In its place was a cracked and gaping crater, one mile wide and 2, feet deep. The three men stood ankle deep in ash in what had been the very heart of the eruption.
30 years after Mount St. Helens blew, the volcano reveals its secrets
Even now, the place remained dangerously restive. Snowfall blanketed the ground, insulated by deep layers of putty-gray ash. Even the waters around the mountain were hazardous. Gone were the clear-running streams and cold-water lakes.
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Gone were frogs, salamanders, and trout. The blast had turned back the evolutionary clock to something that resembled the caustic beginnings of life on earth. Indeed, if you had dipped a jar into those waters and magnified its contents, you would have seen a snow globe of floating single-celled organisms, some of them noxious like the Legionella bacterium that already had sickened scientists with respiratory ailments.
In , whole swaths of his home town of Wichita Falls, Texas, were leveled by a tornado. Some of the photographs he took there were eerily prescient of scenes he would later encounter at Mount St. In one picture, spears of splintered lumber lie scattered in the open field of the local Kiwanis park.
They all point in one direction, delineating the path of the wind that had ripped post from beam in the wood framing of houses and then spit them out into the park. The Texas photographs were wrenching meditations on the fragility of ordinary human lives crushed by indifferent natural forces. Still, nothing prepared Gohlke for the scale of devastation at Mount St.
Between and , he visited the volcano five times. And it was big. Most people associate the eruption of Mount St. Helens with the scene that made the front page of newspapers around the globe: a fifteen-mile-high column of black, cauliflower-shaped ash, pumice, and gases that roiled for nine hours out of the shattered peak of the mountain.
In reality, the eruption was a five-punch knockout, one catastrophic event after another that ended with the iconic smokestack discharge. It all began in early spring with a series of earthquakes and sporadic jets of steam and ash indicating that magma was on the move under the volcano. On its north face, the magma began to nose up against a barrier of brittle rock, which bulged outward under the pressure, growing by as much as five ominous feet per day.
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Then at a. Great avalanches of ice, rock, trees, and earth hurtled into the Toutle River valley below, storming through fourteen miles of rugged terrain in a mere ten minutes, burying some places to depths of feet. Some of this hash plowed into Spirit Lake, a secluded mountain getaway that once hosted scout camps, summer cottages, and small resorts. The force of the cascading debris created a tsunami that sent water coursing some feet up and over the surrounding slopes.
As the wave receded, it ripped old-growth forests of giant hemlock and Douglas fir from their moorings and sucked them into the lake. The debris would raise the lake bed by more than feet and cause its surface area to double in size. But this was just the beginning.
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Then, over the next several hours, eighteen pyroclastic flows of hot gases, ash, and pumice spilled out of the mountain. Portions of the basin, later named the Pumice Plain, were so hot that they remained hazardous to scientists for three years. These slurries rampaged down the Toutle River valley, uprooting trees and rafting houses and bridges from their foundations. Sediments and debris were carried as far as the Columbia River, 70 miles away. Indeed, for several days after the eruption, the U.
Last but not least, the mountain coughed up fragments of rock, lava, and ash known as tephra, which blanketed the region. Up to several feet of tephra fell in the crater. When moistened by rain, it took on the consistency of wet cement. His explorations of the volcano only deepened these reflections. That was pretty heady stuff. Mount St.
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Helens was just making the same statements to us as human beings. For the first time in history, however, the power to bring an end to the human line belonged to people as well as to nature. Looking at Mount St. Helens was in some ways looking into a possible future, but not one that was due to natural causes but one that we [could bring on] ourselves.
His photographs of the scorched and pummeled land could easily have been a preview of a nuclear winter scenario. Navigating this terrain proved challenging in the early years. The eruption had terraformed roads and washed out bridges, restricting ground access to the blast zone. Often you just had to get down and climb back up. Fragments of the mountaintop, some as big as a house, had come to rest miles away on valley floors.
Ridge after ridge bristled with the downed matchsticks of trees. Clotting the surface of Spirit Lake, the clear alpine eye that once reflected the brilliant white mantle of Mount St. Many were the mossy Methuselahs of the old-growth forest that had grown on its shores. They had stretched to several hundred feet tall and nearly seven feet in diameter before they were whisked like pick-up sticks into the water.
But perhaps nothing made the land seem more lifeless than the topdressing of ash, which smothered the contours of stricken elk, rocks, and tangled trees.
It felt like your color vision had been turned off. Paley to describe a genre of 18th-century artworks that feature cataclysmic scenes from the Old Testament and Book of Revelation. Yet the conditions of apocalyptic sublime at Mount St. Helens were fundamentally different. For starters, the mountain was a natural agent of disturbance, one bead among many in a necklace of volcanos, from California to British Columbia, whose eruptions have shaped the essential character, economy, and ecology of the land.
Indeed, by the time of the exhibition, the landscape had changed dramatically since Gohlke first landed in the crater. And scientists had long been on the scene, painstakingly documenting a creative force that was, in its own way, just as powerful and interesting as the eruption. We see a glimpse of that regenerative force in a pair of exquisite photos that Gohlke took five years apart in the Coldwater Creek valley, some 13 miles northeast of the crater. In the center of both pictures is a thin line of standing trees seared by the heat of the blast.
Loggers removed salvageable wood from the immediate area, but left these scorched stragglers behind. In the image, the trees stand forlorn in a large clearing, but in the sequel, five years later, the foreground is etched with a tracery of branches from young conifers that took root in the intervening years. Ecologists refer to remnant features like dead snags as lifeboat structures since they serve as critical havens for plant and animal survivors following a disturbance. Animals of all sizes would sleep, hide, mate, and hunt among the trunks; birds would nest, fledge their young, dig for insects, and perch in the branches singing; spiders would spin; insects would burrow, eat, hatch, metamorphose, crawl; fungi would work their way from bottom to top, outside-in, inside-out, digesting all the way; bacteria would perform the humble tasks on which all else depends.
As a result, references to the subtler regenerative forces of nature were largely overlooked.
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But it is also at least as interesting for the questions it raises about the limitations of fine-art photography as a witness to natural history. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that our antennae are highly sensitive to danger, because our survival as a species has depended upon intercepting signals of environmental threat and responding immediately.
And no one knew the destructive potential of the volcano better than the native people living in its shadow.