Mount St. Helens – the Power of Nature

Where were you on the morning of May 18, 1980? Unless you were living in the Pacific Northwest, the date probably holds little memory. That was the morning Mount St. Helens erupted. It’s hard to believe it’s been 42 years.

I remember watching the news, seeing the photos, and being unable to grasp the enormity of the blast’s power and its destruction. Here are some statistics from Rob Carson’s book, Mount St. Helens: The Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano, 35th Anniversary Edition.

  • A bulge on the northwest flank had been increasing at a rate of 5 feet per day since late April. Sections were 450 feet higher than weeks before. A magnitude 5.1 earthquake a mile below the mountain shook the bulge loose.
  • The blast zone around Mount St. Helens affected by the heat and force of the eruption was 234 sq. miles.
  • The eruption continued pumping for 9 hours producing a black cloud that held somewhere between 1.7 and 2.4 billion cubic yards of material.
  • Height of the ash plume was 16 miles.
  • The eruption spewed 540 million tons of ash, which fell over an area of more than 22,000 sq. miles.
  • Mud from the eventual mudslides sloshed 360 feet up the sides of the valleys and rolled over hills 250 feet high.
  • 4.7 billion board feet of lumber was destroyed.
  • Mount St. Helens was reduced in height by 1,313 feet. On May 17th, Mount St. Helens was Washington’s fifth-highest peak at 9,677 feet. She fell to thirtieth-highest at 8,364 feet on the 18th.
  • The blast killed 57 people.

A Google search states the blast was equal to 10-15 megatons of TNT, or equal to 25,000 atomic bombs released over Hiroshima.

Then Carson writes, Flowers were bursting out of the ash a week after the eruption.

At first reading that too was unbelievable, but then I thought of how vines grow up and in abandoned buildings, pulling them down, and reclaiming that patch of ground. It was fascinating reading in Carson’s book how a few colonies of pocket gophers were the heroes of regeneration because they were still burrowed and for the most part escaped the effects of the blast. It was because of their scurrying underground that rich soil was brought up and fungi spores were released. Their droppings became mounds of fertilizer for windborne seeds to take root. There were other survivor and colonizer species that immediately began the work of recreating what was lost. The tenacity of nature should never be underestimated.

An old Webster defines awe: a profound and reverent fear inspired by deity. Another source defines it as a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear and wonder.

I visited Mount St. Helens last October and it wasn’t just the power of nature in the blast that held me in awe, but even more so the power of nature’s recovery. The element of reverence was stronger than fear and wonder, and the mountain herself remains beautiful. Photos above and below are from my trip.

Even from miles away in the car she’s an impressive sight.

There is a blast zone and a scorch zone. In the blast zone everything was obliterated, or charred – like the rocks. In the scorch zone trees were killed by the heat but the force wasn’t strong enough to knock them over. Hurricane force winds twisted other trees.

These photos are from the Mount St. Helens National Monument several miles away. Can you imagine all of that covered with old growth forests? Can you imagine it looking like a moonscape, as President Carter described it? Those ravines and gullies were created by the lava flows and mudslides and are really deep.

In the aftermath of the blast and mudslides, different groups had different ideas on how best to recoup and control the land. The results are a contrast in man’s influence and nature’s own course.  Trees planted by a logging company seven years after the eruption, were harvested in 2020. While nature’s course is much slower, many of the animal species have returned, just in smaller numbers, and some won’t return until conifers are large to be used as habitats. There’s still debate about which process is better overall.

This is Clearwater Lake, which didn’t exist before the eruption. One can see the rocks and trees at the bottom. Mount St. Helens’ blast changed the geography for miles.

It will be a hundred years before the natural progression of recovery completely disguises the scars of the 1980 eruption. I won’t be around to see that, but I hope to return in the spring or summer when the lupine, Indian paintbrush, and other flowers cover the landscape with color.

The course of nature is the art of God ~ Edward Young

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4 Responses to Mount St. Helens – the Power of Nature

  1. Claire L Poulson says:

    Kim, I grew up camping with parents and grandparents under the near perfect symmetry of St. Helen’s snowcapped dome. I was in Newport, Oregon, with my Mom and Step dad and Daddy’s best friend when she blew some 30 years later.
    Thank you for this nice piece you wrote about her. So happy you got to know her and her revelations over subsequent decades.

    • Thank you, Claire. What a special connection you have with this majestic mountain. I looked up Newport OR and see you were only about 230 miles away when she erupted. Were you in the path of her ash fall? I’m looking forward to going back. I think Mount St. Helens is one of those natural wonders you never tire of seeing.

  2. Wow! Kim! I never knew! I heard about Mount St. Helens eruption–but that was clear across the country–and didn’t seem to effect me. Thanks for the info and for the photos!

    • Hi Martha, you’re welcome! My photos don’t do the mountain, the terrain, and the impact justice. I can’t wait to go back. It really is hard to get a grasp of something like that when it happens so far away, isn’t it. I remember when Hurricane Hugo hit here and months later when people were still struggling and clean-up was still going on, but we were no longer the headline, that people not in this area didn’t have an idea of how devastating the damage was and why things weren’t back to normal yet. I’m glad I could bring Mount St. Helens a bit closer to you.

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