Volcano science improves, but so must community preparedness

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 31, 2014 

Mount St. Helens in Washington spews smoke, soot and ash into the sky in April, 1980. The eruption was the first for the volcano since 1857.

JACK SMITH — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Washington State Emergency Management Division declared May as Volcano Preparedness Month in Washington State. The declaration creates an opportunity for residents to reflect on the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens 34 years ago on May 18, 1980, and to learn about volcanoes near our communities. Lessons learned from 1980 events still resonate. All of us have responsibilities for personal and community preparedness.

As with hundreds of thousands of other Washingtonians, my memories of that day remain vivid. I was driving on Interstate 5 with plans to work at the volcano and witnessed the volcano's northern flank slipping away and uncorking an ominous plume of ash and steam. That landslide, one of the largest on Earth in historical times, devastated more than 200 square miles and tragically caused the deaths of 57 people. The volcanic ash plume rose to 80,000 feet within 15 minutes. Fine particles of volcanic rock rode the jet stream in a global journey that gave star status to Mount St. Helens and Washington State. As an earth scientist, that day shaped the rest of my career.

Over the years, I've heard hundreds of recollections from other Washingtonians - booming felt and heard at distance; a volcanic mudflow - lahar - lapping at the deck of the I-5 Toutle River bridge 40 miles from the volcano; the eerie ash-filled sky that rained grit, brought darkness at noon and made driving difficult. Thirty-four years later, these reminiscences still spark conversations, and for good reason - volcanic eruptions are powerful and memorable events.

In 1980, Mount St. Helens taught us that living successfully with volcanoes requires three actions: understanding eruptive potential of a volcano; careful geophysical monitoring; and working together to prepare communities for eventual volcanic activity. Although there is still much to do, we've made significant progress. Scientists have much better knowledge about each of Washington's major volcanic peaks. We can identify awakening of a volcano using advanced technologies that identify earthquake signals, changes in ground elevation, temperature and gas composition that herald volcanic reawakening. We maintain vigilance in partnership with emergency responders.

In the course of our studies we discovered that Cascade Range volcanoes, from northern Washington State to northern California, collectively have erupted on average, two to four times per century during the past 4,000 years. We can thus expect more volcanic activity in the current century.

For keepers of oral traditions and northwest histories, the possibility of renewed activity someday at Mount Baker comes as no surprise. Native oral traditions and explorers' diaries describe eruptions in the 1840s. Many residents remember the 1975 events at Mount Baker when the rate of heat, steam and gas emissions from Sherman Crater increased significantly. Officials closed the area with concerns that a landslide would crash into Baker Lake. At the time, Mount Baker was subjected to the most intensive monitoring ever applied to a Cascade Range volcano. Although a volcanic eruption did not ensue, the events awoke the populace to the possibility of renewed volcanic activity in the Cascades, a possibility fulfilled just five short years later with the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Today, the steaming at Mount Baker's Sherman Crater waxes and wanes with the weather, being particularly prominent on cold, clear, windless days. It reminds us of the heat within.

All of us, residents, officials, and scientists, possess roles in preparedness for the day Mount Baker reawakens. Scientists watch the volcano continuously and anticipate eventual enhancement of monitoring capabilities that will put Mount Baker on par with Mounts St. Helens and Rainier. We work with local, state, federal and tribal emergency managers to develop and exercise coordination plans at all five major Washington volcanoes - Mounts Baker, Rainier, Adams, St. Helens and Glacier Peak. Residents can build a culture of safety by identifying volcano hazards within their community, becoming familiar with reliable emergency information sources and preparing their households to survive well on their own during an emergency. They must believe that an eruption can happen, and that it can affect communities distant from the volcano.

Mount Baker will erupt again. Before doing so, there will be days to weeks or more of warning detectable by instruments. The only question is whether the region's residents will be surprised or prepared.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carolyn Driedger is a hydrologist and outreach coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey's, Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash. This federal science agency seeks to reduce the impact of volcano hazards by studying and monitoring Cascade Range volcanoes and sharing information with communities at risk. For more information online, go to volcanoes.usgs.gov/observatories/cvo.

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