Watch a Breathtaking Monarch Butterfly Swarm — Nature on PBS

In the mountains of Mexico, a spy hummingbird ventures into the heart of a breathtaking monarch butterfly swarm.

#Snowpack news: #SanJuanRiver SWE = 52% of normal

San Juan River Basin SWE May 3, 2020 via the NRCS.

From The Pagosa Sun (Chris Mannara):

Snow water equivalency (SWE) data has seen a 3.3-inch decrease since last week with totals dropping from 22.5 inches to 19.2 inches this week.

The SWE median has also seen a decrease, with totals going from 31 inches to 29.6 inches this week.

This week, SWE data is 64.9 percent of median, while last week it was 72.6 percent of median.

Precipitation data has seen a slight increase since last week, go- ing from 26.5 inches to 26.8 inches this week.

The precipitation average has also increased, going from 36.4 inches to 37.6 inches this week.

Precipitation data is 71.3 per- cent of median this week; last week, it was 72.8 percent of median.

Westwide SNOTEL basin-filled map May 3, 2020 via the NRCS.

Water and Resource Monitoring Digital Workshop June 11th, 2020 — Holy Cross Cattlemen’s Association

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register:

Join us to discuss water issues and opportunities, and range management!

About this Event

Join us as https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88971288008

“Grants and Opportunities to Fund Infrastructure Projects”

Greg Peterson, Executive Director, Colorado Ag Water Alliance

“Middle Colorado Watershed Ditch Inventory”

Wendy Ryan, Project Manager, Colorado River Engineering

“Protecting West Slope Water Users in Times of Uncertainty”

Zane Kessler, Director of Government Relations, & Jim Pokrandt, Director of Community Affairs, Colorado River Water Conservation District

Presentation on Watershed Planning

Phil Brink, Consulting Coordinator, Ag Water NetWORK

“Range Monitoring: Strategies for Making it Happen”

Retta Bruegger, Regional Extension Specialist, CSU Extension

Colorado River Basin in Colorado via the Colorado Geological Survey

Michael Moore’s…documentary peddles dangerous #climatedenial — Yale Climate Connections #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Global CO2 emissions by world region 1751 through 2015.

From Yale Climate Connections (Dana Nuccitelli):

The YouTube film offers outdated and wildly misleading information on renewable energy, sacrificing progress in pursuit of unachievable perfection.

Environmentalists and renewable energy advocates have long been allies in the fight to keep unchecked industrial growth from irreversibly ruining Earth’s climate and threatening the future of human civilization. In their new YouTube documentary “Planet of the Humans,” director Jeff Gibbs and producer Michael Moore argue for splitting the two sides. Their misleading, outdated, and scientifically sophomoric dismissal of renewable energy is perhaps the most dangerous form of climate denial, eroding support for renewable energy as a critical climate solution.

“Planet of the Humans” by the end of April had more than 4.7 million views and fairly high scores at the movie critic review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The documentary has received glowing reviews from numerous climate “deniers” whose names are familiar to those in the climate community, including Steve Milloy, Marc Morano, and James Delingpole. Some environmentalists who have seen the movie are beginning to oppose wind and solar projects that are absolutely necessary to slow climate change.

The film by these two “progressive” filmmakers may succeed where Fox News and right-wing talk radio have failed: to undermine humanity’s last best hope for positive change. As energy journalist Ketan Joshi wrote, the film is “selling far-right, climate-denier myths from nearly a decade ago to left-wing environmentalists in the 2020s.”

The film follows Gibbs as he visits various green technology sites in the United States and ostensibly learns that each one is just as bad as the fossil fuel infrastructure that it would replace. Unfortunately, the movie is littered with misleading, skewed, and outdated scenes.

“Planet of the Humans”‘ approach is fundamentally flawed – Gibbs focuses almost exclusively on the imperfections of technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, biomass, and electric cars without considering their ability to reduce carbon and other pollutants. The film suggests that because no source of energy is perfect, all are bad, thus implying that the very existence of human civilization is the problem while offering little in the way of alternative solutions.

A badly outdated portrait of solar and wind

In an interview with Reuters, Michael Moore summarized the premise of the film: “I assumed solar panels would last forever. I didn’t know what went into the making of them.”

It’s true. Solar panels and wind turbines don’t last forever (though they do last several decades), and like every other industrial product, they require mining and manufacturing of raw materials. Sadly, that’s about as deep as the film delves into quantifying the environmental impacts of renewable energy versus fossil fuels. In fact, the misinformation in the film is at times much worse than ignorance. [ed. emphasis mine]

In one scene, author and film co-producer Ozzie Zehner falsely asserts, “You use more fossil fuels [manufacturing renewables infrastructure] than you’re getting benefit from. You would have been better off burning the fossil fuels in the first place instead of playing pretend.”

That’s monumentally wrong. A 2017 study in Nature Energy found that when accounting for manufacturing and construction, the lifetime carbon footprints of solar, wind, and nuclear power are about one-twentieth of those of coal and natural gas, even when the latter include expensive carbon capture and storage technology. The energy produced during the operation of a solar panel and wind turbine is 26 and 44 times greater than the energy needed to build and install them, respectively. There are many life-cycle assessment studies arriving at similar conclusions.

