VANCOUVER, Washington — May is Volcano Preparedness Month in Washington, providing residents an opportunity to become more familiar with volcanic hazards in their communities and learn about steps they can take to reduce potential impacts. It is a time to commemorate the May 18, 1980 catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens, which not only caused massive destruction and loss of life but also became a catalyst for a new era of unprecedented scientific discovery, technology development and community awareness.
The Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory and a variety of local emergency management agencies are working together with communities at risk across the state to provide timely warnings and reduce the negative impacts of future eruptions. Together, the agencies develop and exercise emergency plans with communities, coordinate communications, conduct public education programs and plan for short- and long-term recovery in the event an eruption or lahar should occur.
On Sunday, May 18, 1980, at 8:32 a.m., the bulging north flank of Mount St. Helens slid away in a massive landslide. Seconds later, the uncorked volcano exploded and blasted rocks laterally, destroying centuries of forest growth in a span of several minutes. Nine hours of explosive volcanic activity ensued, altering the landscape, and what we know about volcanoes, forever.
Volcano Preparedness Month arrives this year as an earthquake swarm is underway at Mount St. Helens, indicating that the volcano remains active. USGS’s seismic data have shown since 2010 that the quiet Mount St. Helens has a new supply of magma slowly repressurizing the magma chamber beneath the mountain. As was observed at Mount St. Helens between 1987-2004, recharge can continue for many years beneath a volcano and an eruption is not imminent.
New this year is funding for aerial lidar images, which display ground features in spectacular detail and ease the work of ground-based geologists. A Colombia-USA binational exchange is in progress between officials of the two nations responsible for volcano preparedness and interpretation. Volcano emergency coordination plans are being updated at Mount Rainier. Agencies are developing new products for public education presentations, as well as posting signs in communities.
Find information updates about volcanoes and read about science in action at USGS Volcanoes on Facebook.
Eruptions at Mount St. Helens have demonstrated the importance of scientists working in close partnership with emergency and land management agencies to prepare for future eruptions. That includes installation of comprehensive monitoring networks, developing and practicing emergency plans, and supporting community education.
Seth Moran, scientist-in-charge at the USGS CVO, notes, “We’ve seen from other volcanic eruptions that scientists and public officials must work together in response planning well before a volcanic eruption begins. We cannot wait around for indications of volcanic reawakening. Our work together needs to be done now.”