“Profiles in Environmentalism” is a recurring segment on our blog where we shine a light on the dedicated people who are working to preserve the world around them. Big or small, local or national, every environmental organization works towards the same goal: providing a greener world for future generations.

For 123 years, Mount St. Helens was a gentle giant, a mountain known more for its serene landscapes and great hiking than its status as an active volcano. It was often compared to Mt. Fuji because of its symmetrical shape and prominent snow cover, a quality that belied the turmoil brewing beneath its summit. But the mountain’s long sleep ended abruptly on the morning of May 18th, 1980 when, after months of rumbling, Mount St. Helens finally woke up.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Its awakening was precipitated by a 5.1 magnitude earthquake that crumbled the mountain’s bulging northern face, causing an avalanche that swept down the slope and into the valley below. With the collapse of the northern rock face all the accumulated pressure within the mountain’s core finally burst, blasting ash and debris outwards at nearly the speed of sound. The resulting cataclysm created a sweltering mixture of molten rock and superheated gases, destroying the entire north face of the mountain and leaving behind a trail of rubble hundreds of feet deep. The forests on the mountain’s northern side were destroyed, while others further out were scorched. By the time the debris settled, and the ash plumes subsided, Mount St. Helens had claimed 57 lives, scorched 230 square miles of forest and caused $2 billion worth of damage to roads, bridges, homes, and railways throughout the region.

Just a few short years after the eruption, the Reagan Administration declared the 110,000 acres of land surrounding the mountain as the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. This was done to allow the environment to recover naturally, affording scientists the opportunity to study how both the volcano and its ecosystem change over time. The Mount St. Helens of today has returned to a relative calmness, though its insides still roil from time to time.

Lessons from the Mountain

Mount St. Helens has become one of the largest attractions in the northwest with over half a million people visiting Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument every year. Many are drawn to the mountain simply for recreation, taking in the sights and hiking through the various trails that crisscross the park. Still others come to learn more about the volcanic history of Mount St. Helens and what the future holds for North America’s most famous volcano.

Nearly 40% of Spirit Lake's surface is covered in felled logs from the 1980 eruption.

Nearly 40% of Spirit Lake’s surface is covered in felled logs from the 1980 eruption.

One of the best places to learn about the mountain’s past, present, and future is the Mount St. Helens Institute, a science and education non-profit located just under an hour from the base of the mountain. Founded in 1996 by a group of private individuals, the Institute works to provide public outreach through educational & volunteer opportunities in the form of lectures, guided climbs, and conservation programs.

Possibly the most exciting educational experience offered by the Institute is a guided climb of Mount St. Helens. Led by highly experienced geologists, participants learn about the mountain’s extensive history, going as far back as 40,000 years ago when Mount St. Helens was first born out of the Cascade Mountain Range. During the ascent to the rim, participants hear about the complicated geology that gives rise to the periodic eruptions of Mount St. Helens, as well as the other volcanoes along the mountain range. But the greatest experience of the climb comes at the top of the crater, where a breathtaking vista awaits. From the very top of Mount St. Helens (8,328 feet up), one can clearly see the path of destruction carved out by the lateral blast of Mount St. Helens, with deep carvings and nearly empty terrain leading towards Spirit Lake; a spot once popular for recreation. But one can also see the slow advance of trees and other green things as they slowly return to the valley, an encouraging sight for anyone who lived through the eruption.

A panorama from the top of Mount St. Helens. Mt. Rainier is just to the right on the horizon. Photo by Gregg M. Erickson licensed under CC BY 3.0

A panorama from the top of Mount St. Helens taken in 2009. From this vantage point, one can clearly see where the northern face collapsed, resulting in the barren fields to the north. Photo by Gregg M. Erickson licensed under CC BY 3.0

Closer to base camp, the Institute engages with members of the public in a number of different ways, such as its popular Volcano Views and Brews lecture series. Attendees can cozy up with a sudsy beverage at the local Loowit Brewery as guest speakers cover topics related to the mountain, its ecosystem, or just general volcano knowledge in a warm and welcoming atmosphere. The Institute also offers field seminars for those who like a bit of outdoor exploration with their lectures. Each seminar discusses the after effects of the 1980 eruption, examining how the land was changed by the mudslides and pyroclastic flows of the volcano. Particular attention is paid to Pumice Plain, a relatively barren area on the mountain’s western and southern slopes where all existing wildlife and vegetation were wiped out by landslides.

Volunteers work the trails.

Volunteers work the trails. Photo courtesy of MSHI.

As a nonprofit, the Mount St. Helens Institute provides many opportunities for volunteers to contribute to the protection and study of the volcano. One of its biggest volunteer programs is the Conservation Corps, a group of dedicated volunteers who perform numerous tasks crucial to the maintenance of the more than 400 miles of trails that surround the mountain. Part of these tasks is removing noxious weeds and other invasive species that threaten the recovery of native wildlife and vegetation. Their removal also keeps trails clear and well-marked so that wayward hikers don’t venture off the beaten path and get lost amid the conifers and boulders. Outside of trail maintenance, volunteers can sign up to be Mountain Stewards, those who provide essential information such as safety advice, current trail conditions, and educational information to visitors. The role can also include participation in search & rescues, as well as checking climbing permits for those who decide to ascend the mountain.

The Future of the Mountain

The Mount St. Helens National Monument will endure for as long as there are people to experience it. It remains one of, if not the most, active volcano in North America, with its last eruptive period occurring as recently as 2008. In time, the mountain will restore its shattered dome through successive eruptions of magma and ash, ultimately culminating in another eruption hundreds of years from now. But between now and then, dense forests and animals of all kinds will return to the mountain, restoring the barren terrain of Pumice Plain and the northern valley. And if the dedication of the volunteers and leaders of the Mount St. Helens Institute is any indication, there will be plenty of people around to ensure that the knowledge and exploration of Mount St. Helens  will continue for centuries to come.@MSHInstitute