Mt St Helens erupted on 18 May


36 YEARS AGO?!!? That is unpossible. I clearly remember the aftermath of that event — I was a graduate student in Eugene, Oregon. Why, it was like it was just yesterday. (Counts on fingers, counts on toes, looks around for a few more digits — if I were an octopod, I could do this.)

Honestly, I’m weirded out. I’m not that old, I don’t think.


  1. whheydt says

    My co-workers at the time, noting my interests in geology and volcanology kept asking me if I was going to go see it during the period when the activity had started. My reply was a consistent, “That’s a stratovolcano. They’re dangerous.” Then the May 18th eruption occurred. At that point, they said, “Oh! *That’s* what you mean by ‘dangerous’!”

    Wasn’t what I thought would happen (and, rather obviously, no one else did either or there wouldn’t be a “Johnson Ridge” today), but…yeah…stratovolcanoes are dangerous.

  2. says

    This was big news in British Columbia, back in the days of 13 TV channels when several came from Washington state (KING/NBC, KIRO/CBS, KOMO/ABC, KCTS/PBS). At least four volcanoes in or near BC have the potential to do damage, so people paid attention:

    Mt. Baker (in the US, visible from Vancouver)
    Mt. Meager
    Tseax Cone (it blew in the 1770s, killing 2000)
    Mount Edziza (biggest and active, but isolated)

    The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines doesn’t seem so long ago either, June 1991. And the eruption on Montserrat that made half the island uninhabitable was in July 1995.

    The proximity of similar events in time (re: the 8.9 earthquakes near the Andaman Islands in 2004 and Sendai, Japan in 2011) can make it feel like they’re connected, even when you know they’re not.

  3. says

    i remember hearing about this eruption when i was a little kid…. but i was born in 1981….. dang wyoming was literally a decade behind the rest of the world…. i thought that was just with cultural trends not actual news events…

  4. wzrd1 says

    @PZ, my first thought was, you were somewhat close to the mountain, while I was in high school, three mile island turned into two and a quarter mile island, a somewhat similar distance from me.
    Both events, obviously, happened before our now grown, with children of their own, children were born. My, how the decades fly by faster and faster!*

    *This pondered while half-listening to “The Hunt for Red October” and recalling that era, from a wearing the uniform in that era perspective and two subsequent wars experience base. “Good old days”, my ass. We came extremely close to non-abortable nuclear launch three times in my early military career. Toward the end of launch preparations, programs ran on old hardware that was fairly slow and hence, a point could be reached where the countdown could not be aborted before launch occurred.

  5. grendelsfather says

    I was a graduate student in genetics and microbiology at the University of Georgia at the time, and I made a point of going up to the top floor of the Biological Sciences Building to watch the spectacular sunsets that the eruption provided, even that far away.

  6. dick says

    That was right at the halfway mark in my life (to date). The first half was by far the longer half.

  7. chigau (違う) says

    I was living in Southern Alberta.
    We got a wee sprinkling of ‘ash’.

  8. says

    The ash from the May 1980 explosion blew eastward. My mother called my sister and I and urged us to move out of the Northwest. I pointed out that there was more ash collected on her car, in Philadelphia, than on mine in Seattle.

    In a later small eruption in June 1980 about an inch of ash fell on Portland. I scraped some off my sister’s car. I sealed it in a glass jar, and still have it. The particle size made it look like gray flour.

    In eastern Washington many inches of ash fell on the wheat crop. It was assumed to be ruined. Two billion dollars were set aside to compensate farmers for the expected agricultural damage. The Seattle Weekly’s Roger Downey wrote an article where he surveyed accounts of volcanic explosions and found that there were basically no accounts of agricultural damage — volcanic ash is rich in trace elements. It turned out that Downey was right. The ash also sealed the water from the winter rains into the soil, preventing it from evaporating. There was a record wheat crop, and the money went unclaimed.

  9. JohnnieCanuck says

    It was about quarter to nine on a Sunday and I was laying in bed in SE Vancouver, BC when I heard it. A whomp sound that took about 17 minutes to get there, some 333 km away.

