Tag Archive | volcanic eruption

Yellowstone NP History

Yellowstone National Park was the first National Park – it was established on March 1, 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant.  Yellowstone is a unique environment, with features that are really rare in other areas of the United States.  Early advocates knew that it should be protected for generations to come.

Yellowstone is 2,219,789 acres, and about 96 percent of the land area of the park is within the state of Wyoming.  Three percent is within Montana and about one percent is in Idaho. The park is 63 miles from north to south, and 54 miles from west to east, as the crow flies.  In 2016, 4,257,177 people visited Yellowstone.  That’s a lot of people!  It is also designated as a Unesco World Heritage site, a designation by the United Nations for sites which have cultural, historical or scientific significance.

The park contains the Yellowstone Caldera, which is the largest volcanic system in America – it has been termed a “super-volcano” due to its size.  The current caldera was created by an eruption 640,000 years ago, and was 1,000 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State.  Which, if you were around for it, you know Mount St. Helens felt like a pretty big eruption.  That wasn’t the only eruption though, and each of the several that have occurred over millions of years at Yellowstone have created the rock formations, the depressions where the lakes sit and have coated large portions of the Americas with ash.  Thousands of small earthquakes occur each year within the park, most of which are unnoticed by human visitors.

Yellowstone is know for it’s thermals and geysers – hot springs of liquid that often contain brilliant colors due to the bacteria that make their home there, and erupting fountains of water.  The park contains over 10,000 geothermal features – and 1,283 of those are geysers that have erupted.  About 465 are active geysers on average in a given year.  Yellowstone is named for the Yellowstone River; the headwaters of the river are within the park, and the Continental Divide runs diagonally through the southwest section of the park.

Human habitation has existed in the park for approximately 11,000 years; evidence has shown that Native Americans began to hunt and fish in the area then.  Clovis points have been discovered in the area, and obsidian found in the park was used to make cutting tools and weapons.  Arrowheads from Yellowstone obsidian has been found as far away as the Mississippi Valley, indicating there was a rich trade among the Native Americans in this area with other tribes.

About 60 species of mammals make their home in the park, including bison, elk, moose, deer, mountain goats, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, gray wolf, coyote, lynx, and grizzly bears.  About 3,000 bison are in the park; their numbers fluctuate depending on how harsh the winter is.  Wolves thrive there now, after being hunted almost to extinction in the early 1900s and eliminated from the park.  However, since the next largest predator, the coyote, cannot bring down large mammals, there was a big increase in the number of lame bison and elk, as well as an overall increase in their numbers, which throws the ecosystem out of balance.  A healthy ecosystem needs the apex predator.  Wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s, and are estimated to number at slightly more than 100 animals within the park.

Me – Sign posing – As usual!

I visited Yellowstone as a child, but it had been a long, long time and I was so excited to go back!  Next up will be Yellowstone posts!

A Quick Trip to a Volcano

Have you ever hiked on an active volcano?  Would you be worried that it would erupt beneath your feet?  Back in June, Jon and I decided to take an impromptu weekend getaway and we made a stop at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.  Mount St. Helens is best known for its May 18, 1980 eruption that was the most deadly and economically devastating volcanic eruption in U.S. history.   You can read my post about it here.

Welcome to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

Welcome to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

On our drive up the mountain, there was quite a bit of fog, which gradually melted away to reveal a gorgeous blue sky and big, white, puffy clouds.  And a huge, puffy cloud hanging directly in front of the signature crater of the mountain that stuck around for our entire visit.  How’s that for ruining a photo op?  I have heard that this cloud is a common occurrence at Mount St. Helens, although I’m not sure why.

 

The partially recovered valley below the volcano.

The partially recovered valley below the volcano.

We visited the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which was named for David Johnston, a volcanologist who was monitoring the mountain on the morning of the 1980 eruption and was killed that day.   The observatory has several exhibits on volcanoes and what happens in an eruption, and a great (albeit a bit cheesy) movie about the eruption and the subsequent changes to the landscape that have occurred.  The movie also details the return of life to the area in the years after the eruption.  At the end of the movie, the curtains at the front of the theater open and you are greeted with a spectacular view of the mountain through the floor to ceiling windows.  Amazing.

Jon and I went outside and began a hike from the observatory towards Spirit Lake.  Spirit Lake was one of the lakes that became superheated and flashed to steam during the eruption.  It was filled with trees and debris that were blown down from the eruption, and the trees still cover much of the surface of the lake today.

A view of Spirit Lake, off in the distance. In the lower right corner, you can see trees that were buried by the ash.

A view of Spirit Lake, off in the distance.
In the lower right corner, you can see trees that were buried by the ash.

We didn’t hike as far as the lake because we hadn’t come prepared with our hiking shoes, but we enjoyed what we did do.  The number of people on the trail dropped considerably once we got even a few hundred yards away from the observatory, and we were able to get great views of the mountain and the devastation that is still visible in the valley below.  Grasses and shrubs grow there now, and even a few conifers, but you can still clearly see the evidence of the huge landslide that tore through the area.  It just looks like a blanket of mud on the ground even now.

Piddles the Owl reflects on the many owl lives lost in the eruption.

Piddles the Owl reflects on the many owl lives lost in the eruption.

There was a volunteer docent with a telescope trained on some elk that were grazing down in the valley, but I couldn’t see them when I looked into it.  I’ll just have to trust that they were there.  We did see lots of prairie lupine, Indian Paintbrush and wild strawberry plants.  And bees – they liked the lupine.

One of my favorite wildlife pics ever!

One of my favorite wildlife pics ever!

