Travel: Mount St. Helens,
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.
Towns 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.
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.
In 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.
Today 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.
The 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.
The 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.
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