By Eilene Lyon May 18, 2021
The “From the Vault” series features an artifact or family photo from my collection to illustrate a tale from my distant past.
On this day 41 years ago, I was just a few weeks from the pinnacle of many a teen’s life – high school graduation. It also happened to be the day that Mount St. Helens detonated, taking innumerable lives in the process: flora, fauna, human.
I’ve had some experience with volcanic activity in Guatemala, but this time I was far from the event in Ohio. My relatives in Oregon had front row seats. They had a lot of company: a little over a million in the Portland metro area alone, including adjacent Vancouver, Washington. Spectators ogled from every imaginable viewpoint.
Notable seismic activities and gas releases began in March 1980. Magma intrusion formed an alarming bulge in the north face of the mountain. The eruption on May 18 began with the largest recorded landslide in history as the north slope sloughed away, releasing lava, ash, and scorching gases.
The human death toll was roughly 60 persons.
One stands out as a hero of the day: geologist/vulcanologist David A. Johnston. He remained at his observation post, well aware of the risk. He was the first to report the eruption. Johnston and his colleagues pressured the federal government to close the Mount St. Helens region to tourism as the fateful day approached, thus saving thousands of lives.
The ash plume blotted out the sun near Portland and then to the north and east. Soon it spread in the upper atmosphere across the country, painting the skies crimson at sunrise and sunset. Meteorologists predicted it would cause a rainier and cooler summer and perhaps impact weather for several years if eruptions continued. Volcanic activity occurred regularly through October 1980 and sporadically into the early 1990s. The mountain is considered active still.
Then what to do with all that ash? Well, some of it has nourished new plant growth around the mountain and region. One enterprising person collected some and turned it into souvenirs. My grandparents sent me this glass egg made in 1983 from the ash. The patterns on the surface evoke the eruption. The interior bubbles and swirls reflect subterranean turmoil. Both are reminders of the power of the planet to destroy…and create anew.
“Mount St. Helens Finally Blows Its Top” The Oregon Statesman (Salem). May 19, 1980, p. 1 – via Newspapers.com.
“Ash Cloud to Give Area Brilliant Sunrises, Sunsets” Dayton (OH) Daily News. May 20, 1980, p. 1 – via Newspapers.com.