Narrative of Mount St. Helens
The mountain and its surroundings were peaceful during the last century of settlement and development, but the serenity was misleading. To the practiced eye, the conical shape and composition of rocks on the mountain boldly proclaimed Mount St. Helens' true nature--it was a volcano. Abundant evidence of prior eruptions was apparent to anyone who cared to look. Lava flows and thick deposits of ash (powdered volcanic rock) lay everywhere under the carpet of trees. Even beautiful Spirit Lake was created by a volcanic accident, a giant mudflow that rolled down the mountain about 3000 years ago and backed up a stream. Photo: Courtesy of NGDC/NOAA.

The local Indians called Mount St. Helens "fire mountain" and were reluctant to approach it despite the abundant game in the area. The mountain continued to emit occasional bursts of ash and fire between 1832 and 1857. After that, Mount St. Helens "dozed off" for over a century. During this nap, Easterners migrated into the area and began a significant settlement.

The quiet ended rather abruptly in March, 1980, with a series of steam explosions and bursts of ash. During the succeeding months, volcanologists and seismologists closely watched the mountain. 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 of the mountain expanded outward some 450 feet. All of this initial activity was minor, and 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 them in shifts knew their peril. Photo: Courtesy of NGDC/NOAA.

On May 18, a quiet Sunday morning, a few volcanologists were at their stations, watching Mount St. Helens. A few tourists and loggers were also nearby. At 8:32 A.M., a small aircraft with two geologists aboard flew directly over the central cone. Eleven seconds later, a strong earthquake shook Mount St. Helens, and the whole north face of the mountain broke free and slid downward as a giant rock avalanche. In seconds, as the rock slid off the mass of hot lava inside the mountain, pressure in the lava dropped, and water dissolved in the lava turned into a superheated steam which fragmented the lava into a fine powder ash. This mass of super heated steam and ash blasted upward and outward over the top of the avalanche, roaring to the north and west at speeds reaching hundreds of miles an hour. The small aircraft avoided disaster by turning sharply south, away from the expanding ash cloud.

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