Rebirth of a Volcano
By Elizabeth Rusch
Published in Portland Monthly magazine, May 2007
Where were you on May 18, 1980?
I was lying on my belly on the itchy blue carpet of our living room in Connecticut. As Mount St. Helens spewed ash and steam in a huge, black, billowing mushroom cloud, I inched closer to the TV screen. I was 13, awestruck, but somehow clueless that this volcano was in our country. I figured it was somewhere really remote, like Greenland.
So when my husband and I moved to Portland in 1997, I was stunned to see the volcano’s lopped-off peak looming over the city. The crater was like a gaping wound that I could reach out and touch. But all the ash that had rained down on Portland in 1980 was long gone, and the eruption seemed distant history.
That is, until 2004, when swarms of earthquakes signaled Mount St. Helens’ reawakening. On October 5, the volcano shot off its biggest plume since the 1980s.
A week later, the newspaper ran an aerial photo of a 100-foot-high, fin-shaped slab of solid magma jutting from the crater floor. A new lava dome. Mount St. Helens was shoving out enough solid lava to fill a house every ten minutes. The volcano was rebuilding itself.
I coaxed my four-year-old son Cobi into the car for the two-hour drive up to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument for a closer look.
At the Coldwater Ridge Visitor Center, we checked out some photos from 1980 –Mount St. Helens green and pristine, then gray like a decapitated corpse. Someone screamed: “We’re having an event!” The back of my neck prickled. Everyone froze. Do we crawl under the chairs? Run for our cars? Or press our noses to the window to watch? The rangers nudged us outside to witness the steam and ash eruption. Cobi clung to me.
He only relaxed when a ranger handed him a hunk of lava. “Brand new rock, born yesterday,” she said. “It was still warm when the scientist brought it to me.” Cobi’s eyes widened.
I thought: Someone went IN there?
At the gift shop, I couldn’t find a children’s book to satisfy my son’s –and my own –growing obsession with Mount St. Helens. So I decided to write one.
After a few calls, I learned about the USGS scientists of the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington. These volcano detectives risk their lives sifting through conflicting clues to give all of us living in the shadow of the Cascades some warning of violent volcanic eruptions.
I began interviewing the detectives about the science of volcano monitoring, about the ingenious gadgets they use, about the confusing signals Mount St. Helens sent when it first rumbled back to life in 2004. “Mount St. Helens went from being this volcano that was cool, that I was fascinated by, to something scary,” said seismologist Seth Moran, who was installing a monitoring station on St. Helen’s flanks when the volcano first spit steam three years ago. “I love working on volcanoes, but I don’t want to die working on them.”
When the forest service reopened the trail to the crater rim, I felt I had to see for myself all I’d been hearing the scientists describe. But I wondered: Is it responsible for the mother of two young children to climb to the rim of a dangerous, active volcano?
At the trailhead with my husband and another couple, I tried to avoid thinking about Mount St. Helens’ tremendous reach: Eruption ash plunging Spokane, hundreds of miles away, in darkness at noon. Mudflows dragging houses and bridges for dozens of miles. Avalanches of hot ash and gas blasting and singing everything in a ten mile radius. At less than five miles from the crater and closing in, we were well within range.
The first two miles of the climb wound gently though a forest. At tree line, fields of reddish-brown lava rocks rose to a blue sky. We scrambled over the porous boulders, using our hands and feet. I bent down to pick up smaller lava rocks –throwing them back again until I found pumice –as light as Styrofoam.
The ash fields lay ahead. The ground was soft and loose like white sand on a beach –but steep. Wind roared as we trudged through the volcanic powder. We rose above the clouds and spotted Mount Hood and the jagged point of Mount Jefferson to the south. Mount Adams appeared briefly before being engulfed in whirling clouds.
Steps ahead lay the sharp edge of the crater rim. Yellowish steam rose from the crater and our nostrils filled with the rotten egg stench of hydrogen sulfide. It smelled like burning and death, but I knew from the volcanologists that a sulfur stink was a good sign, a sign that gas was flowing freely out the vent, not trapped like before the 1980 eruption.
I dropped to my knees and crawled through the ash toward the precipice.
“Liz, back up, you’re scaring me,” my friend Annie whispered.
I was scaring me, too. But I had to see as much as I could. Mount St. Helens was growing back, shaping our very landscape. I could witness geologic history in the making.
I peered over the rim. The new dome was massive, a steaming, jagged arrow, pointed toward the heavens. Hissing fumaroles leaked billowing white and yellowish gas. Good God.
We heard a rumble.
Annie looked panicked, like she was going to choke on her gorp.
“It’s not an explosion,” I told her. “It’s a rock fall.”
The scientists told me about rock falls. When new lava shoves up from below, rubble at the top of the pile tumbles off, knocking other rocks down and kicking up ash. I pictured how the rock fall would be registered on a seismogram at the scientists’ monitoring station in Vancouver—its little squiggles, growing bigger and bigger, then petering out. Not at all like the dramatic spike of a large magnitude earthquake. Not at all like the rhythmic up and down of a harmonic tremor, the signature of magma on the move and a precursor to an explosion.
I felt safer knowing the Volcano Detectives were watching our backs.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” I told Annie.
But that wasn’t completely true. With an active volcano there are no guarantees. That’s why I both love and fear Mount St. Helens. But most of all, I respect it.
Mount St. Helens continues to pump out truckloads of lava every minute –and may rebuild to its pre-1980 glory in our lifetimes. When my kids are older, I’m going to bring them to the rim. And I hope Mount St. Helens is still erupting. It’s more dangerous, I know, but they’ve got to see this.