The film’s case is akin to arguing that because fruit contains sugar, eating strawberries is no healthier than eating a cheesecake.

It’s true that the carbon footprint of renewable energy is not zero. But the film somehow fails to mention that it’s far lower than the fossil fuel alternatives, instead falsely suggesting (with zero supporting evidence) that renewables are just as bad. The closest defense of that argument comes when Zehner claims that wind and solar energy cannot displace coal, and instead retired coal power plants are being replaced by even larger natural gas plants.

In reality, annual coal power generation in the U.S. has declined by about half (over 1 trillion kilowatt-hours) over the past decade, and it’s true that natural gas has picked up about two-thirds of that slack (670 billion kWh). But growth in renewables has accounted for the other one-third (370 billion kWh).* As a result, power sector carbon emissions in the U.S. have fallen by one-third since 2008 and continue to decline steadily. In fact, electricity is the only major sector in the U.S. that’s achieving significant emissions reductions.

It’s true that natural gas is a fossil fuel. To reach zero emissions, it must be replaced by renewables with storage and smart grids. But thus far the path to grid decarbonization in the U.S. has been a success story that the film somehow portrays as a failure. Moreover, that decarbonization could be accelerated through policies like pricing carbon pollution, but the film does not once put a single second of thought into policy solutions.

In perhaps its most absurd scene, Gibbs and Zehner visit a former solar facility in Daggett, California, built in the mid-1980s and replaced 30 years later. Gazing upon the sand-covered landscape of the former facility, Gibbs declares in an ominous tone, “It suddenly dawned on me what we were looking at: a solar dead zone.”

Daggett is located in the Mojave Desert. Sand is the natural landscape. Solar farms don’t create dead zones; in fact, some plants thrive under the shade provided by solar panels.

It suddenly dawned on me how hard the film was trying to portray clean energy in a negative light.

A shallow dismissal of electric vehicles

ARTICLE Michael Moore’s ‘Planet of the Humans’ documentary peddles dangerous climate denial The YouTube film offers outdated and wildly misleading information on renewable energy, sacrificing progress in pursuit of unachievable perfection.By Dana Nuccitelli | Friday, May 1, 2020
Theatre sign

Environmentalists and renewable energy advocates have long been allies in the fight to keep unchecked industrial growth from irreversibly ruining Earth’s climate and threatening the future of human civilization. In their new YouTube documentary “Planet of the Humans,” director Jeff Gibbs and producer Michael Moore argue for splitting the two sides. Their misleading, outdated, and scientifically sophomoric dismissal of renewable energy is perhaps the most dangerous form of climate denial, eroding support for renewable energy as a critical climate solution.

“Planet of the Humans” by the end of April had more than 4.7 million views and fairly high scores at the movie critic review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The documentary has received glowing reviews from numerous climate “deniers” whose names are familiar to those in the climate community, including Steve Milloy, Marc Morano, and James Delingpole. Some environmentalists who have seen the movie are beginning to oppose wind and solar projects that are absolutely necessary to slow climate change.

The film by these two “progressive” filmmakers may succeed where Fox News and right-wing talk radio have failed: to undermine humanity’s last best hope for positive change. As energy journalist Ketan Joshi wrote, the film is “selling far-right, climate-denier myths from nearly a decade ago to left-wing environmentalists in the 2020s.”

The film follows Gibbs as he visits various green technology sites in the United States and ostensibly learns that each one is just as bad as the fossil fuel infrastructure that it would replace. Unfortunately, the movie is littered with misleading, skewed, and outdated scenes.

“Planet of the Humans”‘ approach is fundamentally flawed – Gibbs focuses almost exclusively on the imperfections of technologies like solar panels, wind turbines, biomass, and electric cars without considering their ability to reduce carbon and other pollutants. The film suggests that because no source of energy is perfect, all are bad, thus implying that the very existence of human civilization is the problem while offering little in the way of alternative solutions.

A badly outdated portrait of solar and wind

In an interview with Reuters, Michael Moore summarized the premise of the film: “I assumed solar panels would last forever. I didn’t know what went into the making of them.”

It’s true. Solar panels and wind turbines don’t last forever (though they do last several decades), and like every other industrial product, they require mining and manufacturing of raw materials. Sadly, that’s about as deep as the film delves into quantifying the environmental impacts of renewable energy versus fossil fuels. In fact, the misinformation in the film is at times much worse than ignorance.

In one scene, author and film co-producer Ozzie Zehner falsely asserts, “You use more fossil fuels [manufacturing renewables infrastructure] than you’re getting benefit from. You would have been better off burning the fossil fuels in the first place instead of playing pretend.”

That’s monumentally wrong. A 2017 study in Nature Energy found that when accounting for manufacturing and construction, the lifetime carbon footprints of solar, wind, and nuclear power are about one-twentieth of those of coal and natural gas, even when the latter include expensive carbon capture and storage technology. The energy produced during the operation of a solar panel and wind turbine is 26 and 44 times greater than the energy needed to build and install them, respectively. There are many life-cycle assessment studies arriving at similar conclusions.

