Saturday, 17 May 2014

Nature's Fury Unleashed



Mount Adams, left, and Mount St Helens, right
(Photo taken by the writer from 30,000 feet in 1973)
Forty-one years ago, February 1973, I took a quick trip with a friend to watch the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Winternationals in Pomona, California. I was living in Regina, Saskatchewan at the time and my friend and I were huge car enthusiasts with our own souped-up, small-block Chevys. Hi-lift camshafts, headers, Holly carbs. The works. We were two wild and crazy, single guys out for a good time. And it was my first time ever in the air. I couldn’t wait.

We took off from Regina, then switched aircraft in Vancouver. About an hour into the second stage of the flight, heading south, I looked out the window to the east, somewhere near the Washington-Oregon border. To my surprise, I saw two snow-capped mountains out there by themselves, several miles apart, with no other peaks around for miles. That was kind of different. So, I snapped a picture with my Pentax 35mm reflex camera equipped with a 105mm medium-range telephoto lens. I didn’t think that much about the two mountains again until a few years later…

By 1976, I was married and about to start a family. My wife, Bonnie, and I moved to Southern Ontario. In May 1980, we--four of us now--returned to Regina to visit my parents, relatives and friends. We were there for a day or so, when we heard the news about the massive volcanic eruption of Mount St Helens in Washington State. While seeing pictures on TV of the mountain and what it looked like before the explosion, I immediately thought of the photo I took from 30,000 feet seven years before.

About two days later, we woke in the morning to a dull-gray, smoky sky over Regina. According to the local news, some parts of the province southwest of us reported light ash powder on cars, wheat fields, and houses. The next day, my mother remembered that the bottom of her shoes were coated with a gray dust as she arrived at work. Amazing, because we had to be a good thousand miles away from the explosion! Then we heard stories about different mountains passes in the Pacific Northwest where the ash cloud was so thick that the visibility was down to a few feet!

When I return to Ontario a week later and found the particular picture that I had snapped in 1973, I realized I had taken a shot of the cone-shaped Mount St Helens before the eruption and a neighboring mountain off in the distance (which I discovered just this year is Mount Adams).

Mount St Helens is an active volcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc, 96 miles south of Seattle, Washington and 50 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon. The eruption was no freak accident by any means. The Cascade region is a ticking time bomb of dormant (at least for now) and semi-dormant volcanoes. The Arc stretches as far north as British Columbia and as far south as Oregon and northern California, about 700 miles long, and is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire that contains 160 volcanoes bordering the Pacific Ocean.

Inside the Cascade Volcanic Arc are 18 significant mountains that have had eruptions in the last 4,000 years, with seven of them in the last 200 years. The northern point is Mount Silverthrone in British Columbia, about 200 miles northeast of Vancouver. California’s Mount Lassen, which has seen eruptions in both 1914 and 1921, is the southern-most point. In between (besides Mounts St Helens and Adams) are such familiar peaks as Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, Mount Hood and Crater Lake.

The name Mount St Helens was given to this volcano back in 1792 by British explorer Captain George Vancouver of the Royal Navy, who dubbed the peak in honor of Alleyne Fitzherbert, the British Ambassador to Spain at the time who also held the title of Baron St Helens. For hundreds of years, the native Indians in the Pacific Northwest had been calling Mount St Helens “Louwala-Clough,” meaning “smoking mountain.” Others since had nicknamed it “Mt Fuji of America” because of its cone-shaped resemblance to Japan’s beautiful Mt Fujiyama, sixty miles from Tokyo, a volcano in the Pacific Ring of Fire that last erupted in 1708. In addition, Captain Vancouver named three other Cascade mountain peaks--Baker, Rainier, and Hood--in honor of British naval officers.

Then it all came to a head Sunday morning, 18 May 1980 at 0832 hours Pacific Time to Mount St Helens, a volcano that had been dormant for 120 years. For weeks, scientists had noted a distinct bulge on the north side of the mountain that eventually grew to over 400 feet across. Then either the eruption set off a 5.1 Richter Scale earthquake or the earthquake set off the eruption. No one really knows for sure what came first. Two months before, the area had been hit by an earthquake that some scientists thought had actually triggered the volcanic activity in the first place.

Mount St Helens in 1982, two years after the eruption (United States Public Domain)

Once all hell broke loose that Sunday morning, everything happened simultaneously. Rock and ice sped down the mountain at 150 miles per hour. A fierce cloud containing ash, magna, rocks and sand soared skyward. In 15 minutes, the cloud reached 80,000 feet,  with speeds closing in on Mach 1. One hundred-foot-high trees as far as 17 miles from Ground Zero were flattened. In minutes, 230 square miles of lush, green forest became a wasteland. The sound of the eruption was heard as far north as Seattle and as far south as Los Angeles, while some people in close proximity to the blast didn’t hear anything because the sound waves soared straight up, then out. There’s a term for it--acoustic shadows. This phenomenon had made its presence known during the American Civil War, when bystanders  could see the smoke, gun blasts, and cannon fire of a fierce battle from a nearby hill and not hear a sound; while other people miles away could hear the same battle as if it was in their back yard…

On Mount Adams, 30 miles away, a group of mountain climbers dove for cover as ash and pebbles rained down on them. The ash cloud transferred towns and cities throughout Washington from day to night in a matter of minutes, and clogged car air filters, thus bringing the vehicles to a standstill. Up to six inches of ash fell on the ground as far away as Oklahoma, almost 2,000 miles southeast.

Mount St Helens’ majestic 9,677-foot summit was quickly no more. Over 1,000 feet of the magnificent cone disappeared, leaving behind a half-mile-across crater. Fifty people were killed, 250 homes were destroyed, along with 15 miles of rail tracks, 47 bridges, and 185 miles of roads. There were 125 survivors of the blast. Thousands of animals died, including 7,000 elk, deer and bear. The dust cloud spread across the United States in three days and around the world in 15 days. Sediment settled on 11 states and four Canadian provinces. It was the worst destructive volcano in United States history, as well as the costliest volcano, with the final tally reaching $1 billion in damages. A hefty figure even today.

Since the Mount St Helens 1980 eruption, Congress has as set aside funds to monitor volcanoes in the Cascades, including observatories in several areas on the west coast. There are now 120 full-time federal volcanologists on staff with the US Geological Survey to keep an eye on these dormant monsters.

In the last 30 years, the Mount St Helens area has been hit with a series of small earthquakes and some mini eruptions from  2004 to 2006. Today, 34 years later, the region is slowly coming back to life. Evergreens and wild flowers are growing again, and wildlife has returned. All creatures great and small--insects, deer, squirrels, and chipmunks can be seen.

Will Mount St Helens ever blow again? Many scientists seem to think so. But they can’t say when. Maybe, decades from now. Or another hundred years away. But what about the other 17 volcanoes in the Cascade Arc? Will one of them come back to life? Who knows.

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