A remarkable regeneration, led by beetles
Looking southward from the wide windows of the Johnston Ridge Observatory, Mount St. Helens presents an almost apocalyptic vision.
The barren sweep of broad plains is cut with stark ravines, carved by ash-stained streams. Above, the caldera opens heavenward like the gaping maw of a terrestrial monster.
It's a dramatic reminder of the dazzling Sunday morning 20 years ago today, when Mount St. Helens ripped open in a burst of molten rock, wiping away 230 square miles of forest and killing 57 people.
Yet today, those who take a closer look see a story of remarkable recovery. From purple lupines blooming amid the ash to tourist traps sprouting along Route 504, the region is on the upward swing of the cycle of regeneration.
The renaissance has not only helped residents overcome the destruction of a decades-old logging industry. It has also given volcanologists insight into how and when one of the most spontaneous and spectacular convulsions of nature occurs.
Most significant, though, the eruption has given researchers an unprecedented opportunity to watch life take hold on a clean slate. Indeed, for those who have seen this transformation, Mount St. Helens has been an education.
"Its value is to provide a view into natural processes, to help develop a sensitivity among the next generation that the earth is not static," says Peter Frenzen, a scientist at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. "When you see ... what nature can do in just 10 minutes, that catches your attention. It's a tremendous teachable moment."
The force of the eruption is difficult to exaggerate. Aside from blowing the top 1,300 feet off the summit, it scoured surrounding forests with a 300-mile-per-hour blast of rock and debris. The Toutle River valley was devastated by a massive flood of volcanic debris and mud.
Still, only in the six-square-mile plain just north of the crater was life completely obliterated. There, glowing avalanches of pumice more than 100 feet thick buried the ground with material smoldering at 1,500 degrees F. "That's what it took for nothing to survive," says Mr. Frenzen.
'Life is very resilient'
But life was returning almost as soon as the ash settled. Birds began to colonize in the blast zone within days of the eruption, and insects such as beetles were the "paratroopers" of recovery, carried by winds from surrounding lush forests. Their carcasses provided tiny strongholds for lupine, which came in on the wind as well.
Pockets of snow had also sheltered a few insects and saplings from the blast. Gophers eventually moved in and created a "subway system" of tunnels under the debris flow, providing sheltered pathways to sun-sensitive migrants like amphibians.
"Life is very resilient," said Charlie Crisafulli, a researcher with the US Forest Service, at a symposium here last weekend. "It's had a lot of practice."
Ten years later, there was an explosion of diversity marked by the red alder saplings that now blush with the new leaves of spring. Sixty years from now, evergreens like Douglas fir will take over, says Frenzen.
For the people of southwest Washington, the changes brought about by the eruption have, in some ways, been no less dramatic.
For one, recreational jewels such as Spirit Lake - which was at ground zero - were devastated. Moreover, the blast accelerated the decline of logging - the region's original economic raison d'tre.
Bud May, a retired journalist, says logging has dropped by half since 1980, and he estimates that 40 percent of that decrease is directly related to the eruption.
But a cottage tourist industry has grown up around the eruption, and these changes are reflected along Route 504. As it winds its way west to the blast zone at Johnston Ridge, mossy mobile homes and rusted logging equipment gradually give way to displays of chain-saw art.
The "Buried A-Frame," a cabin mired up to its eaves in volcanic detritus, has been reincarnated as a gift shop. And Nineteen Mile House, once a home overlooking a logging camp, is now a popular tourist restaurant featuring homemade cobbler.
Owner Jan Pinkas started the restaurant in 1981, after her grandchildren began selling lemonade to curious volcano-watchers. She remembers the months after the eruption, when timber giant Weyerhaeuser scrambled to recover "blowdown" before it rotted.
"There was a line of logging trucks a mile long waiting at the scales below the house. It looked like smoke because of all the ash blowing off the trucks," she says.
By 1982, there were massive layoffs.
More than tourism needed
Despite an enticing new road to the mountain and six different visitor centers, tourism hasn't made up the difference yet. While some former logging communities have carefully reinvented themselves as recreation destinations - with Mount St. Helens a primary draw - others have had a difficult transition. Asked if the area is better off than before the eruption, Mr. May says, "Tourism has helped an awful lot. But we'll never be better off than before. It changed a lot of people's lives."
After 20 years, the lessons of Mount St. Helens are still coming into focus. One goal is to use what has been learned to give communities threatened by volcanoes as much warning as possible.
"It's given us a better perception of what we should be looking for," says Pat Pringle of the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
The mountain has been an ideal laboratory for developing and testing new technology. For example, scientists have honed acoustic flow monitors, which allow scientists to identify volcanic mud slides - and measure how fast they're moving and how big they are.
They've also used other devices to detect warning signs such as gaseous emissions or volcano deformation.
"We've made a lot of progress," says Rick Lahusen of the US Geological Service's Cascades Volcanic Observatory in Vancouver, Wash.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society