The Real Mount St. Helens : Documentary on the Natural World of Mount Saint Helens53:27

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Published on July 11, 2016

Mount St. Helens or Louwala-Clough (known as Lawetlat’la to the indigenous Cowlitz people, and Loowit to the Klickitat) is an active stratovolcano located in Skamania County, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It is 96 miles (154 km) south of Seattle, Washington, and 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Portland, Oregon. Mount St. Helens takes its English name from the British diplomat Lord St Helens, a friend of explorer George Vancouver who made a survey of the area in the late 18th century. The volcano is located in the Cascade Range and is part of the Cascade Volcanic Arc, a segment of the Pacific Ring of Fire that includes over 160 active volcanoes. This volcano is well known for its ash explosions and pyroclastic flows.

Mount St. Helens is most notorious for its paroxysmic eruption on May 18, 1980, at 8:32 a.m. PDT, the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States. Fifty-seven people were killed; 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles (24 km) of railways, and 185 miles (298 km) of highway were destroyed. A massive debris avalanche triggered by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale caused an eruption that reduced the elevation of the mountain’s summit from 9,677 ft (2,950 m) to 8,363 ft (2,549 m), replacing it with a 1 mile (1.6 km) wide horseshoe-shaped crater. The debris avalanche was up to 0.7 cubic miles (2.9 km3) in volume. The Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was created to preserve the volcano and allow for its aftermath to be scientifically studied.

As with most other volcanoes in the Cascade Range, Mount St. Helens is a large eruptive cone consisting of lava rock interlayered with ash, pumice, and other deposits. The mountain includes layers of basalt and andesite through which several domes of dacite lava have erupted. The largest of the dacite domes formed the previous summit, and off its northern flank sat the smaller Goat Rocks dome. Both were destroyed in the 1980 eruption.

Mount St. Helens is 34 miles (55 km) west of Mount Adams, in the western part of the Cascade Range. These “sister and brother” volcanic mountains are approximately 50 miles (80 km) from Mount Rainier, the highest of Cascade volcanoes. Mount Hood, the nearest major volcanic peak in Oregon, is 60 miles (100 km) southeast of Mount St. Helens.

Mount St. Helens is geologically young compared with the other major Cascade volcanoes. It formed only within the past 40,000 years, and the pre-1980 summit cone began rising about 2,200 years ago. The volcano is considered the most active in the Cascades within the Holocene epoch (the last 10,000 or so years).

Prior to the 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens was the fifth-highest peak in Washington. It stood out prominently from surrounding hills because of the symmetry and extensive snow and ice cover of the pre-1980 summit cone, earning it the nickname “Fuji-san of America”. The peak rose more than 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above its base, where the lower flanks merge with adjacent ridges. The mountain is 6 miles (9.7 km) across at its base, which is at an elevation of 4,400 feet (1,300 m) on the northeastern side and 4,000 feet (1,200 m) elsewhere. At the pre-eruption tree line, the width of the cone was 4 miles (6.4 km).

View of Mt. St. Helens from a commercial airliner
Streams that originate on the volcano enter three main river systems: the Toutle River on the north and northwest, the Kalama River on the west, and the Lewis River on the south and east. The streams are fed by abundant rain and snow. The average annual rainfall is 140 inches (3,600 mm), and the snow pack on the mountain’s upper slopes can reach 16 feet (4.9 m). The Lewis River is impounded by three dams for hydroelectric power generation. The southern and eastern sides of the volcano drain into an upstream impoundment, the Swift Reservoir, which is directly south of the volcano’s peak.

April 30, 2015 Mount St Helens
Although Mount St. Helens is in Skamania County, Washington, access routes to the mountain run through Cowlitz County to the west. State Route 504, locally known as the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, connects with Interstate 5 at Exit 49, 34 miles (55 km) to the west of the mountain. That north–south highway skirts the low-lying cities of Castle Rock, Longview and Kelso along the Cowlitz River, and passes through the Vancouver, Washington–Portland, Oregon metropolitan area less than 50 miles (80 km) to the southwest. The community nearest the volcano is Cougar, Washington, in the Lewis River valley 11 miles (18 km) south-southwest of the peak. Gifford Pinchot National Forest surrounds Mount St. Helens.

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