The film’s case is akin to arguing that because fruit contains sugar, eating strawberries is no healthier than eating a cheesecake.

It’s true that the carbon footprint of renewable energy is not zero. But the film somehow fails to mention that it’s far lower than the fossil fuel alternatives, instead falsely suggesting (with zero supporting evidence) that renewables are just as bad. The closest defense of that argument comes when Zehner claims that wind and solar energy cannot displace coal, and instead retired coal power plants are being replaced by even larger natural gas plants.

In reality, annual coal power generation in the U.S. has declined by about half (over 1 trillion kilowatt-hours) over the past decade, and it’s true that natural gas has picked up about two-thirds of that slack (670 billion kWh). But growth in renewables has accounted for the other one-third (370 billion kWh).* As a result, power sector carbon emissions in the U.S. have fallen by one-third since 2008 and continue to decline steadily. In fact, electricity is the only major sector in the U.S. that’s achieving significant emissions reductions.

It’s true that natural gas is a fossil fuel. To reach zero emissions, it must be replaced by renewables with storage and smart grids. But thus far the path to grid decarbonization in the U.S. has been a success story that the film somehow portrays as a failure. Moreover, that decarbonization could be accelerated through policies like pricing carbon pollution, but the film does not once put a single second of thought into policy solutions.

In perhaps its most absurd scene, Gibbs and Zehner visit a former solar facility in Daggett, California, built in the mid-1980s and replaced 30 years later. Gazing upon the sand-covered landscape of the former facility, Gibbs declares in an ominous tone, “It suddenly dawned on me what we were looking at: a solar dead zone.”

Daggett is located in the Mojave Desert. Sand is the natural landscape. Solar farms don’t create dead zones; in fact, some plants thrive under the shade provided by solar panels.

It suddenly dawned on me how hard the film was trying to portray clean energy in a negative light.

Leaf, Berthoud Pass Summit, August 21, 2017.

A shallow dismissal of electric vehicles

In another scene, Gibbs travels to a General Motors facility in Lansing, Michigan, circa 2010, as GM showcased its then-new Chevy Volt plug-in electric hybrid vehicle. Gibbs interviews a representative from the local municipal electric utility provider, who notes that they generate 95% of their supply by burning coal, and that the power to charge the GM facility’s EVs will not come from renewables in the near future.

That is the full extent of the discussion of EVs in the film. Viewers are left to assume that because these cars are charged by burning coal, they’re just greenwashing. In reality, because of the high efficiency of electric motors, an electric car charged entirely by burning coal still produces less carbon pollution than an internal combustion engine car (though more than a hybrid). The U.S. Department of Energy has a useful tool for comparing carbon emissions between EVs, plug-in hybrids, conventional hybrids, and gasoline-powered cars for each state. In Michigan, on average, EVs are the cleanest option of all, as is the case for the national average power grid. In West Virginia, with over 90% electricity generated from coal, hybrids are the cleanest option, but EVs are still cleaner than gasoline cars.

In short, EVs are an improvement over gasoline-powered cars everywhere, and their carbon footprints will continue to shrink as renewables expand to supply more of the power grid.

A valid critique of wood biomass

The film devotes a half hour to the practice of burning trees for energy. That’s one form of biomass, which also includes burning wood waste, garbage, and biofuels. Last year, 1% of U.S. electricity was generated by burning wood, but it accounted for 30% of the film run time.

In fairness, Europe is a different story, where wood biomass accounts for around 5% of electricity generation, and which imports a lot of wood chips from America. It’s incentivized because the European Union considers burning wood to be carbon neutral, and it can thus be used to meet climate targets. That’s because new trees can be planted to replace those removed, and the EU assumes the wood being burned would have decayed and released its stored carbon anyway.

There are numerous problems with those assumptions, one of which is unavoidable: time. Burning trees is close to carbon neutral once a replacement tree grows to sufficient maturity to recapture the lost carbon, but that takes many decades. In the meantime, the carbon released into the atmosphere accelerates the climate crisis at a time when slashing emissions is increasingly urgent. That’s why climate scientists are increasingly calling on policymakers to stop expanding this practice. So has 350.org founder Bill McKibben since 2016, despite his depiction in the film as a villainous proponent of clearcutting forests to burn for energy.

It’s complicated, but the carbon footprint of biomass depends on where the wood comes from. Burning waste (including waste wood) as biomass that would decay anyway is justifiable, but also generally only practical at a relatively small scale. A more detailed investigation of the wood biomass industry could make for a worthwhile documentary. It’s still a small-time player, but it does need to stay that way.

The bottom line

Gibbs asks, “Is it possible for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?”

Why not? Industrial civilization has a non-zero climate and environmental footprint, but the impact of green technologies like EVs, wind turbines, and solar panels is much smaller than the alternatives. They represent humanity’s best chance to avoid a climate catastrophe.

