The Volcanocam site at MSH has just added movies of the past week’s eruptive behavior. Additionally, last week, NASA flew an infrared photography mission over the mountain, just prior to the eruptions.

The lava dome has been growing at a frantic rate – 250 feet in the last week – and the weather’s cleared, revealing that the mountain is now snow-capped, and awfully picturesque, what with the curl of steam shining in the Sunday morning sun.


Ken and I were discussing the apparent volcano frenzy at the open visitor’s center the other day. I’ve also been keeping my parents up-to-date, as understandably enough the volcano is perceived as a local story. Therefore, it does not get the full-court-press coverage we see in the Northwest.

Both facts are totally understandable. Vulcanologists and seismologists have widely quoted in the press as expecting any event to be smaller than the 1980 eruption. Especially in the early coverage, experts emphasized that any eruption would probably only have a localized effect on the area of the mountain. People have interpreted the authorities’ decision to keep the Coldwater Ridge center open as a seal of approval and assured safety.

Of course, recent statements have been more guarded, such as this: “Still, scientists cautioned that the mountain remained restless. ‘Escalation of unrest could occur suddenly and perhaps lead to an eruption with very little warning,’ a statement from the Mount St. Helens Joint Information Center said Thursday.” But what’s the lead in this story?

“Helens’ crater has risen 50 to 100 feet since Tuesday while earthquake activity remained low, signs that magma is moving upward without much resistance, scientists said Thursday. Despite the swelling, scientists said there was no reason to raise the alert level around the 8,364-foot volcano in southwest Washington.”

So, despite the scientific personnel cautioning against the literal truth and accuracy of their predictions, the news coverage reflects – inaccurately – a perception of safety, encouraging the visitiors.

The P-I ran a series of stories the other day recounting survivors’ tales of the 1980 blast. Unsurprisingly, none of these folks are especially eager to see the mountain blow again. 81-year-old Leslie Davis survived with her husband in a pickup truck whose grill “melted.” Her daughter has some thoughts on the visitors now flocking to the mountain:

“I think of these idiots up there right now,” said Church, 55, shaking her head. “There are quicker ways to commit suicide. They’re going up there for picnics because they’ve never been in that situation before. I mean, if they had been here in 1980, they wouldn’t be within 3,000 miles of it.”

Here’s a map. The Coldwater Ridge visitor’s center is the red circle labeled “CRVC.” The brown area with the radiating lines is the 1980 blast zone, the area in which most people died as the eruption‘s shock wave passed over them, traveling over 100 miles an hour. Here’s some more on the 1980 eruption. In 1980, it took the eruption’s blast less than five mintues to envelop the location where hundreds picnic today.

In 1980, the people working on the mountain did not expect such a large eruption either, and while they knew one was coming, they had no way to predict when. Today, we can watch seismic activity on the mountain, and observe the curling steam in the bright morning sun, from the comfort of our living rooms and offices. But predicting eruptions is not a cold science.

So, let’s review. Large numbers of people are traveling to a location near the geographic center of a massive prior eruption’s blast zone. Scientists caution that while they don’t expect an eruption on the scale of the previous one, they are by no means certain, and their interpretation can change at any time. The mountain is growing rapidly. The shape of the crater from the previous eruption would direct a large blast directly at the visitors.

I believe over the next week or so we may see some evidence of professional volcano watchers speaking out about the predictable distortions the inverted pyramid form forces onto coverage of their pronouncements. It’s unlikely that the coverage will change, however, as the rules of news insist that positive statements and hard quotes trump caveats and cautions. In this case, it’s a basic conflict between the rules of scientific presentation and news presentation.

The crater carved by the earlier eruption faces both the Coldwater Ridge visitors center and the closer, evacuated Johnston Ridge center (the location of the Volcanocam). David Johnston gave his life – and his name – on the mountain in one of most dramatic deaths in the 1980 blast. As the blast wave rolled toward him, the young man’s final radio transmission was recorded, seconds before he was swept into history: “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!”

The Johnston Ridge location was renamed for him to memorialize his death in that location. (Confusingly, it had previously been known as Coldwater Ridge). When we look at the ubiquitous Volcanocam image, we’re seeing the mountain from his vantage point. In a sense, the web is looking through the eyes of a dead man.

5 thoughts on “Looking through the eyes of a dead man

  1. You have wisely pointed out what we should all remember: it is quite foolish to mess with Mother Nature, and it is UNBELIEVABLY foolish to say “And we’re absolutely sure that . .”

  2. Criminy, I look at that map (the phrase “sear zone” sends a chill down my spine) and wonder what the heck people are thinking. But then, they don’t know any more than I did 5 minutes ago.

    I have thought more than once about Dave Johnston and his legacy since this event started, but I never realized the camera was so far within the 1980 blast zone.

Comments are now closed.