May 18, 2010

May 18, 1980

Thirty years ago today, at 0832 hours local time, Mt. St. Helens in Washington State suffered a bit of a blow out. I’ve watched to see if Lockwood was going to run a piece on this. He posted a little yesterday, then followed with a little something more this morning, but nothing as in depth as I had hoped.

The two taken into consideration, however, seem like teasers. Maybe more to follow....

Due both to geography and interest, Lockwood is in a much better position to comment on the events of May 18, 1980 than I am– but that kind of deficit never stopped me from opening my mouth before. Following are my memories.

On that morning St. Helens popped her top (or her north face, actually), taking her peak from a height of 9,677, to just 8,365 feet above sea level. In the process our angry lady belched 1.5 million tons of ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, disgorged unknown tons of magma, rock and mud, created the largest debris avalanche in recorded history and pushed enough mud and junk down the North Fork Toutle River that vegetation, buildings, bridges and destroyed roads over a 230 square mile area and filling the Toutle valley with debris to a depth of 150 feet.

At the time all of this was occurring I was having my usual morning cup of coffee at the Golden Buff on South Broadway in Boulder, Colorado; peacefully ignorant of the destructive wrath occurring 900 miles to my west. The radio news soon commenced non-stop blather by a variety of talking heads, and the coffee shop became still as we all strained to listen.

By the afternoon I knew more about Mount St. Helens than before, but the events remained in flux and I remained glued to the news. Many human-interest stories implied that there was loss of life; a prediction that later proved all too true. 57 souls perished in the moments following what would later be gauged the equivalent of a 20-megaton blast.

The event intrigued me enough then that the following week I took a bike trip west, traveling as near to the site as law enforcement allowed. Even at that distance the scenes were bizarre. Everything in sight was covered in ugly, grey dust, and snowplows were making piles as they cleared the roads of the stuff. At every wide-out along the roads there were mountains of snow-like substance... but it certainly wasn't snow. Tourists stopped and played in the stuff; taking samples in containers as various as pill bottles and small suitcases. Businesses were closed as the parking lots became impassable, making gasoline difficult to locate. The ever-present conifers, normally that perky in the springtime sun, and bright evergreen in color, looked more like Lockwood’s beard.

The forces of nature are awe inspiring, and the range of destruction I witnessed even from the distance was unsettling. The area looked something like the photographs I’ve seen of Hiroshima after Little Boy, but much as Hiroshima recovered and prospered, so has the Toutle Valley and Spirit Lake area.

About six years ago I visited the area again. While it appears as if the conifers are slow to establish on that hard, V-shaped pumice plain, St. Helens set the stage for forest re-growth and vegetative revitalization in the valley below. Where once once there was only devastation, now I could see life reborn.

Some of the new trees have now reached 40 or 50 feet. The Alders are interspersed with Douglas fir and Lodgepole pine, with hemlock and lupines springing up below. The elk have returned, and during rut their bugling can be heard echoing through the valley.

Over these past 30 years, according to Forest Service research ecologist Charlie Crisafulli, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument has become “the most thoroughly studied large-forest disturbance in the world.” Scientists from all over the world come to study the ecological recovery on Mount St. Helens and the valley below.

There is much more of a story here than my poor perspective, and I’m under-prepared to tell it at all. I’m hoping Lockwood or one of the other bio or rock-bloggers fills in with more detail.

UPDATE: Lockwood did not disapoint, and it looks like maybe more will follow.


Lockwood said...

Thanks for the shout-out and links! I posted a moment-by-moment analysis later with a little of the science behind why it erupted in the manner it did. I still need to go back and interlink all the posts I've been doing on this eruption... I think there's a dozen or more since late March, and there are at least a couple more coming down the pipe.

Anonymous said...

Most interesting! And thanks for the link to Lockwood. His site goes on my "read often" list.