Mount St. Helens, +30 years

By Phil Plait | May 18, 2010 7:00 am

I was going to write something up about Mount St. Helens, which erupted 30 years ago today. But then The Big Picture went and did an incredible retrospective of it, so I’ll just send you there. Here’s a taste:


If you’ve ever wondered what my nightmares are like, you’re looking at one.

I’ll add that a few years ago, when I still lived in California, I flew up to Seattle for a meeting. I literally gasped out loud when I saw the volcano out my window. I stared at it for as long as it was visible. The whole story was laid out clearly for anyone to read it: the side of the caldera was collapsed, and I could see the long run out from the lahar, the mudslide that followed the eruption. Even nearly three decades later the devastation was incredible. Over 3 cubic kilometers (0.67 cubic miles) of rock and ash blew out of the volcano that day.

You can read about the details of the event on the USGS site and on their 30th anniversary page. It’s a hair-raising story. [Edited to add: This NASA series of pictures is also way cool.]

And by the way? The volcano is still active. Have a nice day.

Image credit: USGS.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (39)

  1. *snark* It’s still active? Did we learn that from “something called volcano monitoring” or is that just a guess? 😛

  2. Peter F

    As scary as that eruption was, I think most of us in the Seattle area are more worried about a megaquake and to a lesser extent, our closer active volcano, Mount Rainier.

  3. Heh. Grew up in Yakima. St. Helens cut short my senior year in high school by a couple of weeks. Still have wee little bags of ash my dad and I collected when it first started falling from the weird, grey sky. We thought they’d be collectible items. Heh. Dumb us.

    Favorite memory #1: strange pink lightning going off overhead, triggered by the static generated by all the falling particles.

    Favorite memory #2: the neighbor’s yard lamp across the street, totally disappearing as the ashfall became so thick you couldn’t see ten feet in front of you.

    Favorite memory #3: my mom panicking every time I’d go outside during the ashfall. When I opened the door, I was “letting all the oxygen out of the house.” Heh. Moms.

  4. Richtpt

    I was in high school in Portland/Beaverton when it blew. It was an amazing sight, we have photos from our backyard deck. THANKFULLY the wind blew most of it away from us – had it blow our way Portland would have been a serious disaster! As it was, we had plenty of ash to scoop up and cause problems. Still, it was really something to see! One more thing – we didn’t hear the blast. People in Salem did, but we didn’t.

  5. rob

    i went to Olympia in the mid 90’s to meet some friends. we drove up to Mt St Helens to check it out. it was overcast that day (surprise surprise) and we couldn’t see the mountain. as we were driving up i kept asking. “so, where is it? is that it?” while pointing at some smallish peaks. my friends kept saying that it has been a while and they are not sure. as we were getting within several miles of the visitor center the clouds parted for about 30 seconds and revealed the volcano. my jaw dropped. it ate up the whole sky! it was HUGE! then the clouds masked it again. it was AWESOME.

    when we left the visitor center and drove away the clouds cleared and the sky was open and blue. we were 20-30 miles away, and you could easily see Mt St Helens on the horizon. it dominated the skyline and i kept thinking how the heck could you miss THAT?

    as a nice bonus, when i left Seattle on the plane, we headed east near sundown with clear skies. north and south of the plane you could see ALL the volcanos. stretched out to the horizon. to inifinity and beyond. very nice.

  6. BD

    Nova had a terrific special on wildlife returning to the volcano faster than you’d think:

  7. Rick

    I was working in Cranbrook BC (near the British Columbia/Alberta border) and knew nothing about the eruption. The day after I was driving to Saskatchewan and was followed all the way by this weird gray darkness that covered half the sky all the way from Cranbrook to the middle of Saskatchewan. It was quite spooky. When I got to Saskatchewan my uncle told me about the eruption. You could smell sulfur out in his grain fields. My wife was in Victoria, BC and she heard the blast!

  8. I live near Portland and I first heard about it on the radio that Sunday morning. However, since the news coverage had been non-stop for three months prior (and I was a teenager), I was sick of hearing about it! So, I ignored it until later in the day when I caught the television coverage.

    I’ve always felt like I had a “charmed” childhood. Total Solar Eclipse in 1979, Major volcano in 1980, High school graduation in 1981.

  9. Sean

    That particular beast is concern #3 for us, but it’s still rather concerning. Rainier would be my #1 concern if I lived in a slightly different spot. A mile west or 50 yards east and I’d be in the kill zone for the big eruption lahar.