The filmmakers call for an end to limitless economic growth and consumption. It’s difficult to envision that goal being achieved anytime soon, but even if it is, human civilization will continue to exist and require energy. To avert a climate crisis, that energy must be supplied by the clean renewable technologies pilloried in the film. To expand on the earlier analogy, the filmmakers seem to believe we should improve nutrition not by eating healthier foods like strawberries, but rather by eating a bit less cheesecake.

Like Fox News and other propaganda vehicles, the film presents one biased perspective via carefully chosen voices, virtually all of whom are comfortable white men. It applies an environmental purity test that can seem convincing for viewers lacking expertise in the topic. Any imperfect technology – which is every technology – is deemed bad. It’s a clear example of the perfect being the enemy of the good. In reality, this movie is the enemy of humanity’s last best chance to save itself and countless other species from unchecked climate change through a transition to cleaner technologies.

Kit Carson Electric announces solar and storage that will put the cooperative at 100% renewables during sunny days by 2021. The New Mexico cooperative will soon go to work on securing wind power. Photo credit: Allen Best/The Mountain Town News

From The Hill (Alexandra Kelley):

The scientific community says that Moore’s newest film uses outdated facts to undermine renewable energy.

The film, titled “Planet of the Humans,” was released on April 21, ahead of Earth Day, and argues that the green movement is hypocritical in its environmentally friendly advocacy.

The film describes itself as “a wake-up call to the reality we are afraid to face: that in the midst of a human-caused extinction event, the environmental movement’s answer is to push for techno-fixes and band-aids.” Instead, the film’s producers say that economic concerns and population growth need to be addressed to effectively curb climate change.

Despite the premise, the film has been criticized by advocacy and scientific organizations for offering dated depictions of the technology companies aim to use to combat climate change.

Yale Climate Connections explained that the film, which follows environmental activist, journalist, and director Jeff Gibbs, draws false conclusions to portray clean energy sources in a negative light. Among the film’s arguments, it asserts that solar panels use more fossil fuels than they offset, electric cars are charged through coal-burning energy, as well as drawing issues with other renewables.

Experts point out that while some solar technology creation emits fossil fuels and that some electric cars run on coal-burning energy, the carbon offset is still comparably less than fossil fuel sources. So while renewable technology does have a carbon footprint, it is smaller than that of nonrenewable energy, making it more environmentally friendly.

Scientists have been quick to recognize this caveat and speak up.

Reported by The Guardian and Mother Jones, climate scientist and Pennsylvania State University Professor Michael Mann signed a letter authored by fellow documentary filmmaker Josh Fox demanding the film be retracted by Moore and Gibbs.

Natural gas flares near a community in Colorado. Colorado health officials and some legislators agree that better monitoring is necessary. Photo credit the Environmental Defense Fund.

From Vox (Leah C. Stokes):

What’s more, [the film] has nothing to say about fossil fuel corporations, who have pushed climate denial and blocked progress on climate policy for decades. Given the film’s loose relationship to facts, I’m not even sure it should be classified as a documentary.

There are real tradeoffs in the clean energy transition. As a scholar, I’ve done my fair share of research and writing on those exact issues over the past decade. Renewables have downsides. As do biomass, nuclear, hydropower, batteries, and transmission. There is no perfect solution to our energy challenges.

But this film does not grapple with these thorny questions; it peddles falsehoods. Films for Action, an online library of free progressive films, agrees with me. It briefly pulled the movie from its site, after documentary filmmaker Josh Fox wrote an open letter, co-signed by climate scientists and energy experts.

“We are disheartened and dismayed to report that the film is full of misinformation — so much so that for half a day we removed the film from the site,” Films for Action’s April 25 statement reads. “Ultimately, we decided to put it back up because we believe media literacy, critique and debate is the best solution to misinformation.”

Here, I will lay out the case for why this film should have stayed on the cutting room floor.

The film has several factual errors about clean energy

It’s not surprising that the film gets basic energy facts wrong and that information included is out of date: There are hardly any climate or energy experts featured.

Early in the film, Gibbs goes to see an electric vehicle demonstration. He concludes they are dirty because they probably run on coal.

Except it’s not true. Two years ago, electric vehicles already had lower emissions than new gas-powered cars across the country. This is because the US electricity system has been slowly getting cleaner over the past decade.

What made solar panels so cheap? Thank government policy.

The film’s wind and solar facts are also old. It quotes efficiency for solar PV from more than a decade ago. And it doesn’t mention the fact that solar costs have plummeted since then, and that we’ve learned how to get more wind and solar onto the grid. The film instead acts like this is impossible to do.

The largest share of the movie’s scorn goes to biomass — generally, burning wood — which supplied less than 2 percent of the US electricity mix last year. But the filmmakers obscure that fact, showing graphs that imply biomass is leading to forest destruction across the US.

A biased take on the environmental movement

There are critiques that can be made of environmental NGOs. But the way activists are portrayed in this film is inaccurate. One of the film’s main theses is that the climate movement is captured by corporations. As Gibbs puts it, environmentalists are “leading us off the cliff.”

The evidence for this assertion? The Union of Concerned Scientists’ support for electric vehicles. And Sierra Club’s promotion of solar. And the fact that 350.org has received funding from environmental foundations. I fail to see how any of these facts are problematic.

