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May is Volcano Preparedness Month in Washington, providing residents an opportunity to become more familiar with volcanic hazards in their communities and learn about steps they can take to reduce potential impacts.

VANCOUVER, Washington — May is Volcano Preparedness Month in Washington, providing residents an opportunity to become more familiar with volcanic hazards in their communities and learn about steps they can take to reduce potential impacts. It is a time to commemorate the May 18, 1980 catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens, which not only caused massive destruction and loss of life but also became a catalyst for a new era of unprecedented scientific discovery, technology development and community awareness.

The Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory and a variety of local emergency management agencies are working together with communities at risk across the state to provide timely warnings and reduce the negative impacts of future eruptions. Together, the agencies develop and exercise emergency plans with communities, coordinate communications, conduct public education programs and plan for short- and long-term recovery in the event an eruption or lahar should occur.

On Sunday, May 18, 1980, at 8:32 a.m., the bulging north flank of Mount St. Helens slid away in a massive landslide. Seconds later, the uncorked volcano exploded and blasted rocks laterally, destroying centuries of forest growth in a span of several minutes. Nine hours of explosive volcanic activity ensued, altering the landscape, and what we know about volcanoes, forever.

Volcano Preparedness Month arrives this year as an earthquake swarm is underway at Mount St. Helens, indicating that the volcano remains active. USGS’s seismic data have shown since 2010 that the quiet Mount St. Helens has a new supply of magma slowly repressurizing the magma chamber beneath the mountain. As was observed at Mount St. Helens between 1987-2004, recharge can continue for many years beneath a volcano and an eruption is not imminent.



Preparing for future eruptions

New this year is funding for aerial lidar images, which display ground features in spectacular detail and ease the work of ground-based geologists. A Colombia-USA binational exchange is in progress between officials of the two nations responsible for volcano preparedness and interpretation. Volcano emergency coordination plans are being updated at Mount Rainier. Agencies are developing new products for public education presentations, as well as posting signs in communities.

The USGS CVO, the PNSN and the National Science Foundation-funded EarthScope Plate Boundary Observatory work to improve eruption forecasting and warning capabilities for Cascade volcanoes as part of the National Volcanic Early Warning System. They continue to monitor Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes in the Cascade Range for signs of unrest. The monitoring network operated by USGS and PNSN enhances the likelihood of detecting preliminary signs of increasing volcanic activity at any of the Cascade Range volcanoes.

The USGS CVO website has information about Volcano Preparedness Month events, as well as the USGS volcano-monitoring program and the hazards in the Washington and Oregon. Register for weekly updates and occasional Information Statements from the USGS Volcano Notification Service. 

Find information updates about volcanoes and read about science in action at USGS Volcanoes on Facebook.

PNSN tracks earthquake activity in the Cascadia region including those under the Cascade Volcanoes on their Volcano Seismicity web pages.

Washington state’s Emergency Management Division website has a section about the state’s volcanoes as well as volcano preparedness measures. There are also educational materials for children on its publication section. Follow the agency’s Twitter feed for breaking news and information.

DNR’s Division of Geology and Earth Resources has developed a new website and a blog that include maps, assessments and other information to inform landowners, residents, community planners and emergency personnel about the risks related to volcanoes, lahars and other natural hazards in Washington state. DNR will also be producing more detailed maps of lahar zones and geologic hazards near communities from new lidar images taken this spring under a program created by the Washington legislature.

Eruptions at Mount St. Helens have demonstrated the importance of scientists working in close partnership with emergency and land management agencies to prepare for future eruptions. That includes installation of comprehensive monitoring networks, developing and practicing emergency plans, and supporting community education.

Seth Moran, scientist-in-charge at the USGS CVO, notes, “We’ve seen from other volcanic eruptions that scientists and public officials must work together in response planning well before a volcanic eruption begins. We cannot wait around for indications of volcanic reawakening. Our work together needs to be done now.”


Aerial photo of Mount St. Helens volcano, pre-1980 eruption
Before the eruption of May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens' elevation was 2,950 m (9,677 ft). View from the west, Mount Adams in distance. S. Fork Toutle River is valley in center of photo.Mount Adams elevation is 3,745 m (12, 286 ft). Mount St. Helens was the smallest of five major volcanic peaks in Washington State.Public domain
Mount St. Helens soon after the May 18, 1980 eruption
Mount St. Helens soon after the May 18, 1980 eruption, as viewed from Johnston's Ridge.Public domain

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