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June 25, 2006

When the Mountain Exploded

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

There are five volcanoes here in Washington and another just across the Columbia River in Oregon. Not to mention a number of others to the south, extending to California's Lassen Peak which last erupted less than 100 years ago.

When I was young, the Lassen eruptions seemed a long time ago -- far away in time and place, nothing to worry about. Besides, my father, a man with scientific training, once said regarding our local volcanoes, "Aw, nothing to worry about -- they're extinct." My dad's training was not in Geology, I should add.

As many of you know, Mount St. Helens (scroll down for lots of info) came to life again in the spring of 1980, adding another source of disaster to the earthquakes I wrote about here.

Washington residents weren't much taken by surprise when puffs of steam started appearing atop St. Helens. Less than five years before, there was a steam episode on Mount Baker up north near the Canadian border. At the time, geologists had Baker pegged as the most likely volcano in the state to go off. So whatever surprise there was had to do with the fact that yet another volcano was acting up.

As the steam spewed and ash began to darken the ice near the summit, local news media turned geologists into stars. We soon learned that rather than being "extinct" as my father thought, most of the state's volcanoes had been active in recent geological times -- even in historical times. The St. Helens link above provides a summary of known eruptive periods, and the most recent one was 1800-1857 when white men were exploring and settling the nearby lower Columbia River area.

Why were eruptions taking place as late as 1857 forgotten by 20th century residents? I'm not sure, but suspect the fact that those eruptions were never photographed had something to do with it.

Strato-volcanoes such as St. Helens are comparatively soft. When glaciers form, it doesn't take long (geologically) before the lava and ash layers become sculpted. Mount McLaughlin in southern Oregon looks almost perfectly conical from the direction of Medford. But from other angles, one sees that a huge chunk of its northern (shaded) side has been scooped away. Mount Hood seen from nearby Portland also shows a northerly scoop effect.

But Mount St. Helens, being recently (40,000 years) created, was nearly conical all the way around and likened to Japan's Fujiyama.

My mother grew up about 25 miles southwest of St. Helens and later was a schoolteacher in Longview, a late-1920s "new town" 35 miles west of the peak. She and her friends occasionally went on outings to St. Helens, picnicking by Spirit Lake at its base.

Due to my laziness that made the slow drive from Interstate 5 to the mountain a good excuse not to go there, I didn't get around to visiting St. Helens until 1978 -- two years before the eruption. On a whim, I packed my wife and two-year-old son into my car and off we day-tripped. The road went a short ways up the base of the mountain's north side -- the part that later blew away. It ended near the point where there was some leftover snow, so Andy got a chance to romp in the white stuff. Then we drove back down to Spirit Lake and poked around for a while near the lodge owned by curmudgeon Harry Truman who refused to evacuate when the volcano returned to life and whose body was never found.

I'm glad I followed my whim that day because it could be hundreds of years or more before anything like what we saw will be re-created.

Back to April-May 1980. For about two months we kept up with news reports regarding the status of the volcano. Some reports were empirical: X number of earthquakes of up to Y magnitude reported that day, presence of steam or ash, etc. Other reports were speculative: mostly interviews with geologists who of course wouldn't make firm predictions and mostly cited past behavior of volcanoes elsewhere.

I drove past it on the way to/from Portland a time or two and saw dirty ash around its top and small steam plumes. To be honest, I was rooting for St. Helens to erupt: Enough of this teasing, let's have the real thing!

(Like most people, I assumed that an eruption would be vertical, creating a crater at the summit. This might be followed by building the mountain higher. Instead, a bulge gradually formed on the north side. Eventually, this bulge gave way in a huge earth slide and the volcano erupted horizontally, stripping everything bare for miles.)

A stroke of luck to scientists was the unusually clear weather at the time of the eruption. Moreover, there were a surprising number of people with cameras at the ready. So there is a second-by-second record of eruption from viewpoints including Longview to the west, the top of 12,000-foot Mount Adams to the east and a small airplane flying above St. Helens. (Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any of these photos on the Web. They can be found in government research publications.)

Saturday, 17 May, my family (now including a 15-month-old daughter) were in Seattle visiting my parents. It was getting near sunset when we drove Interstate 5 back to Olympia. There were a few places along the way where one could see the top of St. Helens (before it was blown away: can't see it from there now). I was able to glance at its silhouette against a reddish-yellow sky and wondered if the damned thing was ever going to blow.

Sunday morning was sunny. For some reason we went to a nearby supermarket and on our way out the checker mentioned that the radio was saying St. Helens had erupted.

(We did not hear the explosion. Our house was about 65 miles from the mountain. From what I got from news reports at the time, people comparatively near St. Helens heard nothing whereas more distant folks did hear it.)

On went our radio. And then the TV. After an hour or two of listening, I got fidgety and said "let's hop in the car and take a look". So we did.

