poet who four year ago invented the Stonehenge Watch. Nevertherless, since its market debut last year, the $11.95 “Neolithic” timepiece, which is in the Pet Rock-genre of personal accessories, has drawn thousands of dollars worth of orders.

Back in 1980, Creative Computing magazine was doing as April Fool’s parody issue, and Payack, a contributing editor, put together an ad for a $22.95 “Gentlemen’s Watch.” It featured a replica of the original Stonehenge grafted onto an antique pocket watch face, and offered a 5000-year guarantee.

Sure enough, about 20 to 30 checks arrived in the mail. “I didn’t even have my address on the ad, just ‘Peter Payack Poetics’…so people had to do a lot of work to find me,” Payack said. The problem, of course, was that the product didn’t exist.

Even so, one of the respondents was so enamoured of the idea that he offered to draw up production specifications.

Meanwhile, Payack himself dug up a plastic manufacturer, Accurate Molding Co., Paterson, N.J., which not only agreed to make the Tissot watches for men , but also to put up $25,000 for the mold, which made the first run possible.

By last June, a real Stonehenge watch was ready. Payack introduced it with a small ad in The New York Times that proclaimed “A Great Leap Backwards in Time!” and promised to “amaze your Druid neighbors…” The ad cost $880 and drew $3000 worth of orders.

Sculptured dial quartz award watches

Olympic Watch Co., a division of R. Gsell & Co. Inc., New York City, announces a fresh new look–quartz award watches with custom sculptured dials. Each features a five-micron gold electroplated case, mineral glass crystal, lizard strap or metal bracelet, and comes in a deluxe presentation gift box.

Cost will depend upon quantity required, but Swiss-made analog quartz watches of comparable quality normally retail between $200 and $250. The cost to companies for 100 pieces (including corporate deal or logo in three dimensions on the dial) would be under $100 each.

The Wave of the Future?

A monster sea wave might have whacked North America’s East Coast in prehistoric times. Could it happen again?

You’ve just a heart-stopping ride on the Tidal Wave, the beachfront roller coaster in Ocean City, Md. You’re feeling washed out but elated. Suddenly, a 30-foot wall of water crashes over the boardwalk, toppling the roller coaster like toothpicks and sending people flying. What is this? Another coastal thrill ride?

No, it’s a tsunami (soo-NAH-mee), a monster wave caused by a violent geologic disturbance, such as an earthquake, underwater landslide, volcanic eruption, or even an asteroid impact. Tsunamis almost always happen in the Pacific Ocean. But new scientific evidence suggests that a killer wave could one day swamp the Atlantic coast of the United States.

WHAT A CREEP

A team of scientists investigating the seafloor off Virginia and North Carolina has found evidence that the continental shelf might be weakening there. A continental shelf is a gently sloping area of seabed between the edge of a continent and the deep ocean. Last summer, the scientists discovered several large blowout features, or craters, where gas from beneath the seafloor had escaped.

Some of the craters are “quite large,” said team leader Neal Driscoll of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. The four largest craters are, on average, 50 meters (164 feet) deep, 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) long, and 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) wide. A crater that size could easily swallow New York City’s Central Park!

Driscoll’s team is still trying to find out where the gas came from and how it escaped through the seafloor. Team member Jeffrey Weissel, senior scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, explained that gas is always moving up through the layers of sediment on the ocean bottom. Those layers of sediment usually block gas from reaching the seafloor. However, in several places along the mid-Atlantic coast, the gas somehow penetrated all the layers and blew through the seafloor.

Creeping might have caused that gas to blow. Creeping is the sliding of layered sediments down a continental slope, like a carpet sliding down stairs. As the layers creep down a slope, they stretch and deform, opening avenues for underground gas to escape. “That’s why these [blowout] features are so close to the shelf edge,” Weissel explained.

COASTAL TERRORS

Weissel worries that the gas blowouts could be weakening the edge of the continental shelf. If the shelf were to cave, it could set off an underwater landslide large enough to trigger a tsunami.

A boat cruising directly above such a landslide probably wouldn’t detect the wake of the resulting tsunami amid normal wind waves and swell. That’s because as a tsunami moves from its source to the closest coast, its length can be as much as 100 miles and its height just a few feet. Only when a tsunami nears land does it become monstrous. In shallow water, it bunches up and gains height. Coming ashore, it pummels unsuspecting coastal areas with devastating force.

