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Report on St. Helens (United States) — December 1980

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 5, no. 12 (December 1980)
Managing Editor: David Squires.

St. Helens (United States) Dome growth, vapor plumes, and earthquake swarms

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1980. Report on St. Helens (United States). In: Squires, D. (ed.), Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 5:12. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.SEAN198012-321050.

Volcano Profile |  Complete Bulletin


St. Helens

United States

46.2°N, 122.18°W; summit elev. 2549 m

All times are local (unless otherwise noted)


Renewed dome growth took place in late December, without the large explosions that immediately preceded previous dome-building episodes in June, August, and October. Activity was limited to minor seismicity and weak vapor emission for about a month after the 16-18 October explosions and dome extrusion. Frequent periods of very low-level harmonic tremor, lasting a few minutes to several hours, began to appear on seismic records 19 November. Bursts of higher level tremor, similar to explosion events seen earlier at Mt. St. Helens, could often be correlated with ejections of vapor columns that sometimes contained ash. A few discrete shallow earthquakes were recorded, but remained infrequent until late December.

A series of vapor plumes marked the volcano's behavior throughout much of December. A few minutes of stronger tremor accompanied emission of a vapor plume that rose to 3 km altitude 7 December, and one of several bursts of higher-amplitude tremor on 9 December occurred as a plume was ejected to 2.7 km altitude at 1325. A new thin deposit of ash was noted on the upper S flank early 12 December. Emission of this ash was not observed, but a burst of increased tremor had begun at 0417, lasting about 30 minutes. On 13 December at 2017, a plume reached 5.5 km altitude as higher level tremor was recorded. Inspection of the dome 15 December revealed a new small [explosion] crater in its [SE] edge. Adjacent to the new crater, a roughly triangular section of the dome had been [exploded away], extending about 15 m along its outer edge and 30 m toward the center of the dome. Plumes associated with increased tremor rose to 3.3 km altitude 16 December at 0800 and 17 December at 1520. A plume reaching 6 km altitude was briefly visible through clouds on 21 December at 1409, accompanied by a short burst of tremor. Two days later, at 1258, seismic activity and vapor emission increased simultaneously. Gas and a little tephra rose to almost 3 km, but activity continued for only a few minutes. New crater floor cracks were apparent after this event.

Deformation measurements 6 and 7 December showed a halt or possibly a reversal of the outward movement of the N crater rampart that had resumed in November (SEAN 05:11). Measurements on 18 December revealed little or no change. However, observations on the 23rd showed renewed northward displacement. Fissures in the crater floor appeared to be widening as well as extending radially from the inner crater.

On 25 December, the number of discrete shallow earthquakes began to increase. Seismicity peaked before noon 27 December, averaging five events per hour and occasionally reaching eight/hour during the next 30 hours. University of Washington geophysicists located about two dozen of these events. All were centered at 2 km depth or less and were within l km NW of the October dome. No migration of events was evident.

Aerial observations 26 December were hampered by poor visibility, but there were no apparent changes in the crater. Bad weather prevented additional observations of the crater until 28 December at 0900, when USGS and USFS personnel saw a new extrusion, about 0.25 the size of the October dome and emerging from its SE edge. A spine-like structure protruding 30-60 m from the center of the October dome was noted an hour later. All but 8 m of this structure toppled the next day at 1540. Growth of the new SE lobe and another much smaller new lobe on the NW edge of the October dome had apparently stopped by 3 January but crater floor deformation has continued. The SE lobe measured at least 225 m in an E-W direction and reached a maximum height of about 100 m above the crater floor, although by 6 January the crest was subsiding somewhat. The NW lobe was about 100 m across. The elliptical October dome had been about 230 m in largest horizontal dimension and 50 m high on 19 October. A collapse pit formed on the October dome during the growth of the new lobes, but the pit's dimensions were not available.

Deformation measurements showed that the N crater rampart had moved outward about 85 cm on 23-28 December and another 1.5 m by 2 January. Since then, the crest of the rampart has been uplifted and thrust northward dramatically, as much as 5 m by 6 January. Other thrusts have been observed in relatively level terrain on the crater floor.

By the afternoon of 29 December, seismicity had declined to a rate of one or fewer events per hour. As of 7 January, no harmonic tremor and very few discrete earthquakes were being recorded.

Further References. Foxworthy, B.L. and Hill, M., 1982, Volcanic Eruptions of 1980 at Mt. St. Helens: The First 100 Days; USGS Professional Paper 1249, 125 p.

Lipman, P.W. and Mullineaux, D.R. (eds.), 1981, The 1980 Eruptions of Mt. St. Helens, Washington; USGS Professional Paper 1250, 844 p. (62 papers).

Geologic Background. Prior to 1980, Mount St. Helens formed a conical, youthful volcano sometimes known as the Fuji-san of America. During the 1980 eruption the upper 400 m of the summit was removed by slope failure, leaving a 2 x 3.5 km horseshoe-shaped crater now partially filled by a lava dome. Mount St. Helens was formed during nine eruptive periods beginning about 40-50,000 years ago and has been the most active volcano in the Cascade Range during the Holocene. Prior to 2200 years ago, tephra, lava domes, and pyroclastic flows were erupted, forming the older St. Helens edifice, but few lava flows extended beyond the base of the volcano. The modern edifice was constructed during the last 2200 years, when the volcano produced basaltic as well as andesitic and dacitic products from summit and flank vents. Historical eruptions in the 19th century originated from the Goat Rocks area on the north flank, and were witnessed by early settlers.

Information Contacts: D. Swanson, C. Newhall, J. Dvorak, USGS, Vancouver, WA; S. Malone, E. Endo, C. Weaver, University of Washington; R. Tilling, USGS, Reston, VA.