Avoiding Volcanoes (Book Review)

Thirty nine years ago today 57 people died when Mt. St. Helens blew out its side early on a Sunday morning. Just why those lives were lost–and how it could have been far worse–are questions addressed in Steve Olson’s 2016 book,  Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens

It would seem easy to avoid volcanoes.  We know where they are, that they are dangerous.  Yet as we have seen recently in Hawaii, we somehow can’t find it in ourselves to stay away and so, when the inevitable happens, we find lives threatened, ruined or ended and property destroyed. The 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens is often described as unpredictable and thus the loss of lives hardly a surprise, but the reality was different.

Olson’s book takes a curious path, wandering through the origins of the Weyerhaeuser empire and the national forest system before reaching the tales from the eruption itself. Reading these when expecting more immediate stories of death or survival, destruction and salvation can feel like assembling the blank parts of a jigsaw puzzle–you don’t feel like you are seeing the picture you are seeking and wondering why you should bother with the effort.

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Mt. St. Helens from closest pubobservation point, Sept. 1982, showing the blowdown forest and steam coming off the growing dome in the crater. (c) Craig Jones

But just as the big blank areas on a jigsaw are critical to the final image, these background stories are essential to the author’s main focus on those killed or nearly killed by the eruption and how they found themselves at risk. Of the 57 dead, only three were in the designated red zone that was supposed to remain empty except for short trips; the rest were in places that the state had declared safe from eruption, a point made by Olson’s meticulous documentation of how these people came to be where they were on the morning of 18 May 1980. He also makes clear just how many of these people died, underscoring the magnitude of the volcano’s hazard. The horror and nature of those deaths drives the reader to ask who was really responsible, and while Olson clears the victims of responsibility, his strongest condemnations come down on the state’s then-governor, Dixy Lee Ray, who effectively blocked the creation of a more realistic evacuation process and undermined those implementing the one that was in place. Her later actions in blaming those who died for willfully approaching the volcano are shown to be disingenuous as most of those who perished did so not because they were thrill seekers but because the state had left open areas where there was a real risk from the volcano.

SpiritLk92

The log raft on Spirit Lake, August 1992

Olson leaves it for the reader to go back and connect all the dots, but the main reasons for this fatal oversight come down to land ownership and economics. Weyerhaeuser owned much of the northwestern flank of the mountain; state authorities were not eager to block the company from logging on its lands and so left those lands, and their spiderwebs of open roads, out of any closure or warning. Similar get-out-the-cut mentality from the Forest Service had left the rest of the periphery of the mountain equally accessible to those willing to drive gravel roads, meaning that it would be hard to close off access. These were the fruits of a century of government policies ranging from the 1864 transcontinental railroad act to Dixy Lee Ray’s casual dismissal of the risks from the volcano that then made a single corporation in charge of a huge swath of landscape.

The geological story runs in parallel with these other histories, but it is focused on discussions at the time about the likely risk of eruption and avoids a more play-by-play recap of the geological changes evident in the volcano; most interesting though is that there was an awareness among the volcanologists of a lateral blast at a Soviet volcano that could have bene a model for what would (and did) happen. Olson arguably lets the geological community off the hook a bit. We didn’t appreciate the possibility of a lateral blast as intense as what occurred, but after the fact geologists recognized the fingerprints of such blasts at many other volcanoes, a recognition too late for Mt. St. Helens. Would a geologically-preferred exclusion zone have reached far enough from the mountain to have fully protected visitors to the surrounding forest? Maybe–the less restrictive Blue Zone drawn in other directions around the volcano would likely have included the Green River drainage had it not been cut off because of private lands in the area. GG suspects that many volcanologists expected to get something more of a warning of an imminent eruption, an expectation that was incorrect but which probably led the local authorities to think there would be more warning than there was. In the event evacuation was an impossibility; arguably the only such escape was a 100 mph drive from the barricade at the edge of the Red Zone out to safety.

What lessons, then? In a coda chapter on the scientific impacts of the eruption, Olson mainly focuses on the ecological discoveries but notes that the USGS then implemented a coded warning system for volcanoes, a seemingly good step forward.  This actually misses an important chapter that suggests all isn’t as well as Olson makes it sound, for the USGS thought it learned that it needed to be more vocal and proactive, but just a couple years later the survey got caught alienating locals at Long Valley by putting out volcano advisories for an eruption that still hasn’t happened (a story GG discussed in his book). The survey’s masters at the political level reined the scientists in, first by reducing the warning they wanted to issue and later by banning any public announcement from the survey at all, but then too the scientists saw how difficult it is to convert geological observation into a statement of a public threat. The current code system for volcanoes only emerged years later. And policies like those discussed in the book continue to place people in danger; a 2018 essay by Michael Ryan points out that Hawaii continues to allow subdivisions to be built on the rift zones of the most active volcano on earth, which most recently wiped out several subdivisions on the Big Island. Yellowstone National Park sits on a volcanic system that breathes: the surface of the caldera moves up and down, tilting Yellowstone Lake and spawning new geothermal fields as old ones calm down. A day will come when worrying signs of volcanic unrest will force the park to consider closing down areas that could include some of the park’s iconic features; will the demands of satellite communities or the park’s concessionaires compromise visitor safety?

GG was puzzled about the appearance of this book more than three decades after the eruption at Mt. St. Helens, but it is perhaps a timely cautionary tale of how America confronts rare but substantial hazard ranging from floods and droughts to redirection of the Mississippi, coastal flooding and climate change. Whistling past graveyards and kicking the can down the road are popular politics but poor policy. Can we do better?

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  1. Shadowed by St. Helens | The Grumpy Geophysicist - May 18, 2020

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