Saturday, July 10, 2010
Mount St. Helens: Rising from the Dead
Much to everyone’s surprise, including scientists who have studied the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens extensively, a resurgence of life has returned to Mount St. Helens. The landscape has shifted dramatically from a gray, still and nearly barren panorama to an environment that is green, active and life-filled. The mountain’s return to vibrant life is a remarkable reminder of the power and beauty of nature.
When Mount St. Helens erupted thirty years ago, the landscape looked as though it would never support life again. The lateral blast left 234 square miles of standing-dead or blown-down forests, killing an estimated 10,000,000 trees. As the north face of the mountain collapsed, creating the largest landslide in U.S. history, wind and heat wiped out virtually all animal and plant life. An estimated 7,000 deer, elk and bear, and untold thousands of birds and small animals perished. The Toutle River grew so hot witnesses reported seeing fish jump out of the water to escape the heat.
Sparkling Spirt Lake, directly in the path of the blast, was pushed more than 800 feet up the side of a neighboring mountain by debris and came back down to rest several hundred feet higher than it was before, leaving all marine life eradicated.
Even outside the blast zone, a hot slurry of mud from the Toutle River churned over the land–taking with it huge trees, dozens of homes, and every living thing in its path.
How could this miracle of rebirth happen? The weight of wet snow packs and summer heat have effectively deteriorated the blown-down trees, making fertile ground for wind-blown seeds. The distinctive irregular surface of the landslide entraps runoff from rain and snow melt, forming new ponds and wetlands, spawning new life. The little pocket gophers survived the blast from their underground tunnels and continued feeding on roots, leaving droppings containing seeds along the way. Spiders blew in and birds followed to feast on the spiders. They, too, left rich droppings for future growth. Today, the downed forest in places is almost hidden by an assortment trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and weeds, fodder for returning elk, deer and other animal life.
Even Spirit Lake has gone through a remarkable metamorphosis, returning to near pre-eruption conditions. The lake’s once cold, clear waters were transformed into a primordial soup, a rich broth of sediment and organic matter covered by a floating log mat. Bacteria populations exploded in these ideal conditions, cleansing the lake. Today, Spirit Lake hosts vibrant ecosystems and even trout, although scientists believe the fish were illegally introduced by visitors after the eruption.
Much of the recovery has been instigated by nature. However, employees of Weyerhaeuser, one of the largest pulp and paper companies in the world, planted 18,400,000 trees by hand in an effort to rebuild some of the forest after the blast. It took workers four years to complete the project.
The effects of the 1980 eruption are still very evident–the enormous crater is stark evidence of the magnitude of the event. From Johnston Ridge, named after geologist Dave Johnston who lost his life in the blast, visitors can see a close-up of the lava dome, crater, pumice plain, and the landslide deposit.
Mount St. Helens is witness to and a lesson in nature’s remarkable evolution. From a colorless, barren landscape to an array of color and life, the mountain again beckons visitors to its wild beauty. When was the last time you visited Mount St. Helens?