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Mount St. Helens Yields Ecological Lessons With Wider Applicability

Where were you on May 18, 1980?

The massive eruption of Mount St. Helens that day is a seminal event in the Pacific Northwest.

 Mount St. Helens

Where were you when Mount St. Helens erupted?

Hard to believe it's been thirty years. The blast zone is once again teeming with life. Even scientists are amazed.

Tom Banse has more on the wider lessons ecologists draw on this anniversary.

TV cameraman David Crockett: "I can hear the mountain behind me rumbling.  An enormous mud and water slide washed out the road…"

That's KOMO-TV cameramen David Crockett scrambling to escape unimaginable devastation.

David Crockett: "My God, this is hell… I just can't describe it.  It's pitch black, just pitch black.  This is hell on earth I'm walking through."

 Mount St. Helens Ecology
 The ecology of Mount St. Helens has changed drastically in 30 years

In Seattle that day, university student Peter Frenzen watched the eruption unfold on TV.  Thirty years later, Frenzen is the staff scientist for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.  Bucolic trails now lead over the once charred landscape.

Peter Frenzen: "We are actually standing on what was the top and insides of Mount St. Helens.  The original surface here would be about 150-200 feet below us. If we had been here on May 17, 1980, we would have been drifting over the landscape about 150-200 feet in the air."

But with our feet firmly planted on the ground, we wander down a trail.  Tall alders grow around ponds that weren't here before.  Multitudes of frogs and salamanders will appear soon as it warms up.  Elk hoof prints cross the way.  Willows and lupines sprout on exposed hillsides.

Peter Frenzen: "The change has been amazing. And one of things that we've learned here at Mount St. Helens is that things that initially look dead are usually anything but dead. Those things that look messy to our eye are in fact the critical ingredients of the next thriving ecosystem."

Like Frenzen, Washington State University botanist John Bishop has also spent much of his professional career in the blast zone.

John Bishop: "What we've realized as we've spent a lot of time here and we've quantified the plants and the animals is that we actually have extraordinary levels of diversity here, of biological diversity."

More richness now than an old growth forest.  The patchy jumble of habitats has become a stronghold for critters otherwise in decline such as elk, the yellow warbler and Western toad.

John Bishop: "This recognition might lead us to be more careful as we decide what to do with disturbed areas.  So it could be applied to areas that have experienced large forest fires for example."

 Spirit Lake after the eruption
 Mount St. Helens after the eruption

Peter Frenzen: "Of course it's not as productive in terms of lumber or other material that you're trying to get.  But in terms of the animals and plants out here, it's fundamentally more productive in terms of the diversity of the ecosystem that results."

Peter Frenzen says the human tendency is to rush in and restore or replant things. 

That's exactly what happened on the portions of the blast zone that were and still are private tree farms. By contrast, the close-in slopes of Mount St. Helens have been protected and left alone. 

Watching the recovery there has made Frenzen and colleagues enthusiasts for letting nature run its course after a disaster, at least some of the time.

Forest Service researcher Charlie Chrisafulli and seven other scientists published a journal article to that effect this spring.  It's the latest in a flurry of recent papers that try to draw wider implications from the explosion of new life at the volcano.

Charlie Chrisafulli: "Lessons from Mount St. Helens have application to wildfire for example. But also areas that were inundated following tsunamis, or from windstorms and ice storms and even from harvesting practices or strip mines."

In fact, Chrisafulli says mining industry consultants did call him recently for ideas about restoring the scraped barren landscape around closed strip mines. He told them to plant lupines because those flowers have done such a good job of creating new soil at the volcano.


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Mount St. Helens eruption 30th anniversary events