Tuesday, May 18, 2010

History: 30th Mount Saint Helens Day

TORONTO, ONTARIO - A year ago on this blog, I predicted that today, on the thirtieth anniversary of the main eruption of Mount Saint Helens, there would be substantial coverage of the event. Not so, it seems, at least in the international media. Dig deep enough on the major news sites, and there will be retrospectives, but with plenty of news in the realm of politics, economics, and even a volcano in Iceland, there didn't seem to be much room to talk about something that happened thirty years ago.

That the world did not know how to handle the ongoing eruption at Eyjafjallajokul in Iceland should not have been surprising to anyone that lived through Mount Saint Helens. Major volcanic eruptions happen regularly somewhere in the world, yet each new one seems to lead to reactions as if nothing like it had ever happened before. In the case of Mount Saint Helens, it was mostly about what was in the ash. People were advised to wear masks and not disturb the falling ash downwind of Mount Saint Helens, as it might be toxic. It turned out not be. In the case of Eyjafjallajokul, it was about how close planes could fly to the ash plumes--something that airlines in some parts of the world already knew well.

A lot of things about Mount Saint Helens turned out to be different than they appeared. Farmers in eastern Washington state were concerned that the ash from the volcano that had fallen on them would ruin their crops. In reality, the ash turned out to be great fertilizer, and the areas with the deepest ash--near Ritzville and Lind, Washington--turned out to have banner crops in succeeding years.

One of my most lasting memories of Mount Saint Helens came not on the day of the eruption, but a few years later. The main state highway that had led to Mount Saint Helens and Spirit Lake along the Toutle River, highway 504, was nearly completely obliterated by the mudflow following the eruption. While that road was being rebuilt, forest service roads were re-established south from US highway 12 through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest to the area of devastation. My parents took me on a trip over these roads to see the barren areas, the trees looking like toothpicks leaning in unison, and what was left of the mountain. Even in the mid-1980's, just a few years after the eruption, there were already some signs of life growing up through the near-moonscape.

Perhaps that's the real lesson of Mount Saint Helens--humans need to be prepared for the unexpected from nature, as the deaths of 57 people on 18-May-1980 remind us, but many things are not as bad as first feared, and life always comes back.

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