  10. Chris

    Because the prevailing winds came from the Pacific, those of us in Seattle saw nothing.

    It was on a Sunday, and I found out about the eruption from a sign at the communications van at the University Street Fair. I went home, turned on my little black and white TV to see the incredible sight of the rivers full of mud, trees and houses.

  11. Sam

    I was living on Whidbey Island just north of Seattle on May 18, 1980. My two dogs began to bark about two seconds before I heard what I thought was a distant clap of thunder. My neighbor who was outside said she felt a mild shock wave that sort of pushed her foreward.

    The day before the eruption the State Patrol escorted scores of people to their evacuated homes to retrieve items left behind. Had the eruption happened hours earlier the death toll would have been much higher.

  12. Michelle R

    I get goosebumps whenever I see the video of the mountainside collapsing. It’s hard to picture a huge chunk of mountain just slipping down like that.

  13. TimK

    I was too young to remember the eruption, but you can see Mt. St. Helens from the neighborhood where I grew up in northeast Portland. My father and brothers watched the ash plumes from the roof of our garage. On the day of the first eruption (May 15) my mother was at a retreat on the south side of the mountain and was evacuated.

    Phil, you need to see the mountain in person. It’s a wonderful visit, especially if you get away from the visitor’s center and onto the Forest Service roads. Stretches of dead and bent-over trees still stand, and there are alien landscapes of igneous rock as far as the eye can see. Truly an awesome sight.

  14. Levi in NY

    Oh wow, check out that last photo!

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    If you’ve ever wondered what my nightmares are like, you’re looking at one.

    BA, your nightmare there is my dream. 😉

    If I ever get the chance to do so (& I sure hope I will) then Mt St Helens is one place this Australian would love to visit! It is one of my life’s as yet unfulfilled ambitions to see Mt St Helens plus the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone & the Great Barringer Meteorite crater. :-)

    Best I’ve done in my life so far* volcano wise despite a fascination and love for these awesome natural structures is seeing Mt Schank ( ) & Mt Gambier ( ) recently – beautiful and interesting but not quite the same. :-)

    * Or at least as far as I can remember it – I was born in Vanuatu (then called the New Hebrides) but left too young – 6 mths- 1 year~ish – to remember anything of the volcanoes there.

    PS. This is on the main page of Wikipedia today too aptly enough. He was one of the people – a volcanologist and great bloke – who was killed in the 1980 eruption.

  16. Kyle

    The story of David Johnston is so sad. Only 30 years old.

  17. I was 10 when it blew, and got to miss school for a week! I’ve been there a few times since, and you just can’t image the damage. Miles away trees are snapped in half. My wife and I hiked to the top in 2004, one month before it started to become active again. It is mind-boggling how much force there must have been. Then you think of our place in the universe and its… “Meh!” :-)


  18. Jess Tauber

    I did a partial walk up Rainier around 20 years ago (boy did I get a sunburn!). So it blows up. Big deal. Rainier Schmanier. I’d worry more about the Yellowstone megavolcano, which has probably accumulated enough fizzypop to cause major headaches. Luckily nobody has told the terrorists that a well placed nuke….. Hey- they don’t read BA do they? Even if they did they would have to make the difficult choice of putting it there or in the Canary Islands to generate a megatsunami. Hmmm-wheatbelt or east coast, Iowa or Washington DC? I know! I’ll get TWO nukes and split the difference!

  19. Messier Tidy Upper

    D’oh! That Blue Lake (Mt Gambier main crater) link doesn’t seem to be working .. :-(

    Trying again :

    @ 17. David Hampson :

    It is mind-boggling how much force there must have been. Then you think of our place in the universe and its… “Meh!”

    Well everything’s relative I guess. But Mount St Helens is still mighty impressive to me.

    Reckon it beats Mt Schank – one of my new favourite places ever? 😉

    @ 18. Jess Tauber Says:

    .. I’d worry more about the Yellowstone megavolcano, ..

    Well I know I’m the last person who can talk when it comes to typos but .. “Megavolcano? has it had a promotion or something? ‘Coz last time I checked Yellowstone was “just” a supervolcano. 😉

    Oh & please don’t go giving the terrorits any ideas – I’m rather doubt they read the BA blog but still .. 😉

  20. JohnK


    How difficult are the trails to the mountain?



