Environment

In a giant’s wake

Mark Budgen August 18 1980
Environment

In a giant’s wake

Mark Budgen August 18 1980

In a giant’s wake

Environment

Mark Budgen

When Mount St. Helens erupted for a second time late last

month, the citizens of Yakima, Wash., 135 km east of the volcano, rushed to the grocery stores to stock up. But this time, unlike May 18, when 600,000 tons of heavy ash were dumped on the town of 50,000, the ash cloud passed them by and, instead, gave southeastern British Columbia and southern Alberta a light dusting of grey powder. The rush to the Yakima grocery stores was to stock up on beer and pretzels so that Yakimites could sit out on their balconies and lawns to watch the huge white cloud billow northeastward, turning various shades of red in the evening sun. Just as people around the Gulf of Mexico have hurricane parties, people around Mount St. Helens were beginning to have volcano parties. Then, only a week later, they had occasion to swill even more beer. After a quiet night, Mount St. Helens suddenly belched steam and ash more than 4,500 metres into the air, leaving some Yakimites thinking that the parties may indeed become a tradition. History may be on their side. In 1842 the volcano began a belching spree that lasted on and off for 15 years. However, if it follows the same pattern this time, there will be more than a lot of partying. There will be a mountain of scientific papers. Mount St. Helens has already become the most closely examined and reported natural disaster in North American history. Bureaucrats, geologists, economists, meteorologists, sociologists, medical researchers and others from more rarefied disciplines are studying every conceivable effect the volcano is having on people, the environment, the economy (damage to forest lands alone is already estimated at more than $650 million) and the climate. By the time they’re finished years hence, they will have produced enough paper to fill the crater.

Not to be outdone, the Yankee trader instinct is selling an equivalent amount of Mount St. Helens souvenirs, T-shirts and bumper stickers (MOUNT ST. HELENS IS A REAL ASH HOLE). One California pottery company is producing mugs and other ceramics with a volcanic-ash glaze. A popular T-shirt depicts a plane being loaded with ash and underneath, the slogan, TO IRAN WITH LOVE, LOTS OF ASH FROM MOUNT ST. HELENS, neatly linking two current U.S. obsessions— the ayatollah and the volcano.

Already, no less than four instant books have been published. The most lavish of them, Volcano: The Eruption of Mount St. Helens (distributed in Canada by Douglas and McIntyre), sold 250,000 copies in a month in the U.S. and 25,000 in Canada. Spectacular color pictures and stark black and whites are interspersed with horror stories of what happened to people caught by the blast and explanations of what happened to the mountain itself. The bare statistics are awesome. The blast, equivalent to 500 Hiroshima explosions, blew 390 metres off the 2,950-metre peak. One cubic mile of material—or one ton for every person on earth—was blown into the air. Because it blew out of the north side of the mountain—very unusual in volcanoes—150 square miles containing forest, roads, streams and recreation areas were devastated and covered with rock and ash to a depth, in some places, of hundreds of feet. There were 31 people killed with another 33 missing, presumed dead, including the defiant whisky-drinking owner of the Mount St. Helens Resort, 83-year-old Harry Truman. He refused to move, declaring that “the mountain don’t have enough stuff in it to kill me.”

The “stuff”—rocks, mud and ashburied Harry Truman and Spirit Lake, the recreational area where he kept his lodge; it flowed down tributaries to the Columbia River which, within 18 hours, was impassable to freighters as the navigable depth was reduced to five from 12 metres. Half a million fish and a salmon hatchery were destroyed by 200°C water heated by the explosion. Within days, though, the Columbia was dredged and Weyerhaeuser, the major forest company in the area, was planning to salvage the millions of trees in the blast area. Forestry experts are now experimenting to see how evergreen seedlings react to the ash that is gradually being absorbed into the soil by the rain.

Harry Truman was not the only one proved wrong by the mountain—it continues to baffle geologists. After being caught flat-footed by the July 22 explosion, an exasperated U.S. government geologist, Tim Hait, told a press conference, “There’s no way we can tell what’s going to happen, no way.”

If the geologists have given up trying to predict Mount St. Helens’ erratic temperament, meteorologists are equally uncertain as to the volcano’s long-term effect on the world’s climate. In Vancouver, enduring one of the wettest summers in decades, people blame the volcano as they do in Texas, sweltering in record-high temperatures. In Europe, where they have had snow in July, meteorologists in West Germany and England cite the scapegoat mountain as the cause.

Expert opinion is divided. According to research meteorologist Kosta Tele-

gadas of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Mount St. Helens is not responsible. He compares the effect of the eruption on the atmosphere to “throwing a pebble into the Pacific Ocean and expecting a tidal wave.” Others are less certain. Says Bill Sedlacek at California’s Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, which is measuring the ash in the atmosphere: “There’s a strong possibility it could be causing the bad weather in Europe. After Krakatoa erupted in 1883, there was simply no summer the next year. The ash in the stratosphere affects the amount of sunlight reaching the earth and can reduce the average temperature by a few degrees. Mount St. Helens is much smaller than Krakatoa but, if it continues putting ash into the stratosphere, it could have a noticeable impact because of the cumulative effect.” The result may possibly be more damp and cold summers throughout the Northern Hemisphere. But even in ash clouds there are silver linings. The ash itself contains considerable amounts of sulphides and trace minerals, which will make good fertilizer. Already, in Yakima, people have noticed improvements in their lawns and vegetables. The volcano, although it was causing tour and convention cancellations in the Pacific Northwest in June, is proving to be a tourist attraction—up to 12,000 people a day are visiting the U.S. Forest Service’s two volcano interpretation centres near the site.

In Vancouver, people cast wary eyes 110 km east to Mount Baker, part of the same chain as Mount St. Helens, which has been gently steaming for five years and erupted in the last century. Mount Hood, south of Mount St. Helens and 65 km east of Portland, Ore., is exciting some interest because of earthquakes in its vicinity. Conceivably, then, Mount St. Helens may just be the beginning of a chain of eruptions from California to British Columbia. The nightmare is that for some people they could be blowouts to end all parties,