Mount St. Helens, Washington
Life Begins Anew
Catastrophic events shape evolution by killing off plant and animal populations and creating opportunities for new species. When Mount St. Helens exploded, scientists seized the opportunity to study the aftermath. “It’s been an ecologist’s dream to stay here for decades to watch how life reinsinuates itself onto a landscape that had been wiped clean,” says Charlie Crisafulli of the U.S. Forest Service, who has worked on the mountain since shortly after its eruption.
On May 18, 1980, at 8:32—a Sunday morning—the volcano set off the largest landslide in recorded history. Rock slammed into Spirit Lake, sending water up the hillsides and scouring the slopes down to bedrock. Another hunk of mountain spilled 14 miles down the North Fork Toutle River, burying the valley under an average of 150 feet of sediment. A blast obliterated, toppled or singed old-growth trees as far as 20 miles away. A column of ash soared 15 miles high, falling across 22,000 square miles. Flows of gas and rock at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit surged down the slopes, incinerating all life in a six-square-mile area now known as the pumice plain.