New at Rosetta Stones: The Final Prelude

Thank you for staying the course, my darlings. Your patience will soon be rewarded. Prelude to a Catastrophe is now complete.

Wow, right?

Mount St. Helens viewed from Coldwater Ridge, taken in early May. Bulge at upper left side of peak between Dogs Head and Goat Rocks. Note dense fir forest. Photo by Harry Glicken. Skamania County, Washington. May 17, 1980. Image courtesy USGS.

This has been one hell of a ride, and you all know it gets orders of magnitude more intense from here. You also may want to stock up on tissue and practice saying something must have gotten in your eye, because some of what’s coming up is going to rip your heart out.

Keeping watch over erupting volcanoes is extremely dangerous. We owe the geologists who do it a debt of gratitude we can’t ever repay. So hug your volcanologists (with permission), and take every opportunity to buy them their drink of choice.

For those new to the series, and those wanting to have one last read-through before strapping in for the main event, here is the complete Prelude to a Catastrophe.

Dedication: The Geologists Who Died at Mount St. Helens. Yes, geologists plural. We’re fortunate most of the scientists working on the mountain survived, but we did lose a few of our own. They showed incredible dedication. This series is dedicated to them.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Current Quiet Interval Will Not Last…” In 1978, USGS geologists Dwight Crandell and Donal Mullineaux published a paper that spelled out the possibilities of a future eruption of Mt. St. Helens in stark detail. The work they did on this volcano prevented the catastrophe from being far worse than it was. This paper put everyone on notice: we have a dangerous mountain in our midst, and she could wake up at any time.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “One of the Most Active and Most Explosive Volcanoes in the Cascade Range.” Dwight Crandell had nearly completed an exhaustive study of Mount St. Helens’s eruptive history when she added to his workload in 1980. She had quite the history of hijinks. Crandell’s study of her violent past helped predict her current behavior.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Unusual Character of the Seismic Activity Became Clear.” In mid-March of 1980, a swarm of earthquakes unprecedented in our experience of Cascades volcanoes put everyone on notice: something big was happening, and it was only getting bigger…

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Something Dramatic.” One of the seismologists watching the earthquake swarm unfold later wrote, “We did not see how this activity could continue without something dramatic happening.” And something dramatic did.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Pale-blue Flames.” Eerie blue light dances within the crater, and geologists scramble to protect the public as Mount St. Helens roars awake.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Only Way It Can Stabilize is to Come Down.” The bulge grows at astonishing rates. David Johnston and his fellow geologists know that the side of a mountain can swell only so far before gravity pulls it down. There is no question of if, only when it will fall.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Our Best Judgement of Risk.” While the bulge pushes out at upwards of five feet per day, geologists assess other signs that Mount St. Helens, despite the lack of explosions, poses an enormous risk to life and property. They risk their own lives to protect ours.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Volcano Could Be Nearing a Major Event.” Phreatic eruptions resume, steam pours from fumaroles and cracks, the bulge continues to grow… and the countdown nears 0.

New at Rosetta Stones: The Final Prelude
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4 thoughts on “New at Rosetta Stones: The Final Prelude

  1. rq

    Now I want the catastrophe. This is evil, this leading up to and then… More waiting!!! *sigh*
    I don’t know where Dave Johnston had the guts to get that close… On the last post, and this one, too, I cringe inwardly to see him so near St Helen’s, calmly gathering samples. As if the photo itself would erupt to engulf him as I am watching.
    And it’s also like watching the Titanic. I know it’s going to go down, but at the same time, maybe THIS time, all of those who died will miraculously save themselves. Maybe THIS time…
    Ah, emotional discord.

  2. 2


    Can you post a map of where Coldwater I and Coldwater II were, in relation to Mt. St. Helens? I know when I was first reading about it, it helped me to see the scale of distance – how far the blowout went. Readers new to this tale might appreciate it.

    Thank you for doing this. Looking forward to the climax.

    And again I will say that I hope you pick some other eruptions and do the same thing. Pinatubo? Nevado Del Ruiz? Whatever will make a good [people and geology] story, like this one.

  3. 3

    OK, where is the bulge in that picture? It is one of the peaks? Is it that hump on the left side? Is it just that the left side is bulgier now?

    There seems to be enough pictures out there that there really should be a gif showing the changes because looking at these pictures I can’t really see it.

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