Tsunamis often catch coast dwellers by surprise. Moving at speeds of up to 965 kilometers (600 miles) per hour, they frequently arrive before people know they’re coming.

ATLANTIC MONSTER

Most of the areas that have felt the punch of a tsunami are located in and along the Pacific Ocean. Surrounding the Pacific is a band of volcanoes, mountain chains, and earthquake zones. This Ring of Fire is the most geologically active area on the planet.

On average, two destructive tsunamis occur every year in the Pacific Ocean. Alaska, Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington are the states most vulnerable to the monster waves. However, other states might be vulnerable too. There are indications that a tsunami may have hit the East Coast of the United States at least once–and one might strike again.

Along the southern end of the region where Weissel, Driscoll, and their team found the seafloor dotted with craters, they also uncovered features of a past underwater landslide. That landslide likely happened 20,000 years ago, at the peak of the last Ice Age, and could have spawned a tsunami that walloped the East Coast of the United States.

“A big landslide, the size of the one that occurred [during] the last Ice Age, could affect a large amount of the East Coast from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Long Island, N.Y.,” Weissel said.

The possibility of such a wave striking again is rare, but real, both Weissel and Driscoll stressed. Their team plans to continue mapping the seafloor and keeping a watchful eye on areas vulnerable to underwater landslides. If a tsunami ever does hit the eastern seaboard, the last place you’ll want to be is on the Tidal Wave coaster.

A young Canadian is trying to save a mysterious native bear from disappearing

If you ever happen to meet Simon Jackson, be prepared for a passionate lesson on a mysterious white animal that lives only in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The 18-year-old B.C. native is on a crusade to save that animal, known locally as the spirit bear.

The dual threats of logging and hunting in the old-growth forests where the unusual white bear lives have made its future uncertain. Jackson’s nonprofit organization, The Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, and several environmental groups are urging the B.C. government to create a sanctuary, or place of refuge, for the bears.

“I was really struck by this incredible creature,” Jackson said. “And I wanted other people to have a chance to see it. It’s the panda of Canada–equally as beautiful and equally as rare.”

BEAR FACTS

As many as 400 spirit bears roam the forests of coastal British Columbia. Though rare, the spirit bear is not an endangered species. In fact, it’s not a species at all. It belongs to a subspecies, or group within a species that has unique characteristics. The spirit bear is a white-colored Kermode bear, a subspecies of black bear that lives in the rain-soaked forests of coastal B.C. The smaller skull size of the Kermode bear qualifies it as a subspecies.

Most Kermode bears are black, but on a cluster of small coastal islands, one in every ten is white. Scientists are still trying to figure out the genetic, or hereditary, process that makes a normally black Kermode bear white. (See “White Wonder.”)

FAIR GAME

Of all the black bears living in North America, only a few populations are protected from hunters. White Kermode bears are one such group. Black Kermode bears are fair game, however, and that’s a concern to conservationists, who worry that black Kermodes might carry the gene (or genes) for white fur. Genes are units of heredity that hold the instructions for every cell in the body.

Conservationists are also worried about logging in the spirit bear’s habitat. Consumer pressure has forced logging companies to verbally agree not to cut trees in those forests. No legal agreement exists, however. Environmental groups fear that the spirit bear’s habitat is still in danger.

PROTECTION NEEDED

Though the chainsaws are idle, Wayne McCrory, a biologist with the Valhalla Wilderness Society, is fervently trying to persuade government officials that more protection is needed. McCrory has proposed that 250,000 hectares (620,000 acres) of island and mainland old-growth forest be deemed a sanctuary for spirit bears and other threatened wildlife.

According to McCrory and Jackson, logging even a fraction of that land could deplete the habitat of salmon, which is a crucial food source for bears. Logging could also reduce bear denning sites and expose white spirit bear cubs to predators such as grizzly bears. In time, spirit bears could vanish from the British Columbia coast.

“This is their last intact habitat,” Jackson said. “If spirit bears disappear, we can never get them back.”

WHITE WONDER

The Tsimshian Indians of British Columbia call the spirit bear mokgm’ol–“the white bear put on the planet to remind people of a time when ice covered the land.” What do scientists say about the origins of the white bear?

Most scientists agree that the spirit bear is not an albino bear. Albinism is an inherited condition characterized by the absence of a certain pigment (coloring agent) in the eyes, skin, hair, scales, or feathers. That pigment is called melanin.

