A Subtle Passing

I couldn’t figure out at first why looking back at Mount St. Helens’ eruption on May 18, 1980, seemed a little special this year.

NASA Earth Observatory, CC BY 2.0

Sure, that zero in the “40 years since” headline feels very satisfying, but so did the “30,” “20,” and “10” milestones.

And none of them meant more to more people than 1981’s single digit: “1 Year Ago Today.”

In 2020, for some reason, it now feels more personal and newsworthy again, but not for the same audience or for the urgent reasons of 1980.

I think it’s because I’m getting old.

Today’s generation — people up to, say, their 40s and 50s — sees Mount St. Helens as the site of an interesting historical event and a good travel or field-trip destination.

To many who commute or travel up to Portland, Oregon, from the south, this Cascades volcano has always looked the way it does today, like an old giant in the distance, its back to us, wearing a white shawl of snow and ice over its hunched shoulders.

National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia, public domain.

The postcard-pretty Mount St. Helens.

That’s what seems legendary to many of us now.

As a society, we have moved on. And this is right and proper.

But some people, aged 60-something or more, see Mount St. Helens a little differently. I am one of them, but not for the reasons you might expect.

Blast from the past

Back in 1980, I was living on the East Coast and so wasn’t affected personally. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even care about the eruption — I was focused on returning to college.

The Adirondack setting helped. Though I didn’t take any pictures in those years, the college sits on a lake like this. (Image: Joel Hawtof, CC BY-ND 2.5)

I was accepted and got my associate’s degree in forestry but was a mediocre student at best.

Coming in ten years older than everyone else left me out of the social scene and with more time to read and to explore (sometimes at the expense of classwork, unfortunately) all of the wonders of geoscience that, 40 years later, have led to this blog.

I still had to earn a living, though, so a couple of years of undergraduate geology studies came next. That didn’t work out for me personally, but it also was not a good time to study geology without a specific focus or burning urge to learn something (two qualities that geoscientists working the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption had in abundance).

Geology, as a discipline, was in an uproar over plate tectonics theory just then.

It was a different time. But science, when done well, provides the sturdy footing for future workers, no matter how well or poorly its results hold up. (Image: Wikimedia)

Nowadays it’s hard to explain the earlier view of earth processes, in which things like mountains and basins move up or down but things overall are fairly well-fixed. Let’s just say that this theory was well reasoned out and had broad consensus.

The notion (about two decades old when I first heard of it) that Earth’s crust is broken up, like an eggshell, into plates whose complex interactions can shape landforms was heresy to many older geoscientists.

And their reaction just made the plate tectonics people more adamant.

As a geology student in the early 1980s, I just nodded politely to everyone without committing myself to either side and spent my work study hours arranging fossil displays in the department showcases. (Being unaware of the work of Stephen Jay Gould and others, I thought paleontology was safe from controversy.)

Anyway, I eventually went into another line of work. The plate tectonics people were able to support their basic claims, and here we are today.

Mount St. Helens and volcanology

In brief, I saw a little of the 60s-style revolutionary upheaval that plate tectonics theory caused in geology.

And Mount St. Helens blew its top in the middle of all that!


It was a very difficult time for everyone, including the scientists.

And my small experience of the broader controversy is what made Dick Thompson’s Volcano Cowboys resonate for me. Those times were so crazy, but so important to geologists.

There apparently isn’t an eBook version, but here is an interview with the author. It’s 20 years old, and the “conehead/meatball” thing doesn’t seem to exist any more, at least from an outsider’s viewpoint.

Everything was so contentious 20 years ago, 40 years ago, even 60 years ago!

The book is worth reading, if you can find a copy in your library or online.

He goes into details about the state of geology/volcanology around the time of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption, as well as the personalities involved.

I knew what he was talking about, and given that basis, I began to see how activity at Mount St. Helens, and the necessary human responses to it, got volcanology moving into its modern roles.

As a specific example, in those days volcanologists trained on Hawaiian volcanoes because these were frequently active.

An explosive, subduction-zone volcano was a whole ‘nother beast, especially at a time when not all earth scientists agreed that subduction zones and other plate tectonics features really existed.

It took a while for people to realize there was this difference and to work out the appropriate monitoring procedures for these high-risk volcanoes. But ramping up of activity at Mount St. Helens meant there was little time available for it.


Sampling Hawaiian volcanoes was much easier. Today, thanks in part to lessons learned at Mount St. Helens, people don’t have to do this any more.

Another example: The book isn’t in front of me just now, but I recall Thompson describing how “gas sniffing” with CoSpec was pioneered at Mount St. Helens.

You’ll hear “gas sniffing” mentioned in the video below, which the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network released on May 18th, a few days ago.

The video goes into a little more detail on the influence Mount St. Helens eruptions have had on volcanology.

But first, let’s settle what seemed so subtly different about the 2020 commemorations.

Letting go

On watching this video, it struck me for the first time just how young, energetic, and eager everyone was back then.

And how old our whole generation is now.

It’s a fanciful notion, probably, but I think I see special warmth and excitement in these recollections, perhaps based in an unacknowledged understanding that, in a few more decades, living memory of an amazing moment when human history (the revitalization of Geology through a new way of seeing things) and Earth processes (a violent eruption that forced volcanologists and emergency managers through steep learning curves) briefly intersected.

Results of this impact still continue today, and Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes need continual watching, but the main players in that long-ago event have been gradually letting go.

To them, too, it’s now history, though they must see a very different monument when they look at that white-shouldered giant hunched over in Washington State, just across the river from Portland, biding its time until the next eruption.

There are other good reasons to watch this long video (about 90 minutes):

  • The Mentos-Coke image that resembles a Plinian eruption column, part of a very easy-to-understand first section on what’s going on geologically here in Cascadia.
  • Seldom seen images of the 1980 eruption, including one taken by someone flying over the summit just as the landslide began (their story is in Volcano Cowboys; they survived the subsequent blast, but it was a close thing). There are also scary before-and-after pictures of the bulge area from just a few hundred feet away, and much more
  • Descriptions of more recent eruptions — yes, Mount St. Helens has been very active since 1980!

The Q&A session isn’t on YouTube yet.

The one thing they miss is how Mount St. Helens’ eruptions in the early 2000s popularized volcano cams. I lived through and enjoyed that!

The US Forest Service had a cam on Mount St. Helens in those days but it went dark at night. Technology was more primitive then.

Then, as a dome-building eruption happened, the camera had just enough infrared capability to pick up some incandesence in the crater.

It was only a few pixels, but this thing went viral. Glow! At Mount St. Helens!

As I recall it, the popular response swamped the USFS online cam setup. They improved that to meet the new traffic. As well, many scientific volcano cams were made public.

Worldwide lay volcanophiles have a special reason to thank Mount St. Helens. (Though, ironically, those webcams no longer seem to be available.)

So, where are we now?

The cowboy spirit is still around, however. (Image: Bill Johnson/USGS)

Scientists have so much more information available to them now.

They no longer climb into steaming volcano craters or venture out onto fresh pyroclastic flow deposits for data.

There are volcano observatories and other scientific organizations in the world, as well shared databanks, satellite monitoring, and an assortment of very advanced technologicsl tools.

There are also more questions and, possibly, the occasional sinking feeling in a modern volcanologist whenever the enormity of how much we still don’t know about volcanoes sinks in.

I do not know what the future holds for today’s scientists.

But what a legacy the volcano cowboys and cowgirls have passed along!

Featured image: Tusharkoley/Shutterstock

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