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Report on St. Helens (United States) — March 1982

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 7, no. 3 (March 1982)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland.

St. Helens (United States) First large explosion since October 1980; two new lobes added to lava domes

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1982. Report on St. Helens (United States). In: McClelland, L. (ed.), Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 7:3. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.SEAN198203-321050.

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)


The first explosive eruption in 17 months ejected a tephra cloud that briefly rose to more than 13.5 km altitude on 19 March. A directed blast from near the base of the lava dome spawned a multilobate avalanche that flowed several kilometers down the volcano's N flank. A mudflow moved down the N fork of the Toutle River, but caused only minor damage. Clouds produced by explosions 20-21 March were much smaller and contained only a little tephra. Lava extrusion began 21 March, adding a new lobe to the SE side of the crater's composite dome. No injuries resulted. Smaller explosions 4-5 April were followed by the extrusion of a second lobe onto the N side of the dome.

Premonitory activity during 26 February-18 March. Seismic activity began to increase 3 weeks before the March eruption and included a substantial number of deeper events, in contrast to previous dome extrusion episodes, which were typically preceded by only a few days of shallow seismicity. Earthquakes occurred in two zones, at about 1-3 and 4-12 km depth (below average seismic station elevation of about 1 km above sea level). An average of one event per day stronger than M 1.5 occurred in the shallow zone 26 February-12 March, with the rate of energy release remaining relatively constant. Most of the deeper events had negative magnitudes, and energy release from the deeper zone was about 2 orders of magnitude less than from the shallow zone. The end of deeper seismicity 12 March coincided with both an increase in the number of events (to an average of 3/day of mb > 1.5 through 17 March) and a jump in the rate of energy release.

Deformation in the crater accelerated rapidly in mid-March. Between 17 and 18 March, uplift of an area near the SW base of the dome accompanied about 30 cm of movement along a nearby thrust, higher than any rate of crater-floor thrust movement previously measured at Mt. St. Helens. Outward displacement rate of the N-crater rampart reached 32 cm/day, and a portion of the dome itself expanded 42 cm in the 24 hours ending shortly before the eruption. However, no deformation of the edifice as a whole was detected by measurements outside the crater. For the first 18 days of March, the rate of SO2 emission averaged 110 t/d, remaining at about the same level as it has since the lava extrusion episode of October-November 1981.

After remaining approximately constant for several days, the rate of seismic energy release increased again about noon 18 March, and 14 events larger than M 1.5 were recorded in the next 24 hours. A few brief (1-2 minutes or less) periods of low-level harmonic tremor were recorded during the afternoon of 19 March, as were 20 discrete events stronger than M 1.5. SO2 emission doubled to about 230 t/d. Tilt measured about 300 m N of the dome reversed about 1900 and seismic data showed that explosions began at 1928. After 2 minutes of initial seismicity there was a brief hiatus, followed by about 40 minutes of activity that declined gradually.

Explosive eruption on 19 March. A vertical tephra column, probably ejected from a vent near the center of the dome, reached its maximum altitude of more than 13.5 km (as measured by radar at Portland airport) at 1933 on 19 March. By 1950, radar data indicated that the altitude of the top of the column had dropped to 10.5 km. An infrared image returned at 2003 by a NOAA geostationary weather satellite showed a cloud-top temperature of -35°C, yielding an altitude of about 7 km. According to radar data, the eruption column contained 20-60 times less tephra than the cloud produced by the last significant explosion, in October 1980 [but see SEAN 07:04]. Ash blew SE at about 30 km/hr. Light ashfalls were reported as much as 80 km away, but caused only minor disruptions to auto travel. Bombs up to 3 m across fell 200-300 m from the dome. Frothy pumice (density about 0.8) fell 8 km away. Smaller explosions occurred at 0135 the next morning, when radar detected a cloud, containing a little ash, that rose to about 5.5 km altitude, and a small steam-and-ash column was ejected at 0415 on 21 March.

[Further investigation revealed a more complex sequence of events than was originally reported in the Bulletin. The following has been modified by R. Waitt and D. Swanson. A detailed description can be found in Waitt and others, 1983.] The initial avalanche apparently resulted from a directed blast that emerged from near the SW base of the dome. This blast destroyed the dome's SW margin, and struck the S wall of the crater, removing snow cover and rock. The resulting mixture of snow granules (0.5-2 mm in diameter), hot pumice, and lithic material [descended] the [E and] S crater walls, [flowed around] the E and W sides of the dome, joined N of it, then flowed out through the breach in the N side of the crater and continued for several kilometers down the N flank. Fed by water from the avalanche . . . and a [transient] pond [behind the dome], a complex mudflow sequence moved down the N fork of the Toutle River, which flows W . . . at the N foot of the volcano. Upstream deposits showed evidence of two distinct pulses, but gauges downstream registered only one well-defined peak. About 70 families were evacuated from the Toutle valley, but no major damage was reported. The mudflow buried trucks at an earthen flood-control dam and breached its S side. Three storms earlier this winter had produced higher peak river stages at Castle Rock, roughly 70 km downstream. Floods produced by these storms had breached the N side of the dam and the combined damage has essentially destroyed the dam's effectiveness.

