Jun 22 2012

Prelude to a Catastrophe Series: The Story So Far

You know, I just realized that new readers may have no idea what’s going on when I do the whole “New at Rosetta Stones!” thing. And we’re kinda in medias res. I can imagine some folks don’t realize we’re in the middle of a series, and thus wonder why on earth this weirdo’s so focused on itsy bitsy phreatic eruptions when there’s a whole big boom that blew the top off a mountain.

So, it’s probably time for a lexicon, innit?

For those just tuning in, I’m writing a series on Mount St. Helens, tracing the 1980 eruptions from the very first warning all the way up through the May 18th ba-boom, and possibly beyond, using papers written shortly before or just after that day. There’s so much more to it than just that catastrophic climax. We’ve been at this for over a month, and we’ve just barely reached the first small bang! And I’d imagine more than one person who’s been following along is glad we finally got at least this far.

You poor people. I’m sorry, it’s the SF writer in me. I may not be writing much fiction lately, but I’ve still got that instinct for cliffhangers. I am evil. Also, there’s way too much going on with this mountain to dump it on you all at once. I could spend the rest of my life writing about St. Helens, and still just barely scratch the surface. You could spend the rest of your days with her, and she could still surprise you.

Here’s where we’re at so far:

Dedication: The Geologists Who Died at Mount St. Helens. Yes, geologists plural. We’re fortunate most of the scientists working on the mountain survived, but we did lose a few of our own. They showed incredible dedication. This series is dedicated to them.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Current Quiet Interval Will Not Last…” In 1978, USGS geologists Dwight Crandell and Donal Mullineaux published a paper that spelled out the possibilities of a future eruption of Mt. St. Helens in stark detail. The work they did on this volcano prevented the catastrophe from being far worse than it was. This paper put everyone on notice: we have a dangerous mountain in our midst, and she could wake up at any time.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “One of the Most Active and Most Explosive Volcanoes in the Cascade Range.” Dwight Crandell had nearly completed an exhaustive study of Mount St. Helens’s eruptive history when she added to his workload in 1980. She had quite the history of hijinks. Crandell’s study of her violent past helped predict her current behavior.

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “The Unusual Character of the Seismic Activity Became Clear.” In mid-March of 1980, a swarm of earthquakes unprecedented in our experience of Cascades volcanoes put everyone on notice: something big was happening, and it was only getting bigger…

Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Something Dramatic.” One of the seismologists watching the earthquake swarm unfold later wrote, “We did not see how this activity could continue without something dramatic happening.” And something dramatic did.

So that brings up up through March 27th. We’ve got a ways to go before the big ba-boom. The nearly two months between that first phreatic blast and the historic eruption were fraught with activity. So yes, I will continue stringing you along, bringing you ever closer, leaving you dangling on precipices, and hopefully keeping you intrigued throughout.

Small phreatic eruption of Mount St. Helens in the spring of 1980, before the May 18, 1980 blast. USGS Photograph taken by the Cascades Volcano Observatory.



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  1. 1

    Evil indeed, but it makes for great reading.

  2. 2
    A Hermit

    Fascinating stuff…I live about 1500 miles away from Mt St. Helens and still remember the sky here turning dark in the days following the eruption and wiping a film of ash off my windshield. Surreal…

    1. 2.1

      I remember some of my relatives in Pennsylvania saying that they saw ash about a week later.

      It’s a bit disturbing to realize that even in the recent history of the Pacific Northwest, there have been much larger eruptions, and nearly all of those eruptions happened at volcanos that are still active.

      1. Alan

        You don’t even want to think about what will happen if Yellowstone goes up again, Cujo…

        1. Cujo359

          That warning came a little too late I’m afraid.

        2. Lyle

          Long Valley, Ca (Mammoth Mountain area) is as much a danger as Yellowstone. In fact it has erupted (mono craters) much more recently in fact Wikipedia says the most recent eruption was 250 years ago. Long valley’s caldera is 20 by 11 miles in size and was formed about 760,000 years ago. Why the volcano erupted is “not yet well understood?.

  3. 3

    Fascinating stuff…I live about 1500 miles away from Mt St. Helens and still remember the sky here turning dark in the days following the eruption and wiping a film of ash off my windshield. Surreal…

    While I, on the other hand, live only about 120 miles away and never got the slightest trace of ash, even though I could see the eruption cloud from near my house. Thank you very much, prevailing winds!

  4. 4

    You poor people. I’m sorry, it’s the SF writer in me.

    I’m hearing Christopher Judge’s voice in my head saying “Previously, on Prelude To A Catastrophe“.

    1. 4.1

      I’m hearing Edward James Olmos.

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