I spent a lovely day ushering people round Mount St. Helens recently. Taking people up there who have never seen her is among the most rewarding things I've ever done. Jaws inevitably drop. I mean, you may have heard of her for more than half your life. You may have watched the videos and read a book or two. You may even have listened to me go on and on and on and on about her. But nothing, absolutely not one thing, compares to seeing her in person.
No, not even my photography – even if she was being extra-photogenic this last visit.
Mount St. Helens in summer sunshine. Credit: Dana Hunter
So. You want to go. And you want to be as prepared as possible. Or you can't go just yet, but you want to dream of that perfect trip up her flanks. I've got everything you need right here. I've gone back through our entire archives here at Rosetta Stones and collected absolutely every post I've ever written. Here they are: the guides, the Catastrophe series, the eruption photos series, my review of Richard Waitt's marvelous book, and all the extras, put together in one place so you don't have to go searching.
I hope to meet you at Mount St. Helens soon!
Let’s have a road trip, shall we?
We’re on our way to Mount St. Helens today. The skies are very nearly clear – by Washington state standards, anyway. Warm sun mingles with a cool breeze that snickers about autumn’s imminent arrival. You’ve got your nose plastered to the car window as we drive up Spirit Lake Memorial Highway from Castle Rock. All you’re seeing at this point are low hills and a flat bit of valley, plastered with green stuff. Biology is a perennial problem for geologists round here. You can barely see the hills for the trees. And you can’t even tell we’re driving along the shore of a lake.
So, you've got a day to visit Mount St. Helens. Huzzah! All right, if you don't now, you will someday, quite possibly maybe, and you'll want to know how you can do All The Things when you haven't got much time. Never fear! In response to a request from Silver Fox, I'm putting together your very own field trip guide, which will show you things you can do in a day there, and feel you got your visit's worth. Keeping in mind, this is a Pacific Northwest summer day and so it is very, very long.
Brace yourselves. Look, I know Stop 1 wound you up. You just got done with a reasonably delicious lunch, you've caught a glimpse of the volcano and loved it, and now you're all about getting up close and personal with Mount St. Helens. But you need to take a deep breath and have a bit of Zen. What you're about to see might tip you over the edge, and from this viewpoint, it's kind of a long way down.
If you had been standing here in the North Fork Toutle River Valley on the morning of May 18th, 1980, you would have died. Never mind if you had your car carefully pointed towards a speedy escape. By the time you realized it was time to flee, it would have been far too late. There are people still entombed in the debris avalanche not far from here. This is the place to pause and reflect a moment on the power of geologic processes. Earth demands respect.
After leaving Coldwater Lake and the Hummocks, you'll wend your way out of the North Fork Toutle River valley. Vegetation is trying its best to return. In the spring and summer, groves of slender young trees shake green leaves at you, reminding you that life here in the Pacific Northwest can be temporarily routed, but never conquered.
Sadly, Patty's has closed permanently, but the ruined logging equipment is still there. Try the Fire Mountain Grill while you're at it!
We did it! We made it to the South Side! It's tremendously awesome.
Today, we're going to visit another unexpected gift of the lahar that poured from Shoestring Glacier that morning. We'll see 13,000 years of volcanic havoc laid gloriously bare.
Dr. David Johnston's always there, on the volcano where he died. He was among the first geologists on the ground when Mount St. Helens woke up in March of 1980. He was a constant presence in the media. Dedicated and enthusiastic, bearded and grinning, completely at home with the hazards, he exemplified the ideal vulcanologist. Wes Hildreth, who had worked with him in the past, summed him up: "Dave's agility, nerve, patience, and determination around the jet-like summit fumaroles in the crater of Mt. Mageik were to me a spectacle of unforgettable beauty."
We knew she was dangerous.
Her former perfection was a sign of the cataclysm to come. When we see a volcano so exquisitely formed, her flanks so full, her form ungouged by the glaciers draped over her, we know she's young and full of zest. She's been active recently; she's likely to awaken again at any moment.
Imagine being an extraterrestrial geologist in geostationary orbit above the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s. You're the first explorers to reach Earth (underpants-thieving aliens aside), and you haven't got a lot of data on this little blue marble. But your own planet has plate tectonics, so you're familiar with the landforms caused by the process.
You have a look through your sensors, and see a conga line of volcanoes weaving up the continent.
This is the trouble with beginnings: the beginning is often subtle, and unrecognizable at the time. It's only in retrospect that we can go back, look at sequences of events until we find a place to stab a finger down and say, "Here. Here is where it began. This is the time, the place, the event." Even then, it's usually only a beginning. There are many places to put the finger, many events to choose.
It began with earthquakes.
The earthquake activity at Mount St. Helens had built to a crescendo. When a volcano shakes this hard, it almost always spells trouble: magma rising, an eruption imminent. You can't know exactly what they are going to do, and when, and to what degree. But you suspect. You prepare as best you can.
