18 May, 2010 – 12:39 pm | Filed under geology, memories | No Comments »
Today’s the 30th anniversary of the eruption that has gotten me hooked on geology for life. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention it somewhere more permanent than Facebook.
These facts are well-known, but restating them doesn’t hurt. After a long period of dormancy, Mount St. Helens began showing signs of reawakening in March of 1980. In the weeks leading up to the major eruption, there had been emissions of ash and steam and occasional lava flows (the Cascade volcanoes are not the kind to have viscous lava flows the way the Hawaiian ones do), and magma started pushing its way up underneath the north face at a rate of 1.5 meters per day, creating a massive 450-foot bulge high up on the north face of the volcano.
At exactly 8:32 AM Pacific time on the 18th of May, 1980*, an earthquake occurred directly below this massive bulge. It all gave way and the largest landslide in recorded history occurred as the north face tumbled down, propelled in part by the forces under the volcano. Once the north side started giving way, a lateral blast of over 600 miles per hour exploded across the land to the north.
USGS volcanologist David Johnston had stepped in at the last minute for volcanologist Harry Glicken to keep watch on MSH’s north side on the 18th. At precisely 8:32, the Cascade Volcano Observatory received a radio transmission from Johnston: “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!” He would have been directly in the path of the blast, and his body was never recovered. (In a cruel turn of events, Glicken himself was killed in a pyroclastic flow, along with 40 others (including famed volcanologists/volcanophotographers Maurice and Katia Krafft), in a major eruption of Unzen-dake in Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan in 1991.)
All told, the eruption killed 57 people, nearly all of whom were outside the prescribed “red zone.” It leveled over 200 miles of forest and sent ash hundreds of miles away. It continued to erupt over the next few months before finally quieting until a few years ago, when it began to reawaken in 2004–though with none of the ferocity of the 1980 eruption–and has been classified as active ever since.
*I’d seen sources when I was younger cite it at 8:29 or 8:30. I held out hope that it was actually 8:29, since that’s my birthday.
It was thanks to a children’s book by Patricia Lauber–Volcano: The Eruption and Healing of Mount St. Helens–that I discovered volcanoes and volcanology. I stumbled across it in the library of my elementary school and have no way of knowing exactly how many times I read and reread it, but one thing was certain: I was hooked. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became (and fearful at times; during my silliest moments in the 6th grade, I remember having nightmares of being caught in an eruption at Mt. Vesuvius near Naples, Italy, and wondering if the hill my parents lived on was a volcano in disguise).
It wasn’t until 2003, however, that I finally saw my first volcano, which did happen to be Vesuvius. My family traveled to Italy for a week, and we took a day trip to Naples, Pompeii, and Sorrento. I remember being instantly transfixed upon getting my first glance of Vesuvius. It had a presence. It was something I’d always felt subconsciously–volcanoes have had an enormous impact on the lives of humans, who have revered them for centuries–but actually seeing this beast hulking on the other side of the bay, looming over this bustling metropolis, sent a tremor of fear through me. Our bus took us right around the base of the volcano, past the remnants of hardened lava flows from the 1970s, and on to Pompeii. Our time there was short, but I was constantly aware of the Vesuvius volcanic system* hovering, almost as a presence over everybody’s shoulder. At least to me, it cast a rather menacing light over the ruins of Pompeii, especially when we saw the plaster casts of the victims. (They were buried in ash and hot pyroclastic flows which buried them and then hardened, but their bodies were burned and/or disintegrated over time within these masses and left behind hollow spaces that scientists then filled with plaster. They were uniformly cowering, doubled over, and suffering. It was possible to even see people’s facial expressions, because that’s how tightly the ash pressed against them.)
* In many cases, a volcano isn’t just a singular peak. There could be several openings in the earth’s surface that have built themselves up into adjoining volcanoes. In the case of Krakatau in Indonesia, there were four adjoining peaks. Typically just one will be active–the other’s either dormant or extinct–but in the cataclysmic eruption of Krakatau, all four awoke, erupted, and exploded, in the loudest series of noises heard in recorded history.
When I went to Japan two years later, I spent much of my first year locally, still settling in and adjusting, but my second year was when I started taking trips all over the country to view volcanic regions. I did visit Unzen, the town where 41 people died in 1991. The whole town just reeked of sulfur, as it gushed out of fumaroles referred to as “jigoku” (“hells”), and it was obvious that the earth was truly alive there. I also visited Aso, the volcano that created the Japanese island of Kyushu–it took me three tries before I could make it up to the crater and look in at the volcanic lake bubbling just 100 feet below me, though. And there was, of course, Sakurajima, one of Japan’s most active volcanoes. On the ferry ride back to Kagoshima City, it put on a small show and had a minor ash eruption.
