On Walkabout to See What's Out There

Mt St Helens

By: BriarCraft, 9:41 PM GMT on May 18, 2012

After living in Costa Mesa, CA, for a few years, I got homesick for Oregon, packed up husband and cat, and headed north on March 15, 1980. We arrived in the Portland area on the 16th and proceeded to settle in. Also, on March 16, 1980, a series of small earthquakes rumbled, mostly unfelt, beneath Mt. St. Helens. Geologists and seismologists noted the activity, but there was nothing significant enough to warrant a news release. That changed when a magnitude 4.2 earthquake on March 20 prompted geologists to deploy additional seismometers. There was minor interest in the local news over the next two weeks; it was a curiosity, nothing more. Few people gave it any serious consideration until shortly after noon on March 27, when there was a loud boom followed by an ash plume that rose about 6,000 feet above the mountain. That caused a bit of excitement.

There was talk of a bulge forming on the north face of the volcano, but frankly, I couldn't see it in the newspaper or TV photos. Rumbles and occasional ash and/or steam plumes became commonplace over the next month. On April 29, the governor of Washington ordered a large area around the mountain closed. The Red Zone allowed no public access and the Blue Zone allowed only restricted access. Residents were ordered to evacuate, which caused a stir, because the public wasn't particularly concerned. Loggers, especially, protested the interference with their livelihood. On May 17, after continued dissent by unhappy residents, law enforcement officials escorted about 50 carloads of people into the Red Zone to retrieve possessions. Timing is everything.

As I recollect, there was far more news about unhappy residents and loggers than there was about the volcano. For many locals, it felt more and more like the boy who cried wolf one too many times. The volcano was putting on a nice show, but there was no reason people couldn't get on with their lives. Or so they thought. Until 8:32 Sunday morning, May 18.

1300 feet of elevation was lost in the largest landslide ever recorded by modern man as the north face of Mt. St. Helens slid into the valley below. There were two separate, but related disasters that happened during the eruption. The landslide came first, followed seconds later by a powerful blast. The debris avalanche traveled at speeds up to 150 mph. At one location, about 4 miles north of the summit, the advancing front of the avalanche still had sufficient momentum to flow over a ridge more than 1,150 feet high. It also traveled down the North Fork of the Toutle (pronounced Too-tl) River for 13 miles, filling the valley to an average depth of 150 feet. The landslide served to "uncork" the pressures within and beneath the mountain and hot gases and pumice blew northward at speeds up to 670 mph. Within an 8-mile radius of the north face, the blast obliterated everything in its path. Beyond that, up to approximately 19 miles away, trees were denuded of their branches and laid flat like matchsticks.

The initial eruption lasted for 9 hours. 57 people were killed. 250 square miles of land was damaged. 7000 big game animals and millions of smaller animals and birds died. Much as been documented about the devastation of that eruption. I have found it of great personal interest to visit the mountain every few years to see for myself how man and nature have rebuilt the area. For the most part, within the Mt. St. Helens National Monument, nature has been allowed to take her course. Outside the Monument, Weyerhauser owns or leases most of the land. They began harvesting blown down trees and replanting the forest within months of the initial eruption. The contrast has been very interesting to observe, as well.

Washington State Route 504 connected I-5 to Spirit Lake at Mt. St. Helens until it was obliterated during the 1980 eruption. The highway was rebuilt and reopened as far as Coldwater Ridge in 1991. The highway was completed as far as Johnston Ridge Observatory, which opened in 1994. To visit Windy Ridge, above Spirit Lake, approximately 5 miles east of Johnston Ridge requires a serious hike or a drive of several hours. Hopefully someday money will be found to connect the two sides of the mountain.

To read more, here are some recommended links:
Mt. St. Helens eruption timeline
Mt. St. Helens history
USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory
Mt. St. Helens poem
Weyerhauser Forest Learning Center at Mt. St. Helens

I hope you enjoy your visit to the west side of Mt. St. Helens with me. We'll visit the east side some other time.

Updated: 9:11 PM GMT on July 13, 2012


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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