New at Rosetta Stones: The Cataclysm

You probably thought we’d never reached that day, but here we are: May 18th, 1980. I’ve used mostly witness statements to try to capture the chaos of those first hours. The science will come later, as it did then.

And believe me when I say we’ve only just begun. So much happened that day. So much happened later that year. It’s going to take a while to unpack it.

There’s a video that plays at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. It’s not posted on the US Forest Service or USGS channels, but I was able to track down a copy of it online. It has some excellent computer animations, and a lot of very good information, but the most haunting thing about it is hearing the recording of David Johnston’s last words. It comes right at the beginning, so if you’re prone to being freaked out by that sort of thing, skip the first several seconds.

That video always leaves me with chills.


Plenty of science to come. And never fear: when we’ve finished Mount St. Helens at last, I’ve got another series planned. Actually, two. One of which is, indeed, a volcano, but the other is a bit more exotic. But you’ll have to wait a bit before you find out exactly what they are, because I am an evil author and am obliged to leave you on cliffs. It’s okay: you like geology, and will enjoy looking at the lovely strata whilst you wait.

New at Rosetta Stones: The Cataclysm

12 thoughts on “New at Rosetta Stones: The Cataclysm

  1. rq

    That being said, the new Rosetta Stones post is, as always, brilliant. Emotions running amuck at the moment. Watched the video here, too – seemed a bit chaotic, so I’m going to wait for your clarifications to make sense out of all the terrifying drama aspects.
    And I don’t know quite what it is, even knowing all the (potentially fatal) dangers involved, reading the eye-witness accounts and watching computer reconstructions of an extremely impressive volcanic eruption… Well, it still makes me think it’s something I would love to see at least once in my life. (Probably only the one time…) ‘Awe’ would be a good descriptive here, something akin to experiencing a really active thunderstorm with echo in the mountains or being stuck in a white-wall blizzard in the depths of winter. The power of nature that makes you feel small yet exhilarated and completely overwhelmed… Your writing brings it all out. Book, please.

    And the most chilling, profound words to me in that post? ” “It’s going to get me, too.” ” I had to stop reading for a moment.

  2. 3

    I have that video on VHS – bought it when I was there on 2002. I use it in my classroom every year. The animations are great, but if you watch the whole video, of which this YouTube clip is a part, it gets a bit heavy-handed with the drama and creepy music. I’ve often wondered if that is really Johnston’s voice, or a reenactment. I’ve always suspected the latter. Is it actually the recording made by the ham operator?

    The post is excellent – beautifully written, and full of information new to me. Great work!

  3. 4

    Beautiful series of posts!!! Your writing is wonderful. I didn’t like this corny video though. The computer simulations seem poor, not very physically consistent, and the camera work is confusing. We never know what is real imagery and what is made up.

  4. 6

    And the most chilling, profound words to me in that post? ” “It’s going to get me, too.” ” I had to stop reading for a moment.

    Yes. We hear a lot about David Johnston, but I had never heard of Jerry Martin, even though it’s a very compelling story.

  5. 7

    Excellent article.

    I was annoyed as hell with the movie about Johnston, which made him look like a thrill-seeking suicidally bent individual.

    If he had had a clue it was all going to go BOOM, he would have left the area.

    @6 – Multiple HAM operators around the world were monitoring transmissions from the mountain on a specific frequency, and they typically record all but casual contacts, so that is probably David Johnston’s voice.

    Martin (Gerry or Jerry?) was a volunteer who thought he was in a safe place outside the restricted zone. HAM operator and photographer.

  6. 8

    The audio part of the clip had very clear information about the progress of the eruption and its effects. The visual was a mess. Split screens, insets, shots so tightly focused I couldn’t get any sense of perspective, and sometimes couldn’t make out what I was supposed to be seeing.

    I’m guessing that was deliberate, a way of showing the chaos and confusion, but I honestly think starker, simpler shots would have been more effective for me.

    And Johnston’s last words… I don’t know whether to feel haunted by the thought that he saw what was coming and probably knew he was going to die, or impressed that his last words were to warn others who might have a chance. Good man.

  7. 9

    SherryH: You forgot that old standby for the producers of bad videos – “Hey, let’s shake the camera around to make this shot really dramatic!” No, that just makes it annoying…

  8. 10

    Anyways… yeah, visually that video is a mess. It’s an excellent “what not to do” example for anyone wanting to produce clear, coherent visual presentations of complex topics.

  9. 11

    All of the installments have been awesome, but this one captures the chaotic impressions very well. One trivial error I noticed, your conversion from 230 square miles to 370 km² cannot be right – one of those numbers is 1.6 times too large or too small. Probably the metric measurement should be about 590 km².

  10. 12

    I have a friend of a relative who lives a few hundred miles downwind of Mt. St. Helens, and her home got some of that volcano’s ash also.

    She stated that this made her do something unprecedented: it made her hate a mountain.

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