May 18, 2010

KA-BOOM! What a difference a day makes

MAY 17, 1980
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MAY 18, 1980
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On May 18th, 1980, thirty years ago today, at 8:32 a.m., the ground shook beneath Mount St. Helens in Washington state as a magnitude 5.1 earthquake struck, setting off one of the largest landslides in recorded history - the entire north slope of the volcano slid away. As the land moved, it exposed the superheated core of the volcano setting off gigantic explosions and eruptions of steam, ash and rock debris. The blast was heard hundreds of miles away, the pressure wave flattened entire forests, the heat melted glaciers and set off destructive mudflows, and 57 people lost their lives. The erupting ash column shot up 80,000 feet into the atmosphere for over 10 hours, depositing ash across Eastern Washington and 10 other states. Collected here are photos of the volcano and its fateful 1980 eruption. -- The Big Picture

The finest, clearest days in Seattle are those when the inhabitants remark, "The Mountain is out." The Mountain is Mount Rainier, a peak so looming and solitary on the edge of the Puget Sound basin that it makes its own weather. Here's a peek at the mountain I took last week from I-5 inside Seattle city limits.


rainierfreewayweb.jpg

Yes, it was so impressive that I was snapping pictures of it from the fast lane. Call me crazy, but hey I live here ringed by active volcanoes with millions of others so I'm in good, if facially pierced, company.

Just how deadly can the mountain be? Well, that depends. It's just hanging around now but, as you can see above, "What a difference a day makes."

Although Rainier is an active volcano, as of 2010 there is no evidence of an imminent eruption. However, an eruption could be devastating for all areas surrounding the volcano. Despite the risk, there are currently no zoning restrictions in King County due to volcanic hazard. If Mt. Rainier were to erupt as powerfully as Mount St. Helens did in its infamous May 18th, 1980 eruption; the effect would be cumulatively greater, because of the far more massive amounts of glacial ice locked on the volcano compared to Mt. St. Helens. . Lahars from Rainier pose the most risk to life and property, as many communities lie atop older lahar deposits. Not only is there much ice atop the volcano, the volcano is also slowly being weakened by hydrothermal activity. -- La Wik

When Mt. Rainier goes, here's what probably happens:

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As you can see, Seattle gets choking fumes, hot ash and fire from the sky while Tacoma gets.... well, Tacoma gets erased.

That must be why we sleep soundly by the Sound in Seattle.

Earth to America: "About that little oil leak in the gulf, please untwist your kickers or I'll give you something real to deal with. Thank you."

Posted by Vanderleun at May 18, 2010 12:48 AM
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There is also New Madrid Fault for potential disasters. And Yellowstone.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at May 18, 2010 5:13 AM

We're all gonna die!

Posted by: Fat Man at May 18, 2010 6:18 AM

Now that Miss USA is a bikini-wearing, pole-dancing Muslim, this will probably happen sooner...

Posted by: The Commander at May 18, 2010 6:22 AM

Actually there have been times in the past that Mt. Rainier has prety much obliterated the land where Seattle is now. It's all the luck of the draw. We could see another eruption like the one that sent hundreds of feet of mud down the Duwamish all the way to Elliot Bay, and shot rocks the size of cars all over western Washington and as far away as Vancouver, B.C..

But if we are going to obsess about geology, Yellowstone is the big contender in this country. It's capable of burying much of the plains in many feet of ash and blowing so much bad gas and big rocks all over several states that we'd face massive losses of life, trillions in destroyed property and a rebuilding process taking decades, if we could find the resources to do it at all.

The Mississippi Delta is bits of the Rocky Mountsins carried by water, and bits of Yosemite blown into the plains then washed along the waterways to the sea. Google also the current doomed attempt to keep the Atchafalaya River from capturing the Mississippi and moving it significantly to the west. Hurricane Katrina may have failed to devastate New Orleans, but that does not mean it is "safe and dry."

Earth will have the last say. It always has, and always will until a bigger space event eclipses it.

Posted by: raincityjazz at May 18, 2010 8:04 AM

Actually there have been times in the past that Mt. Rainier has prety much obliterated the land where Seattle is now. It's all the luck of the draw. We could see another eruption like the one that sent hundreds of feet of mud down the Duwamish all the way to Elliot Bay, and shot rocks the size of cars all over western Washington and as far away as Vancouver, B.C..

But if we are going to obsess about geology, Yellowstone is the big contender in this country. It's capable of burying much of the plains in many feet of ash and blowing so much bad gas and big rocks all over several states that we'd face massive losses of life, trillions in destroyed property and a rebuilding process taking decades or hundreds of years, if we could find the resources to do it at all.