When you look on the ridge opposite Mount St. Helens, you can see thousands of trees that were laid flat by the force of the blast in 1980.  Their weathered and gray skeletal remains almost make you believe that the trees just died naturally and fell, until you consider that there are none left standing.  A barren wasteland of dry, gray logs.

Trees flattened by the blast in 1980

Trees flattened by the blast in 1980

This NASA website provides an intriguing series of satellite photos documenting the devastation from before the eruption to the modern day.  It shows how barren the mountain was after the blast and how time has gradually healed the landscape.  I find it fascinating that you can see the carpet of logs moving to different areas in Spirit Lake during the photo series.

On our way back down the mountain, we stopped at Coldwater Lake, a lake that was created by the eruption when the landslide dammed Coldwater Creek.  The Army Corps of Engineers created an outlet channel to drain water from Coldwater Lake to prevent the possibility of the lake overflowing and creating a catastrophic flood, but other than that, the lake has been left to develop naturally.  It is now a scenic day-use area with an interpretive trail and fishing opportunities  (the lake was stocked with rainbow and cutthroat trout).  Boats with electric motors are permitted on the lake.  I thought it was a very peaceful place.

Coldwater Lake – a lake created by the 1980 volcanic eruption.

Coldwater Lake – a lake created by the 1980 volcanic eruption.

I will certainly return and spend more time here; Jon and I are both interested in hiking to the summit of this now 8,365 foot volcano.  You can climb it in a day (most hikers take between 7 and 12 hours) and it doesn’t require any technical climbing.  My kind of mountain climbing…

The Day the House Trembled

I was four years old on May 18, 1980. It was a Sunday, and my brother and I were playing in our room that morning. Suddenly, my mom was yelling down the hall at us to stop kicking the walls. Only we weren’t. We had been playing quietly, not arguing or fighting and certainly not kicking walls. What was going on?

It wasn’t until later that we learned that Mount St. Helens had erupted at 8:32 that morning. It was the most significant eruption in the United States since the 1915 eruption of Lassen Peak in California. And it was only a few hours away from us. A 5.1 magnitude earthquake created by the rumblings under the mountain triggered a huge landslide that morning. Most of the north face of the mountain slid; it was the largest landslide ever recorded.

Mount St. Helens on May 17, 1980, one day before the eruption.   (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Mount St. Helens on May 17, 1980, one day before the eruption.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The landslide filled the valley with earth, water and trees that had been flattened by the impact. It moved at speeds between 110 and 155 miles per hour. When the landslide stopped, the debris had moved 13 miles down the North Fork Toutle River; the debris reached heights of 600 feet tall covering an area of about 24 square miles.

The landslide triggered a volcanic eruption within a few seconds of the landslide; volcanic gases, pumice, and ash exploded through the landslide, and the blast knocked down all the trees nearby. Over 230 square miles of trees were simply laid flat by the heat and force of the eruption; many more trees further away were killed because of the heat but remained standing.

A second explosion occurred when the superheated eruption material turned all of the water in Spirit Lake and the North Fork Toutle River to steam. That explosion had a “quiet zone” immediately surrounding the mountain where the explosion was not heard. However, areas further away were not within the quiet zone; the second explosion was heard as far away as British Columbia, Canada, Idaho and Northern California. That was the explosion that my mother heard and felt that morning.

By the time the mountain was finished that day, the column of smoke and ash reached 80,000 feet into the air and deposited ash in 11 states. Day became night in cities along the path due to the falling ash; cities were covered with anywhere between 0.5 inches in Spokane to 5 inches of ash in Yakima, Washington.

The immediate area had been closed off for several weeks before the eruption due to increasing earthquake and eruption activity on the mountain.  But even still, 57 people lost their lives, including a volcanologist named David Johnston, who was working for the US Geological Survey. Others killed included Harry R. Truman, a lodge owner, Reid Blackburn, a photographer from National Geographic, and others who either lived or were camping or hiking in the area. Most of the people who died that day died of asphyxiation, although several died of burns. Several bodies were never found.

It wasn’t just people who died that day; researchers estimate that up to 7,000 elk, deer and bear were also killed, along with countless smaller mammals. Bird populations were devastated. Over 12 million young salmon were killed when hatcheries in the area were destroyed.  Yet remarkably, some burrowing rodents, frogs and salamanders managed to survive because they were burrowed underground when the eruption occurred.

And the trees? In all 4,000,000,000 board feet of timber was destroyed. That’s enough to build 300,000 homes.  About 25% of the flattened trees were salvaged beginning that fall, but the majority were not harvested.  Additionally, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railroad track and 185 miles of highways were wiped out.  Massive devastation.

After the blast, the area was acquired by the federal government and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was born. Areas not under federal control (most were owned by Weyerhauser) were replanted soon after the eruption, but the lands of the new monument were left as is; allowed to recover naturally.

The mountain in 1982, with a steam plume, and the now famous crater.   (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The mountain in 1982, with a steam plume, and the now famous crater.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

When you visit now, 34 years later, there are signs of rebirth. Meadows and shrubs have grown, and elk and larger mammals move through the area once again. But you can still see the absolute devastation caused by the eruption. You can see thousands of trees, lying flat along the hillside, remaining where they were blown down all those years ago. And you can clearly see where the landslide raged through and covered the valley, leaving ugly scars and trails of earth and mud.

And my brother and I?  Well, my mom apologized later that day for getting mad at us when she saw the news and realized what had happened.  You really can’t blame her; after all, her conclusion seemed more likely than a mountain exploding.

We visited in June of this year, and were fascinated to see the changes that are occurring on this once beautiful, then absolutely barren landscape. I’ll post about our visit next.

Do you remember where you were when Mount St. Helens erupted?  Were you close enough to feel it?