Explosive Anniversary

mt st helens 0520

Forty years ago yesterday, Mount St. Helens blew its top in dramatic, well-documented fashion, taking with it 57 people, thousands of animals and about 230 square miles of forest.

This was sort of expected, and sort of not. The devastation certainly wasn’t planned for, nor the loss of life, but scientists from the University of Washington had been monitoring the seismic activity in the Cascades, specifically focusing on Mount St. Helens, since March.

Earthquakes in the 4.0-magnitude range started occurring with great frequency in late March, along with a burst of steam that shot over a mile into the air and cratered the top of the mountain.

While we puny humans like to think we can control our environment, it always turns out that we really can’t, and in April Mount St. Helens turned quiescent, little eruptions dropping from hourly in those last days of March to once daily until stopping altogether on April 22.

After a two-week hiatus, the mini eruptions started up again, and now scientists — you know, those people we are vilifying these days because we don’t like what they’re saying to us — could eyeball an entirely new prominence on the north side of the mountain. And still, Mother Nature got the final say, because May 18, 1980, seemed like every semi-ordinary day before it.

A volcanologist six miles to the north radioed in his regular 7 a.m. report: nothing to see here. And then an hour and a half later, he changed his mind. “This is it!” he sent, as an earthquake rippled and the top of the mountain ripped open. He was able to send some data as well, but that was the last anyone heard from David Johnston.

And then the Cascading began. Every living thing within eight miles was wiped out instantly. Everything within 19 miles was roiled by a massive shockwave; ash and mud settled miles beyond that. Most damagingly, this superheated material melted glaciers and snow, setting off lahars, rivers of mud that ran down into human-inhabited areas, taking out cars and buildings and people in a gumbo-esque flood.

Despite the close monitoring, and evacuation of people believed to be in harm’s way (notably excluding an older man who refused to leave, probably on the presumption that his god would help those who don’t help themselves, and all his cats), the ferocity of this eruption took most people by surprise. The lahars in particular inflicted all kinds of unanticipated damage.

But because scientists sort of knew it was coming, precautions were taken, and it was spectacularly well-documented. Live Science, where I did my five minutes of research yesterday, recounts the gripping tale of a couple in an aircraft doing an aerial survey.

The husband, piloting the plane, put it in a speed dive to pick up escape velocity while his wife — and here you really have to admire this — kept filming the entire time, instead of dropping the camera and screaming, “We’re going to die!” which probably would have been my approach.

In previous documentaries on the eruption, I’ve seen video of campers escaping as an ominous cloud fills the screen behind them. Volcanoes, while cool to watch from a distance, are one of those things you really don’t want to experience up close and personal.

I don’t have any personal Mount St. Helens memories, even though I am a from-far-away aficionado of volcanoes. This was 40 years ago after all, which I am just now realizing, as I do math, around the time I graduated high school. And as Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse noted in a rather clunky remote commencement speech, “no one remembers their high school graduation.”

While I think he was speaking more for himself than the “everyone” he claimed to, I certainly don’t remember what the date of my graduation was, nor the time proximity to the explosive actions of Mount St. Helens. They could have happened fairly contemporaneously. Although you’d think I’d remember if a volcano erupted on the day I graduated.

At any rate, the real point was, I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing on this momentous Day in History, other than I may have been getting ready to graduate high school, thus perhaps not paying the attention I otherwise would have to current events. I don’t even recall any volcano fallout that might have made it to my part of the world, like “smoky” skies from lingering ash.

Two days and less than 800 words into this — who knew it was going to be so hard to write about volcanoes? — I am going to have to truncate this, or leave you hanging once again. My day is starting earlier than usual, with two Zoom meetings, sales tax reports and a new venture into mask printing all get underway. We’ll see if I can’t do better for the rest of this week.

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