Albino animals rarely survive in the wild because their white coloration stands out, making them more vulnerable to predators. A shortage of melanin also causes albinos to have vision and hearing problems.

Because white bear cubs are frequently sighted with black parents and siblings on the B.C. coast, most scientists favor the idea that spirit bears get their white fur through a phenomenon called recessive inheritance. Black bears inherit one allele, or gene for a specific trait, in this case fur color, from each parent. The allele for black fur is a dominant allele. The allele for white fur is a recessive allele. When a bear inherits two dominant alleles, or a dominant and a recessive allele for fur color, the bear will be black. Only when a bear inherits two recessive alleles for fur color will it be white.

A spirit bear is thought to be a black Kermode bear that has inherited a recessive allele for fur color from both its father and its mother.

Beautiful dreamers and glitzy gals

Dominique Sirop, Valentino and Christian Dior were some of the designers that have unveiled their couture collection to rave reviews. Sirop’s collection included paneled evening dresses and khaki day suits, while Valentino’s line included feather bustiers and skintight dresses. Christian Dior’s collection reinforced the accolades that designer John Galliano garnered since his first couture show in 1996. His collection included dresses with laced corsets and waist training cinchers.

CHRISTIAN DIOR: “To make women look beautiful and make people dream.” In those words, John Galliano summed up his wish for his second couture collection for Christian Dior. A noble goal for a couturier, and in the collection he showed on Tuesday, Galliano realized it magnificently. True, this was not the heart-stopping event with which Galliano stole last season. Less sweeping in scope, it focused on only a few ideas, and some found it repetitive. But no one could say it wasn’t disarmingly beautiful. Despite what some of his competition would like to believe, Galliano’s brilliance does not lie in showmanship. He may have wooed his audience with the Bagatelle Gardens — where he had a greenhouse constructed, as well as beds crafted of moss on which his models could lounge — and a story line centered on Mata Hari, but he won them with spectacular clothes.

Modern? Modernity is relative. There were references to Poiret and the Belle Epoque, and in his program notes Galliano wrote that, “the Dior woman uses every artifice imaginable,” including a vest waist trainer and laced corsets. His only “day” silhouette, an endless vision with a seriously molded jacket and floor-sweeping skirt, left little room for a meal or a deep breath. But it looked amazing. The jackets came in tweeds, silver lame, crocodile and embroidered pale blue silk. They were shown as suits or with long fringed scarf skirts and usually laden with dazzling jewels.

For evening, Galliano continues to expand his range. The sheath is his favorite shape, in everything from lavishly embroidered tulle to metallic tinsel. Theatrical? Without question. At one point, Shalom even vamped around the gardens nearly naked, a glorious Venus clad only in a flesh-toned embroidered skirt and G-string.

But it is relevant as well. And not only for the Oscar set, represented at the show by Demi Moore and best friends Rita Wilson and Kate Capshaw. Just ask Alan Schwartz at ABS, who’s made a small killing by knocking off the dress Nicole Kidman wore to this year’s Academy Awards, or just about any accessories manufacturer, who will no doubt be jubilant to see Galliano’s lavish use of jewels, hats and racy lace stockings.

Galliano certainly deserves much of the credit — or some would say blame — for shaking up the staid world of haute couture. But he must also be applauded for celebrating those traditional couture values, beauty and dreams.

VALENTINO: Out with the old Valentino Ladies. In with the new ferocious, volatile Valettes. Sequined, furred and jeweled to an inch of her life — or her boyfriend’s wallet — Valentino’s new girl was clearly designed to make a media splash. “I’m not against clients,” Giancarlo Giammetti said last week, “but fashion focused only on a lady going to an opening at the Met is quite demode.” And just to drive his partner’s point home, Valentino pulled out all the stops — Mad Max hair, stiletto ankle boots, skintight dresses, feather bustiers and even a pair of embroidered leather leggings. Val also put fur on everything, from a black minidress with mink trim to a baby blue coat with an enormous leopard-printed fox collar. The stellar front-row audience — everyone from Marie-Chantal of Greece to Jackie de Ravenel — looked rather stunned. But glitz is the name of the game, at least at Valentino, and they’d better get used to it.

