Wandering Through Washington, Part VI – Mount St. Helens Rebirth and Today

The devastation brought about by lahars and the pyroclastic flow was extensive. Besides the 230 square miles of forest destroyed, animals were also killed in large numbers. It is estimated that 1,500 Roosevelt elk, 5,000 deer, hundreds of bears, coyotes, bobcats, rabbits, etc. were killed that day. The monument was made into a very large observatory to examine how nature recovers from such a disaster. Where they could, the mountain and surrounding areas were left as they had been after the explosion in 1980.

There were a few surviving pocket gophers in the days after the eruption. They survived because they were still underground, hibernating. They started the recovery process by burrowing in the new landscape. Their burrows became oasis for seeds to shelter and take root. As plants started growing, more animals started showing up, including larger animals like the deer and elk. Their hooves helped break up the crusty soil even more and allowing more places for the seeds to take root. Their droppings help reintroduce nutrients back into the soil.  Still, it took 3 years for the first lupine plant to grow in the Pumice Plain where the devastation was the worst. Scientists were encouraged and surprised by how fast the regrowth progressed.



Some areas did receive help in the form of soil and seeds. The Toutle River valley was nothing but ash and water. They brought in 30,000 tons of soil and grass seed to stabilize the area as it kept flooding every time it rained (and in the Pacific Northwest, it can rain a lot). The elk and deer were very happy with the new grasses. The herds have been steadily increasing.

The privately held lands owned by Weyerhauser, were quickly salvaged after the eruption. For three years, they removed 600 truck loads of trees a day, in the summer, from the blow down areas. They had to move quickly to keep the logs from decaying and becoming worthless. The company then replanted 48,000 acres by hand, planting 18.4 million seedlings. You can definitely tell these areas because of the conformity of the forests. The planted tress present a stark contrast compared to the naturally recovering forests. Unfortunately, since we have an insatiable appetite for wood, we need the tree-farm forests, too.

Toutle River valley. Gray is lahar from 1980. Green side is Weyerhaeuser tree farm. Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument.

The mountain itself is still waking up from time to time. The year following the 1980 eruption saw several smaller eruptions that started creating a new lava dome inside the remnant of the crater. The small eruptions continued for several years. The last notable eruptions were in 2004 and 2005. Even today, though there are no indications of an imminent eruption, the lava dome emits steam and sometimes fire. There is a web cam focused on the crater where some nights, you can see an orange glow coming from the lava dome. The last day we were there, we got a few pictures of the lava dome steaming. I think that is as close to an eruption I want to get.

Mount Saint Helens as seen from Windy Ridge. Note the smoke in the crater. Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument.

The views from the south are very different. While the north side is still recovering, the south shows the recovery process from a much older eruption. From the Lahar Viewpoint, you can still see the scar of a lahar from a very old eruption, the rocks still show the volcanic presence and the vegetation is much more full.



We thoroughly enjoyed exploring the many faces of Mount St. Helens. Seeing the pictures of the devastation and the rebirth is truly surprising. It was great to see just how much comes back after such a huge destructive event. The visitor centers have done an excellent job of explaining and showing the eruption from all sides. You can certainly learn a lot coming here.


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