Volcano Advisory Continues For Mount St. Helens
David Mcnew  /  Getty Images
Visitors on Coldwater Ridge watch Tuesday as ash and steam spew from Mount St. Helens volcano in the largest and ashiest eruption yet in a series of emissions that began last week.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/9/2004 7:26:10 PM ET 2004-10-09T23:26:10

Earthquake activity at Mount St. Helens has increased in recent days, but scientists said Saturday there was no reason to raise the volcano’s alert level.

Scientists said earthquake activity had been low until Friday, indicating molten rock was moving upward with little resistance. By Saturday, however, quakes of magnitude 2.4 were occurring every one to two minutes, they said.

“It’s at levels equal to or higher than the Oct. 5 steam and ash eruption,” said Jeff Wynn, the U.S. Geological Survey’s chief scientist for volcano hazards at Vancouver.

A bubble on the south side of the dome has also risen to at least 330 feet since scientists first spotted it on Sept. 30 and is now almost as tall as the dome’s 1,000-foot summit, said USGS geologist John Pallister.

“The blister is a rather remarkable event,” he said, saying that it infers magma is less than a mile below the surface.

Scientists will monitor the bulge to see how its movement relates to the seismic activity, Pallister said.

Big draw
Over the last two weeks, the volcano has captured worldwide attention as it came back to life, spewing clouds of steam and ash. Thousands of people have traveled to southwestern Washington, determined to catch a close-up glimpse of North America’s most active volcano.

Some traveled from as far as South Carolina and Canada to make the 52-mile drive up Highway 4 from Castle Rock, Wash.

Before the Johnston Ridge Observatory visitors’ center was closed to the public due to safety concerns last Saturday, officials said weekend crowds were running at least five times bigger than usual.

Ready to see history
Many visitors echoed the sentiments of Joy Parker, who watched the 8,363-foot mountain anxiously while sitting in a folding chair at the nearby Coldwater Ridge visitors’ center.

"How many people in this country can say they’re actually sitting here for a volcano to erupt? You know, experiencing history," Parker said.

She wasn't disappointed. The volcano sent up clouds of steam and ash on at least four occasions, three of which came during daylight hours.

In fact, two events occurred as U.S. Geological Survey scientists conducted media briefings. Their prepared remarks were delayed as reporters pressed them for a "play by play" narration.

Business brisk
Local hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops all enjoyed brisk business from tourists and the onslaught of media, including more than a dozen satellite and microwave TV trucks camped out at the Castle Lake viewpoint.

One enterprising visitor even managed to capitalize on the media’s hunger. Not for the story, but for pizza.

He made the rounds of the satellite and microwave TV trucks, taking enough orders to justify a delivery from a restaurant at the bottom of the mountain.

The boost in tourism business, even if only temporary, is welcome in an area with a struggling, resource-based economy.

Visits to the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument has fallen off in recent years.

According to the latest U.S. Forest Service figures, 550,000 people came through in 1998. That dropped to 380,000 in 2002.

Tourism in Cowlitz County, home to the largest communities west of the mountain, is a $100 million-per-year industry, officials say. Half of all visitors come from the Pacific Northwest region. Another 20 percent come from the rest of the United States, while 30 percent come from Europe. On average, tourists spend $140 per day.

Probability of large eruption downgraded
For the moment, fear of a large eruption in the immediate future has subsided.

On Wednesday, U.S. Geological Survey scientists downgraded the "volcano alert" to a "volcano advisory," indicating the probability of an eruption that could endanger lives and property had decreased significantly since Saturday, when thousands of people were evacuated from the mountain.

The growth of the lava dome accompanied by a lull in seismic activity suggested magma may be moving upward without much resistance, scientists said Thursday.

"The skids are greased," Jake Lowenstern, a U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist, said at a news conference at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash.

There's no way to tell when magma might reach the surface, he said.

Trying to 'catch her fast'
But that won't discourage one bohemian looking young man from Southern California who’d taken up a spot in the media parking lot and was there to stay. 

Interactive: Anatomy of a volcano

"O," as he called himself, was painting a panoramic landscape of the rumbling mountain on a 4-foot by 5-foot canvas. Forest Service officials attempted to evict him from the restricted area, but as "O" explained while continuing to paint, "We’re the 'original' media."

He and a friend had come to capture their impressions of the volcano eruption, creating more than a dozen paintings over several days.

He also captured the essence of the challenge facing geologists studying Mount St. Helens. "She changes quickly, you gotta catch her fast," he lamented.

James Hattori is an NBC News correspondent. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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