On March 27th, the USGS issued a Hazards Watch, informing public officials of the dangers St. Helens might pose. After a week of increasing shakes, there was little doubt in any scientist's mind that "something dramatic" was about to happen. By 11:20am Pacific Standard Time, something dramatic had.
What do you do when the volcano whose beauty you've admired for so long suddenly wakes with a shiver and blows a plume of steam and ash into the sky?
There's more to an eruptive sequence than explosions. And there are times when a distinct lack of explosions are more troubling than endless ash columns. When earthquakes continue rattling the slopes, and one of those slopes is swelling outward several feet per day, concern and caution are the only reasonable responses.
The whole point of volcano monitoring is risk.
Well, there's also the sheer joy of scientific discovery for its own sake - volcanoes are fascinating in their own right. They're windows on what goes on inside this planet, they can tell us things about how the earth works in ways no other natural features can, and so we'd study them even if not a single human being would ever be inconvenienced by one. But a volcano like Mount St. Helens threatens to harm the people who built lives near it in quieter times. It presents hazards to homes and businesses, infrastructure and commerce, aviation and recreation, and it puts lives in mortal jeopardy. It can kill those close and seriously inconvenience those who might have believed they're too far away to worry. So when a volcano like St. Helens wakes up feeling rather indisposed, prudent officials give geologists a call and then provide them with the money, equipment and resources needed to assess the threat.
The mountain boomed. Steam and ash soared to 3,962 meters (13,000 feet), announcing the end to a two-week lull. At the top of Shoestring Glacier, an opening steamed. It was May 7th, 1980, and Mount St. Helens was letting everyone know she wasn't ready to sleep yet
Something woke Dr. David Johnston of the USGS early that morning. It might have been birds, who tend to get rather vocal when the sun shines here. It might have been the Oregon Army National Guard's overflight to check thermal anomalies before solar heat could compete with volcanic sources. There may have been something else that morning that urged him from his camper and back to his instruments as the sun crested the ridges. He checked the bulge three times in the next hour and a half, using geodetic equipment to assess its growth. It seemed to have slowed again: since yesterday, the rate was only about half a meter (2 feet) per day. Still screaming fast for a geologic process, to be sure, but considerably below what it had been.
He radioed in the last measurement at 6:53am Pacific Daylight Time.
Eruptions seem like simple matters: pressure builds, something goes boom, lots of stuff comes out. But that's not the story of every volcanic eruption, and it doesn't capture the complexity by half. Pressure was building within Mount St. Helens. It had been booming, and promised a bigger boom, and delivered on that promise - but not in the way anyone expected.
One of the most surprising aspects of the May 18th eruption of Mount St. Helens was the devastating lateral blast that ravaged such a large area. We'll be spending the next few posts on that subject. It's a complicated aspect of a very complex eruption, so before we dive in, let's have a look at historic lateral blasts, what we knew before the whole side of Mount St. Helens blew out, and some of what we learned from her.
The cryptodome growing within Mount St. Helens sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Had it been a small thing, it might have become a younger sibling to Goat Rocks. Pacific Northwesterners might have seen a few displays of volcanic fireworks, another dome added to the edifice, and a return to serenity. It hardly would have made the news.
A few seconds after the beginning of the directed blast, life within roughly ten kilometers (6.2 miles) of Mount St. Helens within the blast zone was about to be extinguished.
For most survivors of Mount St. Helens's catastrophic lateral blast, the devastation was nearly silent. You would think that a wall of ash, hot gas and rock hurtling at a minimum of 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph), mangling vehicles and ripping down every tree in its path, would be loud, incredibly loud - but only one witness reported hearing much more than a rumbling sound. Some said it sounded "like a freight train," others that it was similar to a prop plane or jet. Some said the rumbling was loud, a roar: others described it as soft, "barely audible." This close to the mountain, the cloud seemed to destroy even its own sound.
A falling tent heralded catastrophe.
Until the summer dry season comes, things in the Pacific Northwest are perpetually wet. Edward Smith and his companions, camped 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of Mount St. Helens, had set their tent on its side to dry out. At 8:32 am, an unusually strong wind gusted, again, and again: the tent tumbled, and a sound like a trio of rifle shots sounded.
The conversation might have gone something like this:
Geologists: "Hey, boss person, we need to order vehicle parts and then destroy them. For science!"
Boss person: "Ummm... okay."
See all that lovely damage? To scientists, it's lovely data. You can't precisely create a directed blast in the lab - for one thing, people the next lab over may become upset, and for another, I'm not sure we could build stratovolcanoes in the 1980s. Not that I'm sure we could now. But what we did have were auto parts catalogs, forced-air ovens, and silicone oil. Norman Banks and Rick Hoblitt availed themselves of all.
Here's a word you don't often apply to a forest: eroded. We don't expect live trees to be eroded. The slope they're standing on, sure: that can erode. Maybe the soft alluvial soil down by the river erodes in a flood, leaving roots exposed and trees more prone to fall in the wind. But would you say wind or water or slope failure is "eroding timber"? Probably not.
