Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Volcano Could Be Nearing a Major Event”

The mountain boomed. Steam and ash soared to 3,962 meters (13,000 feet), announcing the end to a two-week lull. At the top of Shoestring Glacier, an opening steamed. It was May 7th, 1980, and Mount St. Helens was letting everyone know she wasn’t ready to sleep yet.

Image shows a plume of ash and steam rising from the crater of Mount St. Helens in an aerial photo.
Phreatic explosion of Mount St. Helens; from the southwest. Ash and steam. Skamania County, Washington. May 7, 1980. Image courtesy USGS.

The next day, a muddy rain splattered Timberline, where the USGS had been taking measurements of the mountain as that ominous bulge grew. As the first harmonic tremors since April 12 traced their unique pattern on seismometers, new avalanches cascaded up to 305 meters (1000 feet) down Wishbone Glacier. And all the while, the crater steamed.

Geologists abandoned Timberline on May 9th. The danger from avalanches had grown too great. They’d have to rely on other observation posts, such as Coldwater II; a new tiltmeter installed at Ape Cave would help provide data on the continued swelling as the suspected cryptodome continued pushing out the north flank by up to 1.5 meters (5 feet) per day.

Image shows Mount St. Helens from a distance. There is a small eruption plume streaming sideways and flowing downslope.
Phreatic eruption of Mount St. Helens. View from Coldwater II observation station, 1757 hrs. Skamania County, Washington. May 11, 1980. Image courtesy USGS.

None of the renewed phreatic eruptions were particularly large: most of them after May 7th were small, spitting steam and ash and putting on a decent show for the locals and observing scientists on clear days, but not exactly spectacular. Still, they signaled that things were definitely hot within St. Helens. And their message was backed by the fumarole at Shoestring Glacier, which steamed ever harder.

Geologists had been worried for some time about the unstable north flank. On May 12, while small explosions continued and observers watched a cluster of fumaroles on the crater’s western rim steam vigorously, everyone got a taste of what might come. An earthquake registering a robust 5.0 shook the mountain, sending an avalanche 244 meters (800 feet ) wide cascading from the lower end of the humped-up Forsyth and Leschi glaciers. The surveying target on Sugar Bowl perished. Seismologists from the University of Washington hiked their portable seismometer from Spirit Lake to the top of a nearby ridge, figuring the valley floor right below the bulge would eventually get hit by an avalanche.

Everyone knew it was just a matter of time. The whole area around Goat Rocks had swollen 106 meters (348 feet) northward. And the volcano continued to swell, crack and steam.

Aerial black and white photo of the summit of Mount St. Helens shows the ash-covered slopes, large cracks and ridges, and the tiny crater lake.
Aerial view of Mount St. Helens looking west. The crater has been much enlarged. As the bulge (at extreme right) has expanded, fracturing has become more extreme. Crater area has dropped relative to summit. Photo by R.M. Krimmel. Skamania County, Washington. May 17, 1980. Figure 22, U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 1250, 1981. Image courtesy USGS.

By May 13th, the fumarole at the head of Shoestring Glacier had enlarged considerably; new steam vents appeared the following day on the north crater rim. Older ash on the upper southern slopes was encrusted with yellow-green deposits, most likely sulfur. Measurements of sulfur dioxide gas showed a dramatic increase: from .3 tons per day on March 30th to 1 ton per day now (skyrocketing to 10-20 tons per day during explosions). All of those steam vents, all of that sulfur, warned that an extremely hot body of magma was rising, and might be nearing the surface. The volcano had been bulging: now, it began inflating. Something was coming.

Color aerial image of Mount St. Helens shows the summit crater, which has chewed a wound in the mountain. Cracks along the high left rim show where it's being widened.
View of Mount St. Helens summit crater from east. Shoestring Glacier fumarole on left. Skamania County, Washington. May 16, 1980. Image courtesy USGS.

Explosions ceased on May 15th, but the bulge continued its outward journey unabated, and steam hissed from its upper reaches. The summit radiated so much heat that the thermal energy equaled around 3 megawatts – if it could have been captured and used, it would have powered about 1,800 homes. Geologists found pits that appeared bottomless in the hottest areas. Two clusters of thermal infrared anomalies marked areas of weakness in the bulge. In two days, the bulge would come apart at those seams.

Black and white aerial image shows Mount St. Helens looming over the surrounding landscape. The bulge is clearly visible. On it, the Forsyth Glacier, labeled with a C, is severely cracked.
Aerial view of Mount St. Helens the day before the catastrACophic eruption, looking southwest. Features visible include road to Timberline viewpoint and parking area (A), Dogs Head (B), and the severely fractured, bulging, ash-covered Forsyth Glacier (C). An ice avalanche, darkened with volcanic debris, which originated from the bulging, oversteepened part of Forsyth Glacier, forms dark tracks below the bulge. Photo by R.M. Krimmel. Skamania County, Washington. May 17, 1980. Portion of Figure 29, U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 1250. Image courtesy USGS.

But things seemed calm by May 17th. The bulge slowed its growth. Even the earthquakes went down: there were only 6 larger than a 4.0, a lower rate than previous days. USGS geologist David Johnston sampled gasses at the fumarole up on the Boot, clinging to the fractured side of the mountain as a fellow geologist snapped his picture from the helicopter waiting to collect him.

n Moderate crop of original photograph, which was a view from a helicopter of David Johnston near crest of the bulge on the north side of Mount St. Helens, sampling gases from fumaroles. David is near the center of both this picture and the original picture. Skamania County, Washington. May 17, 1980. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

He stashed those samples at Coldwater II, and prepared for a long night with the volcano. His assistant, geology student Harry Glicken, had been scheduled to monitor the mountain, but had an interview at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Don Swanson would be taking over his shifts, but not that night – he had a student of his own to see safely onto a plane. So Dave agreed to take over until Sunday afternoon.

Harry snapped a last photo of his mentor before leaving.

Image shows David Johnston, a bearded young man wearing a green and blue striped rugby shirt and blue jeans, sitting in a camp chair in front of a camper, gazing at the camera and grinning. The forest is in the background.
The last photo taken of David Johnston, at Coldwater II observation station, Mount St. Helens, sitting in chair by trailer. 1900 hrs. Skamania County, Washington. May 17, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

And the last quiet night passed.

Previous: Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Our Best Judgement of Risk.”

Next: Interlude: Moment of Silence.


Klimasauskas, E. and Topinka, L. (2000-2010): Mount St. Helens, Washington, Precursors to the May 18, 1980 Eruption. Cascades Volcano Observatory website, USGS (last accessed July 26th, 2012).

Korsec, M.A., Rigby, J.G., and Stoffel, K.L. (1980): The 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington. Department of Natural Resources Information Circular 71. (PDF)

Lipman, Peter W., and Mullineaux, Donal R., Editors (1981): The 1980 Eruptions of Mount St. Helens, Washington. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1250.


Originally published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Volcano Could Be Nearing a Major Event”
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2 thoughts on “Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Volcano Could Be Nearing a Major Event”

  1. rq

    That last photo of David Johnston is so… unsuspecting.
    It’s like watching a movie you know for the umpteenth time, where the good guy is about to die, and you know he will, but you’re still sitting there yelling Noooo, don’t do it! Don’t say yes! Don’t go!

    Although in this case, if David Johnston hadn’t stayed, it would have been one of the others…

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