Before erupting in 1980 in an explosive cloud of ash, Mount St. Helens was a popular landmark for hiking, camping, and exploring. People were actually climbing the mountain at the time of its eruption. Since it’s formation in the Cascades, it has been the most active volcano in the entire range. Named after the British ambassador to Spain in the late 18th century, this one volcano has helped to transform the landscape of the entire Pacific Northwest.
1. A Massive Eruption For Sure
Oral traditions from Native cultures talk about how Mount St. Helens had a massive eruption that is estimated to have been 4x larger than the eruption that occurred in 1980. So large was this event, in fact, that the tribes in the area had to abandon all of their hunting grounds and relocate to new areas along the coast to avoid the fallout from the mountain. That’s pretty impressive considering the world’s largest terrestrial landslide, reducing the summit of the mountain by 1,300 feet, happened in the 1980 eruption.
2. Summit Life Survived
What is most remarkable about the eruption in 1980 of Mount St. Helens is that life near the newly created summit was able to survive despite the violence of the event. Hidden beneath a protective layer of snow, plants and trees found new foundations within the soil and were able to help stabilize the mountain over the next several years. Add in the spiders and scavenging beetles that came back just a week after the eruption and life soon return to the mountain.
3. A 4 Year Eruption
The 1980 eruption isn’t the last event that Mount St. Helens experienced. It was continually erupting, in fact, from 2004-2008. The lava domes that were created from this eruption actually divided the Crater Glacier into separate glaciers, which then moved down the slope of the mountain for several days before finally converging back together in 2011. The eruptions in this 4 year period also caused the mountain to lose another 0.5 inch of altitude.
4. Costly For Sure
The final cost of cleanup when Mount St. Helens erupted was $1.1 billion, which still makes it the costliest volcanic event in US history. In total, 57 people were killed when the mountain erupted and the hot ash caused numerous forest fires. More than 900,000 tons of ash were deposited around Washington State – ash that can still be purchased today in the form of sculptures from local artists. The eruption was the first in the United States since 1917 if Alaskan volcanoes are excluded from the statistics.
5. A Popular Website
If you don’t have the nerve to climb up a volcano that has a recent history of eruptions or the skills to plow through the snow levels at the summit that can be 15 feet deep at times, then you can still enjoy the sights of Mount St. Helens. The Johnston Ridge Observatory has a webcam placed to observe the mountain that will let you see it in all of its majestic glory at any time of day.
6. Observed in Real Time
What is remarkable about the 1980 eruption is that it was witnessed and documented in person. A couple, Dorothy and Keith Stoffel, were conducting an aerial survey of the volcano. They noticed a landslide begin to form and then, within seconds, the whole mountain seemed to be moving. As they passed the east side of the mountain, the entire north face collapsed and a lateral explosion was generated. Keith put their plane into a steep dive and Dorothy photographed the entire eruption during their successful escape.
7. True Darkness
In the minutes after the eruption, the sky began to grow so dark from the dust, ash, and smoke that city lights began to turn on around the area. This even happened in Spokane, which is more than 300 miles away from the volcano. The eruption was dangerous, but so were the hot mud flows that were coming down the mountain at over 90 miles per hour. Hundreds of homes were lost, but the science of volcanoes was greatly advanced that day. Now at the David A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory, located in Vancouver, WA and named after a USGS researcher who was killed in the eruption, all of the volcanoes in the US and the Ring of Fire are constantly monitored.
Mount St. Helens may have changed the landscape of the region, but for a major volcano that is consistently active, it has taken remarkably few lives. Once known as the Mount Fiji of the Americas, this mountain is a national monument that hundreds of thousands of people visit every year.