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Prelude to a Catastrophe: The Complete Lexicon

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


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Summer rather got a bit in the way of blogging for a bit there. We on the west side of the Cascades don’t get much: generally just two or three months of reliable sunshine before the rains come again. I do the majority of my running about in the field then, collecting photos and facts for the coming winter’s geoblogging, as well as absorbing every ray of sun I can get my hands on. All of that zooming about cuts into research time rather badly. Still. Winter’s on its way, the skies are clouding up, and that means we’re continuing on with our Mount St. Helens series.

For those new to Rosetta Stones, or who just wish to refresh their memories before we carry on with the esplodey things, here’s the complete lexicon. Enjoy!

Dedication: The Geologists Who Died at Mount St. Helens. Yes, geologists plural. We’re fortunate most of the scientists working on the mountain survived, but we did lose a few of our own. They showed incredible dedication. This series is dedicated to them.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Current Quiet Interval Will Not Last…” In 1978, USGS geologists Dwight Crandell and Donal Mullineaux published a paper that spelled out the possibilities of a future eruption of Mt. St. Helens in stark detail. The work they did on this volcano prevented the catastrophe from being far worse than it was. This paper put everyone on notice: we have a dangerous mountain in our midst, and she could wake up at any time.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “One of the Most Active and Most Explosive Volcanoes in the Cascade Range.” Dwight Crandell had nearly completed an exhaustive study of Mount St. Helens’s eruptive history when she added to his workload in 1980. She had quite the history of hijinks. Crandell’s study of her violent past helped predict her current behavior.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Unusual Character of the Seismic Activity Became Clear.” In mid-March of 1980, a swarm of earthquakes unprecedented in our experience of Cascades volcanoes put everyone on notice: something big was happening, and it was only getting bigger…

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Something Dramatic.” One of the seismologists watching the earthquake swarm unfold later wrote, “We did not see how this activity could continue without something dramatic happening.” And something dramatic did.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Pale-blue Flames.” Eerie blue light dances within the crater, and geologists scramble to protect the public as Mount St. Helens roars awake.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Only Way It Can Stabilize is to Come Down.” The bulge grows at astonishing rates. David Johnston and his fellow geologists know that the side of a mountain can swell only so far before gravity pulls it down. There is no question of if, only when it will fall.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Our Best Judgement of Risk.” While the bulge pushes out at upwards of five feet per day, geologists assess other signs that Mount St. Helens, despite the lack of explosions, poses an enormous risk to life and property. They risk their own lives to protect ours.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Volcano Could Be Nearing a Major Event.” Phreatic eruptions resume, steam pours from fumaroles and cracks, the bulge continues to grow… and the countdown nears 0.

Interlude: Moment of Silence.

Now, I’m not entirely cruel. Before I bailed for summer, I did give you the satisfaction of a nice, big explosion:

The Cataclysm: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This Is It!” The ominous bulge on Mount St. Helens’s north flank gives way, beginning a cataclysmic lateral eruption. We see the events of that day through the eyes of those who survived – and through the last transmissions of some who didn’t.

So much incredible science coming – and another survivor’s tale you’ll not soon forget. Stay tuned!

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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