On a quiet Sunday morning 35 years ago today, Mount St. Helens erupted in a two-part spectacle of geologic fury. The Cascade peak in southwest Washington State had been dormant since the 1850s, but in March 1980, small earthquakes and steam-vent eruptions signaled to geologists that the sleeping giant might be waking.
Just after 8:30 AM on May 18, 1980, an earthquake on the north face triggered the largest landslide in recorded history, as most of the north face broke loose and slid toward nearby Spirit Lake. Within seconds, the exposed magma below erupted, shooting a billowing column of ash 15 miles into the atmosphere. Ash and debris clogged the Toutle River, permanently altering its course, and also blocked Spirit Lake’s natural outlet of water. Multiple car and rail bridges were also blasted away by the rush of searing mud. In the end, 57 people died, along with thousands of animals.
Two years later the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was established by President Reagan. A portion of the area was cordoned off for research while educational sites were opened to the public. The remainder of the land was left to recuperate naturally.
Mount St. Helens lesson plans and educational activities:
Mt. St. Helens: Back From the Dead – One of the most violent natural disasters of our time, the colossal eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 blasted away an entire mountainside. Over 200 square miles of pristine forest were buried under millions of tons of lava, ash, mud, and avalanche debris. How could life ever return to this barren moonscape? A lone ecologist, Charlie Crisafulli, spent months in the blast zone and was astonished and puzzled by how quickly plants and animals colonized the wasteland. In this program, stunning cinematography and time-lapse photography trace the dramatic story of how Crisafulli witnessed life’s return and figured out the puzzle. Now another question arises: How soon could another catastrophic eruption occur? (Originally aired May 4, 2010 on PBS.)
Eruptions of Mount St. Helens: Past, Present, and Future – This is the online version of a book printed by the USGS. It has a lot of great information for older students and goes into more technical explanations about the eruption.
Mapping Mount St. Helens – An activity from the U.S. Geological Survey.
30 Years Later, the Lessons from Mount St. Helens – Mount St. Helens in Washington state is the most studied volcano in history and has reshaped thinking regarding catastrophic earth processes.
The Seven Wonders of Mt. St. Helens – Seven geological features resulting from the eruptive activity of Mount St. Helens in the 1980s as displayed at the MSH Creation Information Center.
A lesson and activity on Mount St. Helens – Here is a simple lesson that shows how quickly sedimentary layers can be deposited out of water, from A Journey of Joy blog.