I also visited (in passing) Yufu-dake, a rather gnarled looking volcano between the cities of Beppu and Yufuin in Oita Prefecture, the Usu volcano between Sapporo and Hakodate in Hokkaido (the adjoining town was where I lost my cellphone, one week before I was set to return to the US–they have a great little volcano museum there, with incredibly helpful staff), Bandai (when visiting my good friend Louise in Fukushima Prefecture, who had a good view of it from her kitchen window), and I passed Fuji-san a few times while riding the shinkansen. There were a number of failed trips, too; the time I visited Kagoshima, I was going to try to see at least one other volcano on the southern tip of Kyushu, but a typhoon foiled my plans. And I ran out of time and didn’t get to see Osore-zan (where it is believed the spirits of the dead, including dead children, come to rest) when I was traveling through northeastern Japan.
Well, anyway. I’d love to go back and spend weeks, if not months (cumulatively), taking in all of Japan’s volcanoes someday. And there are many more around the world to explore, too.
Despite seeing volcanoes in Italy and Japan, I still have yet to see any here in the US. I thought I’d be able to pull off a trip to Seattle–I really hoped to be at Mount St. Helens right now–but it fell through, which was really disappointing, but probably for the best, as I’m gearing up to move to Philadelphia later this week for a summer internship.
Now, I still read every volcano and geology book I can get my hands on (well, mostly–I sometimes avoid ones with slightly sensationalistic titles, like those that refer to Yellowstone as a ticking time bomb–ugh). Some authors have done fantastic jobs of contextualizing eruptions. While the science is fascinating on its own, understanding their impact on humanity is huge. Two books I really enjoyed were No Apparent Danger by Victoria Bruce, recounting the human side of the eruptions of Nevado del Ruiz (which unleashed a mudflow that silently killed over 20,000 in the town of Armero in Colombia) and Galeras (another Colombian volcano, which erupted while scientists were actually in the crater examining it)–focusing both on the victims and on the fallout in the scientific community–and Volcano Cowboys, which dealt with the impact the St. Helens and Pinatubo (Philippines) eruptions had on the science of geology.
The best I’ve read, though, was Simon Winchester’s book on Krakatoa, explaining in precise detail the societal, historical, political, and economic climate, and how the paroxysmal eruption of Krakatoa did much, much more than just devastate the region physically: he argues that it was a tipping point in making visible the resentment of the local Muslim population towards the imperialist European presence, and that we’re still feeling the waves of that situation today.
The more I learn, the more I understand that volcanoes are so much more than cracks in the earth’s surface through which molten rock and gasses escape. There are two levels I would love to learn more about: the actual geological processes (as in, reading textbooks on volcanology, geochemistry, the convection currents within the mantle that lead to plate tectonics, and so on) and the human story (not just death tolls and land that was devastated, but the presences volcanoes have had historically and mythologically, and all the good they can do, since volcanic soil is among the most fertile on earth). I can’t wait to learn more.
And it all comes back to that one book in my elementary school library. I’d love to write Patricia Lauber a letter and personally thank her for introducing me to something so phenomenal about our world.
Many people ask me why I’m not a geologist now, since people who do have such a strong interest in something so niche like this tend to follow through with it. I did think about it, and I definitely have thought about it more over the last couple of years, but I’ve been interested in so many things that it was hard to pick one. I’m content, though, with letting this be an intellectual and “romantic” hobby (not in the sense of love, but in the sense of fantasy and imagination)–it makes for interesting vacation stories, at least. :)
And of course I don’t mean to ignore the negative human impact. Nearly sixty people did die in this eruption. Hundreds and thousands of other people have died in other eruptions. Volcanoes are deadly. But if not for this eruption and others following it, the science of predicting eruptions may not have improved to the same degree. Even with St. Helens, they were lucky that the eruption happened on a Sunday and not a weekday, when many more people potentially could have died.
But fortunately, the damage to human life was not as bad as it could have been. The region itself is healing. Volcano forecasting and monitoring has become a higher priority in many regions of the world (Bobby Jindal can suck on that). We’ve learned from these disasters and eruptions and have hopefully averted major loss of life since then. Volcanoes can’t be tamed or controlled, but if you read the signs properly, they can be anticipated. It’s been amazing to learn about.
And it all comes back to this eruption. It has been responsible for so much. I am grateful for the personal impact it had on me and for this whole side to the world it has helped me to discover. Our planet is truly an incredible place.