We drove south on I-5 about 30 miles to the town of Chehalis. Near it, the State Patrol had set up a roadblock to turn around southbound traffic. By that time it was known that freeway bridges across the Toutle River (whose headwaters are near St. Helens) were in danger of being washed out by the surge of water and mud comprised of ash and melted glacial ice along the path of the river.

The freeway was totally closed at those bridges, about 25 miles south of where we were. But I knew we could get a pretty good view of the mountain if we could go another 15 miles south. So I exited at the roadblock and simply ducked through Chehalis, hopping back on I-5 south of town. We continued to Exit 63 (the Winlock-Toledo road) situated on a hill where we could park and see St. Helens (35 miles away).

The mountain itself couldn't be seen due to haze caused by ash from the explosion. What we could see was the ash plume. By this time it was about five hours after the eruption, yet there was a steady flow of dark ash moving straight up out of the volcano for thousands of feet (as best I remember, news reports had it at 25 or 30,000) before high-level winds completely swept it off to the east, blanketing Yakima, Ritzville and other places in its path.

What's more, it was no longer a sunny day. Not near the volcano, anyway. A layer of stratus clouds was above us, and it stretched away to the southeast over Mount St. Helens and beyond.

Given the clouds and the ash, everything seemed subdued, gloomy, almost depressing. We looked at the volcano for a little while, but nothing was happening besides the endless spewing so we got back in the car and left. As we headed north, the stratus layer became increasingly broken and it got sunny again.

It struck me as what one might expect when driving away from Hell.

Mount St. Helens Gallery

This is the Mount St. Helens we knew before 1980. Spirit Lake, where my mother used to picnic as a young woman, is at the foot of the mountain. The explosion was on the side you are viewing.

Day of eruption.jpg
During the Eruption.
This photo was taken from the south, opposite the side of the mountain that blew away. The ash cloud that obscured my view can be seen. The wind is blowing west (left) to east (right).

Post -eruption.jpg
After the Eruption.
Here is what was left, as seen a few years later.




When I was young, I thought the volcanic mountains of the Cascade Range were lovely things. At a distance, in the summer when winter snows are melted and the air is hazy, all one can see is sunshine on the gleaming white glaciers. So the mountains can seem to be floating above the ground, the hazy blue-gray of their bases blending with the color of the sky. This is especially true of the view of Mount Rainier from Seattle.

Since Mount St. Helens erupted, my attitude is less kindly. Yes, the mountains (aside from the broken stump of St. Helens) are still lovely. But I'm now wary: those mountains can kill.

The greatest potential killer is Mount Rainier, the largest in the Cascades at 14,410 feet elevation. It is both taller and bulkier than the rest. Worse, Rainier is closest to major population centers. Several rivers drain from its glaciers through populated areas (such as Orting, a town with lots of new housing); an eruption strong enough to melt glaciers might case disastrous flooding. Some small cities (including Enumclaw) are built atop what were mud flows from old eruptions. If Rainier had an unexpected major eruption, many people would be doomed, as timely evacuation would be difficult. Even with weeks of warning a preemptory evacuation might not be entirely successful; some people surely would tire of being refugees and sneak back to their homes.

Finally, if you are interested, here is a link to a live Mount St. Helens videocam

posted by Donald at June 25, 2006


Interesting discussion, Donald.

A weird Mt. St. Helens anecdote. Back in the 1970s, a well-loved bank manager in Detroit got in some financial trouble. He solved the problem by kiting checks. That is, he wrote a personal check for the money. He then wrote a second personal check and used it to buy a bank check from a teller at his own bank. This teller, who worked for him, would never think to check his checking account balance to see if the check was good. The manager then deposited the bank check in his personal bank account at another bank to permit the original check to clear.

Of course, in a few days, the second personal check would come due and wouldn't clear. So he then wrote a third personal check and deposited it. This left him in the same position, so he wrote a fourth, and a fifth, etc., etc. every three business days. This went on for years. He wrote hundreds, maybe thousands of checks. Of course, by increasing the size of the checks he could actually get more cash out of the system, which he did, eventually getting nearly one hundred thousand dollars out of this scam. But being a more or less honest guy, or scared of eventually being caught, he actually worked the balance down to a small amount by the late 1970s. He had received a small property as an inheritance, which as soon as he could sell it, would finally pay off his debt, freeing him of this now onerous cycle.

Sadly for him, the land was very near Mt. St. Helens, and just as the sale was about to go through, the mountain erupted and the sale was terminated. And his bad luck wasn't over; the next week, the bank figured out that he was doing something fishy, and he got canned. The manager, a well-loved figure in the community, had to beat it out of town.

Just a little tale I think of whenever anybody mentions Mt. St. Helens!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 25, 2006 11:43 PM

I'm visiting Microsoft Wednesday --
I wish you'd have written about volcanoes in Washington after I got back.... : )

Posted by: Paul Worthington on June 26, 2006 6:59 PM

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