Mount St. Helens blew its top

Mount St. Helens explodes
Keith Stoffel, then a DNR employee, took this photo which is the only known image of the initial eruption of Mount St. Helens. Photo: Keith Stoffel (c) 2010.

A massive eruption shook Mount St. Helens 32 years ago on this date. The ash cloud created after the mountain’s upper 1,000-plus feet was blown away rose to 80,000 feet elevation in less than 15 minutes. Within two weeks, the ash cloud had completely encircled the globe.

The initial eruption on that Sunday morning 32 years ago destroyed 230 square miles of national, state and private forest, and took 57 lives — some of those who died from shock waves and clouds of hot ash and superheated gases were more than 10 miles away. Others drowned in rivers swollen by mud flows that spilled down local valleys and river beds. Experts say the loss of life would have been much greater had the eruption occurred on a weekday when many more workers would be in the surrounding forests.

Today, a 110,000-acre area around the mountain is a National Volcanic Monument. The mountain has been a lot quieter since the events of May 18, 1980; though a smaller series of steam eruptions occurred in 2004 , but caused no injuries or deaths.

a small steam eruption
In October 2004, a small steam eruption, with minor amounts of ash, issued from a vent near the lava dome that formed between 1980 and 1986. Photo: John Pallister/USGS.

DNR’s Geology and Earth Resources Division works with the U.S. Geological Survey, and other agencies to monitor Mount St. Helens, and the other active volcanoes in Washington State, including Mount Rainier.

Visit our Mount St. Helens information page to take the Mount St. Helens quiz and see photos of the 1980 eruption and its aftermath.

See what the volcano looks like today on the Mount St. Helens VolcanoCam, located at Johnston Ridge Observatory about 5 miles from the mountain.

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