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The dragons next door: volcanoes of Washington

An unnerving study of elemental forces

Explore the historic interaction between the people of Washington and an ever-changing volcanic landscape through native legends, scientific discovery, contemporary environmental management, and disaster preparedness. Photo credit: Christian Carvajal

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On May 18, 1980, at 8:32 a.m., where were you?

If you were living in Washington at the time, chances are you remember your whereabouts all too well, as that was the morning quakes reduced the north face of Mount St. Helens to a cascade of free-flowing rock. The ensuing blast expended seven ferocious megatons of cataclysmic energy, enough to equal 1,600 Hiroshima bombs. The landslide reached speeds of 150 miles per hour and carried enough mass to fill a valley 13 miles away up to 600 feet deep. Meanwhile, a jet of lava and stone blasted toward Spirit Lake. Upon arrival, it flashed lake water into steam with a roar so loud it was heard states away. A column of ash resembling a 40-mile-wide mushroom cloud ascended 15 miles into the stratosphere. Nearer the ground, a pyroclastic wave of superheated rock spread at speeds that may have briefly surpassed Mach 1. Volcanic mudslides called lahars swept into the Columbia River an hour's drive away, and the ash cloud spread so far to the east that it darkened noontime skies over Spokane. A film crew that landed five days later got lost because their compasses kept spinning. The eruption of Mount St. Helens was the largest volcanic event since 1915 in the contiguous United States. It shortened the mountain by over 1,300 feet, caused over a billion dollars worth of damage, and killed 57 people in a matter of minutes.

Ancient history, right? Not so much. Volcanologists believe between 2004 and 2008, Mount St. Helens was once again in near-constant eruption, with a dome of liquid hot magma piling up in its caldera. Also, that stratovolcano (meaning conical, composite volcano) is one of six in the Washington Cascades. Mount Rainier, of course, reigns supreme at 4,392 feet, but Mount Adams, Mount Baker, Glacier Peak and Goat Rocks all top 2,400 feet. Rainier's last eruption was in the 1890s; Mount Baker's a decade before that. Are we due for even greater disasters?

Volcanology marches on

That's where the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) comes in. Luckily, these ain't your granddaddy's rock hounds. Three-and-a-half decades after that fateful Sunday morning, they've learned enough about precursors of volcanic activity to give residents ample warning (our unfortunate tendency to ignore such notwithstanding). Researchers' first major success was in the Philippines in 1991, when Mount Pinatubo uncorked a blast 10 times greater than that of Mount St. Helens. That eruption should've killed tens of thousands. Instead, thanks to the evacuation of Angeles City and Clark Air Force Base, its death toll was limited to 800. We're not out of the woods yet, though. Any major Cascadian volcano eruption would threaten hundreds of lives and erase billions from our economy. Years after the disaster itself, our ecosystem, especially water supplies, might still be impaired, and the damage to technological infrastructure could hobble surrounding businesses.

Memories of 1980 inform our knowledge of clear and present danger in the shadows of our dragons next door. That fact is made unnervingly clear by a new exhibit in Tacoma's Washington State History Museum. We were allowed a sneak peek of the exhibit a week before it opens. Kudos to whoever had the dramatic idea of funneling audience members past a mockup of a 1980 living room, complete with vintage color TV. The television's running an episode of KOMO 4 News from that spring afternoon. The broadcast transports middle-aged viewers back in time while acclimatizing younger museum visitors. From there it's on to a display of mind-boggling physical destruction, in which a tree has been warped into a claw and the pyroclastic impact of tons of blazing mud crumpled a metal truck door like an aluminum soda can.

One quickly realizes, however, that volcanoes have been impacting, even physically redesigning, the Puget Sound region for millennia. Washingtonian schoolchildren were taught for decades that indigenous tribes lived in terror of the mighty volcanoes, revering them as gods. Well ... maybe not. We've spent the last few decades reassessing how we study our history, during which time we've learned that our previous view seems distorted and, frankly, condescending. So yes, native tribes did respect seismic forces, but as part of a natural gestalt. They did have folk tales, but those legends may not have been treated as dogma. We're finding evidence of thriving cultures who staged seasonal hunting trips up and around the most threatening peaks. The exhibit pays due - one might even say overdue - respect to these tribes, with a graphic by Port Gamble S'Klallam artist Jeffrey Veregge featured prominently at its entrance.

It also pays homage to Alma Wagen, a devoted climber and guide of the early 20th century who practiced in her downtime by scaling windmills. Born in Minnesota, she moved to Tacoma in 1903, taught math at Stadium High, and headed straight for the mountains after class. She qualified for the Mountaineers, an outdoor organization whose members were evenly split between genders. She climbed Mount Adams, St. Helens and Hood, then became the first female National Park Service guide up Rainier. In short, Alma Wagen was what our present-day historians refer to as a total badass.

Living in the shadows of gods

On Feb. 24, USGS specialist Carolyn Driedger will conduct a dramatic lecture on the history of volcanology in Washington. Then, on the morning of April 1, kids of all ages are invited to the museum's "Ring of Fire Family Camp," at which Native American storyteller Harvest Moon Howell will chronicle local tribes' legends of the mountains. The Klickitat people of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, for example, told a story in which two gods - Wy'east and Pahto, the sons of Tyhee Saghalie - fought over a beautiful goddess named Loowit. Saghalie became enraged at the clamor and transformed Wy'east into Mount Hood, and Pahto (or Klickitat, for whom the tribe was named) into Mount Adams. Loowit herself became the snow-white Mount St. Helens.

Ordinary mortals have little to no chance of pacifying furious gods, let alone dissipating superheated steam and lava from beneath volcanic mountains. When the Cascades begin quaking and expanding the next time, will you be ready? Among the exhibit's most important displays is a seismic preparedness kit. Families living close to volcanic hot spots should prepare such a kit, with food, water, breath masks, a battery-powered radio, batteries, a flashlight and essential medicines. Don't forget the manual can opener! Such families should also devise and rehearse evacuation plans for reaching suitable shelter. Remember, you may need a cover to protect your vehicle from ash fall, the most probable volcanic hazard, and many emergency shelters are unable to host your pets in a moment of crisis. If you run a business in the Ring of Fire, make sure it has a continuity plan to keep employees safe and vital records and equipment protected. Check your insurance for volcano coverage. Then, make sure everyone knows the sound of a local volcano siren.

Finally, if such a siren goes off, heed its warning! Don't make the same mistake as Harry Randall Truman, the lodge owner with 16 cats who famously refused to evacuate Mount St. Helens. Let's just say his love affair with the dragon did not end especially well for Mr. Truman, nor the cats.

LIVING IN THE SHADOWS: VOLCANOES OF WASHINGTON, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, Jan. 31-May 17, Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, $8- $11, 888.BE-THERE

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