Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!"

I'm not sure why, but those words always choke me up.  They are the last words of David Johnston, U.S.G.S volcanologist, from his observation post 6 miles north of Mt. St. Helens at 8:32 AM, May 18, 1980.  Johnston was a passionate researcher and had the unfortunate luck of being in the right place at the wrong time, or perhaps the wrong place at the right time, therefore cementing himself in the mythology and history of that day.

Invariably, as May 18 rolls around in the Northwest, we revisit the mountain on that Sunday morning.

So it was a pleasant surprise this year when a new cache of eruption photos came to light, taken by Richard Bowen, a retired geologist and private pilot who, upon hearing that the mountain was erupting, rented a Cessna with a friend, and with his 11-year-old daughter in tow, flew to the mountain to take some shots (I can't believe they received clearance to take off...).  "One more pass" of the mountain turned into a two-hour-long flight, and a series of historic photos...

...which he then carefully annotated, cataloged, and put away in a file until his daughter rediscovered them this year.

Tara Bowen mentions volcanic lightning in her narrative.  Here's what it looks like by the way, this time from Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland:

Tötally metal.
The only other private flight adjacent to the volcano that day I know of was by Keith Stoffel, Washington Dept. of Natural Resources geologist.  He had received clearance to charter a plane and fly through the 'Red Zone,' since the mountain had been quiescent for several days.  They flew in from the east and north, making a loop of the mountain...

As we were looking directly down on the summit crater… the northern side of the summit crater began to move as one gigantic mass. The entire mass began to ripple and churn up, without moving laterally. Then the entire north side of the summit began sliding to the north… I was amazed and excited with the realization that we were watching this landslide of unbelievable proportions slide down the north side of the mountain toward Spirit Lake. We took pictures of the slide sequence occurring, but before we could snap off more than a few pictures, a huge explosion blasted out…

I really wish they'd put up a bigger photo online...
The pilot put the Cessna into a power dive to the south and west, escaping the blast and ash at treetop level.  I had the good fortune to hear Keith give a talk on the flight several years ago, and he noted that air traffic control recordings of the morning include his pilot shouting that the mountain is erupting, with a background of "Won't this thing go any faster?!?!?!" by Keith's wife, also a passenger.

Side note:  Probably 20 years ago, I was in an outdoor store looking through some remainder items, and they had a roll of pre-eruption 7.5-minute Mt. St. Helens topographic maps for $0.25 apiece.  I passed them up. After all, who would want a map of somewhere that no longer exists?

Dumbass ... since then, I've searched for an original pre-1980 7.5-minute map.  I have most other scales and editions of the map, but the 7.5's have disappeared, probably all hidden in random geologist's closets, like Richard's photos.

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