Sunday, April 3, 2016

Q&A with Steve Olson

Steve Olson is the author of the new book Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens, which focuses on the 1980 eruption of the Mount St. Helens volcano in Washington state. His other books include Mapping Human History and Count Down, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and Scientific American. He lives in Seattle.

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research for Eruption?

A: The most surprising thing to me, in writing the book, was that many aspects of the story had been relatively neglected in previous books about the volcano. I decided to tell the whole story, including the historical, political, and economic dimensions of the story, so that the events surrounding the eruption would have a deeper and more meaningful context.

Q: You write about the 57 people who died in the eruption, and their varying reasons for being near the volcano. Can you describe what some of those reasons were, and what might have happened had the eruption occurred on a weekday?

A: Many were there to see the volcano, just as people had been coming to the volcano for the previous two months to watch the relatively small eruptions of ash and steam that began at the end of March 1980. 

But others were camping in areas where the volcano couldn’t be seen, monitoring the volcano for signs of an eruption so they could warn nearby communities, or -- as in the case of 83-year-old Harry Truman -- refusing to leave their homes despite the danger posed by the mountain.

Many people in southwestern Washington State have told me that it was a miracle for the volcano to erupt early on a Sunday morning, when probably fewer people were around the volcano than at almost any other time of the week. “If it had been a few days earlier, it would have been me,” is a refrain I constantly heard from people there. 

In particular, if the volcano had erupted on a weekday rather than a weekend, hundreds of Weyerhaeuser loggers working in forests surrounding the volcano would have been killed.

Q: What is the state of Mount St. Helens today?

A: It’s only a matter of time before the volcano erupts again. The last dome-building eruptions were from 2004 to 2008, and even though the volcano is quiet now, steam still rises from the lava dome in its crater, so magma is not far underground. 

The previous dome of the volcano was built in just 2,000 or 3,000 years before the 1980 eruption, and there is no reason to believe that the volcano will be any less active in the future than it has been in the past.

Q: What do you see as the legacy today from the eruption more than 35 years ago?

A: One legacy is a much greater understanding of how volcanoes act and how to keep people safe when volcanoes threaten to erupt. Volcanologists have many new technologies to monitor the area around volcanoes and predict future activity.

The eruption of Mount St. Helens also acted as a wake-up call for people living around volcanoes -- they know, now, that they have to take warnings seriously and prepare for the worst. 

Still, if warnings are inadequate, or if people ignore warnings, tragedy can ensue --as when more than 22,000 villagers died in a mudflow caused by a relatively small 1985 eruption of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Colombia.

Another legacy of the eruption is the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, which now protects the area around the volcano and preserves large areas for research on how life returns to an area devastated by a natural disaster. The monument is a fascinating place to visit -- I encourage everyone to go see it for themselves if they can.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’d like to write more about the wonderful part of the country in which I grew up and now live, and I ran across many fascinating stories in writing Eruption.

But at the moment, I’m still fascinated by volcanoes -- for example, I’m working on a piece about the geological plumbing system beneath Mount St. Helens and the possibility of future volcanic eruptions.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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