Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mount Saint Helens -- May 18, 1980

People often talk about major news events and where they were when something important took place. Most Boomers know exactly where they were when they found out the JFK was shot. Most Gen Xers remember exactly where they were when the Challenger blew up. And everybody remembers where they were when they found out about the World Trade Center on September 11th.

Local events often have the same type of impact. People who lived in Western Washington on May 18th, 1980 remember the day well. That was the day that Mount Saint Helens exploded. That was the day when the skyline of the Pacific Northwest changed forever.

I was only eight years old, but I lived in Seattle. Seattle is too far from the mountain to actually see it, but on clear days prior to the main event, we could often see ash rising high into the sky on the horizon.

At 8:32 in the morning on May 18th, a small earthquake woke many residents of Western Washington. In Seattle it was just a little tremor. But at the mountain proper, the earthquake measured 5.1. It was a perfectly clear day. Everybody, everywhere could see the massive mushroom cloud of ash and dust rising thousands upon thousands of feet into the sky.

The Mount Saint Helens National Mounument website eloquently reports what happened at the mountain:

  • The north face of this tall symmetrical mountain collapsed in a massive rock debris avalanche. In a few moments this slab of rock and ice slammed into Spirit Lake, crossed a ridge 1,300 feet high, and roared 14 miles down the Toutle River.

  • The avalanche rapidly released pressurized gases within the volcano. A tremendous lateral explosion ripped through the avalanche and developed into a turbulent, stone-filled wind that swept over ridges and toppled trees. Nearly 150 square miles of forest was blown over or left dead and standing.

Today is the 28th anniversary of the event. It was 28 years ago today that 47 bridges were destroyed, 15 miles of railway was obliterated, 185 miles of road was erased, 250 homes were crushed and most tragically, 57 people lost their lives. Twenty-eight years later Mount Saint Helens still reminds us of the massive forces of nature. And it still reminds us how small we are in comparison to them.

To see the mountain crumble, check out an excellent stop motion video here. To learn more about the mountain and the eruption there are some more educational videos here and here.

--Jason D. Martin


Photo Credit: USGS Photo by Austin Post

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