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The Legacy of David A. Johnston

David Johnston, a 30-year-old volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was swept away by the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens on the morning of May 18, 1980.

David Johnston at Coldwater II, 1900 hours, May 17, 1980. Dave did not survive the next day's eruption. Coldwater II would eventually be re-named "Johnston Ridge" in honor of Dave.

December 18, 1949 - May 18, 1980

As one of the first members of the U.S. Geological Survey monitoring team to arrive at Mount St. Helens, and the scientist in charge of volcanic-gas studies, Dave spent long hours working on and close to the mountain. Ironically, he was caught at an observation post that was considered relatively safe. From his experience with active Alaskan volcanoes, Dave understood better than most the hazards of explosive volcanism. At the same time, he repeatedly voiced the conviction that adequate hazard evaluations require accepting the dangers of on-site monitoring of active volcanic processes. The volcano-monitoring effort of which Dave was part helped persuade the authorities first to limit access to the area around the volcano, and then to resist heavy pressure to reopen it, thereby holding the May 18 death toll to a few tens instead of hundreds or thousands.

USGS geologist, David Johnston, enters small crater at summit of Mount St. Helens prior to May 18, 1980 catastrophic collapse and eruption.

Born and raised in Illinois, Dave Johnston graduated in 1971 from the University of Illinois, Urbana, with "Highest Honors and Distinction" in geology. His strong interest in volcanism began with his first geologic project studying Precambrian volcanic rocks in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This interest in volcanic phenomena intensified with subsequent work in the San Juan volcanic field of southwestern Colorado and on Augustine Volcano in lower Cook Inlet, Alaska. The Augustine study was the basis for his doctoral dissertation, completed in 1978 at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Following completion of his Ph.D. at the University of Washington, Dave increasingly focused on the fundamental role of gases, or volatiles, in volcanic processes as he continued his studies on Augustine and began work on Katmai Volcano, Alaska. His work on volcanic gases brought him to the U.S. Geological Survey in 1978, where he was assigned to expand the program for monitoring volcanic emissions in Alaska and the Cascade Range. A specific objective of such monitoring is to test whether or not changes in gas geochemistry might provide precursory clues of impending eruptive activity. Thus, it was natural that, when Mount St. Helens reawakened in March 1980, Dave Johnston was one of the first geologists on the volcano.

USGS geologist David Johnston (red circle) sampling fumarole at the crest of the "bulge". Image taken from hovering helicopter.

Dave Johnston was an exemplary scientist, and his approach to his work was a model for all: dedicated and hardworking, with meticulous organization and observation followed by careful evaluation and interpretation. At the same time, Dave was unaffectedly genuine, with an infectious curiosity and enthusiasm. But perhaps his most essential quality was the ability to dissipate cynicism; he looked for, saw, and thereby encouraged the best in all of us. Dave would have expected us to carry on without him, learning all we could from Mount St. Helens and applying the knowledge gained to other volcanoes for the betterment of the science and public safety.

USGS geologist, David A. Johnston, with gas-detection equipment. (Public domain.)

From: Lipman and Mullineaux (eds.), 1982