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  • John J King II

Spring in the Shadow of Mt. St Helens

Thirty six years ago Mt St. Helens exploded. For about sixty days the volcano had been giving clues of a pending event - starting with a 5.1 magnitude earthquake on March 20th, 1980. Scientists mobilized into position to study this active phase of a volcano that had not had a major eruption since 1842. Residents were evacuated; instruments and cameras were put in place and scientists waited. But in spite of the significant signs no one was really ready for the massive explosion that occurred May 18, 1980. On this day, a second earthquake, of magnitude 5.1, triggered a massive collapse of the north face of the mountain and Mt St. Helens literally blew its top off rocketing more than 1300 ft of rock and debris along with volcanic ash and gases into the atmosphere.

USGS Photograph taken on May 18, 1980, by Austin Post

USGS Photograph taken on May 18, 1980, by Austin Post

It created the largest known debris avalanche in recorded history. The magma in St. Helens burst forth into a large-scale pyroclastic flow that flattened vegetation and buildings over 230 square miles. The eruption killed 57 people, nearly 7,000 big game animals (deer, elk and bear), and an estimated 12 million fish from a hatchery. It destroyed or extensively damaged over 200 homes, 185 miles (298 km) of highway and 15 miles of railways. (credit Wikipedia for these factoids) Though living in Seattle at the time we were away on May 18,1980 and did not return until several days after the eruption.

In the many years since - we had not visited the area so when we had the chance recently under beautiful blue April skies, we seized it and spent a few days scouting this wild area in the SW corner of Washington State.

Below is what the area around the mountain looks like now. Pretty fact trees that were planted by Weyerhauser after the eruption are now starting to be harvested. The lumber mills are active. The valley below hides the original river beds that are now buried under more than 150 feet of mud and debris which engulfed the valley in the days after the eruption. Hard to imagine the destruction now. The landscape in the valley below the mountain though obviously recovering was completely changed forever.

st helens

Photo taken from the north about seven miles away from the center of the crater.

Photo taken from the west about 15 miles away

We took advantage of the many sloughs and waterways of the Columbia River basins west of the volcano to observe the many migrating birds that are either passing through or returning to the Cascade region to perform the annual rites of spring.


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