Monday, August 11, 2003

"Captain Solo, it's possible that this mountain is not entirely stable."

Mt. Ranier, which looms over Seattle, has long been known to be a dormant volcano, and scientists now believe its chances of awakening are greater than they've previously feared.

This brings back some childhood memories. Back in 1980, when Mt. St. Helens erupted magnificently, I actually lived in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, about ninety miles or so away from that volcano. I recall a few Sunday drives into the Washington wilderness to see the mountain, and this is what it looked like:

On the first day that eruptions started, it wasn't much to look at -- basically a big hole opened up in the summit, and steam poured out of it. Those of us in the third-grade classroom watching this on the TV were slightly disappointed, as we had expected something like those ultra-violent eruptions of Hawaiian volcanoes, with gouts of molten lava spraying everywhere. A volcanic eruption without lava just seemed, well, pretty lame.

Until, of course, May 18th.

May 18, 1980 was a cloudy day in Portland, as I recall, so we couldn't see this eruption from where we were -- but several weeks later, on a clear day, there was a series of follow-up eruptions that likewise spewed ash miles into the atmosphere, and I recall standing around with a bunch of friends on our bikes, gazing northward at a sky much like the one above. It was utterly astonishing, and I've never forgotten it. Even though we were far enough south that we could not see the mountain itself, the tremendous ash clouds were clearly visible. There were other eruptions as well, and one occurred on a wet and rainy day when the winds just happened to be blowing south, so the ash settled directly on our town and those around it. Believe me when I say that shoveling six inches of snow from one's driveway is nothing compared to shoveling a mere one inch of volcanic ash. The stuff is heavy and simply does not move. Luckily, as I recall that was the only day when we got a lot of ash -- there were other days when we received a dusting, but little more than that.

My other memory of the Mt. St. Helens eruption was of news coverage of an old man named Harry Truman who operated a lodge on Spirit Lake, in the shadow of the mountain. When the eruptions began and officials began clamoring for the evacuation of the locals, Truman refused to leave. He died, along with his cats, on May 18th, killed by the mountain that had been his home. I recall news footage of Truman's sister being flown over the ash plain in a helicopter, wanting to drop a wreath on the site where Truman's lodge had been, and the pilot saying something like "I think this is as good a spot as any." Of course, with today's GPS technology, they'd be able to pinpoint the exact spot, I suppose. But back then, all they could do was make a rough estimate. I've always wondered if Truman's sister found any closure in watching that wreath bounce along on a featureless plain of ash.

Finally, there is Spirit Lake itself, which has made a remarkable recovery in terms of life since the eruption virtually sterilized the slopes of the mountain. A few years ago I watched a Discovery channel documentary on Mt. St. Helens, in which I learned that the geological upheaval of the eruption was such that the current bottom of Spirit Lake now lies higher than lake's former surface. This is Spirit Lake before the eruptions:

And here is Spirit Lake just three years ago (from this excellent general site about the mountain). Note that one end of the lake is to this day choked with floating timber from the trees flattened in the eruptions:

But the most awesome indicator of the destruction, the sheer power, that was unleashed in 1980 -- and a chilling indicator of what the environs of Mt. Ranier may one day look like -- can be seen in this image of Spirit Lake, just months after the eruptions:

The Lord of the Rings fan in me can't help but see this as Mordor. And that mountain in the distance? That's Ranier. Sleep well, Seattlites....

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