Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Visiting the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument 31 Years After the May 18, 1980 Eruption

In the picture you are looking at a screencap of the USDA Forest Service's website for Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

It is 31 years ago, this morning, that Mount St. Helens erupted.

There was no such thing as a website when the mountain blew up. And now Mount St. Helens has a website. From the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument website....

At 8:32 Sunday Morning, May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens Erupted. Mount St. Helens Shaken by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale, the north face of this tall symmetrical mountain collapsed in a massive rock debris avalanche. In a few moments this slab of rock and ice slammed into Spirit Lake, crossed a ridge 1,300 feet high, and roared 14 miles down the Toutle River.

The avalanche rapidly released pressurized gases within the volcano. A tremendous lateral explosion ripped through the avalanche and developed into a turbulent, stone-filled wind that swept over ridges and toppled trees. Nearly 150 square miles of forest was blown over or left dead and standing.

At the same time a mushroom-shaped column of ash rose thousands of feet skyward and drifted downwind, turning day into night as dark, gray ash fell over eastern Washington and beyond. Wet, cement-like slurries of rock and mud scoured all sides of the volcano. Searing flows of pumice poured from the crater. The eruption lasted 9 hours, but Mount St. Helens and the surrounding landscape were dramatically changed within moments.

A vast, gray landscape lay where once the forested slopes of Mount St. Helens grew. In 1982 the President and Congress created the 110,000-acre National Volcanic Monument for research, recreation, and education. Inside the Monument, the environment is left to respond naturally to the disturbance.

It is hard to grasp that the eruption was over 3 decades ago. I remember the morning of the eruption as if it happened yesterday.

From my location at the time of the eruption, in Mount Vernon, in the Skagit Valley, about 150 miles north, what I heard was 5 loud, concussive booms, like bombs exploding. About 15 minutes later a neighbor informed me that the volcano had exploded. The rest of that day, and several to follow, were spent watching incredible sights on TV.

Before the eruption, while the mountain was having fits fortelling the explosion, after a large area surrounding St. Helens had been ordered closed by then Washington State Governor, Dixie Lee Ray, I drove down to the St. Helens zone to see if I could get a look at the smoldering volcano. I could get about 30 miles from it. But I saw nothing. It was too cloudy.

About 10 years after Mount St. Helens exploded I drove into the blast zone for the first time. This was before a marvel of engineering highway was built that takes you all the way to the Johnson Ridge Observatory and its direct view into the crater.

My first drive into the blast zone was over a logging road. The logging road twisted and turned through a dense forest of tall firs. And then, suddenly a turn in the road and I was in the blast zone. Utter destruction. Remains of trees knocked over like toothpicks. The further I drove in the more utter the destruction. After a few miles it was nothing but scorched earth.

And then you come to the overlook of the remains of Spirit Lake. And a view looking into the gaping hole in the side of Mount St. Helens.

Almost another 10 years later I revisited the now Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The new highway built to take you to the mountain is one of the most scenic I have ever driven on. There are several visitors centers, all interesting, as you drive into the Monument.

This would have been in, I think, 1998. It was astonishing how much recovering Mother Nature had done. There was vegetation growing again on the blast zone. Animals had returned. The park service had built many facilities. And trails. It was hard to believe you were at ground zero of a force of nature many times stronger than the most poweful nuclear bomb.

If you are planning a visit to Washington and the Pacific Northwest, trust me, you do not want to miss driving the Spirit Lake Highway all the way to Johnson Ridge Observatory.

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