Monday was the 40th anniversary of the United States’ worst-ever volcanic event disaster. In 1980, Mount St. Helens in Washington state erupted. Another eruption of sorts, the coronavirus outbreak, stopped big plans to mark the date.
Mount St. Helens is an active volcano located 50 miles from Portland, Oregon. The mountain is known for its frequent ash explosions and pyroclastic (rock fragments from a volcano) flows.
However, it’s best known for a major eruption on May 18, 1980. That blast was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history.
The Mount St. Helens eruption blew more than 1,300 feet off the top of the mountain. Volcanic ash rained down for hundreds of miles. Sadly, 57 people died. These included campers, hikers, photographers, scientists, and an 83-year-old lodge owner who refused to heed warnings to leave the mountain.
The eruption produced huge, black and gray clouds of ash. They rose more than 80,000 feet into the air and eventually rained tiny granules of debris in cities and towns throughout the Northwest.
The peak had experienced many smaller eruptions in the weeks preceding the big event. Within minutes of a 5.1 magnitude earthquake that hit at 8:32 a.m., the volcano’s north flank collapsed. The shaking triggered a vast landslide. The explosion scorched and flattened about 230 square miles of dense forest.
The eruption was physically and economically devastating. But it will also go down as the event that caused researchers to study American volcanoes in earnest.
Despite the historic nature of the date, there were no public ceremonies at the volcano on Monday. Oregon Public Broadcasting reports the main highway into the national volcanic monument is closed due to virus protocols. Multiple visitor centers and museums that had planned remembrances are also shuttered. Several agencies did present talks and experiences online.
“We’ve been thrown for quite a loop here,” says Washington State Parks interpretive specialist Alysa Adams. “Please stay tuned for next year because I think we’re going to take all of this energy and passion and turn it into something productive for the 41st anniversary.”
Experts say Mount St. Helens may not be done yet. In the early 2000s, a lava dome began to rise in the volcano’s crater. It built slowly over three years during an eruption period from 2004-2008. Since then, Mount St. Helens has been relatively calm. But experts warn that it’s only a matter of time until the mountain could blow its top.
(Mount St. Helens sends a plume of ash, smoke, and debris skyward as it erupts on May 18, 1980. AP Photo/Jack Smith, File)