Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mount St. Helens, Three Decades Later

I have heard relatively little said about the 30th anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens, perhaps because so much attention is currently being given to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

At the moment, of course, no one knows the dimensions of the catastrophe in the Gulf. When all is said and done, it may well make Mount St. Helens seem tiny, if not completely insignificant, by comparison.

But on the Sunday morning 30 years ago today when the mountain erupted, it didn't seem so insignificant.

Oh, there were other things vying for public attention at the time. President Carter was fending off a challenge from Ted Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination. The long–awaited sequel to the 1977 blockbuster movie "Star Wars""The Empire Strikes Back" — was about to be released to the nation's theaters. And Cable News Network was two weeks away from launching the 24–hour network news era.

And, frankly, Mount St. Helens struck some as being old news. After being dormant for more than a century, a series of earthquakes began in March 1980, indicating that the mountain's slumber was nearly over.

Two months later, the volcano erupted.

Fifty–seven people died, including an elderly innkeeper named Harry Truman (no known relation to the former president of the same name), a geologist named David Johnston, who perished while manning an observation post that was within the direct blast zone, and a photographer named Reid Blackburn, whose photograph of his car following the eruption can be seen at the right.

Johnston, it is worth noting, was the first to report the eruption, but, more importantly, his work (and the work of his colleagues) was what persuaded authorities to close Mount St. Helens to the public and keep it closed in spite of intense pressure to reopen in the weeks following the onset of the March earthquakes. There is no telling how many lives were saved as a result.

Volcanic eruptions are rare in North America. And, while the damage was extensive, the eruption of Mount St. Helens may be having unexpectedly positive consequences 30 years later. As Linda Mapes of the Seattle Times felt compelled to remind readers, "an entirely new ecosystem" was created — "[m]ore than 130 new ponds and two new lakes were birthed at the foot of the volcano," Mapes writes, and a new habitat is being assembled there. Apparently, the species that live there are thriving.

Maybe that is the lesson of the Mount St. Helens eruption. And, perhaps, it will prove to be the lesson of the oil spill in the Gulf in 2010 as well.

Granted, it is hard today to anticipate what good may come from the constant pouring of oil into the Gulf, especially as we approach the start of what some have predicted will be a particularly turbulent hurricane season.

But history has shown that nature adapts and evolves.

What came from the belly of the mountain three decades ago changed the landscape, killed every living thing within a certain radius and caused billions of dollars in damage. Yet nature adjusted.

Wasn't that the moral of "Jurassic Park," in which Dr. Malcolm, the scientist with the devotion to the chaos theory, said, "Life finds a way?"

In the short term, we may see hurricanes in the coming months that suck up oil–laden water in the Gulf that is later deposited on land as black rain, causing untold problems of catastrophic proportions.

But, until the "experts" find a way to secure the leak that continues to spew its oil into the water, we will have to hope that, eventually, life will find a way in the Gulf of Mexico.

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