Mount St. Helens: 40 Years Later

Remembering the deadly 1980 eruption in order to plan for a better future.

Posted May 17, 2020

Ilan Kelman
Mount St Helens, Washington viewed from Portland, Oregon.
Source: Ilan Kelman

The volcano Mount St. Helens in Washington state exploded at 8:32 a.m. on May 18th, 1980, exactly 40 years ago. Fifty-seven people died, including volcanologist David A. Johnston and ham radio volunteer Gerry Martin, who were monitoring the mountain. Remembering disasters and those who died helps us look to the future to try to avoid a recurrence.

Mount St. Helens rises to 2,549 meters in elevation in the Cascade Range which runs from British Columbia to California. Indigenous peoples are said to have called it the "fire mountain" and numerous eruptions are recounted in written histories, especially from 1800-1857. Many scientific studies had been published of its previous and potential volcanism.

On March 20th, 1980, a small earthquake shook the mountain, and steam was seen a week later. Within a month, the ground was rising on the mountain’s north face. All these signs indicate the possibility of a volcanic explosion. The earthquake could result from magma rising towards the surface leading to the steam release and the bulge on the surface. For the first time in over a century, would Mount St. Helens erupt?

The answer was a fairly confident "yes." But how and when could not be known. Many assumed a vertical eruption, in the classic image of an ash cloud rising from the volcano’s peak. Extensive mapping drew up danger zones, possible hazards, and expectations for the eruption, while continual monitoring tried to understand what was going on.

This work, including Johnston’s extensive communication with the media, was instrumental in emphasising the perils, aiming to keep people out of harm’s way. Residents were evacuated and roadblocks stopped access. But many people were drawn to the excitement of seeing a volcano in action, reveling in the disaster tourism. Around 20 of these tourists died for it when they ended up too close at the wrong time.

On that fateful morning, gases and magma rising inside the volcano trigged a tremor which led to landslides on the north slope. The removal of this material weakened the flank to the extent that the magma and gases could break through, seen as the colossal eruption—but directed sideways rather than upwards.

The massive ash cloud and pressure wave nearly took out a small plane with two geologists and their pilot who were observing the volcano. Pyroclastic flows—hot clouds of dust and gas—swept off the slopes, smashing and incinerating trees, and then jumping ridges which were thought to give some protection. Mudflows, called lahars, sliced through roads and knocked out bridges. People in the area were covered in ash and drenched in mud falling from the sky.

No trace of Johnston or Martin was ever found. Same with Harry R. Truman, a local character aged somewhere in his eighties who, with his cats, ran a tourist lodge by the mountain. He was ordered to evacuate, refused, and became a local hero for it.

How much do we have a right to choose the dangers, and our potential death, from volcanoes or other environmental hazards? Without his home and business, Truman felt that he would have had little, so he died with his small world. Johnston and the other scientists saved at least hundreds of lives, working in difficult conditions, dealing with the extensive publicity, fending off aggressive demands to open up the area just days before the eruption, and fully knowing the possible risks at a time when research on volcanoes about to explode was in its infancy.

Meanwhile, disaster tourists might or might not have been entirely aware of the threats and lethality. By trying to get close to the rumbling mountain, even sneaking around barriers, they possibly placed law enforcement officers in greater danger and pulled them away from other tasks, such as helping those who had evacuated.

Scientists such as Johnston, residents such as Truman, volunteers such as Martin, and tourists all made choices based on their judgment, risk assessment, and personal interest. Four decades after their harrowing deaths, their stories are kept alive and should be. Not to evaluate or to blame, but to remember them as human beings, to learn from what they went through leading up to their final moments, and to continue trying to save lives by preventing disasters so that no other families experience similar loss and grief.

Understanding the people, decision processes, and experiences places the environmental phenomena in the context of preventing a hazard from becoming a disaster. The knowledge gleaned from the post-eruption analyses has been applied in many other volcanic situations around the world, saving tens of thousands of lives from the Philippines to the Caribbean. Nonetheless, deaths continue.

One of which was the individual tragedy of a Mount St. Helens survivor. In 1979, Johnston hired Harry Glicken to help study volcanoes in Alaska. Both were diverted to Mount St. Helens where Glicken spent 12-17 May at a scientific observation post. He had to meet one of his professors on 18 May, so Johnston ended up replacing Glicken, despite Johnston’s unease about the safety.

Glicken felt immense guilt at Johnston’s death but continued his life-saving work in volcano science. He then perished on June 3rd, 1991 along with dozens of others when they were overcome by a pyroclastic flow from Mount Unzen, Japan. Glicken had reluctantly been convinced to replace another scientist on a visit to this volcano.

The lives and deaths intertwined with Mount St. Helens remain part of the lore of volcanology, disaster tourism, and disaster science. Forty years of knowledge has increased safety, with an immense amount of work yet to be done.

References

Glicken, H. 1996. Rockslide-debris Avalanche of May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens Volcano. United States Geological Survey (USGS) Open-File Report 96-677. USGS, Washington.

Holmes, M. 2019. A Hero on Mount St. Helens: The Life and Legacy of David A. Johnston. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois.

Jillson, W.R. 1917. "The Volcanic Activity of Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood in Historical Time". Geographical Review, vol. 3, no. 6, pp. 481-485.

Kelman, I. and R. Dodds. 2009. "Developing a Code of Ethics for Disaster Tourism". International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 272-296.