The Cataclysm: “One of the Most Dramatic Mass-Movement Events of Historic Time”

In memory of Dr. Harry Glicken, 1958-1991.

Dr. Harry Glicken, USGS. His work on the Mount St. Helens debris avalanche has greatly increased our recognition and understanding of these catastrophic events. Image courtesy USGS.
Dr. Harry Glicken, USGS. His work on the Mount St. Helens debris avalanche has greatly increased our recognition and understanding of these catastrophic events. Image courtesy USGS.

Eruptions seem like simple matters: pressure builds, something goes boom, lots of stuff comes out. But that’s not the story of every volcanic eruption, and it doesn’t capture the complexity by half. Pressure was building within Mount St. Helens. It had been booming, and promised a bigger boom, and delivered on that promise – but not in the way anyone expected.

Dr. David Johnston and his colleagues had expected the bulge to come down eventually – things that steep aren’t stable – but no one knew just how big that fall would be, or that it would only be the beginning of a complicated, cataclysmic chain of events. It would take painstaking geologic detective work on and around a still-smoldering volcano and some fortunate photos to piece the sequence together.

It began with an earthquake, an insistent 5.1 magnitude shake at 8:32:11 am. Jolting an already overstressed mountain causes issues: on St. Helens that morning, the heavily fractured summit split dramatically. In less than ten seconds, cracks raced one and a half kilometers (nearly a mile) across the apex of the bulge. This was Act I in a three-act landslide that would become the largest in volume in recorded history.

Mount St. Helens pre-eruption profile and diagram of May 18, 1980 debris avalanche. Detail of illustration by USGS geologist Lyn Topinka. I’ve added numbers labeling each landslide block. Image courtesy USGS.

Slide I, as Harry Glicken, Barry Voight and their colleagues named it, took the face off the mountain. It included broken blocks of old basalt and andesite flows, along with loose volcanic breccia, that had comprised the pre-eruption edifice. It took down Goat Rocks dome, and incorporated a chunk of the dacite summit dome. It hurtled down the mountainside at a speed of 50 meters per second (over 160 feet/second), accelerating as it went. Twenty-six seconds after it started, it had slid 700 meters (about 2,300 feet) down the mountain. As it fell, it ripped the confining pressure off the cryptodome that had caused all that dramatic bulging and the phreatic fireworks.

As slide I plunged, the summit area continued failing behind the brand-new, 600 meter (nearly 2,000 foot) landslide scarp. Slide II took down the rest of the summit north of the graben; it sliced deep, excising most of the rest of the summit dome and appreciable portions of modern St. Helens, and ripped out part of her ancestral heart. In the next eleven seconds, as the two slides moved downslope almost as one unit and stripped the cover off the magma of the cryptodome beneath, pressurized gasses found themselves free to expand. Water that had been heated to high temperatures by hot, fresh magma flashed to steam. Gasses in the magma came out of solution. And with the face of the mountain gone, steam and gas emerged sideways: the lateral blast had begun.

These illustrations show the landslide (green) and directed blast (red) that occurred during the first few minutes of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Before the eruption, an estimated 0.11 km3 of dacite magma had intruded into the volcano (equivalent to sphere about 600 m in diameter!). The rising magma forced the volcano’s north flank (right side of illustration) outward about 150 m and heated the volcano’s ground water system, causing many steam-driven explosions (phreatic eruptions). The hot magma and surrounding hydrothermal system were unroofed by the landslide (green), and the resulting rapid depressurization caused a series of steam- and volcanic-gas-driven explosions. The explosions burst through part of the landslide, blasting rock debris northward. The resulting pyroclastic surge quickly overran the landslide and spread over ridges and valleys across an area of 550 km2. Image courtesy USGS and Wikimedia Commons.

Those gasses propelled the slides: they were now screaming downward at speeds of 70-80 meters per second (230-260 feet/s), and covered the next 700 meters (2,297 feet) in 11 seconds. Portions of Forsyth Glacier broke free, cascading over Sugar Bowl dome. The remains of the mountaintop behind the slide II scarp came apart. We’ll never know the precise details of how it failed – blast clouds now shielded it from view – but we know this slide III contained the remains of St. Helens’s summit, including the hydrothermally-altered base of her summit dome. Brand-new dacite from the cryptodome mixed in with slides II and III.

2.5 cubic kilometers (.6 cubic miles) of Mount St. Helens thundered in to the valleys below.

As it hit the stream-carved topography below, the debris avalanche divided. One lobe leapt a 380 meter (1,247 foot) ridge, filling South Coldwater Creek’s valley with up to 195 meters (639 feet) of hummocky debris. It carried blocks of basalt and andesite up to 100 meters (328 feet) across. Pause for a moment to think of the kind of force it takes to transport massive rock that far from its source.

Image looks over the debris avalanche hummocks across the newborn Coldwater Lake. A snowcapped mountain range rises in the background.
Oblique aerial view of Coldwater Lake, which resulted when the debris avalanche of May 18, 1980, filled the Toutle River Valley, damming a side channel. (Photo by Lyn Topinka. Skamania and Cowlitz Counties, Washington. October 12, 1983. Image courtesy USGS.

