MOUNT ST. HELENS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Wash. — A small Douglas fir breaks up from the ground six miles from the base of Mount St. Helens. In the distance, trees scattered like dropped matchsticks lie in the place they were toppled by a cloud of fragmented rock and ash that exploded from this mountain 25 years ago Wednesday.
The devastating eruption killed 57 people and an overwhelming amount of plant and animal life. But the barren landscape is now scattered with green, and diverse wildlife has made a home in a vastly different habitat.
“There was nothing out here. It’s easy to forget it was like that,” said Peter Frenzen, monument scientist for the U.S. Forest Service at Mount St. Helens. “The next forest is essentially here. We just have to wait for it all to grow up.”
As the force of the blast destroyed all in its path, it also carried within it new life; seedlings from the south side landed and began to grow, and others arrived via animals returning to the area.
Pine trees, honeysuckle and firs are all growing in the blast zone. Alder, cottonwood and willows also abound in an area once covered with ash and debris.
Reawakening last September
The stunning mountain with the horseshoe-shaped crater in its side rumbled back to life this last Sept. 23, with shuddering seismic activity that peaked above magnitude 3 as hot magma broke through rocks in its path. Molten rock reached the surface Oct. 11, marking the resumption of dome-building activity that had stopped in 1986.
Rising from the ashesOn March 8, it shot ash higher than 30,000 feet, but since then has maintained low-key activity, with wispy smoke regularly floating from the crater.
Scientists have said a more explosive eruption is possible at any time. But the threat level has decreased enough to allow visitors back to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, five miles from the crater. The observatory, named for a scientist killed in the 1980 blast, reopened May 6 for the first time since October.
“This whole mountain is a research tool,” said Jeri Botsford, a volunteer who will tell the story of the mountain to many of the 250,000 people expected to come to Johnston Ridge this summer.
“I’ve seen it come back to life,” she said. “It’s just amazing what Mother Nature can do.”
The 1980 eruption
The recent activity is nothing compared to what happened the morning of May 18, 1980, when the eruption blasted away the top 1,300 feet of the mountain, spawned mudflows that choked the Columbia River shipping channel, leveled hundreds of square miles of forests and paralyzed towns and cities more than 250 miles to the east with volcanic ash.
Video: Mount St. Helens' rebirth The fallout from the mountain created hills — some as high as 600 feet — where there were once valleys. The North Fork of the Toutle River had to cut its way through hundreds of feet of sediment. A series of terraces show the progress of the sediment erosion over the first five years after the eruption.
Trees that weren’t buried outright by the debris were pushed along a raging mudflow; one dead tree hulk, about 8 feet tall, came to a stop in an upright position along the Hummocks trail, about 6 miles northwest from the base of the mountain.
On a recent sunny day, a herd of nearly 100 Roosevelt elk lounged among black cottonwood and red alder trees a few miles from the mountain.
Many elk were killed in the blast, but others returned within days. The land they returned to was vastly changed — the once lush valley filled with pine and other trees was now about 200 feet higher, with the rocky remnants of the mountain created hills where there was once flat land.
Large mammals, frogs returned
The elk — which now number near 2,000 — were the first large mammal to return to the blast zone. Bears were back in the area within a few years; the mountain goats took about a decade.
“The elk were able to change their behavior, feed at night, lie down in the heat of the day and were able to do actually quite well in the blast zone, unexpectedly well,” Frenzen said.
About 150 ponds were created after the explosion — about 130 remain today — new habitat for amphibians.
At one small pond, Forest Service ecologist Charlie Crisafulli, who has studied Mount St. Helens since 1980, grabbed a red-legged frog to examine.
Crisafulli regularly spends his time on the land around the mountain, collecting water samples and checking on the various species of birds, mammals and amphibians that have taken up residence here.
At nearly 2,800-feet elevation, this particular frog is at the maximum elevation it's used to, he said.
“This species was probably in some of the lower elevation ponds before the eruption, but she’s colonized here,” he said.
Pacific tree frogs, western toads and salamanders have all returned to the area.
Terrestrial salamanders walked to the new ponds, and eventually devolved to purely amphibian form because the barren landscape was hostile to their survival.
“Those that are terrestrial, when they come out they perish,” said Crisafulli, who figures the salamanders will one day walk on land again as the forest recovers.
Birds like the neighborhood
Joining the amphibians in the new landscape are about 70 species of birds, including hummingbirds, western meadowlarks and Savannah sparrows.
Crisafulli says the moist, mild climate of the area is an environment that “facilitates the recovery of life in a very rapid way.”
Many of the dead tree husks have become homes for nesting birds and other critters that fertilize nearby ground, allowing plant life to regain a foothold. A lone huckleberry bush — common in the forests outside the blast zone — grows next to one such tree husk.
Crisafulli said people shouldn’t look at natural disturbances such as volcanic eruptions as something unusual or aberrant.
“It helps shape the very diversity of life that we have in the Northwest,” he said. “Life is good at bouncing back.”
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