May 17, 2004

Ooooooh, shiny!

A volcano close to magpie's heart: Mt St Helens, viewed from the International Space Station.

Mt St Helens from space

Mt St Helens, 2002 [Photo: NASA]

In 1980, this magpie lived in Portland, Oregon, within plain view of Mt St Helens. The volcano had begun erupting early in the year and, as news director for a radio station in Portland, we'd done a lot of reporting about these eruptions. On Sunday, May 18, we were awakened around 9 am by a phone call. As we were stumbling our of bed to get the phone, we noticed that it was a rather dreary morning for mid-May.

On the phone was a woman in the newsroom at KPFA in Berkeley, California. Almost the first words out of her mouth were: 'Will you have a story for us today?' As anyone who knows us will tell you, we are not the sharpest magpie in the world when we first wake up, so our reaction was to try very hard to remember whether we'd promised a story to KPFA and somehow forgotten it. Rather than hide our confusion, we admitted it, and the conversation went like this:

Mappie: Excuse me for sounding dense, but which story do you mean?

[long silense]

KPFA: Don't you know?

Magpie: Know what?

KPFA: Your mountain blew itself to pieces about an hour ago!

[another long silence]

Magpie: Ah, so that's why it's so dark outside.

After making arrangements to file a story with Berkeley in the afternoon, we threw on some clothes and walked out into the back yard. Directly to the north was the single largest thing we have ever seen: a cloud of smoke and ash that punched through two layers of clouds and rose so high into the sky that we had to tilt our head way back to see its top. Given that Mt St Helens is about 40 miles (65 km) from Portland, that gives you some idea of how big the eruption cloud was.

In our defense, the fact that we didn't know anything about the eruption until we got the phone call from Berkeley isn't that odd. While the St Helens' initial blast that morning was heard as far away as northern California and Vancouver, BC, atmospheric conditions caused the sound waves to skip over the Portland area. So while people were easily able to watch the eruption from here, the mountain's pyrotechnics were entirely silent.

You can find more information about the image of Mt St Helens above if you go here. And you can view a larger version of the image here.

Via NASA Earth Observatory.

Posted by Magpie at May 17, 2004 11:56 PM | Shiny Things | TrackBack(1) | Technorati links |

We visited Mt. St. Helens about Dec 30, 2000. Despite the big hole in the mountain, it's sobering to realize that it was actually just a teeny, tiny, little eruption as far as volcano's go.

A friend who was station in the Phillippines, when asked about the Pinatubo eruption, let the blood drain from his face and muttered meekly, "...doom's day."

--ventura county, ca

Posted by: Darryl Pearce at May 18, 2004 07:23 AM

I too lived in Portland in 1980. Exciting times and I still remember the volcanic ash. A picture I took of the July 22, 1980 eruption can be found here.

Posted by: Ron In Portland at May 19, 2004 12:02 AM

really nice photo. thanks for posting the link.

i remember the first ashfall. portland got about a 40 minute warning, which gave us at the radio station enough time to finish the evening news and scurry to our homes. i hauled the cat inside and closed all the windows. then the ash started falling: imagine a warm snowfall that smells like sulfur. it was very strange and the ash got into everything. i found a mess of st helens ash in the engine compartment of my vw bus four years later. in california.

Posted by: Magpie at May 19, 2004 04:18 AM

I really remember the one when it was raining, can't remember if that was the 3rd or 4th. It was raining mud. I was still cleaning ash out of my gutters 5 or 6 years latter. It got into the shingles and slowly washed out for several years.
Mostly I remember my friend Bob Kaseweter who was at Spirit Lake that Sunday cleaning out his cabin.

Posted by: Ron In Portland at May 19, 2004 05:26 AM

Wow, Magpie - this was a great post. Ron, it must have been hard to lose your friend like that. It was truly an unforgettable day.

My sister, the geology student, was living in Seattle at the time and has some fascinating pictures from some months later when she and her class (UW) went to do some field studies there.

Didn't Portland have problems with the mud turning into cement during the cleanup?

And Darryl is right, this eruption was a baby compared to a number of volcanos. Crater Lake's mama volcano (Mt. Masama) was a lot bigger. I think Tambura in Indonesia (responsible for the Year without a summer in 1816) was almost 1000 times that of St Helens.

This source (doc, html) says that Mt Mazama was larger than Tambura.

Posted by: Mary at May 19, 2004 05:50 AM

The second eruption in June cut short a remarkable night in good ol' P-town. We had driven up from Corvallis to see Ella Fitzgerald perform at the Arlene Schnitzer Hall. Forty-five minutes of sheer bliss, then everyone was sent home, to drive I-5 while the skies rained grey mud. The silica ash was double razor sharp and the windshield had to be replaced. I had scrimped and saved to buy a ticket to that concert and ended up begging rent money that month. Still, hearing Ella in person is what I remember of late spring 1980. Volcanoes are a dime a dozen around these parts, but Ella...'nuff said.

Posted by: SME in Seattle at May 21, 2004 07:53 AM