New study sends (DNR and UW Washington) scientists 60 miles deep into Mount St. Helens

Mt. St. Helens
A national monument for scientific research of Mount St. Helens was created following its massive 1980 erruption. Photo: DNR

A new study funded by a $3 million National Science Foundation grant will take DNR, Rice University, Columbia University, the USGS, Oregon State University, and University of Washington scientists 60 miles down inside Mount St. Helens to examine what happens between the mantle and the volcano itself.

One of the principle investigators, UW Professor John Vidale, says that taking images of the reservoirs of molten rock beneath the volcano could help us to predict the risk of volcanic eruptions in Washington and around the world.

Most volcanic studies only look into the top 10 miles of a volcano’s crust; this study will be the first of its kind to dive deep into the mountain to find out what happens 60 miles below the surface.

“We’re trying to look all the way down to the mantle, to see the deep structures and see what magma bodies we can find and how it rises to the surface,” Vidale said. “It’s an ambitious study.”

The four-year study will likely begin operations next summer. It will cover about 60 square miles around Mount St. Helens and will involve setting up about 2,500 small seismographs and setting off 10 – 20 underground explosions in 80-foot-deep wells in the next two years.

“They won’t disturb the ground much, but they will produce a signal you can see out 100 miles,” Vidale said. “With all those instruments we should have a very detailed picture.”

Volcano’s ‘plumbing and electrical’ systems under scrutiny 
Scientists will look at the magnetic and electrical workings of the deep volcanic rock. They expect to gain a clear picture of the volcano’s plumbing and gather refined knowledge about its behavior before an eruption. This information has the potential to give us a better warning systems for those who live in areas at risk of lahars (mudflows), floods, avalanches, explosions, and other potentially deadly results of a volcanic eruption.

This deeper imaging will also try to look into an area of the Juan de Fuca plate called the Cascadia subduction zone. This region is capable of producing magnitude-9 earthquakes when the tectonic plates slip or break apart.

Following an eruption in 1980 that killed 57 people, a national monument was created for scientific research of Mount St. Helens and the surrounding area, making it one of the most-studied volcanoes in the world.

To learn more about Mount St. Helens and the geological studies conducted there check out the USDA Forest Service Mount St. Helens webpage and the Cascades Volcano Observatory webpage. If there should be a volcanic emergency and you live in a danger area, make sure you know your evacuation route and have your family’s emergency preparedness plan in place. Stay connected with the Washington Military Development Emergency Management Division online and on Twitter.

Keep connected with all things Washington wild, stay tuned with DNR’s Twitter, Fire Twitter, and Facebook.

Follow DNR on: Facebook Fan See us on Flickr Watch us YouTube Follow us on Twitter Follow DNR Fire Twitter Join in the DNR Forum