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How Mount St Helens Eruption 36 Years Ago Changed Volcano Science

36 years ago, Mount St. Helens, in the US, caused unexpected chaos. Its northern side had spent weeks rising as the ground was being pushed upwards by the magma. Then, one day, it snapped and collapsed, resulting in a huge landslide, with the ground shaking, and leading to an eruption; ash rose to the air up to 24 kilometres. Over 50 people were killed in the aftermath; homes were lost; infrastructure like bridges were destroyed.

Ash cloud from Mount St Helen on May 18, 1980. Photo credits: R. G. Bowen/Special to The Oregonian Bruce Ely | The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Ash cloud from Mount St Helen on May 18, 1980. Photo credits: R. G. Bowen/Special to The Oregonian
Bruce Ely | The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The remnants of this incident have, on the other hand, helped scientists to understand volcanoes and eruptions. Scientists have been able to spot previous and current magmatic events.

The ground downfall characterised by that particular cataclysmic event is, in fact, rare. But, it has prompted scientists to now being able to identify warning signals of “sector-collapse eruptions”. According to volcanologist Michael Dungan from the University of Oregon, the Mount St Helens incident marked a turning point in volcano science. Dungan himself has been able to identify many other eruptions of similar nature in other parts of the world (like Chile) thanks to this event.

Ground collapses have, however, occurred in the past. For instance, before the 1980s incident in the US, Mount Bandai in Japan collapsed back in 1888. Years later, Mount Lamington in Papua New Guinea followed suit. However, it is Mount St Helens that is considered to have opened the doors to the world of science to documenting such events.

Moreover, Mount St Helens does not seem to retire. Around 130 tremors were felt in its vicinity only days ago, from March 14 to May 9. Experts explained that the magnitudes thereof did not, thankfully, exceed 1.3.

Regardless of the danger it still poses, it has allowed scientists to delve deeper into the study of volcanoes.

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