After the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, some friends of U.S. Geological Survey field geologist Kevin Scott became volcanology rock stars for predicting the event with unheard-of accuracy. It was 1976 when they forecast a major eruption by the end of the century; it came to pass just four years later.
Portlander Scott, now scientist emeritus who still stops by the Cascade Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, said he hopes never to gain equal fame. His new book, a collection of more than one dozen detailed volcano-disaster case studies, digs into warning signs, evacuation responses (or lack thereof) and possible prescriptions for avoiding future casualties and mass destruction.
Scott will speak, read from “The Voice of This Stone: Learning From Volcanic Disasters Around the World” and sign copies at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, during the next “Volcano Views and Brews” lecture hosted by the Mount St. Helens Institute at Loowit Brewery in downtown Vancouver.
The idea for “The Voice of This Stone” came to Scott after he started feeling haunted by his visits to geologic disaster sites around the world. “Rubble from the 2008 Sichuan earthquake had entombed 15,000 bodies beneath me, never to be recovered,” he writes of a trip to China. “Several months later, the city would be declared a disaster museum, both a memorial and a lesson in where not to build a city.”
In 1980, he noted, the legal “red zone” around Mount St. Helens was too small thanks to political pressure from lumber company Weyerhaeuser, the biggest local landowner; the miracle of just 57 casualties after that eruption, rather than many hundreds, is only thanks to an accident of timing. The eruption occurred early on a Sunday morning, when the area just happened to be free of loggers at work, Scott said.
IF YOU GO
What: Kevin Scott, author of “The Voice of This Stone: Learning From Volcanic Disasters Around the World.”
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Loowit Brewing, 507 Columbia St., Vancouver.
Cost: Suggested donation of $5.
On the web: www.volcanicdisasters.com
Also appearing: 2 p.m. June 8 at the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center, 1501 E. Evergreen Blvd., Vancouver. Free admission.
Fortunately for Southwest Washington, Scott’s prognosis for Mount St. Helens is no fireworks for the next several hundred years. “A real dangerous eruption cannot occur until the cone rebuilds itself” into a sharp peak that’s “Mount Fuji shape,” Scott said. Today, St. Helens is “just a big crater” with a slowly growing dome inside, he said. “It’s only rebuilt to about 6 percent.”
Don’t relax, though; Scott asserts that “America’s most dangerous volcano” is Mount Rainier — a different kind of hazard with a recent history of huge collapses and lahars (volcanic mud slides) that inundated valleys all the way through today’s downtown Tacoma, and flowed into Puget Sound.
That’s the unpredictable danger of Mount Rainier, Scott said: not explosions and avalanches, but implosions that unleash long-flowing lahars. What causes such events is still not well understood. “They may or may not be triggered by eruptions,” Scott writes.
“These have occurred twice over the last few thousand years. It’s a real risk,” Scott said. “I’ve been pushing the idea that these volcanic landslides cannot be predicted. That’s the prevailing scientific view at the moment.”
If you can’t predict accurately, Scott figures, you’ve got to be able to evacuate immediately. That’s why Scott and the USGS successfully pushed for a lahar warning system that was installed in some downstream communities in the 1990s, and is expected to grow with a new appropriation of dollars, he said.
“They are little seismometers, the same ones that oil company geologists use to define underground structure,” he said. “They can detect the ground tremors caused by a flowing lahar and radio this information downstream.”
There are high-elevation monitors upstream on the Puyallup and Carbon rivers and a system of 20 sirens built around the at-risk towns of Orting, Puyallup and Sumner; Scott said the government recently approved spending on 20 more sirens, and has proposed expanding the monitoring and warning system from two to all five major watersheds.
“The warning system tells you a lahar is on its way right now,” Scott said. “It gives people 30 to 45 minutes to get to high ground.”
The wisest idea of all would be not bringing civilization near volcanoes at all, Scott noted, but it’s already too late for that in the Pacific Northwest.
“Obviously the solution is to control population density in these lahar pathways, but trying to get people not to build in all that beautiful acreage and beautiful scenery … it’s like pulling teeth,” he said.