Dan Corkery: Volcano eruption, college graduation forever linked

Thirty-four years ago today, a then little-known peak in southwestern Washington state became a household term for death, destruction and the power of Mother Earth.

Mount St. Helens erupted May 18, 1980, killing 57 people — including University of Illinois graduate David Johnston. He went there two months earlier, as Mount St. Helens first showed signs of activity. His warnings helped to limit access around the volcano, a decision that no doubt saved lives.

"Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it!" were his last words, at 8:32 a.m. PDT. He was 5 miles away on a ridge, which was considered relatively safe. His remains were never found. The work site was renamed Johnston Ridge Observatory in his memory.

And all of this happened on a Sunday, just like today.

That's a fact I didn't have to look up. It was the same day I graduated from the UI. The next morning, I started working at The News-Gazette. I had to sit off to the side as my new co-workers scurried to finish two afternoon editions. Training would have to wait.

The milestones of our lives give us dates that should be easy to remember: births, graduations, weddings, deaths. And natural disasters can do that, too. Just ask anyone who lived near the Gulf Coast in 2005 or San Francisco Bay in 1989.

For Susan Kieffer, UI emerita professor of geology, Mount St. Helens has been more than a marker of time. It's been part of her research in volcanology, especially the tremendous pressures inside volcanoes.

In her online blog Geology in Motion, Kieffer calculated that the power of the 1980 lateral blast was 16,000 times greater than the Apollo mission's Saturn 5 rocket. It was a blast that for 8 miles obliterated the lush forests north of Mount St. Helens. The rolling shock wave knocked another 19 miles' worth of trees.

Just as each May begins an exodus from the UI community, followed by a repopulation in August, so too the landscape around Mount St. Helens is filling with new life. Mother Nature detests a void.

Check out the slide show at earthobservatory.nasa.gov. It's three decades' worth of satellite images of the Mount St. Helens area — visual evidence that plants and animals are reclaiming the blast zone.

Dan Corkery, managing editor for administration, is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. His email is dcorkery@news-gazette.com.

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