Jon Krakauer

1997 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner

Jon Krakauer was awarded the Walter Sullivan Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on December 10, 1997, in San Francisco, California. The Walter Sullivan Award recognizes a journalist for a single article or a radio/television report that makes geophysical material accessible and interesting to the public.

Citation

“Beneath the majestic beauty of Mount Rainier lies a future drama between nature and society. A powerful and compelling story of the volcano’s past and the potential for tomorrow, entitled `Geologists worry about dangers of living `under the volcano,’ has earned writer Jon Krakauer the 1997 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism.

“Through Jon’s acute journalistic vision, we learn of the connection between clumps of reddish brown rock that cling to the spikes of a climber’s crampons and the geology of lahars — `flash floods of semiliquid mud, rock and ice that surge down from the heights with terrifying speed and destructive power,’ notes Jon in this Smithsonian magazine story. We discover that at least 60 lahars have roared down from Mount Rainier in the past 10,000 years, some carrying massive debris flows all the way to Puget Sound, more than 50 miles from the mountain.

“We also find that this hydrothermally altered rock is an external expression of a blistering reaction between geothermal aquifers and acidic sulfur-bearing gases that is eroding Mount Rainier from the inside out. In the words of geologist Kevin Scott, `the entire edifice of the mountain is stewing in its own chemical juices and as a consequence it’s becoming increasingly rotten and unstable.’

“Jack Wiley, Jon’s editor at Smithsonian, had this to say about Jon’s entry. `Starting at the top of the mountain, Jon Krakauer explains what is happening inside Mount Rainier and why it could result in a catastrophe, without the volcano actually erupting. He discusses the lahar that destroyed much of Armero, Colombia, and how an earthquake, a volcanic event, or simply the collapse of a `rotted’ rock could trigger one on Rainier. Geologists and public officials worry about the best ways to protect the 100,000 people living on top of past mud slides. The article is both dramatic science and public service.’

“Jon learned to climb at the age of eight, and he climbed Mount Rainier for the first time 2 years later. He has climbed Mount Rainier many times since, but `had little idea of the hazards posed by its geologic instability’ until Smithsonian magazine asked him to write this story. We are indebted to Jon for his ability to weave the human experience together with our current knowledge of geophysics in a highly readable and understandable manner. The story also reminds us of the necessity of conveying our science to public officials and the public so they can take appropriate steps to mitigate future losses from rare but extreme geophysical hazards.”

—JOHN SANDERS, American Geophysical Union, Washington, D.C.

Response

“I’m very grateful to the AGU for honoring me with this award, for an article I wrote for Smithsonian Magazine about Mt. Rainier. I first climbed Rainier in 1964, when I was 10 years old, and I’ve climbed it numerous times in the ensuing decades. However, until Smithsonian asked me to write about the volcano, I had little idea of the hazards posed by its geologic instability. The story was fascinating to write, and provided a bulletproof excuse for ascending the mountain one more time. It also introduced me to a group of smart, extremely dedicated scientists.

“The idea for this article originated with Richard S. Fiske, of the Smithsonian Institution, to whom I owe special thanks. I would also like to thank my superb editors at Smithsonian Magazine: John P. Wiley Jr., Don Moser, Alison C. McLean, Edgar Rich, and Bonnie Stutski. Thanks as well to my climbing companions, Dielle Havlis and Lee Joseph, who accompanied me to the summit of Rainier in September 1995. Mostly, however, I am indebted to the members of the geophysical community who put up with a barrage of stupid questions and generously shared their expertise: Kevin M. Scott, David R. Zimbelman, Thomas W. Sisson, James W. Vallance, Carolyn L. Driedger, Paul Kennard, Patrick T. Pringle, Stephen D. Malone, Donald A. Swanson, and Jonathan Swinchatt.”

—JON KRAKAUER, Seattle, Washington