Mount St. Helens’ Russian sister

Northwest scientists look to remote Russian peak for clues on Cascade volcano’s future

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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Bezymianny volcano

photoDome building in Bezymianny volcano on Russia's Kamchatka peninsula has progressed significantly in the past since the volcano blew its top in 1956.

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In the late summer of 1991, Rick Hoblitt stepped out of a hulking Soviet helicopter in a mountainous stretch of Russian wilderness.

Hoblitt took in the 9,453-foot peak looming on the horizon. A veteran volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, Hoblitt had been dispatched to this corner of Russia’s remote Kamchatka Peninsula to seek valuable insight from a mountain said to strongly resemble the one he left behind in Southwest Washington.

Bezymianny certainly looked a lot like Mount St. Helens.

Both Mount St. Helens and Bezymianny are stratovolcanoes, which build themselves with a series of eruptions spewing lava, ash, cinders and blocks. Both had had massive “blast-surge” eruptions that scooped out craters Bezymianny on March 30, 1956, and St. Helens on May 18, 1980. And both craters have something curious going on inside.

Both have lava domes, but Bezymianny’s fills an order of magnitude more space than the 876-foot-tall bump that oozed from the crater of Mount St. Helens between 1980 and 1986.

The dome at Bezymianny had already covered most of the crater surface and poked well above the crater rim by the time of Hoblitt’s visit. Today, during a 50-year eruption that has shown no sign of stopping, Bezymianny’s ever-expanding lava dome bulges out of its 1956 crater like yeast-fed dough in a pan.

Hoblitt reached the conclusion then that he still believes.

“Is St. Helens going to do that?” he said. “Well, yes, someday it is probably going to do that.”

Volcanic crystal ball

For all the sophisticated scientific equipment arranged around Mount St. Helens, scientists say they can’t know for certain what’s happening beneath the crater’s surface. They also can’t discern for certain what the volcano might do next.

For that, they think there may be answers in a remote Russian volcano that erupted at the height of the Cold War.

“People vaguely knew about this event, but they didn’t know a whole lot about it,” said Cynthia Gardner, scientist in charge of the Cascades Volcano Observatory. “It’s really been afterwards that we learned about it and went, ‘Wow.’ “

Bezymianny a Russian word that translates roughly as “Without Name” was so isolated in 1956 that no one died when a massive landslide triggered a lateral blast strikingly like the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Unfortunately for the 57 people who died in the 1980 eruption, the general scientific community didn’t grasp the similarities between Bezymianny and St. Helens until it was too late. Triggered by the biggest landslide in history, a gas-charged reservoir of magma leveled 230 square miles of forest and expelled a 15-mile-high plume of ash that eventually circled the globe.

Today, scientists look to Bezymianny for clues.

The biggest hint sits squarely in the center of the Russian volcano’s crater. Scientists figure Bezymianny’s 50-year-old lava dome is at least 10 times the size of the 111 million cubic yards of material that has piled up in the crater of Mount St. Helens over the past two years.

John Pallister, a USGS geologist involved in a planned National Science Foundation-funded comparison of the two volcanoes, looks at side-by-side photos of Bezymianny and St. Helens as a police sketch artist might view a composite drawing of an aging suspect on the lam.

“Maybe these are sister volcanoes,” he said. “They are remarkably similar.”

If the 2004-2008 dome-building eruption at Mount St. Helens had continued indefinitely, scientists said it would take a couple of decades for it to look a lot like Bezymianny does today. The blocks that could one day push up to the surface of Mount St. Helens, though not as smooth as the lava extruding at Bezymianny, could be shaped by gravity into something resembling the Fuji-like peak that existed before 1980.

Scientists say all of this has happened before, and it’s simply a matter of time.

“We would probably end up with a big conical mass,” Pallister said. “But instead of flow-like textures, it would just be a giant conical pile of rubble.”

Taking a breather?

Mount St. Helens was mostly silent between its last dome-building eruption in 1986 and the 2004-2008 eruption. Pallister said the Sheveluch volcano, also on the Kamchatka Peninsula, experienced a similar 16-year quiescence between its eruption in 1964 and the growth of a new lava dome beginning in 1980. Dome growth has continued sporadically ever since.

The volcano on the West Indies island of Montserrat has erupted episodically since awakening from a 400-year slumber in 1995.

Dan Miller, the former head of a globe-trekking team of Vancouver-based USGS volcanologists, had to pull a considerable number of strings in 1991 so he and Hoblitt could get a closer look at the volcano that most resembles Mount St. Helens. The American scientists, accompanied by Russian colleagues during the three-week field camp, were among the first Western scientists to glimpse Bezymianny in person.

Based on what’s happened at St. Helens over the past two years, Hoblitt said, it was well worth the trip.

“I fully expect St. Helens to rebuild itself,” Hoblitt said. “I just didn’t expect it to complete the process in my lifetime. I still think that’s probably a long shot, but it’s not impossible.”

A remote peak in the Russian wilderness is testament to that.

Originally published Oct. 1, 2006