There's a fundamental fact one learns about trees when growing up in dry country forests: they're flammable. Folks in Flagstaff, Arizona can tell what part of summer it is by the smell. If it's all piney-fresh, it's May or early June, and everything's still safely damp from the spring snowmelt; if it smells like warm turpentine and dust, it's mid-June; and if it smells like winter with all of the fireplaces cozily burning logs, its the late-June-early-July dry-lightning season, and you're hoping the monsoon rains come before the whole county burns. I've seen smoke that looks like a volcanic eruption billowing from fierce fires. I've felt like someone caught in the middle of the apocalypse.
Geologists James Moore and Thomas Sisson were all over the trees after Mount. St. Helens hit them with all she had. You might think it's weird, how two science guys can crawl around trees and stumps measuring what's not there (on account of it having been abraded away), but they managed - and thus wrote another chapter in the volcanic saga.
Geologists did a lot of talking to trees in the aftermath of Mount St. Helens's eruption. They had a lot of questions, and the trees had a lot of answers*.
A rather extensive forest became part of a directed blast deposit: that’s the summary. One moment, you’re a green and pleasant home for much of the local wildlife; the next, you’ve been rudely ripped apart and incorporated within a bunch of rock and ash by a volcano having a bad turn. So it goes.
In the Path of Destruction
Various and Sundry
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.
One of the eeriest things I've ever seen is the video shot by KOMO News reporter Dave Crockett on May 18th, 1980. He was just 28 years old. Something woke him before dawn that Sunday morning, telling him this was the day to be there. Good reporter's instincts, that man.
One thing I love about blogging is hearing from readers, especially readers who have intriguing tales to tell. A bit ago, Timo5150 left a tantalizing clue that one such tale might prove extra-intriguing:
The universe is a funny ol' place sometimes. You'd think a photographer would develop a roll of film shot while flying around an actively erupting volcano, but Reid Blackburn put this one aside. Perhaps he thought he'd get to it later, and then forgot in all the excitement. Besides, he had other great images from that day. So that roll of Mount St. Helens film remained undeveloped.
We focus a lot here on geology (this being a geology blog and all). But the thing I love about science is how you can start with one and end up visiting most of the rest as you explore. For instance: take the Mount St. Helens eruption. It's a hell of a geology story, one which isn't nearly finished - but that dramatic geologic moment caused a cascade of other events that have scientists of all stripes sitting up and taking notice.
... Mount St. Helens exploded with a fury that surpassed expectations.
Thirty-five years ago today, the earth beneath our beloved Mount St. Helens began quivering. The volcano stirred, restless. Soon, she would wake...
For thirty-five years, we've used Mount St. Helens as a laboratory. It's taught us endless lessons on how volcanoes erupt, what those eruptions do to the countryside, and how the environment recovers afterward. We've learned a lot about the warning signs of impending eruptions. We've learned how to recognize debris avalanche and lateral blast deposits. And we've marveled at the beauty of a wounded young mountain building itself back up from the inside.
The weather did its best to ruin our plans today, but we defied it mightily. We didn't get a single glimpse of Mount St. Helens - unless you count the 2.5 cubic kilometers of the summit we hiked over.
Of course, if I'd know Mount St. Helens was actually erupting at the time, I'd probably have never gone. Volcano phobia, doncha know. I did haz one. But I thought all the eruptions were over, so I went up the mountain with my old friend Victoria, and didn't realize until long afterward that we'd been there during an eruption. Sometimes, they're that quiet!
Did you hear about "new" magma chambers under Mount St. Helens? Did a bunch of people start talking like "ZOMG she's gonna blow!!!"? Did you get really super-excited thinking, "Wow, she'll erupt again soon and Dana will be there to blog it for us!"?
Several days ago, my Facebook feed exploded with the news that a swarm of small, shallow earthquakes has been ongoing beneath Mount St. Helens since mid-March. Was I excited? You betcha! I've been living in hope that she'll give us just a small eruption since I moved up here and saw her steaming. Alas, I arrived in Washington at the tail end of her 2004-2008 dome building escapades, so I didn't get to see anything super neato like an ash plume. She's been sleeping ever since. But I keep an eye on her seismic activity, waiting for the inevitable day when she'll wake up.
It's the thirty-sixth anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Please take a moment to remember those who died that beautiful May morning, and to appreciate the power of a volcano to change our lives forever.
What do you do when you have a Canadian who lives in Minnesota visiting? Take them to see mountains that go boom, of course! My friend Jason and I got a very lucky break in the weather, so we scampered on down to see some of your favorite Pacific Northwest volcanoes.
Many of you probably hadn't even been born when Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18th, 1980. You've never lived in an America that basically didn't expect exciting eruptions to happen in the lower 48. So it may be hard to imagine a time when most Americans were utterly astonished that one of our backyard volcanoes roared to life and caused a staggering amount of destruction, along with a substantial number of deaths, within an easy drive of major metropolitan centers.
This post is dedicated to the absolutely fantastic family I met at Coldwater Lake. I hope you have many more happy adventures at this incredible geologic treasure. Thank you for letting me tell you about her!