Mount St. Helens rises from the Ashes

Nov 01, 2010 By Miles O'Brien
Michael Sheridan and his colleagues at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo are developing technology that may identify not only the areas that could be affected by dangerous volcanic flows, but also the expected paths of destructive, hot avalanches and debris, and the probability that a given locality could be inundated. Credit: Tom Pfeiffer

When Mount St. Helens blew its top in 1980, it wasn't a surprise that it happened, but even today the extent of the damage is hard to fathom. The eruption knocked down 100-foot trees like matchsticks and killed just about everything in its path. There have been several smaller eruptions since then, but nothing like what happened in 1980.

Evolutionary biologist and ecologist John Bishop knows Mount St. Helens well; he has been working on the mountain for 20 years. "It began with the largest landslide in recorded history that uncorked an explosion that was directed horizontally and leveled the forest 13 miles out," recalls Bishop. "It was just a barren landscape, gray-and-pumice-colored, covered with rocks."

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

Today, dead tree trunks still litter the landscape. But, if you take a closer look, you'll see another kind of eruption; an eruption of life on the mountainside. For Bishop, it's a blessing. "It's a rare opportunity for scientists to get to study a devastated area and how it comes back from scratch in such detail," he says.

With help from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Bishop is documenting the return of living things to the once lifeless mountain. "Up until the last 10 years, the landscape has been completely dominated by lupins," says Bishop. He says these flowering lupin plants are able to create new soil from . That new soil has created a habitat for the Sitka willow. But, Bishop says there is a problem. "One of the things we've realized about these willows is that they're not getting big. And that's important because they create habitat for birds and mammals."

The culprits are small invasive weevils that are on the attack. They've taken up residence inside the willows' stems, stunting the plants' growth or killing them. Bishop says there is a lesson in all of this. "Seemingly insignificant organisms, like insects that consume plants, play an extraordinarily important role in the sorting out process of deciding, essentially, which plants are going to stay in the landscape and which ones are going to disappear."

Bishop points out that the imbalance between plants and insects on Mount St. Helens should be expected in rudimentary systems and will cause instability until a more complex community of plant and animal species is sustainable, or until the day Mount St. Helens itself changes the equation once again.

Explore further: PacifiCorp Energy pleads guilty in bird deaths

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mt. St. Helens Recovery Slowed by Caterpillar

Nov 01, 2005

When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, it destroyed every living thing around it. Gas, ash and rock, heated to over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, sterilized a 60-kilometer square area, leaving a gray lunar-looking ...

St. Helens again spews steam and ash

May 30, 2006

Mount St. Helens displayed a Memorial Day reminder of its might, shooting steam and an ash plume to an altitude of about 20,000 feet.

Michigan plans to cut mercury emissions

Apr 19, 2006

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has announced plans to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by 90 percent in the next decade.

NASA Infrared Images May Provide Volcano Clues

Oct 05, 2004

NASA scientists took infrared (IR) digital images of Mount Saint Helens' last week. The images revealed signs of heat below the surface one day before the volcano erupted last Friday in southern Washington ...

Why learning to talk can be difficult

Nov 06, 2006

Problems in learning to talk are fairly common in young children. Sometimes these difficulties are a consequence of a known disease or of hearing loss, but usually there is no obvious explanation.

Recommended for you

Study finds tropical fish moving into temperate waters

15 hours ago

Tropical herbivorous fish are beginning to expand their range into temperate waters – likely as a result of climate change – and a new international study documents the dramatic impact of the intrusion ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Jerry_Schappert
not rated yet Nov 01, 2010
I'm not there to study it but I was there (Spokane) when it blew. I wasn't in the bug world then but still was fascinated with insects at the time. It is incredible to me that insects could survive at all even years later due to the carnage simple dust can do to a insects cuticle and spiracles. As far as I knew things got better much quicker than anyone thought but as you say-- the balance may be out of whack for years. In the end, my money is on the bug world to repopulate it like nothing happened but it could be certain species would fair better than others and thus dominate.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.