Forty years ago, on a clear and calm Sunday morning, the eruption of the Mount St. Helens volcano 100 miles south of Seattle changed the Pacific Northwest forever. The blast of super hot gas and pulverized rock that swept from the mountain flattened 220 square miles of old growth forest (an area the size of Seattle and Spokane combined), destroyed hundreds of homes and other structures, and killed 57 people. We’ll never again be able to look at the majestic, glacier-clad peaks on our horizon without recalling the damage they can do.
The eruption of a volcano and a global pandemic are very different events. But Mount St. Helens has much to teach us about our current situation, the value of science in protecting life and what we must do once the pandemic subsides.
In the two months before the May 18, 1980, eruption, as the pooling of magma beneath the volcano shook the surrounding countryside, skeptical state and local officials downplayed the warnings they were getting from geologists, not unlike President Donald Trump and his aides downplaying the warnings they received about a new coronavirus.
Roadblocks on highways moved closer to the mountain and then farther away as political pressures to get to homes and businesses competed with scientific guidance. Danger zones around the mountain excluded areas being logged that spring, which allowed sightseers to get much too close to what was obviously a dangerous volcano. The day before the eruption, Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray allowed a caravan of property owners to return to their cabins at the base of the mountain. The next morning those cabins were buried by 200 feet of avalanche debris from the volcano’s weakened north flank.
If the eruption had occurred on a Monday morning rather than a Sunday, hundreds of loggers working around Mount St. Helens would have been killed. Many people in southwest Washington and elsewhere still mourn friends and family members they lost that day. Yet many people also say it is a miracle the mountain erupted when it did, given how much worse the death toll could have been. With U.S. deaths from the pandemic expected to exceed 100,000 by the summer, we need to hope for more than a miracle.
State and local officials have many factors to consider in deciding how best to protect property and life, whether it’s closing a road near a volcano or allowing businesses to reopen during a pandemic. But their paramount duty is to keep people safe. To do that, they have to listen to scientific advice, despite the uncertainties, and act expeditiously to incorporate that advice into policy.
The week before the eruption, geologists warned officials that the danger zones were too close to the mountain. Orders to extend the danger zone were drawn up and placed on Gov. Ray’s desk Saturday morning for her signature, and law enforcement was ready to warn or expel many of the people who would later be killed. But the governor — ironically, a scientist herself — was attending the Rhododendron Festival in Port Townsend that Saturday. When the volcano erupted the next morning, the orders were sitting unsigned on her desk.
After the eruption, government officials realized they had invested too little in studying our Cascades volcanoes, just as some officials now accept that a lack of research and a failure to blunt the course of the coronavirus have caused tens of thousands of lives to be lost.
In the summer of 1980, the federal government established the David A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington, to conduct research on volcanic hazards in the United States and to disseminate information, forecasts and warnings. Scientists at the observatory have pioneered new ways of monitoring volcanoes, predicting what they will do and informing the public about hazards. Their goal is to ensure that a volcano never again takes people by surprise.
Those investments in research have had worldwide benefits. In 1986, the Cascades Volcano Observatory set up a Volcanic Disaster Assistance Program that has responded to more than 70 volcanic crises around the world. For instance, when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines began to act up in 1991, a team based at the Cascades Volcano Observatory helped the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology set up monitoring networks and chart possible hazards. As a result of this work, thousands of people were evacuated, including 15,000 U.S. military personnel, just a few days before a massive eruption devastated the region.
Today, Mount St. Helens is quiet, and fields of penstemon, paintbrush and new-grown conifers have softened the scars of the 1980 eruption. But the volcano will erupt again, as will other Cascades volcanoes. When they do, people will need to be prepared and avoid past mistakes.
This pandemic also will end — life will be especially sweet when it does. But new viruses will find their way into the human population. We will need to be ready for them when they come.