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Mount St. Helens: May 18, 1980

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The eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980 was one of the most

dramatic geologic moments in American History.

It was a Sunday morning.

8:32 AM

"Vancouver, Vancouver. This is it" was the excited call on the radio

from David A. Johnston to his colleagues.

Within minutes the colossal eruption had caused 100’s of millions of

dollars in damage and 57 lives were lost...including Dave Johnston.

For two months prior to that eruption geologists with the

U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Washington’s

Pacific Northwest Seismic Network had been closely monitoring

the volcano.

Don Swanson

all the deformation on the mountain was local to the mountain and

even more local than that was on the north side of the mountain only.

C. Dan Miller

In the nearly two month period before May 18 what was essentially

happening at Mt. St. Helens was that magma or molten material

was moving up from some deep reservoir beneath the mountain up

into the volcano itself...and it began to grow and form what

we call a dome or cryptodome inside the volcano and that

inflating body of magma or molten material actually broke the

north side of the volcano and began to cause the north side of

the volcano to expand out toward the north.

Norm Banks

We were measuring the rate of northward movement of the bulge at

about six feet a day. And we knew that wasn’t so good.

C. Dan Miller

On the morning of May 18 I was driving up Interstate five heading

up to the north side of Mt. St. Helens with some parts and some

batteries for out timelapse cameras. And as I glanced over at

Mt. St. Helens it was a beautiful blue sky day and the mountain

was sitting out there and suddenly I saw this mushroom cloud go

up above the volcano and climb rapidly into the stratosphere.

Don Swanson

I was down in the room where the seismographs were at 8:32 in

the morning and I heard a sound and I just looked over my

shoulder, probably just a split second after the big earthquake

had started and saw that this was something very large larger

than we’d seen before, watched it for a few seconds just to

confirm that and then I ran upstairs to the next floor up to

the radio desk of the forest service and called Dave.

And what I wanted to do was to ask him if anything was happening

at the mountain. And we couldn’t get through there was no answer.

C. Dan Miller

So, I guess I had the realization right away that this was

some kind of tragedy. And on the one hand it was this huge and

interesting magmatic eruption and on the other hand I was

pretty certain that something terrible had happened to Dave so

it was a strange day for me. Don Swanson And uh we were off the

ground probably at 9 oh five or something like that.

It was really really rapid. And got up to the point where we

could really see the mountain well I suppose between 9:20 and 9:25

Something like that.

Don Swanson There was terrific, very vigorous vertical eruption

column that was the stem of the mushroom or the toadstool it then

blossomed out at greater height.

Don Swanson

And, for most of the morning we saw this...tremendous ash cloud

roiling out toward the northwest and I can only assume that

that was coming off of the big pyroclastic flows that were going

off in that direction that later built the pumice plane.

It was a very eventful morning but it was sobering because I

remember thinking up in the airplane that Dave just couldn’t

have survived this. Especially when we got around to the west

side and saw all the ash heading in his direction.

C. Dan Miller

On the morning of May 18th what actually happened...the landslide

basically uncorked this pressurized body of magma and allowed it

to explode or expand out towards the north very rapidly,

this is what we call the lateral was a horizontally

directed explosion of incredible magnitude it caused this

expanding cloud of ash rocks and gases to move out across

the countryside to the north at speeds of several hundreds of

miles an hour. The directed blast was really the most

destructive event that occurred on the morning of may 18.

It completely destroyed an area of 230 square miles in a

matter of somewhere between five and nine minutes.

It essentially killed every living thing within an area of

230 square miles. And it destroyed hundreds of acres of

virgin forest and was an incredibly spectacular event.

Don Swanson

We put out new stations and we quickly started to re-monitor the

volcano again because we had no idea what was going to happen.

C. Dan Miller

Before the dust had literally settled in the summer of 1980

there were usgs scientists swarming all over the area outin the

blast zone studying the pyroclastic flows studying the debris a

valanche deposit studying the directed blast.

Don Swanson

We thought it was likely that there would be more

eruptions during the summer and indeed that took place.

C. Dan Miller suddenly this immense black eruption cloud came

pouring out of the white layer, the cloud tops and I couldnt

believe my eyes I thought this is the most incredible thing

I've ever seen in my life.

Norm Banks

We learned a lot about how you interact with the civil defense

with the public with the press, and that was transferred by

the press to the world and as a result volcanology took a

quantum leap in science as well as applicability to societies needs.

C. Dan Miller

The subsequent eruptions were actually most of them were

forecast fairly accurately by the USGS team of scientists so

when it looked like another explosion was about to take place

our helicopter crews would pick us up and we'd move to the

outskirts of the blast zone we'd watch and photograph the new

eruption as soon as the eruption stopped we'd race out there

and study the deposits while they were still hot just after

they'd settled onto the ground. So, it turned out that the

six years that Mt. St. Helens was erupting in the 1980's was

an opportunity, an unprecedented opportunity for USGS scientists

to study hot fresh young and exciting deposits from explosive

vulcanism. And we learned incredibly new and important bits

of information about how volcanoes like Mt St Helens work,

what kinds of deposits are produced during these explosive

eruptions and how to anticipate and mitigate the

consequences of explosive eruptions.


Title: Mount St. Helens: May 18, 1980

Description: USGS scientists recount their experiences before, during and after the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Loss of their colleague David A. Johnston and 56 others in the eruption cast a pall over one of the most dramatic geologic moments in American history.

Location: Skamania County, WA, USA

Date Taken: 5/11/2010

Length: 7:30

Video Producer: Stephen M. Wessells , U.S. Geological Survey

Note: This video has been released into the public domain by the U.S. Geological Survey for use in its entirety. Some videos may contain pieces of copyrighted material. If you wish to use a portion of the video for any purpose, other than for resharing/reposting the video in its entirety, please contact the Video Producer/Videographer listed with this video. Please refer to the USGS Copyright section for how to credit this video.

Additional Video Credits:

Producer: Stephen M. Wessells
1980 Eruption Footage: Don Swanson
Original Graphics: Lisa Faust
Interview Producer: Ed Klimasuskas
Photographs: Lyn Topinka, C. Dan Miller, Tom Casadevall, Rocky Crandell, Mike Doukas, Dan Dzurisin, Harry Glicken, Robert Krimmel, Peter Lipman, Austin Post, J.G. Rosenbaum, Don Swanson, David Wieprecht and others from USGS.
Additional Info:

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