Mount St. Helens May Erupt for Decades, Scientists Suggest

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 29, 2007
Mount St. Helens may continue its current slow eruption for decades,
eventually rebuilding the dome that was blasted away when the volcano
erupted in 1980, according to a geologist.

But the volcano, located in Washington State, could also stop erupting today (see Washington State map).

Daniel Dzurisin with the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington, is one of many scientists trying to understand when Mount St. Helens's most recent eruption, which began in October 2004, will end.

Several lines of evidence, he said, suggest the volcano's magma chamber a few miles below the surface is consistently resupplied with magma from an even greater depth.

If so, Mount St. Helens could keep erupting for decades or even centuries, in a so-called open system.

However, if the system is closed, the volcano's magma chamber will eventually be depleted, and the eruption will end.

Ample evidence for this scenario also exists, Dzurisin said.

"There's no compelling reason to choose one [scenario] over the other," he said.

Land Deformation

If Mount St. Helens is a closed system, Dzurisin said, the reservoir of magma underneath it would decline over time, causing the volcano to sink and the land around the volcano to move in toward the volcano.

(See an interactive feature on how volcanoes work.)

"It would be like having a balloon buried in the sand and you take air out of the balloon and let it come up through a straw and go to the atmosphere," he said.

"The sand is going to subside, and individual grains of sand are going to move inward a little bit toward the place directly over the balloon."

Scientists observed this phenomenon when Mount St. Helens began erupting in 2004. Instruments tracked by satellites have been found to be sinking downward and toward the volcano.

But within the past two years, the instruments have become nearly motionless, even though magma continues to ooze out onto the surface.

"That's a piece of evidence that would be consistent with this idea that we've got an open system—that is, what's coming out the top is being replaced from the bottom," Dzurisin said.

"But the volcano isn't that clear-cut," he added.

Scientists are also contemplating a closed system in which the magma oozes out so slowly that the land deformation is undetectable.

Slow Ooze

Specialized photographers fly over Mount St. Helens about once a month and take pictures of the lava dome growing inside the crater with a high-resolution camera.

Scientists then use these images to create digital elevation models with computer software.

By comparing one model to another, the scientists are able to keep tabs on how fast the lava dome is growing.

In 2004, when the eruption began, the rate of growth was 8 cubic yards (6 cubic meters) a second. Within a year the rate dropped to between about 1.5 and 2.5 cubic yards (1 and 2 cubic meters) a second.

But since last April the rate has held fairly constant around 0.6 cubic yard (0.4 cubic meter) a second.

A steady, consistent flow would support the open-system theory, Dzurisin noted.

"We all agree those are the numbers, and we all agree they are lower than they were earlier in the eruption, but we're just going to have to wait and see whether it continues to decline or whether it has in fact leveled off," he said.

Competing Theories

Scientists are also studying the chemical signature of the lava that comes out at the surface.

If different lava suddenly appeared, Dzurisin said, that would be strong evidence for an open system.

But scientists examining the lava say it's all been pretty much the same since the eruption began in 2004.

"So now you've got a piece of evidence that maybe it's really a closed system," Dzurisin said.

Of course, he added, perhaps the lava from the greater depth has yet to reach the volcano surface.

"You can imagine how that dialogue goes on," he quipped.

Katharine Cashman is a geologist at the University of Oregon in Eugene who has studied Mount St. Helens. She considers the volcano an open system because lava has been spewing for several years.

Modeling evidence also suggests that so much material has come out that it must have a deeper, more plentiful source than a shallow volcanic magma reservoir, she said.

But the problem, Cashman added, is that scientific instruments are unable to see deep into Earth's crust, making the question difficult to answer.

"You can only look at other volcanoes around the world, and there are some that just keep erupting for decades," she said.

"So it's possible that once it gets going, it can keep going. But it could also stop."

"It's a little humbling. It makes me realize how imprecise the science is," she said.

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