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Mount St. Helens: A Catalyst for Change

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The May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was

a seminal moment for volcanology


On that fateful morning, an earthquake and giant landslide

uncorked a lateral blast that flattened 230 square miles...

in a matter of minutes.


For nine hours after that, a vigorous eruption column

billowed into the atmosphere coating everything downwind

[0:00:46.89 .. 0:00:58.70]

with ash. Local rivers were inundated by mudflows and debris

flows that took out bridges and homes for miles downstream.


For two months prior to May 18, 1980 scientists with the

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


Pacific Northwest Seismographic Network were closely

monitoring Mount St. Helens.


C. Dan Miller:

But it was truly only the beginning of an eruptive episode that

lasted for over 6 years. So the first explosion occurred


on May 18 and then there were several sizeable explosions in

the summer of 1980 and they sort of trailed off until


October of 1980 and then for the next five years or five and

a half years there were a series of dome building eruptions


in which molten material came out, very viscous pasty lava

come out on the floor of the crater and piled up to form a


dome or a mound in the middle of the crater floor a feature

that’s now about 900 feet high sitting on the floor of the crater.


So, this episode at Mount St. Helens which began on May 18

actually culminated in October of 1986 when the last magma

[0:02:01.39 .. 0:02:04.92]

came out of the ground.



The volcano reawakened again in 2004 displaying another period

of dome building and smaller explosive eruptions.

[0:02:15.03 .. 0:02:22.58]

This resumed unrest was an opportunity for the scientists

to deploy new and improved monitoring equipment.


Dan Dzurisin

Today we deployed with a helicopter a multi-sensor instrument

package that was developed literally in the past week or at least


fabricated in the past week at the Cascades Volcano Observatory.

This was in response to what we’ve been learning at the volcano


over the past two and a half to three weeks. The first thing we

did was deploy ground deformation instruments


out on the outer flanks of the volcano and learned that

they weren’t moving. Then last week we deployed three GPS


instruments on the old part of the lava dome itself.

And discovered that it’s moving very little if at all at the


same time that the feature on the south crater floor is moving

by tens of meters and so we wanted to get instruments directly


on the part of the dome that’s moving so dramatically.

And so we very quickly put together a GPS sensor, a seismometer,


a tilt meter and a microphone, the microphone will record the

sound of explosions should they occur and that’s important if they


occur in the middle of night or in bad weather we’ll have some indication

that that’s what's happened and integrate that into our data stream.


We’d like to know for example is the deformation continuing?

Is the rate increasing or decreasing? How does the rate


correlate with seismic activity? When we’re having more

earthquakes is the ground deforming more rapidly or less


rapidly because it’s easier for magma to move up the pipe?

And therefore producing fewer earthquakes. We don’t know


such fundamental things. And understanding those kinds of

relationships is key to trying to interpret the processes that

[0:04:07.39 .. 0:04:14.51]

are going on understanding where the volcano might be headed

and therefore mitigating any hazards associated with future activity.



Volcano science and volcano monitoring have developed

impressively since May 18, 1980. Technology such as GPS,


infrared imaging, acoustic flow sensors and Dopler Radar

are just a few of the new tools available to the scientists.


They are studying hazards from lava flows to explosive

eruptions, mud flows, debris flows, debris avalanches and


airborne volcanic ash. The realization that volcanic ash can

stall a jet engine adds urgency to monitoring explosive

[0:04:53.39 .. 0:04:58.88]

eruptions and any ash clouds that may threaten aircraft.


In the US and its territories there are 169 volcanoes capable

of erupting. With responsibility for monitoring these


volcanoes the USGS now operates volcano observatories focused

on Hawaii, Alaska, The Cascades, Yellowstone and


Long Valley in California. One important aspect of this

operation is the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP)...


a team of scientists with a cache of monitoring gear that

responds to volcanic unrest across the planet.


Among the VDAP success stories was the forecasting of the

1991 Mt. Pinatubo, Philippines eruption in time to save

[0:05:42.78 .. 0:05:49.54]

thousands of lives and to evacuate planes and people from

US run Clark Air Base.


Awe inspiring, spectacular and scary all characterize the

eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980.


The human response to this catastrophic event has laid the

groundwork for saving lives and better addressing future

[0:06:14.23 .. 0:06:18.49]

volcanic eruptions wherever they might occur.


Title: Mount St. Helens: A Catalyst for Change

Description: The May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens triggered a growth in volcano science and volcano monitoring. Five USGS volcano observatories have been established since the eruption. With new technologies and improved awareness of volcanic hazards USGS scientists are helping save lives and property across the planet.

Location: Skamania County, WA, USA

Date Taken: 5/11/2010

Length: 6:46

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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Tags: Johnston MountStHelens NPS ash earthquake geology hazards history lava monitoring seismographs volcanoes


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