  10. robro says

    I’m in Vancouver, WA right now only 70 kilometers or so from Mount St. Helens. I had lived in San Francisco for 6 years or so when Helens blew. A short distance up the main road from where I’m staying I can see Mt. Hood’s spiky peak looming…beautiful, impressive, threatening.

    The other day I had just walked out the door of my hotel room when I heard a low rumbling noise. I stopped and to no one in particular said, “OMG, what’s that?” One of the custodial crew in the hall laughed and said, “Oh, it’s just the linen cart they’re moving upstairs.” Phew!

    It’s odd how we live around these potential disasters all the time, and only now and again are we reminded of the threats they harbor. It’s like that with so many things in a life.

    I arrived in the area 5 days ago to collect my adult son and get him home. After an apparently wonderful week WWOOFing on an organic farm near Salem, Oregon, he ended up in Portland lost and confused, perhaps the victim of some gnarly drugs like Ketamine or Spice. Then suddenly disaster struck. After he spent a rainy night walking around lost in Vancouver, a man living nearby called me that he was on the curb outside. I raced over to his place, I got my son back to our room. Then suddenly, disaster. He went berserk and attacked me, hitting me numerous times, biting me, and screaming madly at me. He is now in Clark County jail in an apparent “psychotic state.”

    Down in the bar, I was having a drink of a very fine local ale, TVs blaring with the conclusion of this year’s Survivor. A woman at the bar, who was rather loud and “in sales,” was sitting nearby as I got another beer to take up to my room. I shook my head and looked at the man she had been talking to. He was also shaking his head. I said I hadn’t watch TV in 30 years, and he said, “This reality TV.” I commented that “reality TV” is the greatest oxymoron of our age. I added, without thinking, that our next president might be a reality TV “star” (which just shows what a sham it is). The woman rather proudly said she was a Republican and would be voting for him. She cited that Ronald Reagan was a movie actor, as if that made it OK. All I could muster was “Well there you go.” I went upstairs before I got into a fruitless argument with another American Idiot.

    As I went upstairs, I thought about Ronald Reagan. What a disaster he was for California and for this country. He and his Republican cronies ruined the California education system…a reality that has cost my son and my family enormously over the years. During his tenure as president, public health services for mentally ill people were greatly curtailed under the guise of giving them their freedom, but really just to cut budgets. As I knew, and have learned from my wife who works with feeding these people, the next time you see a crazy homeless person on the streets, you can almost certainly thank Reagan and his successors.

    My son could easily end up out there. Four nights ago he was talking almost gleefully about the two nights “when I was a homeless person,” as if it’s a badge of honor. The system is almost designed to put these people on the street where they can be victimized and used a political footballs.

    Disaster is always so close.

  11. Menyambal says

    I recall sitting with someone interesting, watching a smoke plume in the sunset. Then bicycling eastward from Seattle, and cleaning ash out of the bearings. So many moons and miles agone.

  12. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    Oh, I wouldn’t say you’re old. I will point out that you have adult memories of an event that occured a little under six years before I was born, and that I’m having an increasingly difficult time claiming to be young, but I would never say you’re old.

  13. tcmc says

    Use your fingers to represent binary digits, and you can count to 1023 on two hands.

  14. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    @tcmc, 16
    You fingers have three generally possible and roughly distinct states – you can easily* reach 59048 if you use ternary.
    Ok, it may not be very useful now, but when the singularity comes, we all live in the cloud with no fingers and have internal chronometers that automatically keep track of the time and date to 30 significant figures for us, it’ll come in quite handy!

    *assuming a full range of digital motion, and the ability to keep count

  15. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    ^ also assuming a full complement of fingers

  16. naturalcynic says

    Well, in Pullman on that weekend, I was in the lab in the morning. I knew that St. Helens had blown earlier, but nobody knew much about what was about to happen to Eastern Washington, I had ridden my bike in and saw what appeared to be a nasty t-storm to the west, I left the enclosed room bout an hour later and it looked stormy outside, but no thunder. Then I went to my office to study for a while and by about 2 PM it was getting quite dark outside, so I went to the Student Union to watch TV. Speculation was rampant. Was the ash cloud acidic and would it ruin your lungs? By 3 it was totally black outside except for a red ribbon of light just above the eastern horizon and some were freaking out, so I went back to the lab, found the disposable filter masks that nobody ever used and handed them out back in the Student Union. I decided not to go home and stayed in the office that night. The next morning was relatively clear and dusty and really quiet. The University then virtually shut down.

    and @ 10. There was a cost – all the harvesting and other farm equipment went through a lot more air filters than normal.

