Happy(?) St. Helens Day!

Reminders about our place here.

As of this publishing, it's two days after St. Helens' Day. Not a holiday you've heard of, I'm sure. Just think of it as the bare-knuckles version of Earth Day. Earth Day is when we remember our indivisible ties to our natural world and how completely dependent we are upon its bounty and how we owe it to all our progeny to nurture all the life, land and ocean of the Earth so it will continue to support us. St. Helens' Day is when we are reminded just how much bigger than ourselves nature truly is. We live in an area of large-scale natural threats. We have earthquakes, hurricane-sized storms, landslides, avalanches, and, of course, volcanoes.

In 1975 Mt. Baker, up by Bellingham, started acting up, but a few months later rolled over and went back to sleep. At the time no one had ever seen a Cascades volcano go off. The last one was Mt. Lassen in Northern California in 1914. It made a hell of a boom and a picturesque mushroom cloud, but the first scientific party to go in and see what happened in any detail didn't get there for two years! By then there were fumaroles (steam vents in the ground), mud plains, and all, but nothing active to look at. Besides, it's not the same kind of volcano as any other in the chain. Still, geological evidence gave Washington State scientists plenty to worry about.

St. Helens  was clearly the youngest and most active of the major Cascade volcanoes- the one to watch, and in mid-March, 1980 something started rumbling in the St. Helens area. I say the area because at the time there were so few seismographs in the state they couldn't be certain it wasn't a new vent opening in the same vicinity. Finally the clouds cleared enough to see a dark stain of old ash on top of the previously pristine peak. That got everyone's attention!

At 8:32 AM, May 18, 1980, Mt. St. Helens blew 1313 feet off its summit, spreading it over the land around it and Eastern Washington beyond, and killing 57 people in the process. It was the biggest eruption ever in the continental US, equal to 24 megatons of TNT, around 1600 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. 

It was, in a sense, almost the perfect disaster. We hadn't seen anything like this before. When it first started shaking Governor Dixie Lee Ray convened the best geologists, volcanologists, and seismologists in the state and listened closely to what they told her. Working from the best available science she marked out a "Red Zone" in which only scientists would be allowed. The State Patrol blocked the roads around the mountain as the threat grew.

The general public treated it as a grand spectacle, enrapt at every new film and photo, and celebrated every time some daredevil hiked in to stare down the vent and got out with pictures, as if they were "The Dukes of Hazzard" avoiding the evil, bumbling sheriff for some high-spirited fun.

Property owners in the area seemed to just roll their eyes and dismiss the entire affair as a state overreaction. They demanded to be let in and on May 17th the State Patrol had them sign waivers, then allowed them into the Red Zone to get one carload each of stuff from their cabins. The next day- bango!

While any loss of life is tragic, many eruptions have killed many more. What I mean when I say 'perfect' is our response to it and what came out of it. So much has changed since then, and all the lessons to be learned we got in one try.

First, the Federal government established the Cascade Volcano Observatory, part of a US Geological Survey program to research and monitor volcanoes all across the country. There are five Observatories in the US: Cascade, Hawaii, Alaska, Yellowstone, and California. Now we have seismographs, tiltmeters, GPS elevation monitors, gas chromatographs, and more. Every volcano in the Cascades is instrumented up tighter than an ICU patient.

The state has a much clearer idea of just what it’s dealing with and has several layers of contingency plans for all known hazards. The State Patrol, National Guard, local public safety services, and the government all have well-defined roles.

And finally, after dozens of dead and a billion dollars in damage the public understands the seriousness of it. We know it all ‘took’ because in 2004 Mt. St. Helens began shaking again. This time so much research had been done the scientists at the CVO and the University of Washington Seismology Lab were able to identify the diagnostic earth tremors, track the magma’s progress inside the mountain’s plumbing and tell the Governor when it would break surface to within a few hours. What they couldn’t say is how powerful the eruption would be.

The state immediately held a press conference to inform the people and cordoned off the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and we all waited. The press let everyone in on the situation and the people paid attention. It’s not like nobody went up to the mountain on their own, but in each of the three cases I remember the response on TV wasn’t ‘Hey, look at these fascinating pictures this daring young man brought back’. It was ‘This guy went into the Red Zone today. What an idiot.’

As I said- near perfect. Catastrophe happens, government gets moving, the situation is fixed to the degree it can be, and systems are changed so the event can never again be as devastating. Anyone who thinks “government IS the problem” isn’t thinking very hard. The world is full of things too big for individuals to handle and where no company can (or should) make any profit. This time, government showed the kind of comprehensive approach we should expect out of them. The 1980 eruption was an ideal situation for such a demonstration.

Take Nature seriously. She can kick your butt at any time if you get in the way of one of her processes. Think floods, tsunamis, tornadoes, ice, etc. We are so many and have such intensive technologies we've become a big enough force to materially change some of these processes, but they are still much bigger than us, and we're adding energy to the system, which has to come out somewhere, and we’re so numerous now there will always be large numbers in harm's way.

Climate Change must be approached in the same way we dealt with the eruptions- apply the best available science fearlessly, but therein lies the problem. It is not a discreet, isolated event one can get over and rebuild from. It is an ongoing, overwhelmingly complex multileveled set of processes and feedback loops which move on a slow, but ever accelerating pace.

This means during the initial phases, when amelioration may be most easily accomplished, effects may be too subtle to be readily seen, and too easily deniable by those whose financial, ideological, or emotional interests and investments lie in the status quo. It’s simply too easy to look away and make believe it’s not happening, or not happening quickly enough to worry about. A cobra is perfectly still, too, in the instant before it strikes.


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