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Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption still causing destruction
While the loss of power disrupted a major telemetry hub for Mount St. Helens monitoring, @PNSN1 stations on the volcano are still providing plenty of data. There is no volcanic unrest associated with this debris flow. CVO continues to monitor the volcano and its surroundings. 2/3
— USGS Volcanoes? (@USGSVolcanoes) May 15, 2023
Mount St. Helens in the northwestern United States had an immense eruption on today’s date – May 18 – in the year 1980. It’s since often been declared the most disastrous volcanic eruption in U.S. history. This year, 2023, is its 43rd anniversary. And, just days before the anniversary – on May 14, 2023 – current warming temperatures released a debris flow, made from leftover eruptive material, that rushed down South Coldwater Creek and took out a bridge on the lone park road, State Highway 504, also known as Spirit Lake Highway. In addition, the destruction cut off access and power to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, located at the end of State Highway 504, in the heart of Mount St. Helens’ blast zone. The USGS assured people online that, while the debris flow was large enough to trigger seismographs, there was:
no volcanic unrest associated with this debris flow.
The local Fox12 news station in Oregon reported that 11 people and a dog had to be rescued by helicopter after the landslide. Cowlitz County officials estimated the landslide at about 200 yards (183 m) wide and 10 feet (3 m) deep, with a foot of water running over the entrance road.
The Johnston Ridge Observatory still lists its status as unreachable, as of May 18, 2023.
Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhU6jml6NY4&w=800&h=450]
On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens underwent a catastrophic and deadly eruption, triggering the largest landslide ever recorded. Earlier in the year, thousands of small earthquakes, venting steam, and a growing bulge protruding 450 feet (137 m) indicated that magma was rising in the volcano. Then, at 8:32 a.m. local time, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake rocked the mountain, triggering the huge landslide and lateral blast that collapsed the volcano’s northern face. Hot pressurized magma erupted, and the ash plume reached a towering height of 80,000 feet (15 miles, 24 km), before blanketing the surrounding region. A Unites States Geological Survey (USGS) geologist described the destructive blast:
It completely destroyed an area of 230 square miles [595 square kilometers] in a matter of five to nine minutes. It essentially killed everything within that area.
Altogether, 57 people, including volcanologist David A. Johnston and photojournalist Reid Blackburn, were killed during the May 18, 1980, eruption at Mount St. Helens. Later, the Johnston Ridge Observatory in Toutle, Washington, was named for the late volcanologist.
The dense forest that covered the slopes of the volcano was reduced to ash inside an area known as the inner blast zone, which extended about 6.2 miles (10 km) from the summit. Additionally, trees farther away from the inner blast zone were also damaged by the searing heat. The total extent of the devastated forested area is known as the blowdown zone.
Lahars – mudflows carrying debris from volcanic eruptions – formed rapidly from the melting ice and snow on Mount St. Helens’s flanks. The massive lahars created in the 1980 eruption damaged homes, roads and bridges in nearby communities.
Over the past decades, however, this area has slowly rebounded with life.
Before, during and after photos
The state of the volcano today
Now, Mount St. Helens stands as an 8,363-foot (2,550-m) high stratovolcano located in Skamania County, Washington, some 1,300 feet (396 m) shorter than before its 1980 eruption. Moreover, it is the most active volcano in the Cascade Range, which runs along the northwestern coast of North America. The Cascade Range is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Indeed, Mount St. Helens is still considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the United States.
Also, since 1980, Mount St. Helens has continued to experience periodic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, but not to the same extent of that seen in 1980. The Cascades Volcano Observatory continually monitors activity at Mount St. Helens.
Bottom line: Mount St. Helens volcano exploded in a cataclysmic event on May 18, 1980, killing 57 people and dramatically altering the landscape. Then, in 2023, leftover debris from the 1980 eruption flowed down a creek and destroyed a bridge on the only road in to the observatory.
View more Mount St. Helens eruption videos
Read more: View from space: Life reclaims Mount St. Helens
Read more: What is the Ring of Fire?
Stargazing in national parks in the US
Stargazing in national parks
According to a study in Science Advances, more than 99% of people in the U.S. live under light-polluted skies, and nearly 80% of them can’t see the Milky Way. If you look at a map of light pollution, you’ll see the dark pockets often correspond to public, protected lands. The national parks are some of the least light-polluted and therefore best places to observe the night sky in the United States.
The National Park Service (NPS) maintains a Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division in an effort to protect the native soundscape and guard against light pollution in the parks. As far as preserving dark skies, the NPS website says:
The night sky has inspired us for generations. Nighttime views and environments are among the critical park features the NPS protects. Night sky protection enhances qualities of solitude and undeveloped wilderness character that animals depend on for survival, park visitors seek for connections, and many cultural-historical parks require for preservation. In this regard, the NPS recognizes a naturally dark night sky as more than a scenic canvas; it is part of a complex ecosystem that supports both natural and cultural resources.
So, many U.S. national parks have earned the designation of International Dark Sky Park. Of course, these parks must have exceptional and protected dark skies to earn this distinction. Some International Dark Sky Parks include the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Big Bend, Mammoth Cave and more. You can view the full list here.
In addition, no matter where you live in the world, you can look for a dark-sky site near you at EarthSky’s best places to stargaze.
‘Half the Park is After Dark: Exploring dark-sky parks around the world
To explore the night sky data collected in national parks, visit this website
Stargazing programs in the national parks
Many of the parks hold stargazing events after dark. Park rangers knowledgeable about the night sky point out the highlights and sometimes share views through a telescope. Bryce Canyon National Park even has an annual astronomy festival. Glacier National Park now has the Dusty Star Observatory on the east side in St. Mary, along with star parties at Logan Pass.
Some of the darkest night skies in the U.S. are in the desert of Nevada, and the Great Basin Observatory will capitalize on that. This observatory will be the first research-grade observatory built in a U.S. national park. You can find more national park observatories here.
Before you visit any national park service site, check the NPS website to see what astronomy or observing programs are available to visitors.
Of course, one of the easiest ways to enjoy the night sky in the national parks is to camp out under the stars. Remember to reserve your campground space in advance and hope for clear skies. To see what’s visible in the sky for the night you’re camping, check our Tonight page.
Night-sky photos from the national parks
If you have a great photo of the national parks after dark, share it with us!
Bottom line: Stargazing and the national parks are a great combination. Increasing light pollution in the United States makes national parks some of the last dark refuges.
EarthSky’s Best Places to Stargaze: A crowd-sourced global map of dark sites
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