May 18, 1980: Mount St. Helens Erupts

Iceland has their volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which wreaked havoc recently. But we had our own natural disaster 30 years ago today when Mount St. Helens in Washington erupted, causing a massive avalanche and killing 57 people. Ash from the volcanic eruption fell as far away as Minnesota. Seismic activity at Mount St. Helens, which is 96 miles south of Seattle, began on March 16. A 4.2-magnitude tremor was recorded four days later and then, on March 23-24, there were 174 different recorded tremors. The first eruption occurred on March 27, when a 250-foot wide vent opened up on top of the mountain. Ash was blasted 10,000 feet in the air, some of which came down nearly 300 miles away in Spokane. The ash caused static electricity and lightning bolts.

Throughout April, scientists watched a bulge on the north side of Mount St. Helens grow larger and larger. Finally, on May 18 at 8:32 a.m., a sudden 5.1-magnitude earthquake and eruption rocked the mountain. The north side of the peak rippled and blasted out ash at 650 miles per hour. A cloud of ash, rocks, gas and glacial ice roared down the side of the mountain at 100 mph. Fourteen miles of the Toutle River were buried up to 150 feet deep in the debris. Magma, at 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit, flowed for miles.

Millions of trees were scorched and burned by the hot air alone. When the glacier atop the mountain melted, a massive mudslide wiped out homes and dammed up rivers throughout the area. The plume of ash belched out for nine hours; easterly winds carried it across the state and as far away as Minneapolis, Minnesota. The falling ash clogged carburetors and thousands of motorists were stranded. Fifty-seven people died overall from suffocation, burns and other assorted injuries. Twenty-seven bodies, including that of the stubborn Harry Truman, were never found. Mount St. Helens went from 9,600 feet high to only 8,300 feet high in a matter of seconds.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Congress established the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, a 110,000 acres area around the mountain and within the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Following the 1980 eruption, the area was left to gradually return to its natural state. In 1987, the U.S. Forest Service reopened the mountain to climbing. It remained open until 2004 when renewed activity caused the closure of the area around the mountain.

The Monitor Ridge trail, which previously let up to 100 permitted hikers per day climb to the summit, was closed. However, on July 21, 2006, the mountain was again opened to climbers.

Check out the web cam of Mount St. Helens.

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