Lava extrusion on 20-24 March. Seismographs began to record rockfall events, probably associated with extrusion of a new lobe of lava, during the evening of 20 March. This activity slowly increased, and aerial observers first saw the new lobe during the night. It emerged from a vent at the top of the most recent lobe (extruded October-November 1981) and flowed down the SE side of the dome, barely reaching the crater floor. Growth was fairly rapid through 23 March, but there was little apparent increase in size between the 23rd and 24th, and the number of rockfall events was noticeably declining early 24 March. By the time growth slowed, the volume of new lava appeared to be greater than that for any previous lobe. SO2 emission increased to 370 t/d 21 March, about 3.5 times background levels, but had dropped to 90 t/d by 24 March.

However, before dawn on 24 March new glowing radial cracks were observed in older portions of the dome. The N-crater rampart and the N side of the dome showed 12 cm of outward movement between the mornings of 23 and 24 March and 16-18 cm during field work 24 March. No unusual seismicity accompanied the movement, nor was any significant tilt measured N of the dome, but at similar stages of previous dome extrusion episodes, little or no deformation of any kind has been observed.

Poor weather prevented geologists from entering the crater again until early April. Seismicity remained at low levels through the end of March. SO2 emission dropped to about background levels 24 March, but by the next measurement, on 28 March, had increased to about 200 t/d and reached a rate of 440 t/d during a small gas explosion. On 29 March, the rate was still high, at 180 t/d, but weather conditions prevented further measurements until a week later. Seismographs began to record a few very small, brief (20 seconds or less) harmonic events 1-2 April, and these became more numerous 3-4 April. Occasional low-frequency earthquakes began to appear on the seismic records 3 April. A few were recorded the next morning, then these events increased to about 2 per hour after 1400. A further increase in seismicity was noted in the early evening, and at about 2000, University of Washington seismologists alerted USFS and Washington state officials that an eruption was imminent.

Renewed explosions and dome growth during 3-12 April. [A large rock avalanche and] explosive activity began at 2052 on 3 April, and three seismic pulses occurred in 3 minutes. A plume containing a little ash rose to 8.5 km (altitude data from Portland airport radar) and drifted NE. Minor ashfall was reported in Packwood, 65 km away. Seismographs recorded pulsating activity for the next several hours, then a pair of stronger events at 0035 and 0039 that accompanied the ejection of an ash-poor cloud to almost 10 km altitude (as measured by Portland airport radar). A small mudflow emerged from the breach in the N side of the crater and flowed a short distance down the N flank. After 10-15 minutes, seismicity briefly dropped to background levels, but apparent harmonic tremor began about 0230 and continued for the next 14 hours. Gas and/or rockfall events began at roughly 0330 and became increasingly frequent during the next several hours.

Before dawn, geologists observed a new lobe of lava on the N side of the composite dome. Growth of this lobe continued through 8 April, but had slowed considerably by the 9th. The April lava, perched on the N side of the dome, looked very similar to the October 1981 lobe but appeared to be smaller than any previously extruded. Gas emission events, including one that sent a plume to 7 km altitude at 1719 on 5 April, could be seen on seismic records, as well as large avalanche events as large chunks fell off the dome. Seismicity declined gradually as lava extrusion continued and had dropped to low levels by 12 April. By 10 April, deformation in the crater had decreased to levels typical of periods between extrusion episodes. As lava extrusion was beginning early 5 April, the rate of SO2 emission increased to 900 t/d, dropping to 500 t/d during the afternoon, and to 390 t/d, a typical value during dome extrusion episodes, on 6 April. No gas data were available 7 April but SO2 emission had returned to background levels 8-10 April.

Further Reference. Waitt, R.B., Pierson, T.C., MacLeod, N.S., and Janda, R.J., 1983, Eruption-Triggered Avalanche, Flood, and Lahar at Mount St. Helens-Effects of Winter Snowpack: Science, v. 221, no. 4618, 1394-1396 p.

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: T. Casadevall, R. Janda, C. Newhall, D. Swanson, R. Waitt, USGS CVO, Vancouver, WA; C. Boyko, S. Malone, E. Endo, C. Weaver, University of Washington; O. Karst, NOAA/NESS; D. Harris, University of Alberta; R. Bailey, USGS, Reston, VA.