DOMINIQUE SIROP: La resistance lives! And it’s operating in — of all places — Pigalle. That’s where Dominique Sirop presented a smooth, chic and perfectly charming collection Tuesday morning that was contrary to all the other megaproductions going on in Paris. There were even some socialites, one — mon Dieu — with a Chihuahua on her lap. It was all presided over by Le Grand Hubert, Sirop’s old boss, who gave his blessing by kissing the designer on both cheeks at the end of the show.

Sirop’s atelier, which is also his apartment, is still in the developmental stages, and the quality doesn’t match up to that of the grandest houses yet. But the ideas certainly do. From the super-sharp khaki day suits to paneled evening dresses to a stunningly simple crepe sheath, this was a collection that screamed “Buy me.” And they will.

Let the counterrevolution begin.

The Batman Of Belize

As I stood under a thatched roof in the middle of a Central American rain forest, zoologist Bruce Miller approached from the evening shadows with something wriggling in his cupped hands. “This,” he said, “is the smallest bat in Belize–a black-eared yellow bat.”

Miller gently stretched the bat’s wing so I could see that it had a wrist, a thumb, and four long, needle like fingers. The fur of this flying mammal was incredibly soft. I once thought bats were scary, but this one was cute.

I was in Central America for a few days last spring to learn about the pioneering research Miller and his wife, Carolyn, are doing. The Millers first landed in Belize more than 14 years ago intending to study nothing but birds. Gradually, their interests expanded to include mammals. Now Carolyn spends her mornings scouring the ground for the tracks of jaguars, and Bruce spends his nights combing the sky for bats.

DETECTING BATS

On most nights, Miller doesn’t see or hold the bats he studies. Instead, he waves a small yellow and white box, called an Anabat detector, above his head. The Anabat detector functions as an electronic ear, picking up inaudible bat sounds.

Bats use echolocation to navigate. They produce high-frequency sounds that echo off surrounding objects. The echoes enable the bats to detect trees in their path or the tiny insects they eat.

When the Anabat is plugged into a laptop computer equipped with special software, bat voices become squiggles, dots, and lines on the laptop’s screen. Each distinctive pattern and shape, known as a vocal signature, represents the unique sound waves emitted by a particular species of bat.

LEAF-NOSED BATS

Some bats found in Belize, called leaf-nosed bats, don’t echolocate; they find their way with old-fashioned eyesight. Bat researchers have been studying leaf-nosed bats for more than 30 years. Like birds, leaf-nosed bats are easily caught in invisible nylon nets.

Until recently, not much was known about the other families of bats in Belize. “These bats use echolocation, allowing them to `see’ nets like a big wall in their path and say, `I don’t want to go there,'” Miller told me.

FACES AND VOICES

Imagine the excitement when Miller received his first Anabat detector five years ago. “We turned the Anabat on and immediately `heard’ bats,” Miller said. “Then we hooked it up to the computer and saw five or six different shapes of signals.”

Then came the work of deciphering the signals. “Initially everything was an unknown” Miller said. “We started naming [the species] Unknown 1. Unknown 2, Unknown 3….” To match faces to the signals, the Millers had to catch some bats and fly them in their “sound lab”–their kitchen.

“We just let them fly laps around the kitchen and made recordings with the Anabat.” said Miller. “After we had enough, we opened the sliding door, and on their next lap, they went right out.”

So far, Miller has identified the vocal signatures of 28 of the 33 echolocating bat species known to live in Belize. “Everywhere we go, we find species of bats we just never knew were there before,” he said. By storing the data on his computer, Miller is well on the way to his next goal: developing regional bat project to determine which habitats are crucial for the bats’ survival.

“If we lose the bats, we’re going to lose the tropical forest.” he said. “In the tropics, the birds are the day crew, and the bats are the night crew.” Everything that birds do during the day–from pollinating plants to transferring seeds to eating insects that gobble plants–the bats do at night. “It keeps the tropical system going,” he added.

BAT MYTHS

Though bats are key players in the maintenance of the tropical forest, many species are on the decline. “A lot of people assume all bats are [bloodsucking] vampire bats and that they’re bad.” Miller said. “So people kill them.”

In reality, only three species of vampire bat exist. Two are extremely rare and only feed on birds. The third wasn’t common until humans began converting forests to fields populated by cows. Sucking blood from wild animals that move around a lot is difficult for vampire bats and keeps their numbers low. But with cows and other domestic animals, the vampire bats can just fly right up to an easy 20-minute meal. As a result, their numbers have swelled.