Another lobe slammed into Spirit Lake. Its speed and bulk sent a catastrophic water wave up the ridges bordering the lake, mowing down any trees not felled in the blast for 260 meters (853 feet) up the slopes. Erosion happened in an instant as the lake water sloshed back and poured over the avalanche deposits. At the end, the lake stood 60 meters (197 feet) above its former level, choked with debris, covered in a raft of logs, a shadow of its former self.

Image looks across a flat sea of floating logs to the distant ridge.
View to west of Spirit Lake after May 18 eruption of Mount St. Helens. On May 18, 1980, part of the Mount St. Helens debris avalanche slid into Spirit Lake, raising its level nearly 60 meters and damming its natural outlet to a higher level. Water displaced by the avalanche surged up the surrounding hill slopes, washing the blown-down timber from the lateral blast into the lake. Skamania County, Washington. May 23, 1980. Image courtesy USGS.

The bulk of the avalanche headed for the North Fork Toutle River valley. It carried chunks of rock up to 170 meters (558 feet) across, and it didn’t stop until it had gone over 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) down the valley. It plowed up trees and hauled them along, leaving a distal deposit of chaotic logs, splinters, plowed-up soil, and other detritus at its terminus. Fragments of ripped-apart glaciers up to 12 meters (39 feet) across, were buried within. Debris up to 150 meters (492 feet) deep buried the river.

Image is looking up the North Fork Toutle River valley towards Mount St. Helens, which smokes in the distance. The area is stripped of trees and filled with mud and debris.
Aerial view east along North Fork Toutle River at Elk Rock bend. Hummocky avalanche deposit of May 18 filled the valley to 45 m average depth. This area is near the southern fringe of the blast zone. Photo by A. Post and R.M. Krimmel. Skamania and Cowlitz Counties, Washington. June 30, 1980. Image courtesy USGS.

Other units of the debris avalanche choked tributary valleys and clung to the remnants of the mountain. In the end, it buried an area of almost 39 square kilometers (15 square miles), leaving a lunar landscape of bumpy, jumbled rock, ice and dirt.

Image shows a portion of the North Fork Toutle RIver valley. There's no trace of the forest that was once there. Mounds of debris and flat-topped plains of debris, cut by gullies where the river is reestablishing itself.
Oblique aerial view of North Fork Toutle River valley, north of Mount St. Helens. Note topography of the blast material, large gullies cut by the subsequent mudflows, deposits of mud splashed on the hummocks of the blast material, and subsequent slumping of material into the gullies, creating natural barriers to flow. Cowlitz County, Washington. May 19, 1980. Image courtesy USGS.

When we think of avalanches and rock slides, we think of ice and snow, chilly stones, cool earth. We don’t expect intense heat. But this wasn’t an ordinary debris avalanche: it wasn’t just glaciers and old, cold rock coming down, but parts of the cryptodome. And that dome was hot – parts of its dacite ended up embedded in the avalanche deposit at temperatures above 600°C (1,100°F). The avalanche itself was heated by magmatic gasses and steam to temperatures approaching 100°C (212°F). Slides II and III, especially, were toasty – they incorporated appreciable bits of the cryptodome and the hydrothermal system that had developed around it, and they’d gotten mixed up with the blast cloud. They became large portions of the North Fork and Spirit Lake lobes. Measurements of the temperatures of the North Fork lobe ranged from 98°C (208°F) close to the mountain to 68°C (154°F) at its end. This smeared-out temperature profile wasn’t an effect of cooling in transit – the avalanche moved too fast for that, and there wasn’t enough mixing with surface water to cool it so drastically, so it’s likely hotter material from deeper within the mountain didn’t travel quite so far.

Image is a map showing the extent of the eruption deposits from Mount St. Helens, including lahars, pyroclastic flows, lateral blast, and debris avalanche deposits.
Diagram of the May 18, 1980 eruption deposits. Image courtesy USGS.

But some hot material was about to travel very far indeed…

Previous: The Cataclysm: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This Is It!”

Next: Interlude: “Lateral Blasts of Great Force.”


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

*Edited to correct unit conversions, with thanks to Lockwood DeWitt.


Originally published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

The Cataclysm: “One of the Most Dramatic Mass-Movement Events of Historic Time”

5 thoughts on “The Cataclysm: “One of the Most Dramatic Mass-Movement Events of Historic Time”

  1. rq

    That second-last black&white aerial view (east along the North Fork Toutle River) is just eerie, and dramatic. I love it.
    And this is one of those times where you (I) realize that ‘geological time’ is sometimes very, very fast. Not to mention impressively powerful – there’s that primal, new-earth feel to the aftermath: no life, anywhere. A brand new beginning.

  2. 3

    I think “geologic time” is long periods of nothing visible happening, punctuated by occasional instances of everything happening all at once. Either that or wibbley-wobbley, timey wimey….stuff.

  3. 4

    Ditto that black and white photo – fantastic! I try to imagine all the incredible force and fury and then…there it sits – taking a little puff on its cigarette.

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