The most egregious attack is made against Bill McKibben, a dedicated and kind environmental leader. As he has said, he has never taken any money for his environmental activism with 350.org. Watching this film, you might mistake him for a robber baron.

McKibben wrote to the filmmakers, to clarify his views. They did not write back. As he put it: “That seems like bad journalism, and bad faith.”

[…]

Instead, the film denigrates the crucial work of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Led by Mary Anne Hitt, this program helped stop the construction of 200 coal plants, and successfully pushed for the retirement of 300 others.

Rather than recognizing the Sierra Club’s achievement, the filmmakers falsely attribute the growth in natural gas to Beyond Coal. Alas, environmental groups are not in charge of planning new power plants: if they were, we would have a lot less fossil electricity. Utilities propose power plants to regulators, who approve them. Over the past decade, electric utilities have proposed an enormous amount of new gas facilities, which groups like the Sierra Club have opposed…

Why is Michael Moore promoting misinformation on climate change?

Throughout, the filmmakers twist basic facts, misleading the public about who is responsible for the climate crisis. We are used to climate science misinformation campaigns from fossil fuel corporations. But from progressive filmmakers? That’s new.

It’s difficult to understand Michael Moore’s motivations for blaming clean energy and environmental groups instead of fossil fuel companies or electric utilities. His previous films— like Roger & Me, Sicko, and Bowling for Columbine —were centered on holding corporations accountable. More recently, he endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders at the same rally as climate champion Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Sanders campaign centered on an ambitious 100 percent renewable energy goal.

Yet, the film Moore backed concludes that population control, not clean energy, is the answer. This is a highly questionable solution, which has more in common with anti-immigration hate groups than the progressive movement.

The fact is that wealthy people in the developed world have the largest environmental footprints — and they also have the lowest birthrates. When this message is promoted, it’s implying that poor, people of color should have fewer children.

Not to mention the fact that pushing population control is completely disrespectful of women’s reproductive autonomy. Notably, almost all the “experts” featured in the film are white men.

It is sad to think of the world we are leaving for children. Yet, if we embraced clean energy, then they would not have to grow up in a world tied to dirty fossil fuels…

We have already warmed the planet by more than 1°C, and we are running out of time to scale up clean energy. Planet of the Humans has sowed confusion at a time when we need clarity on the climate crisis.

My only hope is that this film will be buried, and few will watch it or remember it. Much like fossil fuels, it would be best left underground.

Leah C. Stokes is an assistant professor at the University of California Santa Barbara. Her new book, Short Circuiting Policy, examines electric utilities’ role in holding back progress on clean energy and climate policy.

The threat below Mount St. Helens — @HighCountryNews

Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, at 08:32 Pacific Daylight Time. By Austin Post – Huge tif converted to jpeg and caption from USGS Mount St. Helens, WashingtonMay 18, 1980 Eruption Images, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3157525

I was grilling burgers in my backyard in Missoula on May 18, 1980, the day of Mount St. Helens large large eruption. I remember the disc jockey on the radio saying that the clouds that you could see in the sky weren’t clouds but volcanic ash from the eruption some 550 miles SW of town. I scoffed and then what appeared to be large gray snowflakes started landing on the burgers. It continued for many hours until ash covered everything a few inches deep in many places. The city was shut down for a week or so. We only had access to the grocery store for food and beer.

From The High Country News [May 1, 2020] (Eric Wagner):

Forty years after the mountain’s eruption, officials struggle to balance research and risk.

The Pumice Plain in southwest Washington’s Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is one of the most closely studied patches of land in the world. Named for the type of volcanic rock that dominates it, it formed during the mountain’s 1980 eruption. Since then, ecologists have scrutinized it, surveying birds, mammals and plants, and in general cataloging the return of life to this unique and fragile landscape.

The Forest Service is engaging stakeholders to develop a long term Spirit Lake Outflow management solution. Photo credit: USFS

Now, the depth of that attention is threatened, but not due to the stirrings of the most active volcano in the Pacific Northwest. The problem is a large lake two miles north of the mountain: Spirit Lake. Or, more specifically, the Spirit Lake tunnel, an artificial outlet built out of necessity and completed in 1985.

After nearly four decades, the tunnel is in need of an upgrade. At issue is the road the Forest Service plans to build across the Pumice Plain despite the scientific plots dotting the plain’s expanse. In this, Spirit Lake and its tunnel have become the de facto headwaters of a struggle over how best to manage research and risk on a mountain famous for its destructive capabilities.

THE ENTANGLEMENT OF THE LAND, the lake and the tunnel began 40 years ago, when Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. At 8:32 a.m., a strong earthquake caused the mountain’s summit and north flank to collapse in one of the largest landslides in recorded history. Some of the debris slammed into Spirit Lake, but most of it rumbled 14 miles down the North Fork Toutle River Valley. Huge mudflows rushed down the Toutle and Cowlitz rivers, destroying hundreds of bridges, homes and buildings.

