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To Mount St. Helens on the 32nd Anniversary of Her May 18th, 1980 Eruption

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Dear Mount St. Helens,

Thirty-two years ago, I made you a get-well card. You’d just blown your top that morning, which looked like it must have hurt to my my five year-old eyes. I sat in front of the television with my crayons and construction paper while images of your roiling gray ash clouds filled the screen, and very upset and excited grown-ups said things I didn’t understand about you. All I really understood at the time was that you were an erupting volcano, and this was a Very Big Deal.

On May 18, 1980, at 8:32 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake shook Mount St. Helens. The bulge and surrounding area slid away in a gigantic rockslide and debris avalanche, releasing pressure, and triggering a major pumice and ash eruption of the volcano. Thirteen-hundred feet (400 meters) of the peak collapsed or blew outwards. As a result, 24 square miles (62 square kilometers) of valley was filled by a debris avalanche, 250 square miles (650 square kilometers) of recreation, timber, and private lands were damaged by a lateral blast, and an estimated 200 million cubic yards (150 million cubic meters) of material was deposited directly by lahars (volcanic mudflows) into the river channels. Fifty-seven people were killed or are still missing. USGS Photograph taken on May 18, 1980, by Austin Post.

I’m sorry I never sent you your card. I mean, I understand now that volcanoes don’t actually feel pain like people do, and can’t open their mail, and don’t even understand when people read it to them. But the park rangers might have enjoyed it. And as I recall, it was a pretty cool card. It had a picture of you erupting on the cover. I think I had lava flowing down your sides, and I know I drew you with a pointy top, which you’d lost that morning, so it wasn’t technically accurate. But still, it was cool. Lost now, alas.

Writing to you now is also probably very silly, since you still can’t open your mail and certainly don’t read blogs. That’s okay: this is an open letter, so anyone can read it. I just wanted to say thank you. You taught me a lot. I’ll be doing a series of posts about you in the next few weeks, discussing what we’ve learned about and from you. I figured I’d best begin by saying what you taught me as a little girl, and probably taught lots of other kids.

You taught me that volcanic eruptions aren’t things that just happen in other countries or a long time ago: they can (and do) happen right here in America (though not in every state), and right now. That was a pretty shocking thing to learn, not to mention important. I didn’t know the words “volcano monitoring” back then, but I certainly monitored the volcano in our city very carefully after you erupted! And I was glad that people with scientific instruments were monitoring it, too.

You taught me that volcanic eruptions may not include red-hot rivers of molten lava. I learned that eruptions can just be ash and steam, that they can include pyroclastic flows and lahars, and that lava is sometimes sticky and thick and forms domes and plugs rather than flows.

You taught me that volcanoes can do unexpected things, like erupt laterally, and that it pays to be prepared for bizarre behavior. You also taught me that being a vulcanologist is super-exciting and sometimes fatal, which taught me immense respect for the people who risk and sometimes lose their lives trying to learn about volcanoes like you, and monitor your eruptions.

You taught me all about ash. I learned how gritty it is, and that it can sometimes travel around the entire world. I learned it can impact the weather, and cause spectacular sunsets. I discovered that humans can’t breathe in it, and that it causes machinery no end of grief, and it’s really hard to clear off city streets. But it’s good for the soil (although its sharp edges can damage plant leaves, and too much can be bad). And I learned you can make beautiful gemstones and lovely pottery glazes from it.

You taught me that a gorgeous landscape and a symmetrical volcano that took thousands of years to build can be turned into a remnant and a moonscape in the course of a morning. But you also taught me this is perfectly ordinary for volcanoes. They build up, tear themselves apart, and rebuild all the time. Serene beauty returns out of the devastation. And in the meantime, the blasted landscape has a stark beauty all its own.

You taught me to fear your immense power; and then you took that fear away as I stood staring into your steaming crater.

You taught me that geology sometimes starts with a bang, and that it’s not just a matter of poking at inert rocks. You taught me that geology is critically important, a life-saving enterprise, and necessary for those reasons. But it’s also fascinating and fun, which is reason enough for doing it.

It’s been 32 years, and it looks like you didn’t need my get-well card to get better. You don’t need my letter now to tell you how amazing you are, how important and how special. But I’m writing to you anyway, because you changed my life. You changed my entire understanding of how the world works when I was just five years old, a lesson that’s stayed with me to this day. And I want other people to know just how incredible you are.

You’re my favorite volcano in the entire world. I’m glad I was alive when you woke up, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to see you build up your dome a little bit more before you go back to sleep in my lifetime.

Thank you for all you’ve taught me, my beautiful Mount St. Helens. I’ll come visit you again soon!

Love,

Dana

Dana Hunter at Mount St. Helens, May 13th, 2007. The volcano was actively erupting at the time, busy building her dome.

Dana Hunter About the Author: Dana Hunter is a science blogger, SF writer, and geology addict whose home away from SciAm is En Tequila Es Verdad. Follow her on Twitter: @dhunterauthor. Follow on Twitter @dhunterauthor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. dbtinc 7:46 am 05/19/2012

    Dana – the problem is that growth indicates activity so are you hoping for another eruption in your lifetime? That didn’t work out too well the last time it did!

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  2. 2. RCWhitmyer 2:38 am 05/20/2012

    dbtinc Even the deadlyiest snake has it’s own beauty. I can see how someone can be fascinated by this mountain. Also I think she knows what the worse case event can be. If you knew half as much as she does you would know that is unlikely to happen in are life times. It will most likely continue to grow for generations with only a few burps. Big explosions are the exception not the rule.

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  3. 3. Mr. T 5:07 pm 05/21/2012

    When younger I was an enthusiastic climber. Over the years I climbed Mount St. Helens three times with each climb being memorable. It was a truly fascinating presence in the skies of Washington State. At the same time it demanded respect and more than one life was lost on its slopes. It had been erupting for some two months when the big one let go. Fortunately it was the weekend since its lateral blast destroyed everything out to about twenty miles and if that had been a workday there would have been hundreds of loggers working within that distance.

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