Mount Saint Helens 1980 Case Study

Mount St Helens, Washington State, NW USA is located in the Cascade mountain range and prior to its eruption in 1980 it had been active for over 100 years. The volcano sits on a destructive boundary where the Juan de Fuca plate meets the North American plate.

Mount St Helens erupted on May 18th 1980 following a period of activity which began in March 1980 with an earthquake measuring 4.0 on the richter scale. What followed was 3 months of seismic activity as magma rose within the mountain. As the magma rose, a large bulge grew on the north flank of the volcano, this was due to a blockage in the main vent resulting in the growth of a cryptodome (mound of viscous lava) in the side of the volcano.

On May 18th, an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the richter scale caused a landslide on the northern flank of the volcano, which in turn exposed the cryptodome below, resulting in a sudden release of pressure and a cataclysmic eruption in the form of a lateral (sideways) blast. The blast zone consisted of 230 square miles with the eruption leaving a 'lunor' landscape in its wake.

Watch the short video clip below to remind yourself of the nature of the lateral blast:

The effects of the eruption included:
* laval flows and ash filling in Spirit Lake and log jams and ash blocking the channel of the Toutle River;
* 57 people died in the eruption - most from poisonous gases;
* large number of wildlife were killed by the blast and the volcanic ash with nothing surviving in the blast zone
* flooding resulting from blocked rivers washed away road and rail bridges
* crops were ruined and livelihoods of loggers were devastated with large areas of trees being flattened like matchsticks.

For your exam you will need to learn a detailed case study of a volcanic eruption, using Mount St Helens as your eruption. You will need to be able to discusscauses and effects of the eruption and the responses of people to the event.It is important that you learn some place specific detail / facts and figures to put into your exam answer in order to reach the highest marks.

Through the use of class notes and independent research you now need to create your case study. You task is set out below and there are a number of links for you to follow up for further information.

TASK: Your task is to write an article for a magazine. You should give your work the title "Volcanic Fury - the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens" and you need to ensure that you include labelled diagrams / pictures in your work. You need to ensure that you structure your work using the sub-heading given on the task sheet (which can be downloaded here).

The following websites should provide useful information and photographs to help you, but you should also make good use of your video notes and information from classwork.

USGS Background Information on Mt St Helens
Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument - includes tourist information related to Mount St Helens and a useful digital library with pre and post eruption images (useful for comparions / exploring effects).
Global Volcanism Programme - St Helens (basic facts)
Wikipedia - 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens - includes some very useful information on aftermath, including impacts such as cost etc. and a good overview of the build up to disaster - worth exploring!
Mount St Helens - from the 1980 eruption to 2000 (USGS)
Vegetation around the volcano - before and after (comparative photographs)

To view Mount St Helens in Google Earth download this .kmz file (you will need Google Earth on your computer to be able to view this).

See this fantastic panorama from the top of Mount St Helens after the eruption.

Photograph courtesy of the USGS

Mt St Helens Volcanic Eruption 1980 

Volcano Learning Zone > Volcanic eruption Casestudies > Mt St Helens

Where is the volcano?

Mt St Helens (8365 ft , 22,550m) is in the Cascade Volcanic Range in Washington State, USA. The Cascade Range has 160 volcanoes and Mt St Helens is considered the most active, and lies 100 miles south of Seattle and 50 miles from the coast at Portland.

Why is there a volcano here?

Mt St Helens is a stratovolcano within the Cascade Volcanic range in Washington State and had been dormant for 100 years prior to 1980. As an Eastern remant of the Pacific Plate, the Juan da fuca plate,has subducted beneath continental North America the Cascade volcanic chain has formed. The Mt.St.Helens volcano has been active for around 40,000 years but the now damaged cone we see today has formed over the last 2,200 years

Eruption Style

The volcano is highly explosive and erupts in the Plinian style like Vesuvius. Sudden violent explosions are accompanied by towering clouds of hot ash, dust and rocks thrown high into atmosphere. Pyroclastic flows and volcanic mud flows called Lahars flow down the mountain at speed and consume the surrounding landscape. lavas from basalt to andesites have been erupted forming layers of ash and lava. In many stratovolcanoes a central summit crater has dome of dacitic lava which is squeezed out of the main vent , similar to Montserrrat. In 1980 this did not occur and instead a crypto dome formed (crypto means hidden) causing the Northern slope of the volcano to bulge and grow. From mapping the deposits around the volcano it seemes that lateral blasts and side domes were not unprecedented.

