Eruption anniversary plans blown up and reborn, kinda like subject Mount St. Helens

May 13, 2020

There were once big plans for many public events to mark the 40th anniversary of the catastrophic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The coronavirus pandemic blew up those plans, but many are resurfacing online this week and next.

There will be no public observances at the volcano on Monday, the exact anniversary day. The main highway into the national volcanic monument is closed. The state, federal and Weyerhaeuser visitor centers are closed. Museums that organized special exhibits for the milestone anniversary are, you guessed it, closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We've been thrown for quite a loop here," said Washington State Parks interpretive specialist Alysa Adams in an interview Wednesday.

Since last year, Adams has been planning an immersive eruption anniversary exhibition at the Mount St. Helens Visitor Center in Seaquest State Park near Castle Rock, Washington. She and several co-workers collected mementos and artifacts along with dozens of oral histories.

"That first impact was simply to pause and cancel and figure out a new game plan," Adams said. "We're still very eager and excited to commemorate this special day in history."

Similar to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or the Apollo moon landing, many long-time Pacific Northwesterners can tell you exactly what they were doing when the volcano blew on May 18, 1980. The special exhibit at the state park is postponed, but not canceled as it is now planned to become part of a revamped visitor center experience.

"Please stay tuned for next year because I think we're going to take all of this energy and passion and turn it into something productive for the 41st anniversary," Adams quipped.

In the meantime, State Parks and at least half a dozen other agencies and nonprofits have pivoted to virtual experiences, online science talks and story circles from now through Tuesday.

The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and Washington State Parks scheduled separate 40th anniversary livestream presentations in the same time slot on Monday night, May 18. OMSI is hosting a virtual science pub about volcanic processes and crisis response. PNSN will feature a panel of geologists, while Washington State Parks focuses more on the personal impact with a "virtual story hour" featuring some of the contributors to its oral history project.

Adams said the overlapping events created an initial shock until the hosts realized they were catering to different audiences and that viewers could always watch the replay of something they missed later.

Eruptiversary interrupted

Back-to-back "Eruptiversary" live shows in Portland and Seattle featuring television host Bill Nye the Science Guy to benefit the Mount St. Helens Institute were converted into a single online event, which will stream live on Facebook and YouTube at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 16. The institute said on its website that it had to cut the work hours of its staff because of the decline in revenue caused by the cancellation of many spring events and in-person programs.

The Mount St. Helens Institute has a full listing on its website of all the eruption anniversary events it knows of, which also include a virtual ranger talk hosted by the U.S. Forest Service and a volcanic eruption preparedness Q&A with Washington Emergency Management.

Some anniversary events did not lend themselves to conversion into online events. Cowlitz County Tourism Coordinator Dawn Smith said her bureau was involved in planning a commemorative breakfast on May 18 with local officials and relatives of folks who died in the eruption. The canceled event would have included a moment of silence at 8:32 a.m., the exact moment the volcano blew its top, and the rededication of a memorial.

The Weyerhaeuser timber company, which operates a seasonal visitor center (the Forest Learning Center) and a tree farm adjacent to Mount St. Helens, canceled a planned sharing experience for area residents and affected company workers. It would have taken place at Toutle High School.

What happened at the mountain 40 years ago?

Mount St. Helens erupting on May 18, 1980.
Credit USGS

On the morning of May 18, 1980, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake triggered a massive landslide on the bulging north slope of Mount St. Helens. That was followed by a powerful lateral blast, pyroclastic flow and ash eruption, which killed 57 people. The cataclysm tore about 1,300 feet in elevation off of what was once a conical peak and turned the mountaintop into a horseshoe-shaped crater. Daytime turned into night as a massive ash cloud spread downwind across eastern Washington, north Idaho, Montana and beyond.

The blast flattened billions of board feet of timber and turned more than 200 square miles of the landscape radiating out from the crater into a gray, ashen moonscape. Most of the blast zone was permanently protected in 1982 by the creation of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. The ensuing decades have witnessed a remarkable ecological recovery, including expanses of regrown forest, flowering meadows and a thriving elk herd.

What's open, what's closed

State Highway 504, the most popular approach for tourists, is gated seven miles before the Johnston Ridge Observatory and Visitor Center where the road ends. The observatory and upper reaches of the highway usually open for the season around mid-May, but the U.S. Forest Service and Washington State Department of Transportation jointly agreed to keep access closed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"As warmer weather returns to the Pacific Northwest, we know lots of travelers look forward to venturing up the mountain, especially because this year marks 40 years since the Mount St. Helens eruption," said WSDOT Maintenance Supervisor Aaron Yanez via a news release. "With the recreational areas along the upper reaches of the highway temporarily closed, we made the decision to keep the highway closed."

Access to popular attractions and trailheads on the south side of the volcano, like Ape Cave and Lava Canyon, is also closed until further notice. Ape Cave is a pitch-black lava tube that people can normally walk through for 1.5 miles using flashlights and headlamps. Lava Canyon, which is a short distance away, features a series of connected trails that follow a roaring creek past cascades and a chasm. The regional headquarters for the U.S. Forest Service in Portland said that developed recreation sites in Pacific Northwest forests would reopen in phases by late May.

"We want to take deliberate actions which consider community impacts and the safety of our employees and volunteers before we make the decision to reopen each location," said USFS regional forester Glenn Casamassa in a prepared statement last week.

The Portland Art Museum's exhibition "Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art" opened on February 8, 2020. It was supposed to close on May 17, but since the whole museum shut down in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the special exhibition will be extended to January 2021. In the meantime, the Portland museum has moved the Mount St. Helens exhibition online with a video introduction and extensive imagery and explanatory text about the paintings, photography and ceramics in the show. The museum has not set a date for reopening to visitors.

It's a similar story in Spokane where the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture opened a multimedia exhibit in December to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1980 eruption. The MAC closed in mid-March too, but since its Mount St. Helens exhibition was set to run through September 6, 2020, visitors who missed seeing it earlier may still get a chance whenever the museum reopens. Last week, the Spokane museum posted a virtual video tour of the Mount St. Helens exhibit for the interim. Several recorded gallery talks are being made available too.