Amid Hawaii's First Major Volcanic Eruption in Decades, Experts Look to Mount St. Helens for Lessons

by | May 18, 2018

By Kale Williams

The Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's big island erupted Thursday, sending a plume of ash 30,000 feet into the sky after fissures had spewed molten rock into residential neighborhoods for the previous two weeks, destroying dozens of structures and forcing thousands to evacuate.

In the Pacific Northwest, nearly 38 years to the day since the eruption of Mount St. Helens, volcano experts said lessons from that deadly volcanic discharge are informing the reaction to the events in Hawaii.

Seth Moran, a seismologist and head scientist at the Cascades Volcano Observatory, said the Mount St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980 showed how quickly a seemingly nascent volcano can lead to catastrophe. The Kilauea eruption hasn't reached catastrophic levels yet, but the pace with which it has developed shows the need for readiness.

"Three weeks ago, everything was normal. Two weeks ago we began to see lava coming out of the ground," Moran said. "These crises can evolve very quickly."

The last major eruption of Kilauea was in 1983, though the current activity is technically a part of the same event as the volcano has been consistently spewing lava ever since.

In the aftermath of the St. Helens eruption, Moran said volcano observers learned that one observatory cannot handle the amount of work that comes with an active volcano.

In Hawaii, crews of geologists are out on the ground 24 hours a day monitoring fissures.

"That's exhausting," Moran said.

On top of that, experts are inundated with information requests from news outlets and need to do their own social media outreach.

The main questions everyone wants answers to are: when the volcano will erupt, how big it will be and how long it will last, Moran said.

But answers can be elusive as they relate to the amount of magma beneath the volcano. The best experts can do is come up with educated guesses judging from the "signs and symptoms" that show on the surface, such as fissures and earthquakes.

Since the 1980 eruption, volcano observatories have taken a more collaborative approach. When Mount St. Helens erupted in 2004, the Cascades Observatory got help from geologists and seismologists in Alaska and Hawaii.

Mount St. Helens is one of 13 volcanic peaks in the Pacific Northwest, stretching 800 miles from Lassen Peak in northern California to Mount Baker in northern Washington. All of those volcanoes are part of the so-called "Ring of Fire," a term used to describe volcanoes that sit atop tectonic plates. That system is completely unconnected to the Hawaiian volcanoes.

"All our mountains are considered active and, geologically speaking, things seem to happen in the Northwest about every 100 years," John Ufford, preparedness manager for the Washington Emergency Management Division, told the Associated Press. "It's an inexact timeline."

In terms of readiness, Moran described his observatory as "OK."

"The volcanoes that need monitoring, we keep an eye on as resources allow," he said. "There are a couple volcanoes in Washington that have limited monitoring where it wouldn't be great if they woke up right now."

The Federal Aviation Administration hadn't issued any advisories for Hawaii as of noon local time and a spokeswoman for the Portland International Airport said two flights bound for Hawaii left Thursday morning on schedule.

As is always the case with air travel, it's best to check with your individual carrier before you head to the airport.

(c)2018 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)