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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”