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Old June 30th, 2005, 11:02 PM
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SumTan's Pacific Northwest Trek - Part 5
On May 18, 1980, at 8:32 a.m., Mount St. Helens erupted violently, prompted by what many scientists believe was a magnitude 5 earthquake. This in turn triggered one of the world's largest landslides, resulting in more than 1,300 feet of the mountain's top falling into the valley below. The blast killed nearly every living thing in a 212 square mile area.


Early Activity: April 10, 1980
(Source: USGS)



Magma "Bulge" Grows Sideways: April 27, 1980
(Source: USGS)



The Day Before Eruption: May 17, 1980
(Source: USGS)

My original perception of the Mount St. Helens incident was that a volcano blew up, destroying a bunch of stuff around it. But in reality, a whole lot more actually took place. The earthquake prompted the landslides, which in turn allowed for the exposure of molten rock in the volcano, resulting in a blast occurring. The blast didn't go upward as we tend to think with volcanoes. Instead, it actually went sideways and blew out one whole side of the mountain where a bulge had been growing over time.


The Eruption: Front page of The Oregonian
(Source: NewsDesigner.com)

The blast took with it rocks, gas, and superheated steam, which ended up wiping out 150,000 acres of forests. The trees and vegetation closest to Mount St. Helens were obliterated into nothingness. A little farther out, the debris knocked over trees, resulting in mile after mile of logs pointing away from the area of explosion. Finally, when the radius of the blast had weakened, forces were no longer strong enough to knock down trees, but the heat scorched the trees, resulting in dead forests still standing. Mud flows and flooding of lakes and rivers washed out property away from the mountain.


Before and After the Eruption
(Source: USGS)

In the end, 57 people lost their lives after the 1980 eruption.

As we approached the location of Mount St. Helens, we traveled through lots of privately-owned land. In fact, most of it was owned by Weyerhaeuser, which has managed the St. Helens Tree Farm since 1900. After the eruption, nearly 14% of the farm was destroyed... close to 68,000 acres. Since logging is such a big industry in the Northwest, there is also a lot of controversy about it. While it does generate a lot of revenue, it also annoys those who lean more on the pro-environment plane of things.


Mount St. Helens during our visit

In any case, we could see signs posted along the sides of the road that noted when Weyerhaeuser had planted or harvested certain areas of the tree farm. Obviously, this was done to help improve public relations, as this really wasn't information that the every person needed to know. Christy defended Weyerhaeuser saying that they were probably one of the most responsible of the foresting companies. Who knows? They might be good or they might be evil.


Weyerhaeuser replanted a lot of trees

But one can't deny the vast amount of restoration work the company has done in the Mount St. Helens area. In the end, they replanted 18.4 million trees on over 45,500 acres, in addition to planting a whole heck of a lot of grass. (Incidentally, the company was able to recover 850 million board feet of lumber from the damaged trees after the 1980 eruption which, according to their PR spin, is enough wood to build 85,000 three-bedroom homes.)


Rental car at Mount St. Helens

But not all of the eruption area is being restored. In 1983, Congress established the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument to preserve the site around the mountain, allowing for natural processes to proceed, which in turn enables research and learning. This area covers more than 110,000 acres around the blast site. I found it interesting that this park falls under the U.S. Forest Service (and the Department of Agriculture) rather than the National Park Service (and under the Department of the Interior).

A highway was completed in 1992 allowing for visitors to access the site without damaging the natural restoration processes taking place. Beyond the eruption itself, the engineering of the highway is impressive in its own right! In any case, we continued on the long, winding road on our way to the volcano...

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