Forty Years Ago Today: The Cataclysm

“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”

– Last words of USGS volcanologist David Alexander Johnston, 8:32 am, May 18th, 1980

Dave Johnston would be 70 today, if he hadn’t been up at Coldwater II, watching the volcano. He should have been safe: before they’d chosen the site, they’d investigated the ridge and determined Mount St. Helens hadn’t done anything particularly terrible to it for thousands of years.

Dave had thought there was a chance she’d blow laterally, like Bezimiany volcano on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. But volcanoes rarely erupt sideways, and when they do, it’s seldom with such force. Miles away, high on a ridge where lahars couldn’t reach, they thought it would be okay. It’s never safe in the Red Zone. But for science, for public safety, you take the calculated risk.

You can never know for sure. And sometimes, like Dave, you end upon the fatal side of the calculation.

Today, take a moment to honor all of the volcanologists who have sacrificed their lives in the quest to further our understanding of these beautiful, dangerous mountains.

Dave Johnston collecting samples from the crater of Mount St. Helens, April 30th, 1980. Credit: Rick Hoblitt/USGS

* * *

Her name in Whulshootseed is Loowitlatkla: Lady of Fire. She and her fellow volcanoes Rainier, Adams, and Hood had been active for as long as Native Americans inhabited the region, giving rise to numerous legends. Most involved love triangles. All of them involved fire and thunder, the vivid violence of eruptions.

Loowit had been peaceful for over a century before she awoke again in the spring of 1980. At first, she merely rumbled, clearing her throat. Many residents thought she’d put on a few flashy shows, then go back to sleep. Her bulging north flank, growing at alarming speed, told volcanologists otherwise. That flank wasn’t stable. It was going to come down, and when it did, the magma beneath it would come roaring out.

She’d had a relatively quiet couple of weeks. Then came the morning of May 18th, and the earthquake, and the blast.

Before and after. Credit: Dee Molenaar/USGS

* * *

I think most of us who were old enough to form memories remember that day.

I was five years old, living in Arizona; one of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor in front of our huge cabinet television, watching the billowing clouds of gray ash fill the screen. It seemed like the ash would envelop the entire world. Newscasters told me that Mount St. Helens in Washington State had erupted. I grabbed construction paper and crayons, and made the volcano a get-well card – it looked like it hurt!

Our neighbors went up later that summer. They came back with samples of fine gray-brown ash and stories of mind-boggling devastation. We lived in the heart of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. I had three volcanoes framed in my back door. I never saw them the same way again.

Changes wrought by the May 18 eruption. Credit: Dee Molenaar/USGS

* * *

Volcanology was a young science then. Mount St. Helens gave it a growth spurt. We learned so much about explosive volcanoes that spring and summer. Four decades later, she’s still teaching us. She’ll have given countless new lessons by her 50th,75th, and 100th anniversaries.

You can see some of those lessons in my series about the 1980 eruptions. (And I swear I’m going to finish it before her 50th!)

The scientists who work with her and volcanoes like her are giving many splendid talks today. You can find links to them here.

When we’re able to travel again, you may find yourself wanting to visit her. My guide to the west side is here.

I’ll have a post up with a selection of excellent books about the volcano later today, and we’ll have some videos and documentaries up later this month.

And let’s take a moment today to honor Dee Molenaar: mountaineer, USGS geologist, artist, and author. He died in January at the age of 101. His gorgeous art graced many papers, helping us visualize the extraordinary changes wrought by the May 18th eruption. Thank you, Dee!

Mount St. Helens, from March to mid-May 1980. Credit: Dana Hunter. Paintings by Dee Molenaar


Forty Years Ago Today: The Cataclysm