Labeled as pests, vampire bats are often burned out of their caves. But caves are like apartment buildings: All kinds of bats, not just vampire bats, reside in them. When caves are burned. everything in them, including other bats, are killed.

“Bats perform a really valuable role,” said Miller. “But because it’s in the dark, it’s like `out of sight, out of mind.’ The average person just doesn’t know about them.”

Wreckless Driving

Check out the futuristic vehicles you’ll soon be driving: cars that don’t crash.

Are you counting the years, months, or even days until you finally take control of a car? Sorry to tell you this, but you might never get that chance. Control is being taken out of drivers’ hands and transferred to cars instead.

Automakers are designing cars that they hope will make drivers less accident-prone. Such smart cars will come loaded with the latest in what design engineers call “accident-avoidance technology,” that will have more computing capacity than the first spaceships had.

How will smart cars work? Put yourself in the driver’s seat:

FENDER-BENDER ENDER

You’re tooling down the parkway when some jerk suddenly cuts in front of you. At that point, your Adaptive Cruise Control, developed by Delphi Automotive Systems, kicks in. Radar in the car’s front grill has been measuring the distance between your car and the other vehicles on the road by sending out radio or light waves that are reflected by the surrounding traffic.

Sensing that the car that just cut you off is dangerously close, your car’s cruise control system wires a message to the brakes that says, “Widen the gap!” Even if your foot is pressing on the accelerator (gas pedal), the car automatically slows down until there’s a safe distance between you and the other car.

SPIN DOCTOR

Zooming over the blacktop one winter’s day, your car hits a patch of ice and starts to spill. That’s when Delphi’s Traxxar stability system takes over to give the car more grip and less slip. The Traxxar system compares the car’s intended direction with the path the car is actually taking.

Intended direction is determined partly by a sensor that measures the turning rate of the steering wheel. Actual path is determined by sensors that monitor how hard the car is cornering, plus wheel speed and position. Traxxar then applies selective braking to one or more of the wheels to put the car back on track.

NIGHT SIGHT

You’re motoring down a country road one night–a time when more than half of all fatal car crashes happen. Several hundred meters ahead, a deer is about to cross the road. You can’t see the deer yet, but your car can. It’s equipped with Night Vision, a thermal-imaging system adapted by defense contractor Raytheon Company from a military device that detects enemy targets in the dark.

A camera mounted behind the car’s front grill senses the infrared (heat) energy given off by the deer. Night Vision translates that information into a bright white video image of the deer that is projected onto the lower part of your windshield to warn you that the deer is near.

ALARMING INVENTIONS

Late one evening, you doze off behind the wheel. Your car drifts toward a ditch. A sleep monitor, programmed to detect dangerous, jerky steering and careless swerving, senses that the car is cruising for a bruising. A loud alarm jolts you awake in time for you to regain control.

Alarms also sound whenever sensors in your car’s rear bumper detect that the car is backing into another object. The sensors, developed by Delphi, produce ultrasonic (high-frequency) sound waves that trigger an alarm whenever they bounce off objects closer than 6 meters (20 feet) to the rear of the car. The closer the car backs toward the object, the louder and faster the alarm sounds.

Still more alarms go off whenever sensors embedded in the car’s side view mirrors detect a car in your blind spot. The blind spot is an area that rear view mirrors miss. Alarms–and flashing lights–let you know that the car in your blind spot makes lane-hopping a hazard.

DAMAGE CONTROL

Alas, even the smartest smart cars won’t be geniuses. Some accidents will inevitably happen. In those events, sensing technology will “know” from the pitch (slope) of the car that it’s about to roll. In an instant, “side curtain” air bags will inflate so that the passengers aren’t thrown out of the vehicle. Infrared and ultrasonic sensors will scan the weight, size, posture, seat position, and seat belt use of each car occupant, then tighten belts and release head and body air bags. Outside air bags on the roof and the bumpers will also inflate, cushioning the impact of the crash.

At that point, the car will use telematics, a combination of cellular and satellite communications, to broadcast details of the crash. It will signal for an ambulance and transmit a video of the car’s interior to prepare the paramedics. Even after a collision, the car will still be in control.

MINDSTRETCH

How might smart cars worsen people’s driving skills and habits, making the highways more dangerous? How might that be prevented?

Taught by an Angel

A science teacher donated a kidney to an ailing student.

