We're in Washington state visiting with family, and one of the natural features I wanted to see while we were here is Mount St Helens! The whole family piled into three different cars and we all took the drive to go see it.
Thursday, October 6, 2022
Visiting Mount St Helens - 2022/07/18
Meeting that morning at my brother's house, we got to see Jess' parents making a quick visit from California!
It's been years since we've seen them, so it was a quick but good chance to see each other again.
At the crow flies, it would only be 36 miles away, but because of the terrain and where roads have been laid, this journey will take us nearly 100 miles in the truck.
The kids all wanted to ride together. They keep themselves entertained.
Driving through the mountains of Washington, Theresa and I were both impressed by the beauty. The rolling green hills covered with trees. The mountain rivers below. It was all very beautiful.
In some places it felt like our eyes were having a hard time focusing on the trees. Many of these hillsides were cleared for logging, and when they were replanted, all the trees were the same and grew at an even rate. It's like someone hit copy-paste on the whole hillside. I also liked seeing the signs that showed when certain areas were logged and replanted.
Getting to the visitor's center was easy and there was plenty of parking for the Monday we visited.
As we rounded the corner, we could see the Johnston Ridge Observatory and in the distance, Mount St Helens. Mount St Helens was named after Alleye FitzHerbert 1st Baron St Helens. He was a friend of British explorer George Vancouver who named it after him.
In the distance, Mount St Helens. An active stratovolcano whose eruption on May 18th 1980 was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in US history.
Before the eruption, Mount St Helens was a popular destination to hike. Scientists noticed unusual seismic activity in the area leading up to the eruption, which led them to clear the area surrounding the volcano for safety. Only volcanologists and other scientists were allowed to be closer. In the days leading to the eruption, the dome at the top was growing taller by 3 feet a day! Finally on Sunday May 18th an earthquake triggered a collapse of the north face of the mountain and the pressure inside because too great. Eruption!
It was the largest landslide in recorded history. Before the eruption, Mount St Helens stood 9677 feet above sea level. Afterwards it was only 8363 feet, and a massive mile long crater had formed at the summit.
Pictures of everyone in front of the mountain.
Next we went inside the Johnston Ridge Visitor's Center. This is a National Park, but luckily enough of us have our annual membership passes to get everyone in.
A model of the valley, with lights showing the eruption and the resulting lahars (volcanic mudflows) that sent 3,000,000 cubic meters of material 17 miles down the valley, destroying homes and bridges along the way.
It's always nice to be able to feel the things you're learning about. Like these different rocks where you can feel the differences in weight and density.
How does a seismograph work? It measures vibration in the ground. We can make some vibration in the ground and see how that shows up on a seismograph too!
After grabbing a Junior Ranger booklet, everyone headed to the outdoor amphitheater for a Ranger Talk titled Monumental Changes.
It's a beautiful day today, though maybe just a little chilly being up at 4800 feet. We were blessed with beautiful blue skies though which offered a perfect view of the mountain. Many of the guides suggest calling the visitor's center at the top to ask if it's cloudy before making the drive up. Indeed I heard a couple rangers answering phones while we were there, looking out the big glass windows of the center and confirming that yes, the peak was visible.
Meet Ranger Cooper! He's a student but here for the summer working for the National Parks Department. He gave us a history of the area, starting with an explanation of why this is an active zone. It's a place where two tectonic plates meet up, forming a section known as the Cascade Volcanos.
And can I just say, what a perfect place to build an amphitheater and to learn about Mount St. Helens. With the mountain just right there in the background. Awesome.
Cooper - Can I get four volunteers?
The littles jumped up, as well as two other kids nearby.
Seeing that they had 5 instead of 4, Ian offered to let his cousin Avery take over the duties of helping out, while he stayed back for support.
Go ahead and hold up your sign.
We learned about the weeks leading up to the eruption. The seismic activity. The forced evacuations of the area that local residents were not too happy about. The people that refused to leave, including a man named Harry R Truman and his 16 cats who lived near the base of the mountain and refused to evacuate.
At 8:32am on a Sunday, May 8th 1980, a 5.1 earthquake triggered a landslide and then all of Mount St. Helens erupted.
The pressurized buildup exploded outwards. Hot gasses moved at speeds up to 670 miles per hour outward! Temperatures inside the cloud reached 680F and everything in an 8 miles radius was obliterated. The sound was heard hundreds of miles away. A column of smoke and ash extended 15 miles up into the sky, and particles entered the atmosphere and were detected on the other side of the world.
After the excellent presentation, great job Cooper, the kids got their Junior Ranger books signed, signifying they attended a Ranger talk.
And they worked on completing the rest of the activities in the booklet. It really is a fantastic way to learn about what's going on here. Good job to whoever created the Junior Ranger program! (It was Yellowstone National Park that introduced it.)
The Junior Ranger program makes observe the destruction, but also the renewal. Trees and other grasses are starting to come back to this area. Birds and other critters call this place home again.
In total, an estimated 57 people died as a result of the eruption. It was fortunate that it happened on a Sunday, when nearby logging camps were shut down, otherwise the death toll would have been higher. The blast ended up being bigger than many imagined, and indeed even some of the volcanologists and geologists studying the area were overwhelmed by the hot gasses. One such geologist, David Johnston, was heard on the radio shouting "This is it!" before the cloud engulfed him. The Johnston Ridge and Johnston Ridge observatory are named so in his honor. A plaque shows the names of the people who died here.
Is Mount St Helens still active, and could it erupt again? Absolutely! We don't think it will be in the near future, but it will erupt again and it will likely be even bigger than the 1980 eruption. There's still some heat underneath that dome up top too. We were amazed that if you looked closely, you could see steam rising up from pockets in the ground.
The kids though have enjoyed learning about the volcano and the area around here. They have completed their Junior Ranger books!
Raise your right hand to be sworn in!
I love that the parks don't all have the same pledge, and they can mix it up a bit. This one was filled with lots of cute volcano related puns.
And we have a Junior Ranger with her very first badge! Congratulations Avery!
This was a great place to stop on our travels! It's something you've read about and heard about, but now we've actually been there! Seeing it and being there makes it all feel more real.