The eruption killed 57 people and caused millions of dollars in damages. Mount St. Helens shed more than 1,300 feet of elevation, hundreds of square miles of forest were buried or flattened, and Spirit Lake was left a steaming black broth full of logs, dead animals, pumice and ash. Its surface area nearly doubled to about 2,200 acres, and its sole outlet, to the North Fork Toutle River, was buried under up to 600 feet of debris.

Having no outlet, and with rain and snowmelt still flowing in, Spirit Lake began to rise. The situation was dangerous: If the basin filled, the lake could overtop the debris field and radically destabilize it, unleashing another devastating mudflow that would send millions of tons of sediment toward the towns of Toutle, Castle Rock and Longview, Washington.

To forestall this, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a 1.6-mile-long tunnel through a ridge, allowing water to flow out to the river. That held the lake’s surface steady, but the ridge itself remained in constant — if slow — motion: Twelve faults and sheer zones have squeezed and buckled the tunnel, causing engineers to close it several times for repairs. During one closure in the winter of 2016, Spirit Lake rose more than 30 feet. “It was definitely a wake-up call,” said Chris Strebig, a project director with the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that oversees the monument. What if something — perhaps another earthquake — severely damaged the tunnel? Federal managers are facing a situation that Rebecca Hoffman, the monument’s manager, characterizes as an urgent, although not immediate, crisis — a potential catastrophe. “This is the struggle we’re in the middle of,” she said. “I don’t want to get to the point where we wait for an emergency.”

The Forest Service decided to open a second outlet as a safeguard. To gauge a likely route’s feasibility, the agency needs to drill into the debris blockage and study its composition. Its plan for doing so, however, has unsettled another group deeply interested in the region: scientists.

After the 1980 eruption, some of the first people to visit the blast area were researchers. For a group of ecologists from the Forest Service and universities across the Pacific Northwest, the eruption was a huge, unplanned experiment, a chance to test some of their discipline’s oldest theories about how life responds to what can seem like total devastation.

The scientists set up hundreds of studies. It was in large part at their urging that the federal government created the monument in 1982, setting it aside as a place for “geologic forces and ecological succession to continue substantially unimpeded.” Many plots from 1980 are still studied today, and the work has had a broad reach. One group’s findings have helped shape regional forest management by uncovering the role “biological legacies” — organisms that survived the blast — played in the development of the post-eruption community. Another group described how plants returned to the denuded space of the Pumice Plain willy-nilly, rather than in the orderly fashion theory previously presumed.

“Mount St. Helens has taught us so much about how plants and animals respond to large disturbances,” said Charlie Crisafulli, a Forest Service ecologist who came to the blast area in the summer of 1980 and never left. “It has let us ask questions that we can’t ask anywhere else in the world. That’s what makes this such a valuable landscape.”

The sediment retention structure and upstream sediment plain on the North Fork Toutle River, flowing out of Spirit Lake. Photo credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via The High Country News

NOW, HOWEVER, ECOLOGISTS ARE WORRIED. In 2018, the Forest Service proposed constructing a 3-mile road across the Pumice Plain to move drilling rigs to test sites. Scientists and conservationists objected so strongly that the agency withdrew the proposal. Then, a few months later, in December 2019, it released a new one. This time, in addition to tacking on some tunnel maintenance, the Forest Service suggested an additional alternative to the road: bringing in equipment and personnel via helicopter. But in early April, the agency decided to go ahead with the road, and Strebig hopes that the work, which could take up to five years, will begin this summer.

Scientists prefer using helicopters, arguing that they would minimize the impact on research while still allowing for drilling and maintenance work. “No one is opposed to the project, but the Forest Service needs to find a better alternative than building a road,” said Carri LeRoy, an ecologist at The Evergreen State College who studies five new watersheds that formed on the Pumice Plain post-eruption. She recently received a big grant from the National Science Foundation, and the proposed road would cross all five watersheds, ending her project before it can really begin.

But the helicopter alternative, with its tougher logistics and higher price, was a hard sell. A few scientists who attended planning meetings late last year left fearing a decision had already been made. “I just came away with a sense that (the Forest Service) is bound and determined to build that road,” LeRoy said.

In outreach meetings, too, Forest Service officials have talked up the destructive mudflow Spirit Lake could unleash, showing pictures of flooded towns from 1980 while de-emphasizing that such an outcome is only a distant possibility. The project is being sold to the public as essential for safety reasons, according to Arne Mortensen, a commissioner for Cowlitz County, where the downstream towns are located. “Absent a near-term and long-term cost analysis to show otherwise,” he wrote in an email, “using the road approach looks better.”

Scientists fear that they were subtly scapegoated, and the importance of their studies brushed aside, in an effort to cut costs. “I’m worried they’re just paying lip service to researchers’ concerns,” LeRoy said. Hoffman, the monument manager, denies this: “We’re working with specific researchers, and will continue to work with the research community to limit the amount of impact that occurs,” she said.

