Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Only Way It Can Stabilize is to Come Down”

There’s more to an eruptive sequence than explosions. And there are times when a distinct lack of explosions are more troubling than endless ash columns. When earthquakes continue rattling the slopes, and one of those slopes is swelling outward several feet per day, concern and caution are the only reasonable responses.

Image shows Mount St. Helens from a nearby vantage point. The north flank is terribly distended, looking like it's grown an enormous tumor.
Looking south from timberline at the bulge. Immediately preceding the eruption of May 18, 1980, the bulge was growing at a rate of five feet per day. Helicopter at right. Skamania County, Washington. April 13, 1980. (Photo by Austin Post, Glaciology)

In mid-April of 1980, Mount St. Helens had seemingly gone back to sleep. The frequent phreatic eruptions ceased. The volcano steamed quietly under stormy Pacific Northwest skies. Some residents thought the show might be over, but geologists knew better. The song wasn’t done: the prima donna was taking a last deep breath. The only question was what sort of finale to expect.

One thing was certain. That bulge they had noticed in late March was going to come down. Its failure would be spectacular. That was beyond question. It was growing too fast, over-steepening itself too much, to stay put.

Growth of the ominous bulge on the north slope of Mount St. Helens from March 29th to May 2nd, 1980. First photo of the sequence from 1964 shows her pre-eruption profile. Images courtesy USGS. Sequence compiled by Ed Klimasauskas on the Mount St. Helens Precursory Activity website.

Pause for a moment to consider the enormity of the ground deformation on that north slope: an area 1.8 kilometers (about 1 mile) long and almost 1 kilometer (about .5 mile) wide was pushing out laterally. And it wasn’t a slow change: it bulged at a rate of 1.5-2 meters (5-6.5 feet) per day. That would take a chunk of Seattle roughly from the waterfront to Interstate 5, Pike Place Market to Pioneer Square, and pop it up at least 91 meters (300 feet) in less than two months. Prop the city up vertically by around 30 degrees, add in dozens of earthquakes per day, not to mention the phreatic eruptions taking place intermittently for weeks at a time, and you have a recipe for downtown Seattle to end up heading south in a hurry. At speeds of up to 290 kilometers (180 miles) per hour, in fact. You can imagine why USGS geologist David Johnston said of the bulge on Mount St. Helens that the “only way it can stabilize is to come down.”

When you look at the area of the mountain involved, you know why Dwight Crandell and other United States Geological Survey and Forest Service officials were seriously concerned about catastrophic landslides.

Annotated black and white image of Mount St. Helens shows its summit area from Timberline up. The bulge is outlined and takes up most of the top right. Dog's Head is a protrusion beside it.
Aerial view of Mount St. Helens from the northeast during the period of deformation and minor eruptions preceding the cataclysmic eruption of May 18. The area of mountain bulging to the north is outlined. Note the extensive crevassing of glaciers on this bulge. Much of the snow and ice is darkened by ash fall. Photo 80SZ-140 by David Hirst. Skamania County, Washington. May 1, 1980. Figure 5 in U.S. Geological Survey. Circular 850-D. 1981. Image courtesy USGS.

At the rate the bulge was growing, it didn’t much matter whether Mount St. Helens erupted again or not. This episode wasn’t going to end quietly.

By April 24th of 1980, the totality of the evidence gave Dr. Johnston the confidence to advise the media that it appeared magma was rising within the volcano. Studies on the bulge pointed toward a cryptodome, a thick, sticky mass of dacitic magma rising under the surface. If it had been free to squeeze out, it might have created a bump like Goat Rocks or Sugarbowl. But the old summit dome of cold, hard rock was in its way, so it remained hidden – cryptic. It pushed hard against the old dome, which stretched and split under the pressure. The summit graben – that long, linear fracture at the top – was produced this way. And the continued intrusion of the cryptodome caused the boundary between the graben and the bulge to speed northward at alarming speed: 28 feet (8.6 meters) each day. When geology moves that fast, something extreme is going on.

