Forty-one years ago today, Mt. St. Helens in Washington erupted violently, laying waste to hundreds of square miles of surrounding forest and killing 57 people. Prior to the eruption, many months of smaller explosions and seismic events indicated that more serious eruption was coming. On the morning of May 18, 1980, an earthquake at 8:32am local time caused the entire north side of the mountain to slide away which created the largest landslide ever recorded. A column of ash rose 80,000 feet into the atmosphere and deposited ash in 11 states and 2 Canadian provinces. Glaciers on the mountain melted and sent huge lahars (volcanic mudslides) into surrounding rivers causing more damage.
For those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest, Mt. St. Helens is a very real reminder of the tremendous power of nature. Those who were here in 1980 tell of skies darkened by ash for days and engines choked and damaged by that ash. Almost everyone who lived here when the volcano exploded has a vial or jar of ash somewhere in their home as a memento from that time.
However, Mt. St. Helens is also a story of the amazing power of nature to heal and how humans can help. After the eruption, scientists were unsure about how long the forest would remain devastated. There were many dire predictions, some saying that it would take generations for the forests and animals to return. However, nature has pleasantly surprised us. In addition, those with financial interests in those forests got busy with one of the largest replanting efforts every undertaken. Spirit Lake, which is north of the mountain and was filled with debris after the eruption, was devoid of oxygen one month after the eruption. Just three years later, phytoplankton in the lake began to restore the oxygen levels and amphibians returned. Fish, restocked by humans, have also rejoined the lake’s community.
Many children are very curious about natural events like volcanoes, storms, hurricanes, and earthquakes. These natural phenomena provide a wonderful opportunity to teach children about natural cycles, weather patterns, safety and emergency preparation. While this interest can be driven by fear, knowledge often helps to calm that anxiety. Encourage exploration through age-appropriate books, websites and other media. Who knows? Perhaps your guidance as a parent or teacher will inspire a future volcanologist!