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Previous Eruptive History

The story of Mount St. Helens is woven from geologic evidence gathered during studies that began with Lieutenant Charles Wilkes' U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1841. Many geologists have studied Mount St. Helens, but the work of Dwight R. Crandell, Donal R. Mullineaux, Clifford P. Hopson, and their associates, who began their studies in the late 1950's, has particularly advanced knowledge of Mount St. Helens. Their systematic studies of the volcanic deposits, laboratory investigations of rock and ash samples, and radiocarbon (carbon-l4) dating of plant remains buried in or beneath the ash layers and other volcanic products enabled them to reconstruct a remarkably complete record of the prehistoric eruptive behavior of Mount St. Helens.

Ancestral Mount St. Helens began to grow before the last major glaciation of the Ice Age had ended about 10,000 years ago. The oldest ash deposits were erupted at least 40,000 years ago onto an eroded surface of still older volcanic and sedimentary rocks. Intermittent volcanism continued after the glaciers disappeared, and nine main pulses of pre-1980 volcanic activity have been recognized. These periods lasted from about 5,000 years to less than 100 years each and were separated by dormant intervals of about 15,000 years to only 200 years. A forerunner of Spirit Lake was born about 3,500 years ago, or possibly earlier, when eruption debris formed a natural dam across the valley of the North Fork of the Toutle River. The most recent of the pre-1980 eruptive periods began about A.D. 1800 with an explosive eruption, followed by several additional minor explosions and extrusions of lava, and ended with the formation of the Goat Rocks lava dome by 1857.

The post-A.D. 1400 segment of the 50,000-year eruptive history of Mount St. Helens (after USGS Bulletin 1383-C).

Mount St. Helens is the youngest of the major Cascade volcanoes, in the sense that its visible cone was entirely formed during the past 2,200 years, well after the melting of the last of the Ice Age glaciers about 10,000 years ago. Mount St. Helens' smooth, symmetrical slopes are little affected by erosion as compared with its older, more glacially scarred neighbors--Mount Rainier and Mount Adams in Washington, and Mount Hood in Oregon. As geologic studies progressed and the eruptive history of Mount St. Helens became better known, scientists became increasingly concerned about possible renewed eruptions. The late William T. Pecora, a former Director of the USGS, was quoted in a May 10, 1968, newspaper article in the Christian Science Monitor as being "especially worried about snow-covered Mt. St. Helens."

On the basis of its youth and its high frequency of eruptions over the past 4,000 years, Crandell, Mullineaux, and their colleague Meyer Rubin published in February 1975 that Mount St. Helens was the one volcano in the conterminous United States most likely to reawaken and to erupt "perhaps before the end of this century." This prophetic conclusion was followed in 1978 by a more detailed report, in which Crandell and Mullineaux elaborated their earlier conclusion and analyzed, with maps and scenarios, the kinds, magnitudes, and areal extents of potential volcanic hazards that might be expected from future eruptions of Mount St. Helens. Collectively, these two publications contain one of the most accurate forecasts of a violent geologic event.


Reawakening and Initial Activity


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Contact: John Watson

Last updated: 06.25.97