Sequence of Events

On May 18 1980 Mt.St.Helens produced an enormous lateral blast which obliterated everything for 20 miles north of the volcano. The summit decreased from 2930m to 2550m and a gaping crater 1.5km wide was created.

The sequence of events that occured had not been witnessed before as until then geologists had always seen volcanoes erupt upwards but this was different this was sideways!

In March 1980 earthquakes and a phreatic(steam) 2km eruption column alerted the USGS that the volcano was certainly waking up. Throughout the spring the mountain continued to splutter and steam the northern side of the mountain was bulging out by 1.5m/day. A 5 miles exclusion zone was placed around the volcano and famously Harry Truman owner, of the Spirit lake lodge resort, refused to leave.

On the morning of May 18 Geologist David Johnson was on a ridge 10km north of the volcano when a 5.1 earthquake struck. Suddenly the bulge on the north side of the volcano slid downwards in a massive landslide at 300km/hour and crashed into Spirit lake causing an enormous wave of water the rest of the landslide ploughed down the Tootle river valley and mixed with vast quantities of lake water and ice . Davids last message was to his colleagues in the nearby Vancouver USGS base ( not Canada) "Vancouver,Vancouver .. this is it!"

The landslide uncorked the magma in the crypto dome and released the pressure. The gas in the magma instantly expanded and shattered the rocks at supersonic speed creating a lateral of blast ash and hot rocks which overtook the landslide at reached speeds of 1,000km/hour (670 miles/hour) . The blasts power has been estimated at 500 times that of Hiroshima. 600km2 of forest was blown away and trees combed down like hair, sap exploded in trees in the intense heat. Trees up to 20 miles away were engulfed in the blast 4 times the distance of the exclusion zone.


The third string to Mt.St.Helens bow was a 19km (12miles) high eruption cloud which powered vertically out of the volcano in a matter of minutes. The cloud turned day to night and ash fall was heavy. Lightning crackled around the cloud.

Mudflows or Lahars formed within minutes of the eruption. lake water,melted glacier ice, hot ash and debris all combined to send hot ( 29-33C) cement like flows down the Toutle river. Pyroclastic flows started to form from the crater just after the blast as fresh magma came into contact with the air. Material appeared to overflow the craters edge and flow down the Toutle valley as a grey turbulent cloud.

Harry Truman and David Johnson along with 55 other people did not survive. Both have had ridges named after then within the Mt.St.Helens national monument. The area within the monument is being left to recover naturally. Within 8km of the volcano all trees were obliterated, from 8km to 30km flattened and outside this dead but left standing. Outside the boundary logging companies have replanted trees.

Mount St. Helens showed significant activity on March 8, 2005, when a 36,000-foot (11,000 m) plume of steam and ash emerged. A new dome is growing and will eventually fill the 1980 crater.

Effects and Aftermath

Rescue helicopters looking for survivors were grounded or could not land due to ash. Ash removal from roofs nad roads was costly and lengthy costing 2 million dollars just in one town(Yakima)

Hazard Management

All volcanoes in the Cascades are monitored by the Cascades Volcanic Observatory CVO part of the United States Geological Survey USGS from their base in Vancouver,not Canada but Washington State USA. On March 27th 1980 a phreatic eruption signalled the begnning of an active phase. The CVO moved in a team of Geologists to monitor the volcano.Small eruptions of steam and ash blasted from the old summit dome continued and attracted attention from the press and tourists. Evacuation plans were prepared and roads closed leading to the volcano. As the mountain swelled with magma, and bulged outwards at a rate of 1.5m/day,it was obvious that the Spirit Lake area to the north of the volcano needed to be evacuated. The Washington State Governor placed a 5 mile red zone around the summit only Harry Truman an 83 year old resort owner refused to move. When the volcano erupted on May 18th the lateral blast extended 20 miles 4 x the exclusion zone.

Try our other Mt St Helens entry , World volcano section or Volcanic Hazards page.

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