The Mississippi Delta is bits of the Rocky Mountains carried by water, and bits of Yosemite blown into the plains then washed along the waterways to the sea.

Want more? Google the current doomed attempt to keep the Atchafalaya River from capturing the Mississippi and moving it significantly to the west. Hurricane Katrina may have failed to devastate New Orleans, but that does not mean the city is guaranteed to go on forever just as it is.

Earth will have the last say. It always has, and always will until a bigger space event eclipses it.

Posted by: raincityjazz at May 18, 2010 8:12 AM

You can say that again!

Posted by: vanderleun at May 18, 2010 8:35 AM

I have a picture of me in a parking lot at Ft. Lewis with Ranier in the background. For someone who grew up in the deep midwest, that mountain was always a wierd thing to see.

And it would probably be a good thing if Tacoma got washed away. I suppose it could have changed some in the last 25 years. I bet not for the better.

Posted by: Eric Blair at May 18, 2010 9:29 AM

Hey, am I the first one to ask, "what's a Lahar?"

From Wikipedia:

A lahar is a type of mudflow or landslide composed of pyroclastic material and water that flows down from a volcano, typically along a river valley.[1] The term "lahar" originated in the Javanese language of Indonesia.

Since lahars have no apparent conservative ideological connotations, I assume Wikipedia is telling the truth in this case.

Posted by: Don Rodrigo at May 18, 2010 10:51 AM

Can't believe it's been thirty years.
Three days before she blew, I had packed my bags into an old Dodge van and left Seattle to find my fortune.

Still looking. Wish I could remember where I put that thing.

Posted by: westsoundmodern at May 18, 2010 11:10 AM

About 15 years ago, I had a long go around with several companies in Portland concerning employment with them. Got up every morning and looked at Mt Hood, little trickle of steam rising out of the top, and started checking evac routes. The choice was (1) over the coastal range towards Seaside, (2) south down the Willamette valley (under the left shoulder of Hood), and (3) east up the Columbia river gorge, between Hood and St Helens.
It's the basic reason I'm still in Texas. They were offering money, but, hell, even during Ike all I really needed was enough gas to run the generator for 4 days. And tropical storms come with a 3 day warning.

Posted by: ed in texas at May 18, 2010 11:32 AM

Don't forget Glacier Peak either. The Daily Fish wrap, err...Everett Herald has a nice visualization of the results if it were to erupt. Darington and most of the Skagit Valley would be hit hard.

Glacier Peak Hazard Zones

Posted by: SovietofWashington at May 18, 2010 12:09 PM

Now that Miss USA is a bikini-wearing, pole-dancing Muslim, this will probably happen sooner..

Nah, it'll take the Cubs winning the World Series to bring it on.

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at May 18, 2010 3:33 PM

Are you sure the first picture of Mount St. Helens was really taken the day before it blew? I flew over it two days before the event and there was quite a lot of visible smoke coming out of the top at that time.

Posted by: Chazz at May 18, 2010 4:00 PM

As I began this post, with the before-and-after pics of St Helens, I grinned with the anticipation of reading
a not so subtle Gerard metaphorical slammer on the sudden, frightening impact of today's primaries on the complacent
lotus eaters inside the beltway.

Shucks.

Results aren't in as of this post, but I'm looking for wonderful things tomorrow, if it may only happen -- hear me up there, whoever you are.

Posted by: Robert at May 18, 2010 4:54 PM

I didn't remember that an earthquake kicked off the event. How much time was there between the earthquake and the eruption?

How bittersweet---photo #4, of vulcanologist David Johnston. It must mean so much to his family.

Posted by: Deborah at May 18, 2010 5:18 PM

That was two weeks before my college graduation. Before the 25-hr news cycle and the internet. We had to rely on photos in Newsweek and didn't know the extent of the devastation until months later.

Posted by: Obi's Sister at May 18, 2010 7:22 PM

I was living in Yakima on May 18, 1980. At approximately 8:32, I felt the Big Bang and dove under my bed....and then when I was still alive, I got outside and watched the ash cloud slowly creep over the mountain ridge, and at 10 a.m. (still alive) we watched the sun go out as it became darker than midnight.
Then we went inside to watch the news people panic. That's just about the time I quit believing the news.

Posted by: Jewel at May 19, 2010 7:52 AM

Jewel - you got a good lesson. Me? Standing and watching as Lake Ste. Clair and the Detroit River went all nasty - and then realizing that there were bigger bodies of water that were nearby and likely going utter ape-feces.

Note: Earth to humans - your sonnet gets squished by my volcano.

Check. Mate.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at May 19, 2010 6:44 PM
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