Mount St Helens: The Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano

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9781570612480: Mount St Helens: The Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano

Where were you on May 18, 1980, when Mount St. Helens erupted? Author Rob Carson's essays, accompanied by incredible photos, outline the events leading up to and following the eruption, with a special look at the 20-year process of the mountain's rebirth. As plants, insects, animals, and people have reclaimed Mount St. Helens, the mountain remains a looming reminder of an event that changed the face of the Northwest.

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At 8:27 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Washington State's Mount St. Helens stood at 9,677 feet; in the next five minutes the mountain lost 1,300 feet, blowing its top in a blast so powerful that trees toppled 17 miles away. Hurricane-force winds stripped the soil from nearby ridges and hillsides, leaving bare rock. All plant life for miles around either vaporized or tore away from the surface of the earth. Once-pristine alpine lakes were transformed into "tea-colored swamps." Volcanic ash shrouded four states like snow while an ash plume high in the atmosphere circled the globe. All told, "57 people were dead, along with millions of birds, deer, elk, and fish." No longer would Northwesterners regard the chain of glacier-clad peaks extending from British Columbia's Mt. Garibaldi to Northern California's Mt. Lassen as benevolent dollops of recreational fun. For the first time they would see these peaks for what they are: volcanoes that could actually erupt. For scientists, Mount St. Helens would provide an ever-changing laboratory for study; indeed, important advances have been made in any number disciplines, from seismology to ecology.

Along with remarkable before-and-after images (including the famous Rosenquist photos of the initial blast), Rob Carson's 20th-anniversary retrospective captures the human drama leading up to the eruption and two decades of subsequent scientific discovery in its aftermath. The idea of a volcano erupting in the continental U.S. was certainly novel at the end of the age of disco. Washington governor Dixy Lee Ray hoped "to live long enough to see one of our volcanoes erupt." Sightseers rushed to the mountain, buying T-shirts with premature slogans like "I Survived Mount St. Helens." Harry Truman, "crotchety octogenarian" and whisky-packing owner and operator of the Mount St. Helens Lodge, made headlines by refusing to leave his home, claiming "that mountain will never hurt me." Truman perished under several hundred feet of ash. A geologist named David Johnston wasn't supposed to be near the mountain that day, but as fate would have it, he traded shifts; his last words shouted into his radio were "Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!"

While the human element figures prominently in Carson's book, the truly amazing story is the one of postblast ecological recovery. Take the humble pocket gopher: those that survived began mixing ash with underlying soil, playing a critical role in making the land suitable once more for plant and animal life. Unbelievably, just three years after the eruption, 90 percent of plant species and nearly all mammals had returned to the most devastated areas. Scientists quickly learned that recovery, rather than depending on colonizing species from outside the blast zone, relied largely on species that never left--like hibernating frogs and toads, lucky pocket gophers, and countless subterranean insects. Of course, life outside the blast helped, too; the woolly bear caterpillar parachuted in to reclaim territory and windblown fireweed seeds soon blossomed in the pumice. And meanwhile, the mountain itself (called "Fire Mountain" by the Native American Klickitats) is rapidly growing once again. --Martha Silano

About the Author:

Rob Carson is author of The Living Mountain, a children's book about Mount St. Helens. He is a feature and environmental reporter for Tacoma's Morning News Tribune.

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