Explosions at Mount Saint Helens
Mount St. Helens (known as Lawetlat’la to the Indigenous Cowlitz people, and Loowit or Louwala-Clough to the Klickitat) is an active stratovolcano located in Skamania County, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It is 52 miles (83 km) northeast of Portland, Oregon, and 98 miles (158 km) south of Seattle. Mount St. Helens takes its English name from the British diplomat Lord St Helens, a friend of explorer George Vancouver who made a survey of the area in the late 18th century. The volcano is located in the Cascade Range and is part of the Cascade Volcanic Arc, a segment of the Pacific Ring of Fire. [..]
On March 20, 1980, Mount St. Helens experienced a magnitude 4.2 earthquake; and, on March 27, steam venting started. By the end of April, the north side of the mountain had started to bulge. On May 18, a second earthquake, of magnitude 5.1, triggered a massive collapse of the north face of the mountain. It was the largest known debris avalanche in recorded history. The magma in St. Helens burst forth into a large-scale pyroclastic flow that flattened vegetation and buildings over 230 square miles (600 km2). More than 1.5 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide were released into the atmosphere. On the Volcanic Explosivity Index scale, the eruption was rated a 5, and categorized as a Plinian eruption.
The collapse of the northern flank of St. Helens mixed with ice, snow, and water to create lahars (volcanic mudflows). The lahars flowed many miles down the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers, destroying bridges and lumber camps. A total of 3,900,000 cubic yards (3,000,000 m3) of material was transported 17 miles (27 km) south into the Columbia River by the mudflows.
For more than nine hours, a vigorous plume of ash erupted, eventually reaching 12 to 16 miles (20 to 27 km) above sea level. The plume moved eastward at an average speed of 60 miles per hour (100 km/h) with ash reaching Idaho by noon. Ashes from the eruption were found collecting on top of cars and roofs the next morning as far as the city of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada.
By about 5:30 p.m. on May 18, the vertical ash column declined in stature, and less severe outbursts continued through the night and for the next several days. The St. Helens May 18 eruption released 24 megatons of thermal energy; it ejected more than 0.67 cubic miles (2.79 km3) of material. The removal of the north side of the mountain reduced St. Helens’ height by about 1,300 feet (400 m) and left a crater 1 mile (1.6 km) to 2 miles (3.2 km) wide and 0.4 miles (600 m) deep, with its north end open in a huge breach. The eruption killed 57 people, nearly 7,000 big game animals (deer, elk, and bear), and an estimated 12 million fish from a hatchery. It destroyed or extensively damaged over 200 homes, 185 miles (298 km) of highway, and 15 miles (24 km) of railways.
Between 1980 and 1986, activity continued at Mount St. Helens, with a new lava dome forming in the crater. Numerous small explosions and dome-building eruptions occurred. From December 7, 1989, to January 6, 1990, and from November 5, 1990, to February 14, 1991, the mountain erupted with sometimes huge clouds of ash.
Magma reached the surface of the volcano about October 11, 2004, resulting in the building of a new lava dome on the existing dome’s south side. This new dome continued to grow throughout 2005 and into 2006. Several transient features were observed, such as a lava spine nicknamed the “whaleback”, which comprised long shafts of solidified magma being extruded by the pressure of magma beneath. These features were fragile and broke down soon after they were formed. On July 2, 2005, the tip of the whaleback broke off, causing a rockfall that sent ash and dust several hundred meters into the air.
Mount St. Helens showed significant activity on March 8, 2005, when a 36,000-foot (11,000 m) plume of steam and ash emerged — visible from Seattle. This relatively minor eruption was a release of pressure consistent with ongoing dome building. The release was accompanied by a magnitude 2.5 earthquake.
Another feature to emerge from the dome was called the “fin” or “slab”. Approximately half the size of a football field, the large, cooled volcanic rock was being forced upward as quickly as 6 ft (2 m) per day. In mid-June 2006, the slab was crumbling in frequent rockfalls, although it was still being extruded. The height of the dome was 7,550 feet (2,300 m), still below the height reached in July 2005 when the whaleback collapsed.
On October 22, 2006, at 3:13 PM PST, a magnitude 3.5 earthquake broke loose Spine 7. The collapse and avalanche of the lava dome sent an ash plume 2,000 feet (600 m) over the western rim of the crater; the ash plume then rapidly dissipated.
On December 19, 2006, a large white plume of condensing steam was observed, leading some media people to assume there had been a small eruption. However, the Cascades Volcano Observatory of the USGS did not mention any significant ash plume. The volcano was in continuous eruption from October 2004, but this eruption consisted in large part of a gradual extrusion of lava forming a dome in the crater.
On January 16, 2008, steam began seeping from a fracture on top of the lava dome. Associated seismic activity was the most noteworthy since 2004. Scientists suspended activities in the crater and the mountain flanks, but the risk of a major eruption was deemed low. By the end of January, the eruption paused; no more lava was being extruded from the lava dome. On July 10, 2008, it was determined that the eruption had ended, after more than six months of no volcanic activity.
Future eruptions of Mount St. Helens will likely be even larger than the 1980 eruption. The current configuration of lava domes in the crater means that much more pressure will be required for the next eruption, and hence the level of destruction will be higher. Significant ashfall may spread over 40,000 square miles (100,000 km2), disrupting transportation. A large lahar flow is likely on branches of the Toutle River, possibly causing destruction in inhabited areas along the I-5 corridor.
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