But Susan Saul, a conservationist with the Washington Native Plant Society who was instrumental in getting the blast area designated a national monument, said project planners have been cavalier about the road’s possible impacts on research. For example, a Forest Service staffer wrote that the physical environment “will have returned to baseline” within two years of the project’s completion. To Saul, that phrasing betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between science and the landscape at Mount St. Helens. Ecologists want to study how life responds after an eruption. But a road will change everything, with effects that extend far beyond its physical footprint: Vehicles crush vegetation, ferry in introduced species and change animal behavior, among other things. Slap a road through the Pumice Plain, and the research there would effectively be reduced to how life responds after a road is built — a much less interesting project. “So it seems like the writer wasn’t taking the research seriously,” Saul said.

For ecologists, this seriousness, or its lack, could have profound consequences. What is the value of a monument devoted to the processes of disturbance and ecological succession if those processes are themselves irrevocably disturbed? That is a question as yet unstudied, but as Crisafulli, the Forest Service ecologist, points out, no one has invested more in the research at Mount St. Helens than the federal government. “The agency has spent millions of dollars on multiple studies for the past four decades,” he said. “There’s no getting around the fact that building a road through the heart of it would put that legacy at risk.”

Eric Wagner lives in Seattle with his family. His book After the Blast: The Ecological Recovery of Mount St. Helens was published in April by the University of Washington Press.Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org.

The stunning view of Mount St. Helens to the north—snowy, slumped from its last big eruption 40 years ago. Photo credit: Washington University Vancouver

From Washington University Vancouver:

Forty years after Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, signs of rebirth abound—but not everywhere.

The stunning view of Mount St. Helens to the north—snowy, slumped from its last big eruption 40 years ago but still imposing—is among WSU Vancouver’s signature assets. Students point to its beauty as a reason they appreciate the university. Classes study the mountain. Weekend backpackers hit the trails and visit the interpretive center.

And there is another, more intimate connection between WSU Vancouver and Mount St. Helens. For researchers, understanding the mountain and how it is changing as the years go by is a unique opportunity and a long-term quest. Some of those who have come to study the mountain have become key links in keeping the story of Mount St. Helens relevant to a new generation.

John Bishop, professor in the School of Biological Sciences, has spent 30 years conducting research mostly on the Pumice Plain, where pyroclastic flows, airfall fragments and rock left a barren moonscape. He calls it a “science playground,” a place to gauge the long-term effects of natural catastrophe and to see how a new landscape evolves. The work has attracted many graduate students to WSU Vancouver. “Most of my graduate students come here to work with me because they’re interested in restoration and conservation, and they view this as a way to learn about how systems recover from disturbance,” he said. Several have gone on to career involvement with Mount St. Helens.

Ray Yurkewycz, for one, came to WSU Vancouver via Chicago and Montana to complete a master’s degree with Bishop. He studied the impact of pocket gophers on plants and soil in the main blast zone. After volunteering with the Mount St. Helens Institute, an educational center founded in 1996, he got a job there in 2011 and became executive director in 2014. Dedicated to helping people understand and protect the volcano, the institute develops educational programs that make research discoveries accessible to the public.

“That’s the tool to get people excited about science, the outdoors and public lands,” Yurkewycz said. “Mount St. Helens is bigger than just the volcano. It inspires people to go on to do big things.”

A network of connections

To Bishop, Mount St. Helens has been an ideal laboratory to study one of the fundamental topics of environmental biology—the tenaciousness of life, how it comes back from total devastation. His interests initially focused on “primary succession,” or what comes first and prepares the way. Every summer for the past 30 years, Bishop and his students have camped on the mountain for months at a time, observing patterns of vegetation and recovery.

Photo credit: National Park Service

The first plant to emerge was the purple-flowered lupin, its seeds likely ferried in by wind. Lupins, like all organisms, need nitrogen and phosphorous to survive and, like all legumes, they get nitrogen from the air with the assistance of symbiotic bacteria. They get phosphorous from the new volcanic rock, and Bishop’s work showed that they produce special acid-exuding roots to accomplish this. As each lupin flourished and died and provided more organic matter for the soil, the plants spread. In turn, they attracted herbivores, such as caterpillars. Other predators soon followed.

“When re-forming, the community depends on all the colonists coming from outside, not all will come at once,” Bishop said. “If one plant can survive to reproduce, it can establish a patch that can spread unhindered, until it is found by the insects that feed on it. If their predators haven’t arrived yet, the insect population can grow until it consumes all of its host. Over time the predators and competitors arrive, build up and stabilize the interaction.”

The first woody plants on the Pumice Plain were willows. An invasive insect, the willow weevil borer, quickly arrived and threatened the spread of willows. “Its occurrence at Mount St. Helens alters the dynamics of succession because it kills willows and alters the structure of plant communities,” said Mailea Miller-Pierce, who earned her Ph.D. at WSU Vancouver and now is a post-doc with Bishop.

When the lab experimentally protects willows from the weevil, willows form thickets that dominate other vegetation, but without that protection they do not remain dominant, allowing other species to establish themselves. Already, alders have been taking over some of the wetter areas where willows were growing. The researchers have also seen mosses, wildflowers, grasses, huckleberries, conifers, even maples begin to colonize the Pumice Plain.

