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Report on St. Helens (United States) — March 1984

Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, vol. 9, no. 3 (March 1984)
Managing Editor: Lindsay McClelland.

St. Helens (United States) New lobe extruded onto the composite lava dome

Please cite this report as:

Global Volcanism Program, 1984. Report on St. Helens (United States). In: McClelland, L. (ed.), Scientific Event Alert Network Bulletin, 9:3. Smithsonian Institution. https://doi.org/10.5479/si.GVP.SEAN198403-321050.

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)


Strong seismicity and rapid deformation were followed in late March by the addition of a new lobe to the composite lava dome. Deformation, seismicity, and SO2 emission declined after the extrusion of a small lobe in early February, and remained low through mid-March. Poor weather prevented access to the crater 22-27 March. Deformation on the 22nd was at low levels, but measurements on the 27th showed that targets on the N side of the dome had moved outward at an average rate of 0.5 m/day since the 22nd. Instantaneous rates increased from 1.9 to 2.4 m/day during a 2-hour period on 27 March.

Seismicity began to increase late 22 March, and the number of events doubled each day 24-28 March. The swarm was characterized by type "M" (medium-frequency) events similar to those that preceded the February extrusion episode. The type "M" swarm peaked early 28 March, then declined rapidly, ending by midnight. As the type "M" events diminished, a swarm of small crater events began. By noon, eleven events were being recorded per minute, and by 1600 there were 15/minute. On more distant stations, the individual events could not be resolved, merging into a tremor-like signal with an amplitude that increased through the evening.

A continuously recording tiltmeter about 30 m from the base of the talus N of the dome began telemetering data 27 March. Within a day, outward tilt, initially 200 µrad/hour, increased to more than 400 µrad/hour, accelerating abruptly to more than 1,000 µrad/hr during the afternoon of 28 March, then went off scale by 2000 that evening.

At 0320 on 29 March, an avalanche from the N side of the dome removed much of the February lobe and advanced 0.5-1 km onto the crater floor. Minor snowmelt occurred, but there was no significant mudflow. The March 1984 avalanche was similar in size to the 4 April 1982 avalanche (SEAN 07:03). Fine particles from the avalanche rose to 4.5 km altitude, dusting the E and SE parts of the crater and flanks of the volcano. A large arcuate crack in the February lobe had been observed 27 March, and failure occurred along this crack.

By 29 March, the N side of the dome had decoupled from the rest of the structure and was moving very rapidly outward. The W and probably the SE sides of the dome were virtually stationary, but the N side had moved outward 42 m since 27 March, and instantaneous rates of 15 m per day were observed on the 29th. Since 22 March, the SE side of the dome had moved only a few centimeters outward, while the W side had expanded about 4 m. When the tiltmeter N of the dome was releveled early 29 March, the rate of outward tilt had dropped to 400 µrad/hr. By midnight, the tilt rate was decreasing rapidly.

Tremor gradually separated into individual events early 29 March. During the first couple of hours after the avalanche, large rockfalls were superimposed on the tremor. The tremor gradually evolved into an earthquake swarm that remained vigorous until midnight.

Poor weather prevented frequent measurements of SO2 emission rates immediately before the extrusion episode. From 3-28 March, SO2 emission remained relatively constant at about 80 t/d, increasing to 400 t/d 29-30 March.

An overflight at about 2200 on 29 March confirmed that lava had reached the surface, emerging just W of the remnants of the February extrusion. The lobe eventually grew to nearly fill the crater at the top of the dome and reached the edge of the 29 March avalanche chute. Fragments spalled down the chute but lava did not flow beyond the edge of the dome's summit area. Weather conditions prevented direct observations of the extrusion, but deformation and seismic data suggested that lava production ended within a few days.

The earthquake swarm began to decline on 30 March, but did not reach background levels until 4 days later. This slow decline in seismicity contrasts with previous years when seismicity often dropped to background levels within hours of the onset of lava extrusion.

Total outward movement of the N flank was about 3.2 m between 30 March and 2 April, but deformation declined rapidly and had probably nearly stopped by 31 March. Between 22 March and 2 April, the N flank moved outward a total of 55 m. Tilting measured near the N foot of the dome had stopped by the morning of 31 March. Unlike the extrusion episodes of 1981-2, no tilt reversal was detected. Total tilt (assigning a rate of 400 µrad/hr while the instrument was off-scale late 28 to early 29 March) was 28 milliradians, more tilt than had previously been recorded in association with an extrusion episode at Mt. St. Helens (20 milliradians of tilt preceded the September 1981 extrusion). Tiltmeters were redeployed 80 and 250 m N of the dome 6 April and had detected no tilt as of 16 April. Rates of outward movement of the dome were only about 5 mm/day in mid-April.

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: S. Brantley, T. Casadevall, D. Dzurisin, C. Newhall, P. Otway, USGS CVO, Vancouver, WA; R. Norris, S. Malone, University of Washington; D. Sowa, Northwest Orient Airlines.