Fifteen-year-old Michael Carter knows precisely who his “angel” is. It’s his science teacher.

Michael, a student who lives in Fayetteville, N.C., was playing on his school’s football field one day wearing a pair of loose-fitting pants. His science teacher, Jane Smith, was watching as Michael kept hiking up his pants so he could run more easily. “I assumed he couldn’t run because his pants were so baggy,” Smith explained.

When she quizzed Michael about the pants, he told her that he had a severe kidney problem and that loose pants were more comfortable. Then Michael told her that he needed a new kidney.

Smith’s response was simple, immediate, and lifesaving. She said, “I have two. Do you want one?”

A few months later, doctors gave Michael one of Smith’s kidneys. So far, Michael’s new kidney is working great and he feels healthier than ever.

FILTERS OF LIFE

Michael was born with renal dysplasia (REE-nuhl dis-PLAY-shuh), a rare condition in which the kidneys don’t develop normally. One of Michael’s kidneys was severely stunted and the other was barely functional. Many people with renal dysplasia end up needing a new kidney to survive.

The kidneys, located beneath the lower rib cage in the back, are each about the size of a computer mouse. The job of the kidneys is to remove wastes from the bloodstream. During a typical 24-hour period, the kidneys filter about 150 liters (160 quarts) of blood. They remove nitrogen, phosphorus, and other waste products produced by the normal workings of body cells.

Michael’s kidneys couldn’t perform those functions as well as normal kidneys can. Eventually, waste products began building up in his bloodstream. If enough wastes had built up, they would have poisoned Michael’s brain and other organs and could have killed him. So, at age 13, Michael began dialysis.

Dialysis is a treatment in which blood is removed from the body, sent through a mechanical filtering system, and then returned to the body. Michael required dialysis three times a week, with each session lasting about four hours. “Every day I would get on my knees and pray that someday I would get a [new] kidney,” said Michael.

A TEACHER’S KIDNEY

Michael’s teacher, Jane Smith, answered his prayers. Smith is one of a growing number of kidney donors who are relatives or friends of patients–or even complete strangers.

It wasn’t always that way. A few years ago, nearly all donated kidneys came from people who had died. Doctors would remove the organs from someone who had died and who had given permission while alive to donate the organs. The organ would then be packed in ice and transported to a patient who needed the organ to survive. Surgeons would then transplant, or transfer, the new organ into the patient.

Today, a growing number of kidneys used for organ transplants come from living donors. Recent advances in surgery have enabled surgeons to remove an entire kidney through a tiny incision in the side of the body. Those advances make it easier and safer for someone to donate a kidney while still alive. Altogether, living donors now account for 40 percent of all kidneys used for transplants.

ORGAN REJECTION

Whether a kidney comes from a living person or from someone who has died, the person receiving the organ stands a high risk of organ rejection. That occurs when the body of the recipient (the person who receives a donated organ) builds defenses against the new organ.

The body’s immune, or infection-fighting, system searches constantly for foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. If it doesn’t recognize something, it sends out chemical messages for special immune cells to attack the intruder. If a recipient’s immune system doesn’t recognize a transplanted kidney, the resulting attack can eventually destroy the implanted organ.

Recently developed drugs called immunosuppressants, however, help block that reaction. Preventing organ rejection allows the organ to remain in the patient’s body longer without problems.

BACK TO NORMAL

Doctors expect that the immunosuppressants and other drugs Michael now takes will help his new kidney stay healthy for many years. With proper care, a transplanted kidney can function for more than 30 years.

No matter how long Michael’s kidney lasts, the transplant immediately changed his life. “He can go outside, he can play sports,” said Mark Johnson, director of the team that transplanted Michael’s kidney. “All of a sudden, he’s a normal kid again.”

Michael’s teacher is also feeling great since she gave up a kidney. Doctors say her remaining kidney should be able to perform all the filtering functions her body needs to stay healthy.

Does she regret giving up a kidney? Not a bit. “It was one of those moments in your life,” said Smith, “that you knew it was the right thing to do and that it was going to happen.”

Michael and his mother say they’re extremely grateful to Smith for her generosity. “I’ve always said that everyone has a guardian angel,” said Michael’s mother. “Ms. Smith is our guardian angel.”

How a Kidney Works

  1. Blood flows into kidney through the renal artery.
  2. Blood is cleansed by filtering units, called nephrons, located throughout the kidney.
  3. Cleansed blood leaves kidney through the renal vein.
  4. Waste products leave kidney as urine.
  5. Urine flows from the ureter into the bladder.

