Mount St. Helens: One Badass Volcano

As I sit here on the east coast recuperating from jet lag my mind is still on my recent west coast trip. I was in Portland, Oregon last week to attend an information technology exchange meeting. On Thursday many of the attendees including myself were bussed two hours or so north into Washington State to spend 90 minutes or so at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which overlooks Mount St. Helens. (I work for the U.S. Geological Survey, so this was an obvious choice for a field trip, although not all of us are geologists.) Mount St. Helens, as you may recall, left its calling card twenty-five years ago on May 17, 1980 when it ferociously erupted.

As you know from recent news reports it still simmers today. Let us hope that if it blows again in our lifetime it does not wreak the same devastation it accomplished in 1980. At 8:32 a.m. on that May morning the mountain erupted sideways with a force that is still hard for us to comprehend. One could compare the force to an atomic bomb but really it was a much, much larger force than a mere atomic bomb. It was the equivalent of about one thousand atomic bombs. While it did not release radioactivity it did knock down old growth forest trees seventeen miles away. In the course of a few hours the 9,677 foot peak was reduced to 8,364 feet. The smoke from the eruption circled the globe. The swath of destruction reached for 234 square miles.


Unlike Hiroshima though when Mount St. Helens blew up it did so largely far away from people. But there were casualties. 57 people were known to have died as a result of the blast. Included in the statistics was USGS geologist David Johnston who had the dubious privilege of being the geologist on site on the day of the explosion. He was stationed at the Coldwater II observation station at least five miles from the volcano and likely died almost instantly. No trace of him or his equipment was ever found. This is not too surprising. Within several miles of the blast every living thing was vaporized. The power of the explosion was so severe that old growth forests in the inner circle of the explosion were not just sheared off but they completely disintegrated. After the explosion all vegetation in the inner core was gone and only sheer rock remained. Further from the blast zone 87,000 acres of trees snapped in two as if they were match sticks. The eruption melted seventy percent of the snow and glaciers on the mountain, causing boiling mud to come down the mountain, carrying trees and debris, clogging rivers, and making parts of the Columbia River unnavigable. Ash as white and fine as talcum powder appeared hundreds of miles away in Montana. In short it was the defining natural event in America during my lifetime. And yet apparently it was not nearly as big an eruption as have occurred in the past on the mountain. This one was more like a sneeze.

Getting to the mountain by car is more difficult than it seems, but involves a lovely bucolic drive north on I-5 from Portland and a turn east on Route 504. There is a visitor’s center near Toutle, but it is more than 25 miles from the volcano itself. The visitor who really wants to get a close look at the volcano needs to keep driving east following the North Fork of the Toutle River over many a twisty and steep road toward the Johnston Ridge Observatory. It is a drive is worth making, not just for the destination but also for the awe-inspiring beauty along the way. I was glad I wasn’t doing the driving since some of the turns were not the type that allowed much margin for error. 25 years later much of the vegetation has returned. Elks are grazing in the hills again. Trees can be found on the hillsides again too, although they are clearly fairly young trees. Outside the immediate blast zone though one can still see many of the casualties of that day, including the remnants of trees from the explosion. Today the streams run clear again.

We found Mount St. Helens much like Portland: mostly cloudy with periods of pelting rain. The Johnston Ridge Observatory sits above a pumice-filled plain and about five miles due north of Mount St. Helens. At 4300 feet it was a bracing place to be in mid May. I found that when I was outside I needed to put on my gloves. The wind is a constant presence on the ridge. Often passing clouds obscured the volcano. You may prefer to watch the volcano from the relative safety of the observatory, which includes a museum, gift shop and a large amphitheater. The multimedia show of course highlights the destruction that occurred in 1980. I found my umbrella to be useless. The wind was too brisk. So I had to dodge the pelting rain to grab a few pictures. Fortunately as we were leaving to return to Portland the sun broke through at last and I could take a few pictures of the mountain that were not obscured.

Looking over the edge of Johnston Ridge and down into the Pumice Plain is a feeling comparable to looking over the rim of the Grand Canyon. While the view is not quite as majestic as the one from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, it is awe inspiring nonetheless. When the fleeting weather permits the view of the volcano both inspires and unnerves. But what really rattles the nerves is imagining what it must have felt like to be there on the ridge on that day in 1980. It is hard to fathom the 800-degree heat and the ferocity of the explosion that destroyed and pulverized all but the impermeable rock. After all there are five miles between you and the volcano. The immensity of the space between you and the volcano feels grandiose. Nothing manmade would have survived those moments, but I wish there could have been a camera that caught it all anyhow. So imagination will have to suffice.

Back in 2002 my family and I visited the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s big island. That was also an impressive volcano. But Kilauea is an oozing volcano, not an explosive volcano. The bedrock of the Cascades mountain range is much different than that in Hawaii. At Mount St. Helens you are more likely to have massive explosive eruptions than slow oozing eruptions.

There are volcanoes all along the Pacific Rim, of course. But Mount St. Helens is likely the most active volcano of all of them. So while we can expect that the volcano will continue to sputter at us we need to be vigilant. There may be bigger and larger surprises from this volcano in our lifetime. It has surprised us before.

But while it is in a state of relative slumber it is definitely worth a visit if you are in the Pacific Northwest. My feeble words do it little justice, nor does the Volcano Cam perched on Johnson Ridge. In its slumbers it is a place to visit if you want to grasp the awesome power of nature.

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