Eruption Watch Continues At Mt. Saint Helens
Jon Major  /  USGS via Getty Images file
Photo taken October 11 by the U.S. Geological Survey shows Mount St. Helens' crater, dome, and uplift.
updated 11/24/2004 11:34:38 AM ET 2004-11-24T16:34:38

A dome by any other name would erupt so strong. But, alas, what's in a name might have tormented Shakespeare as it has even the most savvy of scientists.

It's been called the "blister," "wart," "thing" and "lobe" since it appeared last month in the crater of the reanimated Mount St. Helens volcano.  One researcher referred to it as "an uplift," before most everyone in the know agreed it must be a dome.

Naming the dome — now about the size of an aircraft carrier —  could be another matter altogether.  In one meeting, a scientist threw out a suggestion: 21st Century Dome.

Even the scientists thought that one was awful, Jeff Wynn of the U.S. Geological Survey said with a chuckle: "When he said that, everybody sort of applauded — but with sarcasm."

And some say scientists aren't creative.

Names through the ages
In 1792, British explorer George Vancouver named the mountain for a countryman, diplomat Baron St. Helens.  American Indians in the region referred to the mountain as Loo-Wit Lat-kla or Louwala-Clough, meaning fire mountain or smoking mountain.

The mountain erupted violently in 1980, killing 57 people and shrouding much of the Northwest in volcanic ash.  A six-year period of small, natural dome-building eruptions followed, leaving researchers to study the mountain and its growth.

During that time, scientists assigned hundreds of unofficial names to geographic features on the mountain as they performed measurements.  The points were usually temporary, destroyed during the volcano's activity.  Temporary or not, scientists clearly aimed to have the features remembered.

People's names were used regularly, including Agnes, Bertha and Blanche. Animals from antelope to zebra rested on the mountain in various forms. A gigantic boulder was affectionately termed Federal Building, with nearby points named Acid and Pot.

One researcher called a point B.O. — after an unsavory co-worker perhaps?  And the Dumb location surely had a story behind it.

Scientific sense of humor
From Bugga Bugga to Jailhouse Rock, Polly Purebred to X-Lox, scientists have proven they have a sense of humor — even if the public doesn't see it, said Richard Waitt, geologist with the USGS.  They're just whimsical, he said.

"We're often accused of being unimaginative," he said. "It's probably partly the nature of being scientists."

But scientists aren't unimaginative, just practical, Waitt said. In the case of an emergency, the name of a geographic site should be straightforward and simple.

Serious side of geographical names
That underscores the serious nature of naming geographic points, said Grant Smith, a member of the Washington State Board on Geographic Names.  The seven-member board approves official names for lakes, mountains, streams and other geographic features in the state.

Names provide a standardized reference point for commerce and rescue operations, but everybody gets into the business of naming when they get interested in something, he said.

"That's what naming does, it reflects the interest," he said. " The sense of community, identity, who we are, what we are."

A glacier that had been growing in the crater of Mount St. Helens since late fall 1980 has gone without an official name for years, although the state board recently announced four finalists.

They include Spirit Glacier; Tulutson Glacier, which is an American Indian term submitted by the Cowlitz tribe meaning ice; and Tamanawas Glacier, a Chinook jargon word that loosely translates to "guiding spirit," according to the proposal.  The fourth possibility is Crater Glacier, which Waitt submitted to the board because it's what scientists have called it all along.

Is it a pointless exercise?
Naming the glacier may be a wasted effort if it melts amid the recent activity under the mountain. Regardless, most of the time, points on the mountain go without official names anyway, Waitt said.

Case in point: the old dome that arose following the 1980 eruption.  Scientists still refer to it as "the Old Lava Dome."

For years, visitors to the volcano wondered at the size of the dome during its growth.  Scientists compared it to "so-many Kingdomes," Waitt said, referring to the now-flattened Seattle stadium.  "Of course, now it's a meaningless comparison."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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