The Clouds of Mount St. Helens

     For the past few weeks I have been wondering about the clouds of Mount St. Helens--the volcano that erupted here in Washington State in 1980. I was living on the East Coast, halfway through college, and volcanoes, the Cascade Mountains, and anything west of the Appalachian Mountains were not yet on my radar screen. My first real awareness of the eruption came in 1985, when I was assigned to work with Alaskan writer and photographer Kim Heacox on a "five-years-since" story on the mountain for National Geographic's Traveler magazine. As the researcher and fact-checker for his story, I spent a good six months learning everything I could about Mount St. Helens. Of all the newspaper and magazine stories I read and of all the documentaries I watched about the eruption and aftermath, one image stuck with me: The Cloud.

   The Cloud blasted the heart of Mount St. Helens into the sky that morning of May 18th, and sent ash, dust, pulverized rock, and gasses 16 miles into the stratosphere. The Cloud carried 550-million tons of ash into the sky and then eastward, scattering itself over 22,000-square-miles of land. The Cloud turned days into nights, suffocated the unlucky, stranded motorists, and clogged air filters. The Cloud also unleashed a flood of adjectives in the media--cataclysmic, catastrophic, choking, steaming, smothering, devastating, awesome, scorching, blasting, spewing, churning, roiling, darkening, searing, terrible, malevolent, apocalyptic--none of which, of course, come close (even in combination) to describing the sight of this natural wonder. Their inadequacy aside, the adjectives used by the media as well as eye witnesses, betray the viewers' feelings of anger, horror, and some personal affront. Mount St. Helens was anthropomorphized into a living monster whose fury and destructive forces were somehow directed toward human beings.
   I never felt this way about The Cloud, perhaps because of my physical and emotional distance from Mount St. Helens. Or perhaps because this isn't how I think about natural events, no matter how tragic the loss of life and property.  The Cloud, the lateral blast, the pyroclastic flows manifested themselves without intention or regard for consequences. And just recently I learned of the silver lining of The Cloud: nitrogen.
  The Cloud was full of gasses--sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, water vapor, ammonia, ozone. During its initial upward blast, The Cloud produced its own static electricity and lightning bolts. According to scientists, the lightning charged the nitrogen in the ammonia and ozone. When the ash fell to the newly scorched ground, this  nitrogen--an essential plant nutrient--fell to earth with it. Emerging plants such as pearly everlasting and fireweed may have benefited from this windfall nitrogen while the nitrogen-fixing lupines became reestablished.
  Doesn't this change the way you see The Cloud in the photograph above?

  I wrote in a previous blog about a Science Cafe talk given in Olympia by forest canopy biologist Nalini Nadkarni. In her talk, Nadkarni described how epiphytes intercepted nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorous, sodium, calcium, magnesium, etc.) brought into the Costa Rican rainforests by fog and mist. I wondered if the fog and mist (and rain for that matter) flowing from the Pacific Ocean to Mount St. Helens are similarly nutrient rich and are playing a role in the recovery of the forest ecosystem there. I imagined the lowliest of clouds scurrying in from the coast, carrying their microscopic feast to the hungry, parched mountain. I imagined seedlings and saplings and flowerlings drinking in tiny droplets of nourishment.
   And I imagined the millions of people who come to see the crater, the emerging dome, a puff of steam perhaps at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument...and see a mountain bathed in mist and clouds. I would love to think they would not be disappointed, but happy (even ecstatic) instead knowing that, though their view is obscured, the mountain is getting the attention it needs from the clouds.
   With these ideas in mind, I drove south on a glorious sunny day last week to see what I could see of Mount St. Helens. Here she is, head in the clouds, reinventing herself drop by drop.