The thirtieth anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens is on May 18 at 8:32 am. But for a thirteen year old science geek in Columbus, OH, the eruption was only the culmination of two months of volcano watching–which was a lot harder in 1980 than it is today.
St. Helens had been dormant for over 120 years, and while I knew there were volcanoes in the Pacific northwest, I’d never given them much thought. I’d read books about the fascinating eruptions of the past. My interest in volcanoes and the earth’s crust was probably fueled by a set of Time-Life books my parents owned. There, I read about continental drift and saw images of the buried city of Pompeii. I went on to read every book I could about volcanoes–about Krakatoa, whose eruption in 1883 was heard thousands of miles away), or Thera, whose eruption is thought to have hastened the end of the Minoan civilization.
So when we got our very own active volcano, I was fascinated. Over those two months in 1980 I read everything I could. I followed the progress of the initial eruptions a growing bulge on the mountain’s north face, wondering what might happen.
The photo shows St. Helens on May 17. The bulge can actually be seen on this photo on the left flank of the mountain. Geologists, including Dave Johnston (whose final words are above) had been convinced an eruption was likely, and the area had been evacuated–but some would not leave, and some were drawn closer to watch the progress. The volcano had actually stopped erupting on May 16. Fifty-seven people were killed–but the toll could have been much higher had the eruption not taken place when it did (on a weekend, which meant loggers were not in the area, and early in the morning–evacuated homeowners were due to be let into the area at 10 am on the 18th to gather belongings.)
Most stratovolcanoes (like St. Helens) erupt from the summit. The St. Helens eruption was triggered by an earthquake causing a landslide on the north slope where the bulge was located. As a result, St. Helens erupted laterally. The photo below was taken not long after the eruption from the same vantage point as the photo above.
St. Helens is still considered an active volcano today, although all of the eruptions since 1980 have been relatively quiet lava dome building events. The last activity was in 2008. The ruins of the volcano have gradually become green again as plant and animal life return to the blast zone, but the shape of the peak itself testifies to the highly unusual and catastrophic event that took place there, forever changing a mountain that had once been called “the Mt. Fuji of America”
I wrote my first high school term paper on Mt. St. Helens, using a book and newspaper clippings I had saved for several years. I also still have a jar of ash from the eruption–acquired, believe it or not, in a garage sale. St. Helens is high on the list of ruins I hope to someday see.