Now that I am living in earthquake territory, the fact that today marks the 40th anniversary of Mount. St. Helens’ most recent eruption is a stark reminder of the earth’s power, and the power to shake us out of our daily complacency at any second.
I can’t let this anniversary pass without a decent amount of acknowledgment, respect and awe.
Before the eruption, Mount St. Helens was to be a popular recreation spot. Lots of trees, trails, a magnificent mountain, boating on Spirit Lake.
The lake was beloved by picnickers and families. I recall a woman remarking sadly after the eruption, “Spirit Lake was gone.” I found a charming vintage postcard, furnished by the Washington State Progress Commission, showing a uniformed serviceman and his family enjoying a picnic amidst the Pacific Northwest scenery. The back of the card reads “Write the commission … for Victory File for use in planning your first after-war vacation.”
I vaguely recall my visit to the national park back in 2007. On my way there, I saw a lot of destruction. Felled trees, layers of ash in the Toutle River.
Here are some photos from that visit.
In the park, I looked out over the scene and the topped cone. It still lives. Scientists keep a regular eye on its activity.
But flowers and plants have returned, and hikers visit every year. I need to return to see how it’s evolved since I visited.
For now, I am thankful that the eruption didn’t reach Seattle. But we live along the Ring of Fire and that’s little comfort.
The tag on my souvenir bottle of Mount St. Helens ash reads:
On May 18, 1980, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake triggered an enormous landslide, uncorking a monstrous volcanic eruption which blew 1300 feet off the top and north face of Mount St. Helens. The blast relocated 1.5 cubic miles of mountain and flattened 230 square miles of timberland, killing virtually all life within its zone.
Superheated gas and clouds of volcanic ash shot more than 17 miles into the atmosphere and around the earth. Hot ash melted ice and snow, triggering a mudflow and flood containing more than 130 million cubic yards of debris.
Thirty-eight years ago this country witnessed a startling natural event within our own borders. I am old enough to remember the disastrous eruption of Mount St. Helens. I was living on the east coast at the time, so it was basically a drama unfolding on TV. Within a day of the blast, ash had traveled to the midwestern states, and a couple days later fine ash had even reached the northeast.
Back then, I never imagined I would move to the west coast or ever visit Mount St. Helens, but in 2007, after moving west, I did visit the National Volcanic Monument.
Approaching the volcano, I saw the path of the winds and ash: downed trees all facing the same way, layers of ash still in and around Toutle River.
The blast zone, I thought. The blast zone, where all things in its path were blown down, covered in ash or obliterated. Once green, forested lands were now gray.
It was a spooky landscape. Scary words like lahar, pyroclastic flows and blast zone echoed in my head.
The eruption had changed the shape of the mountain and filled Spirit Lake with ash, debris and trees. Fifty-seven people had died.
The visitor center has an excellent, sobering documentary about the volcano. Images of thick billowing ash clouds rising from the crater are singed in my memories. They are reminiscent of Vesuvius.
Today, vegetation continues to rebound, and the volcano still sends up steam.
From 2004-2008 the volcano reawakened with some dome building. There are frequent small, local earthquakes. Geologists continuously monitor its activity.
After driving through the Mount St. Helens blast zone back then, and experiencing ash fall from wildfires in eastern Washington just a couple years ago, I could imagine what it was like to suffer the ash clouds from St. Helens. I would never choose to live so close to a mountain that could erupt, or to forests that could burn.
Disclaimer: My images are 10 years old, so these scenes might look slightly different today.
Since I moved to the Pacific Northwest 11 years ago, volcanoes and earthquakes have become part of my consciousness. Not a very loud part, more of vague background noise, but always there nonetheless.
I live two hours from Mount Rainier, and three from Mount St. Helens, but their presence looms as a constant reminder of the earth’s capacity for fiery temper tantrums. We also have major oceanic plates that are subject to slipping, providing constant earthquake potential.
According to scientists, whom you may or may not trust at this point, the earth is made up of plates, which occasionally move around. This causes inconvenient episodes in human life, such as earthquakes and tsunamis. In geology class, I learned about the process of subduction, when one plate rides over and pushes down another. In my region, the Juan de Fuca Plate is subducting under the North American Plate, in the Cascadia subduction zone. Cool! I get to live in a subduction zone.
But, despite all of this, people here go about their lives without much thought to the potential catastrophes ever present, much like the residents of Hawaii, who dare to live on a dry rocky landscape that once flowed unimaginably hot from the center of the earth.
The Hawaiian islands were formed by lava spewing up, building, building, building, until there were blobs of land where there were none before. And the residents there are no different from those of my region. They are aware of the dangers, but decide that they can live with them. Nature’s beauty and all the other reasons we choose to live where we do outweigh the seemingly distant dangers.
In light of the current eruptions of Kilauea, I wanted to revisit my experiences on Hawaii, Maui and at Mount St. Helens.
When I visited the Big Island in 2011, half of Volcanoes National Park was closed to visitors because of toxic fumes. Though there were no swaths of red-orange glowing lava flowing at that time, sulfur dioxide is constantly being released from fissures in the earth and can be become concentrated at dangerous levels. I got a mild whiff of it and it’s not pleasant.
Today, it seems that Pele is reasserting her authority. Pele is the revered goddess, the creator of the island. People leave tributes of leaves and flowers to her at the volcano and other places.
All over half the island, you can see vast fields of blackish boulders and debris from old lava flows. Near the water, the cooled lava shows intriguing swirls and shapes.
On Maui, the House of the Sun, aka Haleakala, is a major attraction. At 10,000 feet, the volcano dominates the island, providing a cool, arid counter to the warm, moist palm tree-laden lowlands. I visited in February this year.
As you drive into the Upcountry region, you climb slowly and steadily, until you enter a completely different landscape. Vegetation becomes sparse and close to the earth. A rocky crust of lava covers the area. Black boulders and reddish dirt begin to appear. Finally, at the summit, there is a spectrum of red, brown and gray. Known as a shield volcano, Haleakala is thought to have last erupted in the 17th century.
Haleakala is actually a caldera, a large depression left by an erupting volcano. It is a collection of mounds and craters. The unique and beautiful Maui subspecies of silversword grows there, and there is an observatory at the top. All the white stuff in my photos are clouds, not steam.
On Volcanoes, Part 2 continues with Mount St. Helens