Ready to RUMBLE!

More than 100,000 people live within range of the deadliest volcano in the United States.

Early last July, on a ridge halfway up Washington’s Mount Rainier, I carried my skis to some patches of snow left over from the winter. A chilly mist swirled as I paused to look around me. Every now and then, the mist parted like a curtain to reveal the huge white mountain above.

I’ve seen the volcano a thousand times. Mount Rainier (elevation 4,392 meters or 14,410 feet) is so tall that it looms over Seattle, where I live, 112 kilometers (70 miles) to the northwest. Each time I see it, Rainier amazes me once again with its awesome beauty and enormous size.

Now, it scares me, too. Mount Rainier, say geologists, is the most dangerous volcano in the United States.

SPEEDING FLOODS

For a long time, nobody thought Mount Rainier was a big threat. Most people thought it was dormant, or in a quiet period geologically. They were wrong.

Recently, geologists have learned a lot more about Mount Rainier. And the news is not good. Careful study of ash layers on Rainier has revealed that the volcano has erupted far more frequently and recently than previously thought. And geologists have found the remnants of ancient lahars that once buried valleys where people now live. Lahars are speeding floods of volcanic ash, mud, and water from landslides and melted snow and ice. Lahars are most often triggered by volcanic eruptions.

Mount Rainier is relatively young as mountains go–only about half a million years old. It formed as an eastward-moving piece of Earth’s crust, called the Juan de Fuca plate, began to descend slowly under the Pacific Northwest landmass. As the plate descended, it heated up, and some of it melted into magma, or molten rock. That magma worked its way to the surface, where it burst out as Mount Rainier and the dozens of other volcanoes in Washington, Oregon, and California. The Juan de Fuca plate is still moving under those states, and as long as it keeps doing that, there’s the threat of volcanic eruptions.

WAKE-UP CALL?

So what will happen next? Will Rainier someday spew a glowing cloud of poisonous ash and fumes? Will sizzling avalanches of lava roll across forests, homes, and towns? Will lahars race down, sweeping away everything in their path? All those things have happened at other volcanic sites in the world.

In 1980, Mount St. Helens, a volcano about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Mount Rainier, exploded. The eruption was much bigger than geologists had expected. And lahars caused some of the worst damage.

Mount St. Helens was a real wake-up call. Afterward, everyone living near Mount Rainier, including me, started looking at the mountain differently.

LAHAR THREAT

Because of what scientists now know about Mount Rainier and what happened at Mount St. Helens, the lahars worry us most. “You aren’t going to get charred bodies from Mount Rainier,” explained geologist Tom Sisson. “But you’ll get houses crushed by lahars.”

Lahars worry us for several reasons. Mount Rainier has 25 glaciers–more than any other mountain in the United States outside of Alaska–that could melt into lahars. And unlike lava flows, lahars can travel fast and far. More than 100,000 people live directly in the way of potential Rainier lahars.

To make matters worse, lahars don’t need an eruption to happen. Lahars can be–and geologists say have been–triggered by earthquakes or landslides on Mount Rainier.

The past activity of the volcano, the number of glaciers on it, the large human population living in its shadow–all those factors make Mount Rainier the most dangerous volcano in the United States. “No doubt about it,” Bill Lokey, an emergency planner, told me. “Mount Rainier could produce the largest, most deadly disaster in the history of the United States.”

Now everybody wonders: How soon? A massive eruption and lahar on Mount Rainier–far bigger than the recent ones on Mount St. Helens–occurred about 5,600 years ago. Only 1,100 years ago, another lahar buried a whole forest not far from where Seattle now stands. And just 600 years ago, a third Rainier lahar mowed down 1.8-meter-(6-foot-) thick trees and filled valleys two stories deep with debris. Geologically speaking, that’s practically yesterday. Geologists say the next lahar could happen at any time–with or without an eruption.

UNDER THE VOLCANO

One sunny day a few weeks after my July ski trip, I returned to Mount Rainier to hike. I trekked past a glacier and then up through a beautiful old-growth forest. Finally, I came to a high mountain meadow, where a rainbow of wildflowers bloomed. The mountain towered above me, as incredible as ever. Among all the wonderful scenery, I thought about something Bill Lokey had said to me: “We live here by geological consent.”