Mount St. Helens Day

Mount St Haelens, May 18, 1980.

Mount St. Helens, May 18, 1980.

Today is one of those trigger dates that remind me of how small I really am, a day that invokes memories of my life in younger years. Somewhat like September 11, 2001. (I was on Crowchild, heading towards work in downtown Calgary when I heard the radio report from New York.)   Today is May 18 – the 35th anniversary of the most destructive volcano most of us will probably ever experience. Mount St. Helens Day.  To tell the story of the volcano from my perch about a thousand kilometres north and east of the eruption, I’ll draw upon a short section from my book, The Mountain Mystery:

A Sunset of People

One of my geology professors at the University of Saskatchewan took great delight in describing what occasionally happens to volcano spectators. To be caught in a firewall from an active volcano is to be swept over by pelting fiery-hot ash.  Your lungs suck in red hot dust – if the shards of volcanic glass carried by hurricane-speed winds have not already stripped your flesh to the bone, which would ignite and disintegrate, of course. When the professor gave that description, it seemed he had been close to a volcano or two in his research.

But not as close as Katia and Maurice Krafft, a French husband and wife team who spent years filming unpredictable pyroclastic volcanoes from unsafe distances and repeatedly photographing lava flows within a whisper. In June, 1991, they were filming eruptions of Mount Unzen, on a southern island of Japan, when a pyroclastic flow unexpectedly swept out of a channel and onto the ridge where they and 41 other people were standing. They died instantly, along with journalists and several research observers – including Professor Harry Glicken. Glicken’s death by volcano also seemed inevitable.

The American volcanologist was the scheduled observer at Mount St. Helens ten years earlier, when that mountain exploded. Had he been there, it would have killed him. But Glicken had to attend business at a college in California and missed experiencing the 1980 St. Helens eruption. His replacement for the day, David Johnston, died instead of him, manning the doomed observation post that had been Glicken’s. Johnston, a promising young scientist, reported the explosion in his final words over a two-way radio: “Vancouver, Vancouver. This is it.” And it was. Meanwhile, for a few years, Harry Glicken postponed his own predestined death by volcanic eruption.

Rocks, trees, and people were pulverized during that 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. I was twelve hundred kilometres away from the explosion, living and working in a Saskatchewan village near the Montana border. Two days after the explosion, the daylight sky turned grey. Although I was over a thousand kilometres from the explosion, enough volcanic dust had settled on the white cab of my truck that I could etch my name on the vehicle’s hood. I did not realize that parts of 57 humans were in that thin grey grit.

Volcanic ash and dust made the Saskatchewan evening skies spectacular with vivid pink, orange, and red accompanied by unusual shades of green and purple. Particles of dust from the mountain, several million trees, and those few dozen incinerated people tinted our Saskatchewan sky that spring. It was a dreary sort of lovely.

A Sunset of People

A Sunset of People

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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