Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Something Dramatic”

The earthquake activity at Mount St. Helens had built to a crescendo. When a volcano shakes this hard, it almost always spells trouble: magma rising, an eruption imminent. You can’t know exactly what they are going to do, and when, and to what degree. But you suspect. You prepare as best you can.

On March 27th, the USGS issued a Hazards Watch, informing public officials of the dangers St. Helens might pose. After a week of increasing shakes, there was little doubt in any scientist’s mind that “something dramatic” was about to happen. By 11:20am Pacific Standard Time, something dramatic had.

Image shows the summit of the volcano. There's a hole in the snow at the very top, and the snow around it is stained gray by ash.
Mount St. Helens’ eruption, first crater, from the north. USGS Photograph taken on March 27, 1980, by David Frank.

It must have been eerie for the observer in the Army National Guard plane who first saw the gaping hole in her formerly-pristine summit. A dark gray streak of ash stained the snow, following the winds to the southeast. The deep snow had cracked. She was awake. And it wouldn’t be long before she let folks know she was feeling feisty.

At 12:36pm, a boom echoed through the wilderness near the volcano. Portland reporter Mike Beard, flying above her, saw ash roiling “like smoke out of a chimney” through the clouds.

Image shows a column of ash and steam jetting through heavy cloud cover.
Phreatic explosion from Mount St. Helens. This image is from a later eruption, but is similar to what Mike Beard would have seen on March 27th. USGS photo courtesy of Dan Miller.

When volcanoes erupt, many people think lava. Lots of lava. And that is true for some volcanoes, like the lovely shields that make Hawaii such an interesting place to live. But a volcano like St. Helens doesn’t start with lava. She begins by clearing her throat, so to speak, gargling a bit, putting on a small performance before the main event. In her case, thick, sticky dacite, a type of magma rather rich in silica, was making its laborious way up toward the surface. Dacite has a tendency to form domes. It also has a distressing tendency to blow up. But the rising dacite hadn’t reached the surface just yet: it had just gotten close enough that its heat flashed water to steam. The result was a phreatic (steam) eruption, strong enough to break and pulverize summit rock and blow a hole in the top. Steam and ash gave Mike Beard a jolly good show, and made a racket. But no lava. Not yet.

Still. The phreatic eruptions caused some pretty dramatic changes.

Image shows the underside of an airplane wing at top. Below is the summit of Mount St. Helens. There are now large cracks in the summit and down the right side.
Oblique aerial photographs of the Mount St. Helens summit area showing historic thermal areas. Distance from False Summit to summit about 600 m. Viewed from north, thermal area A, near The Boot, is covered by snow, but its location corresponds to shallow dimple in snow surface. Photo by D. Frank. Skamania County, Washington. March 24, 1980. Portion of Figure 149-A, U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 1250.

Three days before, all had been serene snowfields. Cascades volcanoes tend to look like ice cream cones, with their steep rounded shapes and their deep white coats. Mount St. Helens, for all the seismic excitement, was still a perfect example of the type.

Nothing would ever be the same again.

Image shows the summit of Mount St. Helens. There is a wide crater in the top, with vertical cracks radiating down through the snowcap.
Oblique aerial photograph of summit of Mount St. Helens, looking south. Location of thermal area A indicated. Note that the new fractures cross ice and rock areas with no apparent change of style, indicating the fractures are deep seated. Photo by D. Frank. Skamania County, Washington. March 27, 1980. Portion of Figure 150, U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 1250. – ID. Mount St. Helens – PP 1250 52 – mpp00052 – U.S. Geological Survey – Public domain image

Compare the two photos above. They’re the same area. They hardly look it.

