Mount St. Helens, 25 Years Later

Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens explosion. An observatory that overlooks the crater has just reopened and volcano enthusiasts are flocking to visit.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today is the 25th anniversary of the deadly eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington. Fifty-seven people died after the top of the volcano blew off and collapsed into massive mud flows. Now the mountain has reawakened a few months ago. It began what geologists call a slow-motion eruption. That makes Mt. St. Helens even more of a tourist attraction as Ley Garnett of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

LEY GARNETT reporting:

There are few places in the world where you can safely peer into the crater of an active volcano from just five miles away. That's the view offered by the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The observatory closed in October after the volcano started erupting again, but recently on the day it reopened, nearly 3,000 people drove up the mountain for a look. Some of them traveled across the country to get here.

Ms. CHERYL CARTER: Well, I came all the way from Philadelphia.

GARNETT: What did you think?

Ms. CARTER: Awesome.

GARNETT: What did you think?

Ms. CARTER: Awesome.

GARNETT: Cheryl Carter came from Ohio.

Ms. CARTER: I've been to the Grand Canyon before and this is just as awe-inspiring.

GARNETT: Indeed the view from 4,500 feet is a panorama of deep gullies, canyons and waterfalls from melting snow that cut through the landscape like silver ribbons. Before the 1980 eruption, a dense forest grew on the mountain slopes. A bus full of German tourists with a TV crew is among the crowd.

Mr. OLIVER SPEILER (Geologist): There's a kind of hysteria in volcanic tourism in Germany. So people love volcanoes. You will meet a lot of Germans up here during the summertime.

GARNETT: Geologist Oliver Spieler is here from Munich on a research mission.

Mr. SPIELER: This is one of the best observed volcanoes worldwide. So if you want to perform experiments on it, we have the best database to compare the experimental results to reality.

Unidentified Man: This is the opening day.

GARNETT: On this day, clouds hang just low enough to interfere with the crater view. So a guide from the US Forest Service holds up poster-sized photos showing a new lava dome that's been growing in the volcano's crater. The dome is formed when magma oozes out and dries. About a dump truck load of lava comes out every four seconds, pushing the dome to a height of more than 1,500 feet.

Mr. LARRY MASTON(ph) (Federal Geologist): There's a lot that's changed obviously since 25 years ago.

GARNETT: Larry Maston is one of many federal geologists watching the volcano.

Mr. MASTON: It appeared that it was going to go into some period of slumber, that based on past records was probably going to last decades to centuries, and yet here we are again in another dome-building episode.

GARNETT: Maston uses global positioning satellite technology to monitor Mt. St. Helens. That wasn't available 25 years ago and he's convinced scientist will know if a major eruption is imminent. He doesn't believe another disaster is ahead.

Mr. MASTON: If it stopped tomorrow, I don't think that we would be that surprised, but if you look on a worldwide scale of how many lava domes have grown and how long they've grown before they stopped, most of them stopped within a year or so after they start.

GARNETT: St. Helens spits out an almost constant steam cloud as hot lava melts a glacier and snow in its crater. On clear days, the cloud appears like an exclamation point above the mountain, visible 50 miles away in Portland, Oregon.

For NPR News, I'm Ley Garnett.

MONTAGNE: NPR correspondent Howard Berkes' essay on the Mt. St. Helens eruption and its aftermath is at npr.org.

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