Scientists form volcanic bond at Mount St. Helens (with Video)

Training program brings 11 experts from 9 countries to volcano

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Mount St. Helens

The USGS hosts a group of international scientists to study Mount St. Helens.

MOUNT ST. HELENS -- Shovels pierced a soft hillside, peeling back the story of the Northwest's most active volcano. Each swipe revealed clearly defined layers of volcanic material, stacked like pages in a book.

Javier Pacheco paused for a moment.

"Two thousand years of history," he said. "Dos mil años."

The exercise would eventually uncover an even deeper range of eruptive activity on Mount St. Helens, capturing a snapshot of the mountain's entire modern stage. It also introduced the Northwest's best-known volcano to new eyes from around the world.

John Pallister calls it "science diplomacy" -- bringing together international researchers to share knowledge and expertise, and in the process make lasting connections. As chief of the Cascades Volcano Observatory's Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, Pallister knows the importance of empowering other nations during a crisis. The goal is to equip scientists with the tools they need to save lives and property during a volcanic eruption, he said.

Pacheco, of Costa Rica, was among 11 participants representing nine countries in this year's International Training Program, a course coordinated annually through the University of Hawaii at Hilo. The program typically stays in Hawaii. But this year, for the first time, organizers expanded the itinerary and brought the group to the Northwest.

Participants spent two weeks with scientists at the observatory offices in Vancouver. They spent four nights at a private campsite about seven miles northeast of Mount St. Helens, their home base for field work on and around the volcano.

The eight-week program wrapped up Friday. And the experience gave the close-knit group more than scientific know-how to fly home with.

"You cannot buy it," said Syegi Kunrat, a geochemist who works for Indonesia's volcano monitoring agency. "I can come here, but sharing … making friends from other countries, it's just the best."

Natural laboratory

On the group's first full day at camp, Pallister gathered everyone into a circle to lay out the coming days' plans. He made it clear that learning wouldn't be a one-way transaction on this trip.

"You'll all teach us things that we don't know, and hopefully we'll teach you, too," Pallister said. "That's the name of the game."

A caravan of four vehicles soon made its way down a rugged gravel road to the east of Mount St. Helens. Many of the international visitors were awed seeing the mountain in person for the first time. During one stop, the group posed for pictures overlooking Ape Canyon as the volcano towered over the stunning landscape.

Sight-seeing aside, the scientists actually broke out their shovels and pickaxes sooner than expected. The reason: improvised road repair.

International flavor

The participants in this year's International Training Program at Mount St. Helens represented nine countries:

• Colombia (2)

• Costa Rica (2)

• Peru

• Italy

• Ecuador

• Papua New Guinea

• Canada

• El Salvador

• Indonesia

As the vehicles pulled up to a rock slide that had completely buried a section of road -- even cutting away part of it -- nearly everyone jumped out and went to work. People immediately began moving rock by hand, smoothing out and stabilizing the road squeezed between a rock wall on one side and a steep drop on the other. The vehicles emptied (just in case), and a single driver carefully navigated each rig over the hazard.

But there was never much doubt they'd make it.

"This is not going to stop us," said a smiling Heather Wright, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist based in Menlo Park, Calif.

When the group finally reached its destination, the real digging began. The work was an exercise in stratigraphy -- the study of the composition and relative position of rocks to determine their geological history. Peering into Mount St. Helens' accumulated deposits revealed everything from coarse pumice to fine ash, often sorted into neat layers that showed thousands of years of geological history. Each told the story of a past eruption. The catastrophic 1980 blast that defines the mountain today was only one chapter in a long tome.

Researchers used their own magnifying lenses for a closer look at times. Pallister set up a microscope on the hood of an SUV, sliding samples into view on the back of a driver's license.

As the group worked its way north, the layers of volcanic deposits in the ground changed. Some grew thicker. Others thinned out. The difference allows researchers to determine the nature of a past volcanic blast, including its direction. It's why the group measured a layer of pumice 3 centimeters thick in one location, then found the same deposit stacked 115 centimeters deep just a couple miles away.

Learning a volcano's history tells researchers what it's capable of in the future. That helps identify potential hazards when a mountain starts acting up.

"Mount St. Helens is probably the world's best laboratory to do this kind of work," Pallister said.

Explosive past

Mount St. Helens has seen numerous eruptive phases during its approximately 300,000-year history:

• Ape Canyon Stage: 300,000 to 35,000 years ago.

• Cougar Stage: 23,000 to 17,000 years ago.

• Swift Creek Stage: 13,000 to 11,000 years ago.

• Spirit Lake Stage: 4,000 years ago to present (includes at least six previous eruptive periods prior to 1980 blast).

The mountain offers a much different setting than the group's earlier time in Hawaii. There, much of the work involved Kilauea and its near-constant lava flows. Mount St. Helens' eruptions are more explosive, more dangerous and more similar to what this year's visitors see in their home countries. Many hail from South and Central America, or other "Ring of Fire" countries that encircle the Pacific Ocean.

"It's a great volcano to practice monitoring techniques on," said Darcy Bevens, an educational specialist with the University of Hawaii's Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes.

Work and play

In the field, the international visitors were all business. They took careful notes. They studied each dig methodically and thoroughly.

But this program was about more than science. It was also about relationships.

"We were close since the beginning," said Domenico Mangione, of Italy. "We work when we have to work, and we enjoy when we have to enjoy."

Within minutes of arriving at camp after a long day, earnest talk gave way to easy laughter. A flying disc sailed back and forth. People began setting camping chairs to stake out their spots for the early part of the evening.

The group wasn't entirely off the clock: Pallister and Wright later gave PowerPoint presentations inside one of the larger shared tents, covering more about Mount St. Helens and its history. As Pallister detailed the volcano's most recent eruptive phase from 2004 to 2008, Roberto Torres nodded his head silently. He'd seen comparable activity in his home country of Colombia.

Torres, a seismologist, works in one of Colombia's three volcanic observatories. He described the evolution of volcanology in his country, spurred in large part by the 1985 eruption and subsequent mud flow from Nevado del Ruiz. The disaster killed more than 23,000 people. The mountain has continued to show signs of unrest in recent years.

Torres himself has studied volcanoes for more than two decades -- including a previous visit to Mount St. Helens in the 1990s. He welcomed the chance to work with scientists from neighboring Ecuador and Peru, and other parts of the world.

"This trip and this call for me is a very big experience in order to complement a part of my job that I am doing in Colombia," Torres said.

As he spoke, the sound of laughter floated from the other end of camp. The campfire had been started, and marshmallows roasted. The rest of the group had started making s'mores. Torres and others gathered around as night fell.

By now, the conversations had veered far from work. Multiple languages bounced around the circle of chairs. People spoke of past camping tales, of animal scat, of Sasquatch and other mythical creatures.

Heavy gazes rested on dancing flames between topics. At one point, Wright broke the silence:

"Oh! Shooting star! Did you see that?"

Preparing for the next one

The rest of the trip's schedule included additional stratigraphy work, a hike to the crater of Mount St. Helens and other field stops. The group planned to return to Johnston Ridge Observatory later in the week for a different vantage point.

While 2013 was the first year the University of Hawaii's training program made its way to the Northwest, Pallister and others hope it's not the last.

This year's visitors all said they intend to take advantage the partnerships they've formed with their colleagues during the past two months. They hope to use the techniques they've honed the next time one of their volcanoes wakes up.

Each knows that's a certainty, not a remote possibility. And the same goes for the mountain they studied this month, Pallister said.

"St. Helens has an explosive past," he said, "and it will have an explosive future."


Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.