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Travel: Mount St. Helens,
science-teacher style

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Dan Ezekiel is a longtime science teacher in the Ann Arbor Public Schools and a member of the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission. Here, he compares two trips he made to Mount St. Helens in Washington. Fellow readers would love to hear about educational, enlightening trips you’ve taken. Email theannmag [at] gmail.com or call 734-369-4239 to learn how to share them on these pages.

Dan Ezekiel is a longtime science teacher in the Ann Arbor Public Schools and a member of the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission. Here, he compares two trips he made to Mount St. Helens in Washington. 

The most destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States happened on May 18, 1980. Mount St. Helens, in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, erupted that day. The blast flattened all the trees and destroyed all the buildings within 230 square miles, an area eight times the size of Ann Arbor.

Even though the immediate vicinity had already been evacuated, 57 people lost their lives. The mountain lost more than 1,300 feet in height and a crater a mile wide was created, with over half a cubic mile of debris and ash blown into the atmosphere.

01MtStHelensEruption-NPSRESTOREDTowns nearby, such as Ellensburg and Yakima, were buried in several feet of volcanic ash, and the ash cloud eventually traveled around the world. Rivers were choked with volcanic debris. As the peak of the mountain collapsed into nearby Spirit Lake, a “tidal wave” splashed more than 800 vertical feet up the forested mountains ringing the lake, killing all the trees and washing the trunks down into the lake,  where they still float today, more than 30 years later, in an eerie mat of telephone-pole-sized logs.

02spirit-lake-logs-1984-photo-3

03spirit-lake-logs-2014At the time of the eruption, I was in southern Colorado, more than 1,000 miles away; I still had to wipe a light fall of ash off my car windshield two mornings later.

Four years after the eruption, during an epic Northwest road trip, my wife and I visited the eruption site, now Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, and marveled at the devastation. I’m an earth science teacher, so I’m interested in volcanoes. I took photos which I have used in my classes ever since.

Last year, while retracing part of our long-ago trip, we visited Mount St. Helens again, to see what changes nature had wrought on the blast scene 30 years after we first viewed it. I’m always curious about how nature heals itself after a grievous injury; again, I took photos, to be able to view nature’s recovery, or lack thereof, over the three decades.

04tina-at-edge-of-red-zone-1984-photo-1In 1984, this was as close as we were allowed to the mountain. Here, my wife Tina looks out over the “red zone,” still too unstable for public access. Down below is Spirit Lake; to the left, obscured by fog, is the shattered peak of the mountain.

05blast-zone-2014-NPSToday one can drive much closer to the peak. In the photo above, you see the “pumice plain” in the blast zone, as it appears today. The peak of the volcano is in the background. Thirty-four years after the eruption there is still little green growth in the central blast zone, once densely forested.

In 1980, just before the eruption, a family of three signed a waiver stating they had been warned of the danger, then drove to their cabin and mining claim. There they perished.

06miners-car-1984-photo-5In 1984, we were surprised to see that their car’s tires still held air after the blast, which blew the car dozens of feet and burned all the paint off the body.

07miners-car-2014-photo-6Thirty years after our first visit, the “Miners’ Car” is rusted, flattened and has a sapling growing through it, seemingly returning to the earth.

08Tree-gnawing-1984-photo-7The volcano killed nearly all animal life in the blast zone, and whatever creatures somehow survived probably had to move away for lack of food. When we visited in 1984, park rangers were excited that an animal, perhaps a rabbit or deer, had been chewing bark at one of the young trees that survived beneath the snow a few miles from the volcano.

On our two visits, we were able to see the same felled tree and surrounding area, several miles from the volcano itself.

09MtStHelens-log-1984In 1984, there were still pieces of volcanic pumice on the downed log and the trees in the area were small, having survived beneath the snowpack.

10MtStHelensLog-2014-photo-9In 2014, we could see how much the trees had grown in the intervening years, free of competition from the forest giants that once dominated them.

11hillside-1984

12hillside-2014-photo-11The Mordor-like scene that greeted us in 1984 had given way to a forest well on its way to recovery in 2014. Pumice piles along the road and still-standing tree skeletons made it clear that something big happened there, but otherwise one could be in any healthy Northwestern forest. Nature was helped by human agency, as massive tree plantings took place on this hillside.

Nature gives and she takes away. Usually we see her benevolent face, in our forests and gardens, nourished by rain and sunshine. Now and then, even in Ann Arbor, we see a different side, as polar vortexes, tornadoes, blizzards or droughts remind us that Mother Nature is still boss, that we live every day by her indulgence and could perish in one of her outbursts of furious violence.

This is even more true in the Great Northwest, part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire” where 20-mile-thick solid rock tectonic plates grind slowly together over Earth’s seething mantle.

Inexorably, the Pacific Ocean shrinks as the Atlantic spreads, as fast as our fingernails grow. We don’t notice it, but each year we are closer to Japan and farther from Europe. The pressure builds underground, unnoticed, then suddenly resolves in a massive earthquake, a wild volcanic explosion, or both. We are reminded again how tenuously civilization is spread over the surface of an inconstant planet.

This 1984 shot shows fireweed growing among the volcanic ashes. Fireweed is the first bloom to return to Western landscapes after a forest fire, and apparently also after a cataclysmic volcanic eruption.

Fellow readers would love to hear about educational, enlightening trips you’ve taken. Email theannmag [at] gmail.com or call 734-369-4239 to learn how to share them.

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