In some places there have been very few changes, Miller- Pierce said, but elsewhere, changes can seem quite dramatic. “The plant communities have changed a lot,” she said. “In just four years, I saw plants that were as tall as my knee grow to above my head. The nutrients in the soil have really increased in some areas, causing the plants to grow taller and larger. This allows a greater diversity and richness of birds and insects to establish and be supported by the plant communities.”

“Things are changing out there,” Bishop said. “The harsh environment created by the eruption is being ameliorated, soils are starting to form, and plants that rely on that are colonizing.”

The first conifers to emerge were Douglas and Noble firs. More recently, western hemlocks have appeared—most likely a sign that soils are becoming more fertile.

“Another big change in the last five years is that a lot of those Doug and Noble firs are starting to produce cones,” Bishop said, “so now you have local sources of seeds. We think that’ll accelerate the colonization of these trees.” These seeds wouldn’t establish in a competitive environment—they need bare ground. But there is still a lot of room for them on the Pumice Plain.

Long-term implications

Changes in soil composition are both a result of evolutionary change and an agent of future change. Most every experiment Bishop’s team has conducted with plants and insects examines the changes in the soil to which growth is responding. In particular, they have been looking at phosphorous, nitrogen and carbon, which are essential for life but, in excess, also can be harmful. Excesses often result from human factors such as fossil fuels and agricultural fertilizers, which turn potentially beneficial nutrients into pollutants that damage the environment. For example, nitrous oxide caused by burning of fossil fuels is believed to play a significant role in climate change. The research may have implications for controlling those pollutants as well.

Microbes, particularly underground fungi, are key to soil remediation. They decompose organic matter that reaches the soil and convert it to forms that plants can use. “Most plants have a mutually beneficial association with fungi,” Bishop said. “The fungus helps the plant get nutrients from the soil, and the plant provides the fungus with carbon.”

Becca Evans, a Ph.D. student working with Bishop, is currently looking at microbial communities and how carbon and nitrogen rely on microbes to accumulate in the soil. Soil stores carbon, and Evans’s research is examining how soil may be used to increase carbon storage. “Studies show volcanic soils store a lot of carbon, but we don’t really know why,” she said.

It’s an important question. “With climate change, you hear how carbon dioxide is polluting our atmosphere,” Evans said. “One of the best things we can do is get carbon stored somewhere, and I’m trying to find out how carbon gets stored in the soil, and what humans are doing that affects or alters that, such as invasive species or pollutants.” As the Mount St. Helens ecosystem comes back from catastrophe, it provides a natural laboratory to study the question.

“This gives us a chance to look at how you go from nothing to eventually a system that can support plants and more,” she said. “We can also ask about invasive species and nitrogen pollution, and how to understand what effect those have. In the long run, policy might be able to change those things. But for now we are just looking at the science.”

Photo credit: Washington University Vancouver

Ongoing stewardship

“Mount St. Helens is a dynamic place where students can engage in the outdoors and science in a meaningful way,” said Tom Wolverton, past president and current board member at the Mount St. Helens Institute. He worked in Bishop’s lab under the Murdock Charitable Trust’s program to offer research experiences to high school students. Now a science teacher at Vancouver’s iTech Preparatory School, he played an important role at the Institute as a long-time board member and was instrumental in getting the high school outdoor school experience off the ground.

Wolverton grew up in La Center, Wash., and watched the volcano erupt from his backyard. “It is powerful to me as an educator to have a say in the educational programs on Mount St. Helens,” he said.

Many agencies and individuals serve as stewards of Mount St. Helens, ranging from ecological scientists like Bishop to the staff at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Forest Service, staff and volunteers at the Institute, state agencies, funders, members of the Cowlitz Indian tribe and others. The Natural Register of Historic Places recognizes Mount St. Helens as a Traditional Cultural Property of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.

Now, 40 years after the eruption, the first generation of scientists to study the mountain has mostly retired, and the second generation is approaching retirement.

“It’s an interesting time in the history of Mount St. Helens,” Yurkewycz said. “How does this place stay relevant? There are so many more stories to be discovered or told, and it’s such a unique landscape, it’s important to keep that scientific discovery going and bringing in new generations of researchers to do that.”

Natural change is gradual, yet often driven by striking shifts in what Bishop calls “boom and bust dynamics.” That is, the network of connections among species is still weak, and the system is unstable and unpredictable. The forest that covered Mount St. Helens before the eruption won’t come back for generations, if then. Or maybe nothing much will happen until a larger network of interdependent connections builds up to support birds and wildlife. Nevertheless, watching it unfold is wondrous.

Yurkewycz hopes people see Mount St. Helens as “more than a piece of history.” He hopes it will always be “something that means something to people right now and will continue to in the future. It has erupted so many times, and it’s going to do it again.”

The symmetrical appearance of St. Helens prior to the 1980 eruption earned it the nickname “Mount Fuji of America”. The once familiar shape was formed out of the Kalama and Goat Rocks eruptive periods. By Created by Clohessy & Strengele – Library of Congress American Memories Website via The Volcanoes of Lewis and Clark: Mount St. Helens, Washington, USGS.gov (accessed 15 Nov 2006), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1373966