Steve Schilling/U.S. Geological Survey
Aerial view of the crater dome at Mount St. Helens. The volcano is active again after a 1980 eruption that blew off the mountain's cone-shaped summit.
D. Mullineaux/U.S. Geological Survey
Mount St. Helens, shown before the 1980 explosion, with its glacier-covered peak intact.
Howard Berkes, NPR
Ecologist Charlie Crisafulli checks plant growth in the Mount St. Helens blast zone with the volcano's crater in the background.
What makes it hard to sleep at night when you think about Mount St. Helens? Hear what the experts say:
Listen: Cliff Ligons, Manager of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument
Listen: C. Dan Miller, USGS Chief of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program
Listen: Charlie Crisafulli, U.S. Forest Service ecologist
Geologists say Washington state's Mount St. Helens volcano is continuing to build a new lava dome in a gradual eruption that began last week. And the dome is bulging like it did in 1980, when a massive sideways blast killed 57 people. But as NPR's Howard Berkes reports, a similar eruption is not expected anytime soon.
"It's very much a different mountain," says Charlie Crisafulli, a U.S. Forest Service ecologist who has been based at the volcano since 1980. "The geometry and form are different... and to a large extent, the volcano's been somewhat disarmed."
Geologists say Mount St. Helens appears to be rebuilding, in a process that could create the conditions for another giant explosion in the distant future — perhaps 200 years from now.
Present activity is not expected to trigger the disastrous mudslides that caused so much damage and death in 1980, says Willie Scott, a volcano hazards geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
But lesser mudflows and smaller eruptions are still anticipated, and people downwind of the volcano can expect to endure ashfall, which caused an enormous mess in 1980.
And geologist Dan Miller has a final word of caution:
"We still have a ways to go in terms of forecasting what's going to happen next," Miller says. "We can tell you what's happening now and what happened yesterday but what happens tomorrow is hard for us to forecast."