Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mount St. Helens seismogram, May 18, 1980

Note the harmonic tremors in the bottom half of the record, which are characteristic signals accompanying magma rising through a volcano.

But the event at 15:32 GMT (8:32 am Pacific time) is the quake that accompanied the main blast.

From the U.S. Geological Survey:

Within 15 to 20 seconds of a magnitude 5.1 earthquake at 8:32 a.m., the volcano's bulge and summit slid away in a huge landslide - the largest on Earth in recorded history. The landslide depressurized the volcano's magma system, triggering powerful explosions that ripped through the sliding debris. Rocks, ash, volcanic gas, and steam were blasted upward and outward to the north. This lateral blast of hot material accelerated to at least 300 miles per hour, then slowed as the rocks and ash fell to the ground and spread away from the volcano; several people escaping the blast on its western edge were able to keep ahead of the advancing cloud by driving 65 to 100 miles an hour! The blast cloud traveled as far as 17 miles northward from the volcano and the landslide traveled about 14 miles west down the North Fork Toutle River.

The lateral blast produced a column of ash and gas (eruption column) that rose more than 15 miles into the atmosphere in only 15 minutes. Less than an hour later, a second eruption column formed as magma erupted explosively from the new crater. Then, beginning just after noon, swift avalanches of hot ash, pumice, and gas (pyroclastic flows) poured out of the crater at 50 to 80 miles per hour and spread as far as 5 miles to the north. Based on the eruption rate of these pyroclastic flows, scientists estimate that the eruption reached its peak between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. Over the course of the day, prevailing winds blew 520 million tons of ash eastward across the United States and caused complete darkness in Spokane, Washington, 250 miles from the volcano.

During the first few minutes of this eruption, parts of the blast cloud surged over the newly formed crater rim and down the west, south, and east sides of the volcano. The hot rocks and gas quickly melted some of the snow and ice capping the volcano, creating surges of water that eroded and mixed with loose rock debris to form volcanic mudflows (lahars). Several lahars poured down the volcano into river valleys, ripping trees from their roots and destroying roads and bridges.

The largest and most destructive lahar was formed by water seeping from inside the huge landslide deposit through most of the day. This sustained flow of water eroded material from both the landslide deposit and channel of the North Fork Toutle River. The lahar increased in size as it traveled downstream, destroying bridges and homes and eventually flowing into the Cowlitz River. It reached its maximum size at about midnight in the Cowlitz River about 50 miles downstream from the volcano.

Note the sequence of events: thge earthquake first, the landslide next, and then the uncorked volcano blew its stack.

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