4 min read

Far Side of the Moon

Into the Blast Zone
Far Side of the Moon
Calling Mount St. Helens a "moonscape" might be a play on words, but someone is taking it seriously! Photo by David Lukas

When I was in high school I had the remarkable experience of watching as the most destructive volcanic event in United States history unfolded outside our classroom windows.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, alongside the Cascade Mountains. And out of all these mountains, Mount St. Helens was known as the youngest and most active of the many volcanoes that stretch from southern British Columbia to northern California.

Mount St. Helens
Evidence of both young and old eruptions at Mount St. Helens, photo by David Lukas

The mountain itself was less than 40,000 years old, and everyone from Native tribes to early European explorers had noted the mountain's periodic eruptions.

Then in 1980, after weeks of alarming tremors, Mount St. Helens erupted again with a force more violent than anyone could have imagined.

Mount St. Helens eruption
The eruption of Mount St. Helens instantly blew 1300 feet off the top of the mountain, photo courtesy of National Park Service

Not only did the eruption's immense plume of ash rise 15 miles into the atmosphere and travel around the world, a shockwave equivalent to 2,500 atomic bombs blew sideways and flattened over 230 square miles of dense forest while causing immense ecological and human devastation.

recovering forest
Forty-year-old forest recovering alongside trees blown over by the eruption, photo by David Lukas

A vast area around the mountain was blasted with so much force that hillsides were scoured to bare rock and the ground was buried and cooked in thick beds of superheated ash—leaving the entire landscape looking like a lifeless moonscape.

barren volcanic landscape
Hills that bore the full brunt of the blast will take thousands of years to recover, photo by David Lukas

But what happened next, and over the subsequent decades, has surprised everyone.

Mount St. Helens crater
Looking into the heart of the Mount St. Helens crater, photo by David Lukas

Within days of the eruption, scientists flying over the blast zone began noticing signs of life.

Mount St. Helens blast zone
Pockets of life in the blast zone, photo by David Lukas

Despite the blast and superheated ash, a range of animals survived the eruption. For example, many burrowing animals like pocket gophers, chipmunks, and mice hid in tunnels, while other animals were protected under a late blanket of snow.

golden-mantled ground squirrel
Some burrow dwellers, like this young golden-mantled ground squirrel, survived the initial blast. Photo by David Lukas

Insects and invertebrates soon arrived on the wind, providing food for small scavengers and predators; and 43 species of spiders—all carried on air currents—were recorded in the blast zone within a year of the eruption.

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The following spring, a single prairie lupine appeared, signaling a crucial turning point because lupines pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere and begin building a healthy food chain from the ground up.

prairie lupine
Lupines begin rebuilding depleted soils by pulling nitrogen from the atmosphere, photo by David Lukas

Rarely, if ever, in the history of volcano studies have scientists had an opportunity to document a major eruption, in microscopic detail and at an easily reached location, so close to universities and research labs.

Scientists have learned many lessons from studying the pace of ecological recovery in the blast zone, photo by David Lukas

And rarely has a fresh volcanic site been so open and accessible to public visitors. The 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, established in 1982, offers a visitor center, opportunities to view the mountain from multiple angles, and a large network of trails.

paintbrush flowers at Mount St. Helesn
A cluster of paintbrush flowers in a carpet of lupines, photo by David Lukas

Even now, more than 40 years after the eruption, it's fascinating to explore this unique landscape and observe the ecological recovery firsthand. It's a place of small surprises, and little pockets of life, on a grand scale.

mountain goats
It's amazing to see mountain goats coming back after their original population was killed in the eruption, photo by David Lukas

Mount St. Helens
A most remarkable landscape, photo by David Lukas

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In case you're wondering, the person wearing the NASA spacesuit in the cover photo was a volunteer helping with a long-distance footrace called the Volcanic 50. This year all the race officials were wearing fun outfits to help keep up competitor's spirits as they ran the 50 kilometer loop around the mountain.