  17. killyosaur says

    This happened the year I was born :P

    My grandfather actually flew in some of the rescue missions during this as part of the Airforce Reserves…

  18. says


    I’m not that old, I don’t think.

    I’m not that old in my head, but the rest of me, yeah. We celebrated our first anniversary in March of 1980, and I remember that May 18th very well – that’s Mister’s birthday.

  19. Storms says

    I get you PZ. In 1983, when i was 22, my dad and I and two other chaps flew out to Seattle for the International Barbershop Championship in a 4-seater Cessina. On the way back, we flew over the Mt St. Helens crater, still smoking after 3 years. The devastation from that perspective looked like waves, as the sides of hills toward the volcano were stripped bare but the back-sides had dense vegetation. I remember being awed and humbled by the immense power of the world.

  20. says

    I comfort myself by thinking how tiny planetary events are compared to stellar events. Mt St Helens was a big explosion for sure, but two black holes whacking into eachother and converting 3 solar masses of matter to energy … That resets my idea of an “explosion” It’s weird that we deliberately create the conditions for a global nuclear war – its as if we dont have enough to worry about.

  21. Brother Ogvorbis, Fully Defenestrated Emperor of Steam, Fire and Absurdity says

    I was 14 years old.

    I had been following the reports as best I could on the east coast. I don’t have a memory of the moment I found out it happened, but I do remember my social studies teacher being surprised that there was a US volcano outside of Hawai’i or Alaska.

    Mount St. Helens s on my bucket list.

  22. carter says

    My brother was working as a nurse on the burn unit at Emmanuel Hospital in Portland that week and they had several (?) people airlifted in. He remembers it very well (and just retired from the burn unit last January).

  23. whheydt says

    Okay, okay… By May 1980, I was 31. My son was a bit short of 6 (born in July). My father had been dead for 5 years.

    As for Brother Ogvorbis @ #24…I surmise that your teacher had never heard of Mt. Lassen (in Northern California, erupted in 1915) or any of the other Cascade volcanoes. If you don’t insist on a “recent” eruption, you could include Crater Lake (ca. 7K years ago), Mammoth Lakes caldera, and Yellowstone caldera. There are lots of others, but those three are pretty noticeable.

  24. Holms says

    (Counts on fingers, counts on toes, looks around for a few more digits — if I were an octopod, I could do this.)

    But… we have more digits than any octopod!

  25. Mobius says

    In 1980, I was stationed at Mt. Home AFB, only one state over from Mt. St. Helens. But I was on my way home on leave to OK when the eruption happened. I kept getting questions about what it was like and I had to point out I was in Kansas when it blew.

    I later found out one of our planes was near the eruption, and the ash eroded the canopy to the point they couldn’t see out. They navigated back to base on instruments. Landing was touchy. They had two planes off its wingtips talking it down.

    I never heard, but I imagine the engines needed a complete overhaul after that. The ash probably did a number on the turbine blades.

  26. moarscienceplz says

    The only thing I remember is that KFC scooped up some of the ash and packaged and sold it as a souvenir, and required all of their franchisees to stock it. Everybody said, “What the heck does volcano ash have to do with selling fried chicken?”

  27. woozy says

    I’ve gotten very used to remembering thing that happened pretty recently and figuring they are 30 or 40 years old that I’ve taken the opposite approach “Oh, that’s a very recent development; it’s only been around twenty years or so” “He’s pretty young; 55 or 60 or so”. “Oh, I still do those things, in fact I did it just 13 years ago!” “Gad, that guy is falling apart! It’s like he’s 78 going on…. 82.”