Image is looking at the ash-covered summit of Mount St. Helens from a rocky ridge. There are geologists with a geodimeter working atop the rocks.
West side of Mount St. Helens, as seen from the geodimeter station Toutle Canyon. USGS Photograph taken on May 2, 1980. Image courtesy USGS.

A huge amount of deformation was taking place, but it was remarkably sharply defined. Point surveying equipment at a target set up on the bulge, and you could measure displacement in meters. Aim at a target just 488 meters (1,600 feet) to the side, and you’re down to millimeters. The south, west and east sides of the volcano hardly budged at all. The whole force of that rising magma seemed concentrated on one sweet spot.

Image shows two geologists working on rocky ground. There is an orange and white reflector on a post between them. A helicopter is in the mist in the background. A portion of the mountain's flank is visible in the background, but most of the view is fogged in.
Geologists setting up reflectors on Sugar Bowl, northeast of Mount St. Helens. Skamania County, Washington. April 23, 1980. – ID. Mount St. Helens Lipman, P.W. 13ct – mlip0013 – U.S. Geological Survey – Public domain image

You can imagine that hot magma pushing so close to the surface would heat things up a bit, and you’d not be wrong. The bulge abounded with infrared anomalies, which multiplied from early April onward. At the Boot, which registered the highest temperatures, the thermal area measured a surprisingly human 37°C (98.6°F) compared to the chilly -1°C (30°F) of unaffected rocks and ice nearby. It takes a lot of heat to keep cold rock that balmy in the cold of a Cascades spring.

Image shows the inside of Mount St. Helens's crater. A red circle outlines David Johnston, who is a tiny figure climbing among the enormous dark gray rock walls.
USGS geologist David Johnston (red circle) sampling fumarole at the crest of the “bulge”. Image taken from hovering helicopter. USGS Photograph taken on May 17, 1980, by unknown USGS photographer. Image courtesy USGS.

And a May 2nd high-resolution thermal infrared survey undertaken by personnel from the United States Navel Academy, Whidbey Island, showed things heating up further. They found new warm areas in the middle, an anomaly on the south slope of the recently-created North Peak 2 and a much stronger one on its north slope, and several anomalies in the badly fractured upper end of the Forsyth Glacier. Something not far down was awfully hot, and getting hotter.

This, combined with other indications in that ominously quiet period between April 19th and May 7th, pointed toward a spectacular end to the show. The only questions, as the mountain swelled and earthquakes continued, were up, down or both?, how big? and when?

Looking at Mount St. Helens from a distant ridge. The volcano looks serene and is snowcapped. In the foreground is a geodimeter on a tripod.
Geodimeter station (EDM) set up at Smith Creek Butte, east side of Mount St. Helens. USGS Photograph taken on April 25, 1980, by Peter Lipman. Image courtesy USGS.

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

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



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 19th, 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 Only Way It Can Stabilize is to Come Down”
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6 thoughts on “Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Only Way It Can Stabilize is to Come Down”

  1. 1

    the United States Navel Academy, Whidbey Island

    Oy gevalt!

    There’s a difference between naval and navel. One refers to navies the other refers to belly buttons.

    The Naval Academy is at Annapolis, Maryland over 3000 miles (whole bunches of km) from Whidbey Island.

    The naval facility on Whidbey Island is an air station.

  2. 2

    Wow – with the bulge growing so quickly and knowing what we know now, it gives me the creeps just looking at those 2 guys in the picture working at the geodimeter station with the mountain looming in the distance. It’s hard to resist thinking out loud, even today, “Get out of there!!”

    Great story and photographs!

  3. rq

    Wow, you know, so much of this, I wish I could have seen it. From a safe distance. And knowing what I know (via you, Dana) about what’s about to happen.
    Alas, St Helen anticipated me by four years.
    (One of those photos, the set of six there, does have my birthdate on it, though… For whatever that’s worth.)
    I am once again still constantly impressed by David Johnston, and the things he did for Science.

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