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Rosetta Stones

Rosetta Stones

Adventures in the good science of rock-breaking.

33 Years Ago Today...

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... Mount St. Helens exploded with a fury that surpassed expectations.

Mount St. Helens in eruption on May 18, 1980 showing portion of crater and Mount Adams in background. Skamania County Washington. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Mount St. Helens in eruption on May 18, 1980 showing portion of crater and Mount Adams in background. Skamania County Washington. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Things have calmed down considerably since that day. Even the trees are growing back.

To quote myself, "This is the view of Mount St. Helens from Elk Rock Viewpoint. In the center left, you’ll see Mount Adams peeking over a ridge. In the center, all that knobby topography down by the river is the debris avalanche. Look up from it, and you’ll see the rampart formed by several pyroclastic flows coming down from the amphitheatre created in the May 18, 1980 eruption. And, of course, center right is the Lady herownself. The river valley you’re looking in to is the North Fork Toutle River, which hasn’t got much water in it at the moment." Nice view, eh? Enjoy it while it lasts - the trees are determined to get huge again, and views will be harder to come by.

Recovery is slow by human standards, swift geologically. This eruption was just one in a series that began long before people were here to observe and will continue long after we're gone. The mountain will go through many changes, building itself up and tearing itself apart. Eventually, the Juan de Fuca plate will finish subducting, and the magma chamber feeding St. Helens will no longer be replenished. Our feisty young volcano will grow old and extinct; gravity and glaciers and other agents of erosion will do their work, and only a stump of rock will remain.

Three Fingered Jack, an old Oregon volcano that is being carved to a nub. It was a mighty stratovolcano, once, like St. Helens.

Three Fingered Jack, an old Oregon volcano that is being carved to a nub. It was a mighty stratovolcano, once, like St. Helens.

Even that will pass away in time, erased by the shifting of ever-restless plates. But that's a future we'll never personally see: for the next several generations, she'll remain "one of the most active and most explosive volcanoes in the Cascade Range."

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

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