The earthquake activity at Mount St. Helens had built to a crescendo. When a volcano shakes this hard, it almost always spells trouble: magma rising, an eruption imminent. You can’t know exactly what they are going to do, and when, and to what degree. But you suspect. You prepare as best you can.
On March 27th, the USGS issued a Hazards Watch, informing public officials of the dangers St. Helens might pose. After a week of increasing shakes, there was little doubt in any scientist’s mind that “something dramatic” was about to happen. By 11:20am Pacific Standard Time, something dramatic had.
It must have been eerie for the observer in the Army National Guard plane who first saw the gaping hole in her formerly-pristine summit. A dark gray streak of ash stained the snow, following the winds to the southeast. The deep snow had cracked. She was awake. And it wouldn’t be long before she let folks know she was feeling feisty.
At 12:36pm, a boom echoed through the wilderness near the volcano. Portland reporter Mike Beard, flying above her, saw ash roiling “like smoke out of a chimney” through the clouds.
When volcanoes erupt, many people think lava. Lots of lava. And that is true for some volcanoes, like the lovely shields that make Hawaii such an interesting place to live. But a volcano like St. Helens doesn’t start with lava. She begins by clearing her throat, so to speak, gargling a bit, putting on a small performance before the main event. In her case, thick, sticky dacite, a type of magma rather rich in silica, was making its laborious way up toward the surface. Dacite has a tendency to form domes. It also has a distressing tendency to blow up. But the rising dacite hadn’t reached the surface just yet: it had just gotten close enough that its heat flashed water to steam. The result was a phreatic (steam) eruption, strong enough to break and pulverize summit rock and blow a hole in the top. Steam and ash gave Mike Beard a jolly good show, and made a racket. But no lava. Not yet.
Still. The phreatic eruptions caused some pretty dramatic changes.
Three days before, all had been serene snowfields. Cascades volcanoes tend to look like ice cream cones, with their steep rounded shapes and their deep white coats. Mount St. Helens, for all the seismic excitement, was still a perfect example of the type.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
Compare the two photos above. They’re the same area. They hardly look it.
The afternoon that had started with a bang continued on a sustained dramatic note. At 2:00pm, seismologists at the University of Washington watched their equipment register a hefty magnitude 4.7 earthquake, the second-strongest of the swarm. They couldn’t see events on the mountain, but others witnessed a gigantic black plume unfurling to a respectable 2,134 meters (7,000 feet). Earthquakes during the eruption happened at such a frequency that seismologists had trouble telling them apart on the graphs. David Gibney, an aerial spotter for the United States Forest Service, saw fractures open and close, the north flank break and rise, as he flew over in the hours after that first eruption. Think of that: a mountain, hurling ash and steam, cracking and breaking beneath your gaze. Something dramatic, indeed.
At the end of that opening sequence, Mount St. Helens sported a crater 61-76 meters (200-250 feet) across nestled within the old, ice-choked summit crater. The summit had been cracked like an egg, split open by an eastward-trending fracture that slashed her flanks from northwest to northeast, a gash measuring nearly 1524 meters (5,000 feet) in length. Other fractures ran alongside it. They defined the south side of an uplifted block, possibly already pushing outward, on her north flank.
The Bulge had been born.
Next: Prelude to a Catastrophe: “Pale-blue Flames.”
Klimasauskas, E. and Topinka, L. (2000-2010): Mount St. Helens, Washington, Precursors to the May 18, 1980 Eruption. Cascades Volcano Observatory website, USGS (last accessed June 13th, 2012).
Korsec, M.A., Rigby, J.G., and Stoffel, K.L. (1980): The 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington. Department of Natural Resources Information Circular 71. (PDF)
Lipman, Peter W., and Mullineaux, Donal R., Editors (1981): The 1980 Eruptions of Mount St. Helens, Washington. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1250.