The afternoon that had started with a bang continued on a sustained dramatic note. At 2:00pm, seismologists at the University of Washington watched their equipment register a hefty magnitude 4.7 earthquake, the second-strongest of the swarm. They couldn’t see events on the mountain, but others witnessed a gigantic black plume unfurling to a respectable 2,134 meters (7,000 feet). Earthquakes during the eruption happened at such a frequency that seismologists had trouble telling them apart on the graphs. David Gibney, an aerial spotter for the United States Forest Service, saw fractures open and close, the north flank break and rise, as he flew over in the hours after that first eruption. Think of that: a mountain, hurling ash and steam, cracking and breaking beneath your gaze. Something dramatic, indeed.

At the end of that opening sequence, Mount St. Helens sported a crater 61-76 meters (200-250 feet) across nestled within the old, ice-choked summit crater. The summit had been cracked like an egg, split open by an eastward-trending fracture that slashed her flanks from northwest to northeast, a gash measuring nearly 1524 meters (5,000 feet) in length. Other fractures ran alongside it. They defined the south side of an uplifted block, possibly already pushing outward, on her north flank.

The Bulge had been born.

View from the NW, March 30, 1980, showing the summit graben, the north-side bulge, and an on-going steam eruption. Note the dark gray pulverized rock falling on the south side of the mountain. Annotations: north and west sides of the mountain are marked; a curved arrow shows the continuing movement of the the north side bulge; dotted lines show the approximate edges of the summit graben; double-headed arrow illustrates extension across the graben. Image courtesy USGS, annotations and caption by Lockwood DeWitt.

Previous: Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Unusual Character of the Seismic Activity Became Clear.”

Next: Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Pale-blue Flames.”


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 June 13th, 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: “Something Dramatic”
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9 thoughts on “Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Something Dramatic”

  1. rq

    Earthquakes during the eruption happened at such a frequency that seismologists had trouble telling them apart on the graphs.

    Huh, it’s hard to take measurements when Stomp
    moves in next door.

    The anticipation before the ‘real’ drama is most dramatic of all…

  2. 3

    The way you build suspense throughout this series is wonderful. I know what happened, but I still can’t wait to read the next installment, which is surely a credit to your fantastic writing.

  3. 4

    The anticipation is almost unbearable! This is why I wait until series are finished before I start, waiting for the next installment is agonizing.

    It’s probably better this way though. I get excited and rush through the material, and these smaller chunks mean that I go back and really read them and have a few days to absorb the information.

  4. 5

    Huh, it’s hard to take measurements when Stomp
    moves in next door.

    Now that will get the ol’ seismometer dancing!

    OK, for (not quite) full disclosure, my classroom is part of the IRIS Seismographs in Schools program, so I have a bit of experience with seismometers. As I said earlier, just enough to be dangerous.

    The seismometer in my classroom is a simple and relatively inexpensive one, but it’s remarkable what it will detect. It has recorded small earthquakes in nearby states, big ones on the other side of the world, hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, and a tornado in a nearby town. It also records when I arrive at work in the morning.

    It’s easy for me to tell when the students enter the building – in fact, when I first got it, I wondered if I would recognize an actual earthquake when it happened. I knew by then that I could tell when the students were in the hallways. One morning they seemed to be unusually active. I soon realized that this was not middle school horseplay, it was an actual earthquake – a 7.2 in Alaska, as it turned out. Just happened to be coming in at the same time that the students were arriving.

    So, yes, I have a pretty good idea what it looks like when someone accidentally kicks the seismometer…

  5. rq

    That is so awesome! Now I want a seismometer just for kicks.
    Also, to see what level of ‘earthquake’ is the Upper Limit before I put on my Angry Voice and tell the kids to stop carousing…
    (Records when you come to work, huh? Probably the first most exciting event of its day!)

  6. 8

    Now I want a seismometer just for kicks.

    I see what you did there.

    Records when you come to work, huh? Probably the first most exciting event of its day!

    Meh, not necessarily. In the wee hours of this morning, for example, it picked up a 6.7 quake in the Sea of Okhotsk. That’s probably more interesting than some old guy unlocking the door and hanging up his hat & jacket.

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