The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens had a profound impact on how we live with active volcanoes. Looking back over the last four decades, we have made great strides in understanding volcanic hazards and communicating with at-risk communities so we can better prepare for the next eruption.
10 Ways Mount St. Helens Changed Our World
Impacts from the 1980 eruption and beyond
The May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens was historic and fundamentally changed how we see volcanoes. For those who lost family and friends, homes, and their livelihoods, it was an unimaginable tragedy. For others around the world, the eruption was an exciting curiosity, an experience they could share with their kids and grandkids. For scientists, the eruption inspired innovation in monitoring technology and insights about explosive eruptions, volcanic hazards, and their long-term impact on surrounding landscapes. And for local officials, it prompted new discussions on how to better prepare for future natural hazard emergencies.
Here are 10 ways the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens Changed our World.
1. People gained a profound appreciation for the destructive power of volcanoes
In March 1980, residents sat in open fields and perched on rooftops to photograph small ash and steam explosions from Mount St. Helens. Excitement grew that the volcano could erupt. Millions of people around the world waited for over two months to find out what would happen next. On May 18, 1980, at 8:32 am the reality became deadlier than anyone imagined. The mountain exploded sideways, sending a colossal landslide downslope. A super-heated pyroclastic flow plowed down the mountainside, leveling millions of trees. A pillar of ash and gas rose high into the sky, blocking the sun and turning daylight into darkness. Lahars swept logs, boulders, trucks, and homes downriver like toys. Fearing collapse into the muddy torrents, officials closed bridges and ceased operations on railroad tracks. All told, 57 people lost their lives.
2. Officials pioneered new ways to reclaim communities from volcanic ashfall
During the eruption, volcanic ash filled the sky and drifted with the wind for hundreds of miles. It fell like snow across eastern Washington, Idaho, and western Montana. Officials closed highways for a week, and airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights. Researchers from around the world began to study the impacts of ash and explore ways to clean up farmlands, roads, telecommunications and electrical power systems, and water treatment facilities. The eruption was the first event to truly bring the health effects of volcanic ash to the public’s attention and led to more research on volcanoes around the globe.
3. Communities learned that a day-long eruption could affect rivers decades later
The 1980 eruption sent immense amounts of mud, water, and debris downstream, overtopping banks and flooding low-lying valleys. Sediment clogged channels in the Toutle, Cowlitz, and, eventually, Columbia Rivers. There was so much new sediment in the Columbia River that the riverbed rose by nearly 30 feet, halting ship traffic and severely impacting the local economy. Today, those rivers continue to transport sediment downstream at rates tens of times greater than before the eruption. This enormous amount of extra sediment continues to pose challenges for flood protection and fisheries today. The lesson was clear, eruptions change river systems even decades later.
4. Scientists discovered that nature recovers quickly, building new and thriving habitats
Before 1980, scientists had limited experience observing the direct effects of explosive eruptions on plants and animals. Many presumed that all life would perish when the ash, steam, and volcanic debris scorched the landscape. People believed it would take several generations of plants, insects, and animals to rebuild nutrient-rich soils and repopulate the landscape. However, since not all ecosystems were uniformly devastated, over the years, a new, complex mosaic of habitats emerged after the eruption. The diversity of life at Mount St. Helens today exceeds that of the pre-eruption landscape. The same long-term ecological studies finely tuned at Mount St. Helens are now used to assess volcanically disturbed regions worldwide.
5. Congress preserved a unique volcanic landscape to explore and learn from
People were fascinated by Mount St. Helens following the 1980 eruption. To accommodate the interest of tourists and researchers to visit and study this newly transformed landscape, in 1982 Congress set aside 110,000 acres around the volcano for preservation. They created the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and directed the U.S. Forest Service to protect the new landscape and its plant, animal, and cultural resources. Now, visitors can traverse trails or climb the volcano, and researchers can study the geologic forces and the evolving ecology in the protected area.
6. Scientists and public officials have become better prepared to face volcanic threats
After Mount St. Helens erupted, residents of the Pacific Northwest wanted to know what the volcano would do next. Scientists, land managers, and public-safety officials coordinated their efforts and a new era of volcano crisis management was born. Now, scientists and public officials meet regularly to assess potential hazards and practice emergency responses and share information with the public. Today’s emergency managers draw a direct line from lessons learned at Mount St. Helens to current volcanic hazard planning efforts at many other volcanoes.
7. A new generation of volcanologists emerged around the world
After Mount St. Helens’ eruption, worldwide interest in volcanism blossomed. Scientists and eager students sought to understand volcanoes, improve monitoring and warning systems, assess volcanic hazards, and communicate with at-risk populations. Since 1980, hundreds of volcanologists from around the world have come to study Mount St. Helens. The relationships built with international colleagues, the advances in monitoring, and the skills accumulated have made it possible for U.S. scientists to aid with eruption responses worldwide. The USGS Volcano Disaster Assistance Program team has responded to more than 70 volcanic crises worldwide and strengthened response capacity in 12 nations. The lessons learned at Mount St. Helens help address concerns at other reawakening volcanoes, both in terms of science and hazard mitigation.
8. Scientists gained insights into the geologic history of Mount St. Helens
In 1980, scientists became acquainted with one of nature’s most massive and destructive volcanic processes—the debris avalanche. Until then, relatively few people had witnessed one, but on May 18, 1980, startled onlookers saw, and some even photographed, the collapse and debris avalanche that demolished the north slope of Mount St. Helens. Observations that day allowed scientists to better link eruptive processes with their geologic deposits. Geologic mapping and improved methods for determining the ages of past eruptions yielded some surprises at Mount St. Helens. Although much of the present mountain grew remarkably fast during the last 4,000 years, it sits atop older volcanic deposits that erupted as long ago as 270,000 years. With every eruption, rocks from lava flows, pyroclastic flows, lahars, and ash-rich deposits accumulated, one upon another, to remake the volcano.
9. Scientists have a better grasp of Cascades volcano hazards and eruption frequency
The 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption inspired a new generation of research on Cascades volcanoes throughout Washington, Oregon, and California. Scientists documented their eruption histories, identifying specific hazards and areas that are at risk during future eruptions. Some Cascades volcanoes were discovered to erupt more frequently than previously thought. We now know that there is about a one in 100 chance that an eruption will occur from a Cascade volcano in any given year, with Mount St. Helens being the most likely culprit.
10. A technological revolution sparked new ways to monitor volcanoes and provide hazard warnings
Before 1980, only one seismometer was deployed within 30 miles of Mount St. Helens to detect earthquakes and scientists’ ability to detect rising magma and make eruption forecasts was limited. Since 1980, volcano monitoring has evolved from a few strategically placed instruments and occasional field observations to broad integrated networks of sensors that detect various indications of volcanic activity. Scientists can now remotely measure and monitor earthquake activity, ground deformation, temperature variations, magma movement, and volcanic gas composition and emission rates in real time. These advancements allow scientists to provide early warnings that give emergency officials the time they need to make life-saving decisions.
- To learn more about how the 1980 eruption influenced volcanology check out the USGS fact sheet, “Ten Ways Mount St. Helens Changed Our World—The Enduring Legacy of the 1980 Eruption.”
- To learn more about ash, visit the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network webpage at https://www.ivhhn.org/home.
- To sign up to receive email notifications from the USGS about volcanic activity, visit the Volcano Notification Service, https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/vns2