Mount St. Helens Volcanic Eruptions: 1980 vs. Now

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
October 7, 2004

It was 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, in southwestern Washington State. Jim Nieland was just backing out of his driveway when a neighbor yelled, "The mountain is erupting."

Nieland, a U.S. Forest Service official, sped out on the highway and looked up at Mount St. Helens. A dark cloud was forming over the volcano.

Halfway to the makeshift visitors center Nieland had been running for the past two months, he pulled over at a vista point. From there he watched a giant ash cloud rise from the mountain and roll up in a cauliflower-shaped mass.

People 200 miles (320 kilometers) away later said they heard a thunderous roar. Nieland heard nothing. "It was like watching a black-and-white silent picture," he recalled.

The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, located 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Seattle, Washington, was so powerful it blew off the top of the mountain. It killed 57 people, flattened 220 square miles (570 square kilometers) of forestland, and paralyzed much of the inland Pacific Northwest with gritty volcanic ash.

Today the volcano is rumbling again. To Nieland, now a recreation planner for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, there's an eerie sense of déjà vu as throngs of tourists, armed with lawn chairs and video cameras, once again descend on the mountain for a front-seat view of nature's fury unleashed.

"It's just like 24 years ago," he said.

Scientists insist the latest round of steam explosions will not culminate in a major eruption like the one in 1980.

But there are some similarities. A flurry of shallow earthquakes, unprecedented since 1980, has been shuddering inside the snow-streaked peak for the past two weeks, ramping up to rates as high as four per minute.

Scientists first thought old magma from a 1998 event was likely causing the earthquakes. But recent gas analysis of the air above the volcano suggests that new magma is moving into the lava dome that sits on top of the crater and serves as kind of a volcanic plug. Unlike old magma, new magma could cause an explosive eruption.

The lava dome has now risen more than 150 feet (46 meters). In comparison, the north flank of the volcano bulged outward more than 450 feet (137 meters) in 1980. Scientists believe a much smaller amount of magma is on the move this time.

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