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Image of Mount Saint Helens as viewed from the west side (looking up the South Fork of the Toutle River Valley). This image links to a more detailed image.A Slumbering Volcanic Giant As seen in the pre-eruption photograph above, Mount St. Helens was once one of the most beautiful mountains in the entire Cascade range in the American Northwest. In 1805, William Clark in the Lewis and Clark expedition described Mount St. Helens as "perhaps the greatest pinnacle in America." Photo: Dept. of Natural Resources, State of Washington. Courtesy of NGDC/NOAA.

Image of buried cascade ashes between peat layers as they appeared in 1975.  This image links to a more detailed image.However, the serenity of the mountain and its surroundings was misleading. One of the Indian names for Mount St. Helens was "fire mountain," and local Indians were reluctant to approach the mountain despite the abundant game in the area. To the experienced observer, the conical shape and composition of rocks on the mountain boldly proclaimed Mount St. Helens' true nature--it was a volcano. Lava flows and multiple layers of ash (powdered volcanic rock) lay everywhere under the carpet of trees--abundant evidence of numerous prior eruptions. Volcanic deposits had literally reshaped the entire region around the mountain. Even beautiful Spirit Lake was a volcanic accident, created by a giant mudflow that rolled down the mountain about 3000 years ago and backed up a stream. Photo: University of Colorado. Courtesy of NGDC/NOAA.

Mount St. Helens was even intermittently active between 1832 and 1857, during the early stages of settlement of the area by Easterners. But the eruptions were small, and the mountain then "dozed off" for the next century. During this nap, small settlements became towns and towns became metropolitan centers like Portland and Seattle. These new neighbors of Mount St. Helens knew only the mountain in repose, and its violent past was largely ignored.

Image of Mount St. Helens showing an  ash-darkened east slope on March 30, 1980.  This image links to a more detailed image.The Awakening The quiet ended rather abruptly in March 1980, with a series of steam explosions and bursts of ash. The following narrative of events associated with the eruption of Mount St. Helens is provided to illustrate the potential dangers of an eruption from Mount Rainier. Photo: Dept. of Natural Resources, State of Washington. Courtesy of NGDC/NOAA.

Image of an eruptive cloud over Mount St. Helens which rose to an altitude of more than 12 miles in 10 minutes.  This image links to a more detailed image.During the months following the initial outbursts, volcanologists and seismologists watched the mountain closely. Small earthquakes accompanied the bursts and indicated the intrusion of fresh lava into the heart of the mountain. Enormous cracks appeared in the summit and sides of the mountain, and the entire northern face expanded outward some 450 feet. All of this initial activity was perceived by non-scientists as minor, so in spite of warnings and the designation of the mountain and its surroundings as a dangerous "Red Zone," tourists flocked to the area and evaded the overworked rangers to get a close view of the fireworks. Residents of the area were strongly advised to move away, but some refused to go. Likewise, some of the logging companies working in the area refused to shut down, claiming to "know the mountain." Volcanologists established several camps around the mountain to monitor its activity. To provide the necessary data, some of the camps had to be dangerously close to the mountain. The volcanologists who manned the camps in shifts knew their own peril. Photo: Dept. of Natural Resources, State of Washington. Courtesy of NGDC/NOAA.

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