EXPLORATIONS #1902 - Mount St. Helens 20th Anniversary

By Paul ThompsonThis is Shirley Griffith.And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. Twenty years ago, a volcano exploded in the western American state of Washington. Today we tell about the effects of the explosion of Mount Saint Helens and how the area is recovering.

()Ellensburg is a small farming and university town in the central part of the western state of Washington. Twenty years ago, on May Eighteenth, fifteen year old Scott Johnson was reading a book in the early morning sunshine outside his home. His sister, twelve year old Leslie, was playing with a basketball. It was a bright, beautiful Sunday morning.

As Scott read, he looked up. Far away to the west he could see a huge black cloud. It might rain, he thought, but he continued reading. Soon, he could hear thunder. It seemed to grow louder and louder. He looked again and saw the cloud moving very quickly across the sky. It now was huge.The two children watched as the sky grew darker and darker. The cloud began to block out the sun. Scott again looked at his book. He noticed something was on the pages. It looked like very fine dust. How strange, he thought. It is raining dust!

Scott and Leslie ran into the house and told their parents something unusual was happening. They turned on the television. The first reports were being broadcast about the explosion of Mount Saint Helens volcano. The cloud beginning to cover the sky was made of ash from the volcano. It had quickly reached Ellensburg from the volcano more than three-hundred kilometers away.

Outside the house, the cloud had now almost covered the sky. Scott watched the last small part of blue sky slowly disappear. Within moments it was as black as night. A strong chemical smell was in the air.

Ash fell very quickly and in huge amounts. Scott, Leslie and their parents watched the television reports. Experts said they did not know what to expect.

Scott looked outside again. The ash now covered the ground. It was a frightening experience. He wondered, "Will the ash bury us?"

(((MUSIC BRIDGE)))The ash that fell on Scott and Leslie Johnson in Ellensburg began flying through the air at eight-thirty-two that morning local time. Washington State's beautiful Mount Saint Helens had exploded. The explosion was about three-hundred-fifty times more powerful than the explosions of the first nuclear bombs.

Fire, rock and volcanic gas flew out of the volcano with a force of four-hundred-eighty kilometers an hour. A cloud of ash went straight up more than twenty kilometers into the air in less than fifteen minutes. Within fifteen days, ash from the volcano circled the Earth in the upper atmosphere.

The explosion started a landslide on the side of the mountain that became one of the largest such events in recorded history. More than four-hundred meters of the top of the mountain disappeared. People near the volcano died immediately. Thousands of animals, birds and fish also died.

In just a few moments, three-hundred-seventy square miles of forest timber was destroyed. The heat was so fierce it killed every living thing in the immediate area, even bacteria.The Native American Indians in Washington state still call Mount Saint Helens by its Indian name Loowit. It means "Lady of Fire."On the morning of May Eighteenth, Nineteen-Eighty, the mountain again became a "Lady of Fire."

The volcano had been giving warnings for three months. These warnings were earthquakes. Most were not large, but there were many of them.

On March Twenty-Seventh, a small explosion blew away the ice and snow at the very top of the mountain. Steam burst from the top of the volcano.

By May Seventeenth, the day before the explosion, more than ten-thousand earthquakes had been recorded. These quakes had caused the north face of the mountain to push out more one-hundred forty meters. Volcano experts say this was very strong evidence that hot liquid rock had risen high into the volcano.Several weeks earlier, government officials declared an emergency. They stopped people from entering the Mount Saint Helens area. A special document was needed to travel near the mountain. Officials also forced people who lived near the mountain to leave their homes. Many were angry, and demanded permission to return.

Some people violated government rules and visited the mountain area anyway. They did not think the volcano represented a real danger. Workers who planted trees near the mountain were given special documents that permitted them to continue their work. Scientists were also at the mountain, studying the volcano.

Many of these people were killed when the volcano exploded. Fifty-seven people died as a result of the explosion.Experts say the volcano continued to explode from eight-thirty-two in the morning local time until about five in the afternoon. Than the mountain's explosions slowly began to decrease in force.

But Mount Saint Helens was not finished. Five smaller explosions followed during the summer and autumn of Nineteen-Eighty. Each explosion produced ash that rose twelve to fourteen kilometers into the sky.

In the twenty years since then, small explosions, many small earthquakes and other volcanic events have been recorded at Mount Saint Helens. But nothing similar to the May Eighteenth explosion. However, experts say that Mount Saint Helens will explode again sometime in the future.

(((MUSIC BRIDGE)))In Nineteen-Eight-Two, Congress created the Mount Saint Helens Monument. The publicly owned monument covers a total of forty-four-thousand-five-hundred hectares of the Mount Saint Helens area. It includes the mountain and much of the land around it.

The United States Forest Service supervises the area. But nature controls it.

Trees, animals, fish, flowers and plants are left to a natural recovery process. Humans are not permitted to help. The huge natural area around Mount Saint Helens that was almost completely destroyed is being rebuilt by nature. Many scientists are closely studying what happens in this natural laboratory. They have learned that nature is very quick to heal the wounds caused by the huge explosionNature has produced many surprises in the Mount Saint Helens area. One surprise is the return of plant life.

The volcanic ash that covered most of the ground lacks nitrogen that plants need to grow. But plants that take nitrogen from the air quickly began growing in some of the most severely damaged areas.

Within two months of the explosion, wild flowers were once again growing on the sides of the mountain. Other plants also produced flowers. Some of the plants had been covered in snow and protected during the explosions. When the snow melted, the flowers began to appear.Scientists learned that even some small animals and insects survived the explosions. They survived because they live underground. Other animals, insects and birds began to quickly move into the damaged area. When these animals and insects died, their bodies added minerals to the soil.

Large animals such as deer and elk have returned to Mount Saint Helens. And the fish have returned to the lakes and rivers.

Experts say some of the most heavily damaged areas have been the quickest to recover. They are not sure why. Yet Forest Service experts say it will take about two-hundred years for the Mount Saint Helens area to fully recover from the effects of the volcano's explosion.

(((MUSIC BRIDGE)))Earlier, we told about how twenty years ago Scott Johnson was concerned that his home might be buried by the ash from Mount Saint Helens. That did not happen. Even though he was three-hundred kilometers from the volcano, the ash was deep in some areas of his town. It had to be removed from the streets and from the roofs of houses. Scott and his sister were not able to go to school for several days because any kind of travel was almost impossible in the area.

Today, Scott Johnson is an engineer for the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle, Washington. Leslie Johnson is a medical doctor in Aspen, Colorado. Both say the Mount Saint Helens explosion twenty years ago was an experience they never will forget.

()This Special English program was written and produced by Paul Thompson. Our studio engineer was Efim Drucker This is Shirley Griffith.And this is Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another EXPLORATIONS program on the Voice of America.

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