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A 40-year story of river sediment at Mount St. Helens

October 13, 2021

The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State unleashed one of the largest debris avalanches (landslide) in recorded history. The debris avalanche deposited 3.3 billion cubic yards of material into the upper North Fork Toutle River watershed and obstructed the Columbia River shipping channel downstream. From the eruption on May 18, 1980, to September 30, 2018, the Toutle River transported a total of about 405 million tons of sediment into the lower Cowlitz River—enough to bury downtown Portland, Oregon, to a depth of 300 feet. Excluding the massive sediment load from the eruption itself, from October 1, 1980, to September 30, 2018, the Toutle River transported more than 248 million tons of sediment, or an average of 6.5 million tons per year.

Increased flood risk to downstream communities is managed by a sediment retention structure, grade building structures, berms, levees, and dredging. Near-real-time monitoring of streamflow and sediment yield is important for effective management of these dynamic mitigation efforts. Since the sediment retention structure began trapping sediment in November 1987, the Toutle River has transported on average 2.8 million tons of sediment per year into the lower Cowlitz River. This is still 10 times greater than pre-eruption levels, with higher sediment transport potentially approaching 50 to 100 times greater during storms. Despite the eruption lasting only a few hours, the socioeconomic effects and mitigation measures for the region continue into the 21st century.

Publication Year 2021
Title A 40-year story of river sediment at Mount St. Helens
DOI 10.3133/fs20213004
Authors Mark A. Uhrich, Kurt R. Spicer, Adam R. Mosbrucker, Dennis R. Saunders, Tami S. Christianson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Fact Sheet
Series Number 2021-3004
Index ID fs20213004
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Volcano Science Center