  21. Zombie

    Dad was a jr. high school science teacher and got rather too much pleasure explaining to me how our hometown, which was on a river fed by a glacier on Mt. Rainier, would be crushed under hundreds of feet of superheated mud if the mountain ever erupted.

    I was not too significantly affected by the May eruption, but later than July there was another eruption on a very clear afternoon, and I could see a huge mushroom cloud on the horizon down the street I lived on. And this was during the Cold War, so mushroom clouds were rather iconic images…

  22. Trebuchet

    We were on an overnight trip, from our home in Everett, WA, across the North Cascades Highway then sout h across Blewett (sp?) Pass to I90 near North Bend to head back toward Tacoma for my mother’s birthday. We didn’t have the radio on so had no idea what had happened. As we approached I90 it started to get dusty and I blamed farmers plowing. We also noticed a dark cloud and remarked about thunderstorms in Ellensburg. It wasn’t until we got to the top of Snoqualmie Pass and made a pit stop that we heard about the mountain. Only then did I realize our copper-colored car was solid gray.

    We’ve visited the site several times and I’ve also seen it from the air. It’s awesome. Makes me feel that we humans are pretty small and weak after all.

    And as others have said, Mt Rainier is a much bigger concern in terms of threat to human life — probably the most dangerous volcano in the US that way. There are thousands of people in Orting, WA, directly in the path of a future lahar. It’s not a question of if the place will be covered in feet of steaming mud, just when. A few years ago the lahar warning sirens went off accidentally. The schools evacuated according to plan, but many of the kids would have been orphans in a real event because the adults in town ignored the sirens.

  23. Dean

    I remember when I went to Mt. St. Helens about 10 years ago for the first time. Like rob, it was overcast when we were going but the skies cleared JUST as we rounded the corner to see the mountain.

    Blam. That was impressive.

    The guides there were excellent too, explaining at the Johnston Ridge site how the landslide went down the mountain, then up the 1000 ft Johnston ridge before scraping out the valley behind it.

  24. jest

    I was 4 years old, living in Victoria BC. I remember my mom and I just approaching the house (from the car) when we heard a series of blasts (echos, as they were). We thought it was just some military training going on at the nearby naval base. Then the news came out. Epic.

    The echos were because the blast had reverbed up from Washington, across the water to Victoria. I often wonder if that was part of what triggered my intense interest in geology…

  25. Yojimbo

    My wife was one of the last few people on the mountain before it blew. She was working in the monitoring lab at UW and they had to go in by helicopter to maintain sensors. That was back before we met – she’s never been back and I have never been there either. We ought to take a look one of these days.

  26. TimK


    Trail accessibility on the south side isn’t bad, though the maps on the NFS site currently show many of the roads as closed due to flood damage. Not sure how current the maps are as I haven’t been up in several years.

    If you can get up there it’s mostly two-lane mountain highways and some dirt/gravel FS roads. Red Rock Pass and Lahar were both stunning sites with good vistas to the mountain.

    At the very least Ape Cave should be accessible. The lower lava tube is a bit humdrum if you’ve done any spelunking before. The upper lava tube can be challenging; not 100% sure on this but I think you’re not allowed in without a guide. Fun if you can do it, though.

  27. cope

    Besides the devastation of the eruption, play the USGS slide show and watch all the little brown, irregular patches show up in the green, especially on the east side of the mountain. Three guess what they are and the first don’t count.

    Dave Johnston was an undergrad in the geology department at the University of Illinois when I was a graduate teaching assistant there. It was a quite the shock to learn of his death in the eruption.

  28. Trebuchet

    @ Jess Tauber:

    “I did a partial walk up Rainier around 20 years ago (boy did I get a sunburn!). So it blows up. Big deal. Rainier Schmanier. I’d worry more about the Yellowstone megavolcano…”

    Yellowstone is certainly capable of doing more damage. But an eruption of Rainier in our lifetimes is vastly more likely. As is a major earthquake in the PNW.

    Besides, strictly from a local point of view, the prevailing winds will carry Yellowstone ash off to the East, not towards us!

  29. Mount St. Helens erupted on the day my sister was baptized. We always figured it was a sign.

  30. becky'sthoughts

    I was in my senior year of high school and my dad was working outside that morning. We lived in Poulsbo, west and a little north of Seattle across the sound. My dad came into the house looking funny and said to turn on the television because something big had blown up near Seattle. We were glued to the tv for the rest of the day. A faint ash fall visible on the car was the only thing we noticed.

