Thirty-Five Years Ago: Mount Saint Helens

It was thirty-five – yes, really thirty-five – years ago this day that the unquiet volcano, Mount Saint Helens, in Washington state exploded with a fury that astounded even the most well-prepared and seasoned observers. Seismologists and volcanologists had been expecting an eruption of the mountain for several weeks before the catastrophic blast, and United States Geological Survey volcanologist David Johnston had, after great effort, pursuaded the government to close off the surrounding area, (potentially saving thousands of lives; sadly, he lost his own because of his dedication to his work there) but no one predicted anything to match the actual eruption.

The incredible force of the eruption tore off the top of the conical, snow-capped peak, lowering the mountain by nearly 2,000 feet. The resulting flow of melted snow and ice as well as boiling mud and magma raced down the mountainside, flooding Spirit Lake at the base of the mountain, and rampaging down the river valley for a dozen miles or more before exhausting its energy. The shock wave created by the blast leveled the surrounding forests for miles in all directions. Several dozen people were killed by the eruption, as well as tens of thousands of animals and millions of fish.

A plume of steam and volcanich ash rose from the enormous crater more than 50,000 feet into the atmosphere. The fine, gritty volcanic ejecta fell upon the Northwest like snow, blanketing a vast area of eastern Washington state, northern Idaho, and northeastern Oregon. Though the ashfall did not kill anyone directly, it quite possibly contributed to repiritory diseases. The economic impact of the ashfall was immense, for the fine, coarse grit was composed of very hard minerals, and it proved to be devastating to automobile engines and other machinery.

Digging out from under the ashfall took months, and recovery overall took years. I flew over Mount Saint Helens in July of 1985 on my way to my sister’s wedding in Kennewick, Washington. The aerial view was astonishing, even five years after the event; Mount Saint Helens presented a moonscape of grey, barren, dead ground littered by millions of treetrunks looking like scattered toothpicks. It seemed impossible to believe that the land could recover, at least within several lifetimes.

I was all the more amazed, therefore, when I again flew directly over the site in the Spring of 1996. Where there had been stark, barren grey desert eleven years earlier, dense green had filled in most of the scene. According to the scientists who had been closely monitoring the site, most of the returning vegetation was grass and small herbaceous plants, but sapling trees were beginning to reclaim the site as well.

The destructive power of nature is unimaginably vast, but the tenacity of life, and its recuperative power, is vaster still.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

None owns life; all lease it.

— Lucretius, The Nature of Things

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