From March to May 1980, magma rose high into Mount St. Helens (MSH), swelling and—as it turned out—destabilizing its north flank. Scientists knew the volcano had been highly active at times over the past 40,000 years, but the mountain, located amid the Cascade Range in southwestern Washington, had been mostly quiet since the mid-19th century. The collapse of the north flank on 18 May shattered that quiet, triggering a cascade of events that left resounding impressions not only on those who witnessed and studied them but also on the surrounding landscape [Lipman and Mullineaux, 1981; Waitt, 2015].
The eruption of MSH also provided unparalleled opportunities for advancing several disciplines [e.g., Shore et al., 1986; Newhall, 2000; Franklin and MacMahon, 2000]. Although not as conspicuously as in volcanology, the eruption and its aftermath led to an intensification of research investigating biophysical impacts of eruptions and subsequent responses [e.g., Dale et al., 2005; Pierson and Major, 2014; Crisafulli and Dale, 2018]. Long-term research on the biophysical responses at MSH has provided important new insights, challenged long-standing ideas, and provided many societal benefits.
The fortieth anniversary of the eruption this year offers a timely opportunity to reflect on these insights and influences. This long-term vantage is important because sustained, place-based studies following landscape disturbances are rare; because the MSH eruption spurred the greatest depth and breadth of multidisciplinary studies of biophysical responses to landscape disturbance; and because these responses created some of the most significant societal challenges to emerge after the eruption. We summarize key biophysical disturbances and responses, highlight salient insights, and suggest actions that can extend the usefulness of these insights to volcanically vulnerable communities worldwide.