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Mount St. Helens: Destruction and Rebirth

Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. It was the most destructive volcanic eruption in recorded US history. At 8:32 AM, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake occurred, and the north face of the mountain collapsed. The massive landslide was immediately followed by the forceful release of lava, pulverized rock, and volcanic gases. The pyroclastic flow traveled at over 600 miles per hour, killing 57 people and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of animals within the blast zone. Estimates are that over 11 million fish perished. For many miles not one living thing above ground survived. Two hundred houses, twenty-seven bridges, fifteen miles of railway, and 185 miles of highway were destroyed.This public domain photo shows the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, May 18, 1980.

Recently I visited my son in Portland, Oregon, and we traveled to the Mount St. Helens area with Eco Tours of Oregon. As we drove up to the volcano we listened to recordings of eyewitness interviews and police dispatches, and we got a sense of the human and ecological tragedy. 

Even now, thirty-two years later, the evidence of destruction is widespread, but so are signs of rebirth.

Here is the view of Mount St. Helens from our hotel room in Portland:The volcano is located in Washington, about 50 miles northeast of Portland, but through a zoom lens, it looks much closer!

Views of the volcano as we traveled closer and then into the blast zone, which covered 245 square miles:

Here are telephoto views into the volcano's crater. I took these shots from Johnston's Ridge, named after David Johnston, a young volcanologist who died there. Several smaller eruptions have occurred since 1980, the latest in 2008. There are glaciers inside the crater, and in the center a new dome growing. Looking closely, one can see steam arising from vents:

Many of the downed trees were removed by loggers after the eruption, but the remnants of others remain as silent witnesses to the devastation. Multitudes of trees were snapped off near the ground, and their stumps persist, dotting the hills like tombstones.

But amidst the decaying debris, there is life. After the eruption, there were survivors who had been protected in underground burrows and beneath the surface of waters, including rodents, frogs, salamanders, crawfish, and various insects. Some of these survivors pushed underground seeds toward the surface, where they sprouted and began to grow. Other seeds arrived on the wind or in bird droppings. A new landscape gradually emerged, and birds and other animals found homes there.

A number of lakes formed after the eruption. Coldwater Lake is one we visited:

Castle Lake, seen in the following photo, is another new lake created by topographic changes:

Visiting Mount St. Helens was a humbling experience. I was struck by the sobering power and regenerative forces of nature and by the supreme beauty of the area. It is a tour I highly recommend.


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Reader Comments (20)

Stunning sceneries and arresting photos there Debs! Amazing how it has changed the scape of the surrounding area with the mighty force of the eruption, and how visible the destruction is still.

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

The amazing power of the planet! Great post beautiful photos Deb!!

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEve

What amazing photographs, nature in the raw indeed. The power of nature is so strong and we are just like little ants in comparison. Wonderful to hear of the small reptiles and mammals that survived underground and to see the small plants recolonising the landscape. What a memorable trip.

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPauline Mulligan

Deb I hope to visit Oregon in the future and will add this to the must see list. Back in the turn of this century while flying to Seattle, I saw the magnificent sight of the Cascade peaks and Mt St Helen's was one...it was inspiring from afar... unbelievable pictures of nature...it touched my soul.

I remember the weather patterns in the whole of Europe were also effected by the eruption. Natural disasters like this are, as you say, humbling experiences. The place is really beautiful now. Christina

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

What a beautiful illustration in words and images of nature's power, glory and regeneration. Volcanoes are particularly impressive as teachers. I've seen and marveled at Kilauea, where flowers sprout from shoe-burning smoldering crust.

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLee May

We visited there a few years back and like you stood in awe as we realized the extent of the devastation as well as the realization that life goes on and a new eco-system begins. Glad you were able to visit.

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Chapman

Wow, it is impressive looking, even now. It is amazing to see such a change in landscape, brought about by such powerful forces of nature. The scenery is so beautiful, though still rather haunting with all those tree stumps.

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIndie

How beautiful, I love your photos. We were stationed with the Military in Tacoma around 1985 and we did visit, but it sure looked different back then.

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGone Tropical

I had the opportunity to visit Mt. St. Helens before it erupted, but have not been back since that time. I can remember how devastating the blast was to so many. It is truly amazing how nature reclaims her land, and how so many animals can thrive after a catastrophe of this magnitude. I enjoyed seeing the photos.

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHolleyGarden

Wonderful post and photos, Deb! Encounters with nature such as these are always awe inspiring.

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBom

Very interesting facts and fabulous photos, Deb! And isn't it incredible how plants and flowers fight their way through ash and lava to grow again…amazing!

July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAstrid

A fascinating post, Debs! Thanks for sharing!

July 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJack Holloway

Those are fantastic pictures! What an amazing trip and awesome sight. It's encouraging to hear that there are signs of life!

July 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbumblelush

I remember it well and truly appreciated your storytelling of the disaster. Thanks also for sharing your very special pictures.

July 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlistair

I read about the eruption, but had no idea where in the US Mount St Helens might be. I'll remember this post next time I read a blogger from Portland!

The power of nature is an awesome thing. Your photos illustrate that beautifully.

July 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay

I remember when Mount St. Helen's finally erupted. I was still living in England, but the news of the devastation was global. We were window shopping for property around Portland a couple of weeks ago, and when I was perusing the maps I saw just how close the volcano is (relatively speaking) to the Portland area. I hadn't actually thought of it much in recent years, so it was very interesting to read your post, and see the photographs of the area today. I can understand why you felt humbled. Nature has an incredible way of making us feel very small and powerless sometimes, but it's also amazing to see so much beauty come out of so much absolute destruction.

July 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCurbstone Valley Farm

Beautiful post, Deb. I really enjoyed it. It is amazing how nature could be so subtle sometimes and so tough some other times, certainly a place to see and knowing the history it has is even more fascinating.

July 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteralberto

Deb, thanks for this post. I was born and raised in Washington and the eruption of Mt. St. Helens is one of my most vivid childhood memories. I remember playing outside that day and then all at once everyone's parents started calling their kids inside. Within minutes the sky turned dark and it started snowing ash. We were at least 300 miles away from the volcano but we must have received 6 to 12 inches of ash. I remember the fathers in the neighborhood wearing masks or bandanas tied around their faces while they shoveled or swept ash off their driveways. Kids weren't allowed outside for days on end and when we were let out we also had to wear masks to protect us from the toxic ash.

July 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChad B
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