May 18, 1980 is when Mount St Helens blew its top.
I was newly married, in my first year in graduate school in Eugene, Oregon — far enough south that we saw little of the ash, typically only seeing cars filmed with gray every day. My in-laws, though, all lived right in the shadow of the mountain, in Longview and Castle Rock, Washington, so we got regular reports on days dark as night and shoveling paths through the mess.
National Geographic has a fine article on the recovery of the region. Biology is bouncing back in the few decades since the disaster.
As a natural lab to study the rebirth of ecosystems, the blast zone has no equal. “It’s the most thoroughly studied large-forest disturbance in the world,” says Crisafulli, examined from nearly every angle, at nearly every scale, from molecules to ecosystems, bacteria to mammals, steaming geothermal vents to waterlogged meadows. Almost daily, callers inquire about the lessons of St. Helens. One woman is interested in salamanders, another in toads. Officials in Alaska and Chile want to know what to expect after eruptions of their own.
There’s also the dramatic story of Spirit Lake:
Before the eruption Spirit Lake was, like many subalpine lakes, unproductive and nutrient-poor, with clear water and few shallow spots. When the volcano top slid into it at 150 miles an hour, it became choked with what Crisafulli terms “pyrolyzed forest constituents”–organic material burned in the blast. The water was warmed to body temperature, filled with dissolved carbon, manganese, iron, and lead. Visibility went from 30 feet to six inches. Bacteria flourished. The first scientists to take water samples came down with unexplained ailments. There was a rapid succession of microbes: aerobes, which quickly used up all the oxygen; anaerobes, which require none; then nitrogen-consuming bacteria; and then forms that fed on methane and heavy metals. For 18 months Spirit Lake was ruled by chemistry, home to “hundreds of millions of bacteria per milliliter,” Crisafulli says. Finally, the microbes had consumed so much that they began to die off, and streams and snowmelt came in, and the water cleared.
Once light penetrated Spirit Lake, algae and other phytoplankton colonized, followed by zooplankton, which fed on the phytoplankton, followed by aquatic insects and amphibians. By the early 1990s, macrophytes grew in shallow shoals–ideal trout habitat that didn’t exist before the eruption. Gorging on tiny midges and freshwater snails, the rainbows were reaching a record four or five pounds in two or three years. The post-eruption lake followed a pattern Crisafulli would see many times in the blast zone. New organisms colonize the virgin environment with dramatic success, only to burn themselves out or be checked by predators, parasites, or competitors. This was the second revelation of St. Helens: When there’s a blank slate, ecological succession is a cycle of boom and bust.
If you’d just like to see some dramatic photos of the eruption and aftermath, here you go.