'A natural calamity'

  • Three time-sequence shots of Mount St. Helens erupting

    Gary Rosenquist
  Through historical and eyewitness accounts, scientific analysis and amazing photos, Rob Carson's Mount St. Helens: the Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano, takes us back to the blast of 20 years ago:

"By the evening of May 18, Mount St. Helens was a smoking crater, hollowed-out and grey. It looked defiled, like the victim of some grisly crime. Mount St. Helens had burst into volcanic eruption at 8:32 that morning, exploding sideways with a blast so powerful it knocked down trees 17 miles away. When the ash cleared, the mountain had dropped in rank from Washington's fifth-highest peak, at 9,677, to its 30th highest, at 8,364 feet."

Carson, a reporter for The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., paints a picture of quick destruction. In a matter of minutes, 234 square miles of green forest resembled the ashen surface of the moon. Fifty-seven people were killed; watersheds were clogged with ash.

Yet life returned quickly to the mountain. Thanks to the pocket gopher, one of the lone survivors in the blast zone, ash has been mixed with underlying fertile soil, allowing seeds to take root. Plant life attracted birds and, eventually, foraging mammals. Life's processes started over again.

Humans have ventured back as well, turning the geologic event into a tourist attraction. Today, five visitor's centers cover the mountain, although Mount St. Helens continues to grumble and to spit plumes of steam. Carson says most scientists assume Mount St. Helens will erupt again. "Predicting when such a disaster might happen is impossible, even with all the tiltmeters, satellites and seismometers in the world. Perhaps more useful than any of those tools is an old Japanese proverb: "A natural calamity," the ancients said, "will strike at about the time the terror of the last one is forgotten."

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