  31. Ken

    @24 Jest

    I was 8 years old, I was also in Victoria BC at my home in View Royal. My brother and I heard the blast and echos.

    It was very exciting, ran in to tell our parents and turn on the news. We had been following the warnings.

    I wish Baker would go, I’ve got a good view of it from near my current home in Pitt Meadows haha

  32. Claudia Tropila
  33. Bryan Feir

    I was twelve when it happened, living up in Saanichton, BC (just north of Victoria). The eruption caused quite a bit of local interest, particularly because the Saanich District Youth Choir (of which I was a member) was taking a bus down to Portland Oregon on the May 24th weekend, so less than a week after the eruption. A number of parents seriously considered pulling their kids off the trip. Most of the kids were plastered to the windows when we went through the area, not that we saw much from the I-5.

    Later on I was at the Pacific Geoscience Center out in Sidney (now just GSC Pacific), and the fellow there gave a wonderful description of the mountain coming down… as the explosion released a lot of hot gasses, and the entire top of the mountain slid down the side almost entirely frictionless atop a cushion of gas… like an air hockey puck. Which meant all that rock was going a really good clip by the time it got to the bottom of the mountain.

  34. Laura

    The visitors center is well worth a visit if you can get up there. I went a couple of years ago and was still amazed at the damage and the way the ecosystem is rebounded.

    I was 8, living near Seattle. We were in church, and I remember being taken outside to see the cloud. It was a perfectly clear day, except for that cloud to the south. I had immersed myself in the news, and was stunned at the sheer level of destruction. The lahars in particular scared me near death, especially when I learned the routes such things would take if Mt Rainier got active (most of settled area near Seattle = gone). I had nightmares for years after a teacher told us Rainier was next. One picture in particular, of a body seen from a helicopter twisted inside the bed of a truck, haunted my nightmares for a long time.

    But for the day itself, standing outside in my Sunday best with the entire congregation of the church, looking at that cloud to the south, that’s my memory.

  35. Jim

    I remember Mount St. Helens as much for its human impact as for its explosive volcanic impact. In May of 1980, it was before Challenger and even before John Lennon’s murder. In the weeks leading up to the catastrophic eruption, we were treated to news stories about the volcanoes fresh activity. One of the faces of the events was a young geologist named David Johnston. His enthusiasm for his study of this mountain came through in the news reports as he would tell us about the latest changes to the volcano. There were other characters we heard about too, such as Harry Truman who ran a lodge at Spirit Lake near the base of the mountain. So on the fateful morning when the mountain blew, it took the lives of people we had come to know. We heard that Johnston had called out over the radio as the eruption started from his observation post near what came to be known as “Johnston Ridge”, never to be seen again. We saw photographs of cars and trucks whose occupants had perished in the devastation. We saw images of mud caked rivers and property destroyed by mudflows in the rivers around the mountain. It was one of my first experiences of such tragedy. I was 19, and a bit too young to remember much about JFK (though I do remember watching his funeral on TV as a 3 year old). I knew about the Apollo 1 astronauts, but I didn’t remember any real time reports of that event. I did watch Apollo 13 as it happened, but that was a successful failure and those three heroes of mine made it back safely to Earth. From the perspective of 30 years, it is a great wonder to see the geology of that massive explosion and to see all the various side affects around the area – the devastation as well as the renewal of the damaged environment around the mountain. And to see continued activity as the mountain goes about its own business of rebuilding and of new eruptions. It is fascinating to me on so many levels. I sometimes wonder if someday someone might find the remains of David Johnston. I can imagine that despite the fear he must have experienced in his final moments, there must also have been the excitement and wonder of having such a front row seat to the events.

  36. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 31. jcm : Thanks – great videos there. I enjoyed watching those – simultaneously! :-)

  37. jest

    I love all of this nostalgia… all these stories of “where I was when it happened” for those of us who were literally within the area that was affected, even if only by sound (I don’t recall ash hitting Victoria, which is technically north-northwest of the mountain). Though I was only 4 when it happened, it remains to this day a VERY significant event in my life.

  38. Naomi

    Messier Tidy Upper @ 15, can I go with you? I’m also Australian, and I’d kill to see Mt St Helens, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Barringer! At least I know I’m going to see the latter two – I’m going to Tucson in July for a year on exchange soon *grin*

    Volcanoes are amazing. Those pictures are brilliant! I love the tree blowdown pictures, the five lakes in five colours at 33, and that last one is simply beautiful <3


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