Remembering Mount St. Helens, After 39 Years
Dr. James J. S. Johnson
Bow thy heavens, O Lord, and come down: touch the mountains, and they shall smoke. (Psalm 144:5)
Mount St. Helens volcanic eruption on May 18, AD1980 (public domain)
WHEN DID MOUNT ST. HELENS BLOW UP? WHAT HAPPENED THERE, AND WHEN?
The first eruption of Mount St. Helens happened Sunday morning, May 18th of AD1980; that month I graduated (with an A.A.!) from Montgomery College in Germantown, Maryland. The seismic force of eruption was measured at 5.1, on the Richter magnitude scale, which is actually deemed a mere seismic “disruption”, not a seismic “disaster”, much less a seismic “catastrophe”. Of course for those people who died, or lost their homes, it was a “catastrophe”. Thousands of mammals (like elk and bear) died, as well as millions of salmon in destroyed hatcheries.
Being a grandfather of 9, I’m old enough to recall the eruptions of Mount St. Helens, during May of AD1980, especially since I took a summer course under Dr. Henry Morris (founding president of California’s Institute for Creation Research, teaching for what was then Christian Heritage College) only a few weeks later. Dr. Morris called the Mount St. Helens eruptions (and the mudflows and sedimentary “pancake” layering deposited as a result, as “God’s gift to creation science” (or “God’s gift to Flood geology”), because its demonstrated, on a small scale – in hours and days (not millions of years) – how a sedimentary layered canyon, like the Grand Canyon, could be formed catastrophically, with a lot of water and a lot of power, over a little bit of time – as opposed to requiring little bits of power repeated over imagined millions of years.
Specifically, the “Little Grand Canyon” of the Toutle River is a 1/40th scale comparable to the famous Grand Canyon of Arizona. In other words, catastrophic geological processes that occurred during the Genesis Flood, like volcanic eruptions and flooding (including high-powered mudflows), can easily explain the water-blasted formation of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. The key to understanding much of earth’s history, the apostle Peter reminds us (in 2nd Peter chapter 3), is the Genesis Flood.
HOW DID VOLCANIC ERUPTION(S) AT MOUNT ST. HELENS EXHIBIT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHAT GEOLOGISTS CALL “UNIFORMITARIANISM” AND “CATASTROPHISM”?
Uniformitarianism is the assumption, made by many scientists (especially those with no forensic science background), that the usual events and processes of today’s world, that we can observe in the present, matches the events and processes of the no-longer-observable past. In other words, uniformitarianism assumes that the “present is the key to (understanding) the past”. This is wrong. Actually, Scripture teaches us that knowing the truth about the past (which we can learn from Genesis and the other books of the Bible) is the key to understanding our present situation. Why? Because our present situation is the result of past events – most of which we cannot observe or learn about directly, especially unique events like Creation, the Fall, and the worldwide Flood, as well as the life of Christ, His crucifixion and resurrection.
For an example relevant to Mount St. Helens, consider Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Was it formed by slow and gradual natural processes over unobserved eons of “deep” time? Uniformitarian geoscientists propose “yes,” but Genesis records a globally catastrophic “no” in Genesis chapters 6-thru-9.
Mount St. Helens volcanic ash cloud looms over Othello, Washington (Helen Hysjulien photo)
Consider this analysis by geologist Dr. Steve Austin, who repeatedly visited Mount St. Helens while it was active, and repeatedly researched its post-eruption conditions (and its amazingly powerful mudflows), after the eruptions during both AD1980 and AD1982.
The eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State on May 18, 1980, is certain to be remembered as one of the most significant geologic events in the United States of the 20th century.
The explosion, on May 18, was initiated by an earthquake and rockslide involving one-half cubic mile of rock. As the summit and north slope slid off the volcano that morning, pressure was released inside the volcano – where super hot liquid water immediately flashed to steam. The northward-directed steam explosion released energy equivalent to 20 million tons of TNT, which toppled 150 square miles of forest in six minutes.
In Spirit lake, north of the volcano, an enormous water wave, initiated by one-eighth cubic mile of rockslide debris, stripped trees from slopes as high as 850 feet above the pre-eruption water level. The total energy output, on May 18, was equivalent to 400 million tons of TNT – approximately 20,000 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs.
On May 18 and also during later eruptions, critical energy thresholds were exceeded by potent geologic processes which were able to accomplish significant changes in short order. These processes challenge the traditional uniformitarian way of thinking about how the earth works, and serve as a miniature laboratory for catastrophism.
Institute for Creation Research scientists have spent three summers investigating the geologic changes which have occurred at the volcano. Four of the most significant discoveries are summarized in this short report.
RAPIDLY FORMED STRATIFICATION
Up to 400 feet thickness of strata have formed since 1980 at Mount St. Helens. These deposits accumulated from primary air blast, landslide, waves on the lake, pyroclastic flows, mudflows, air fall, and stream water. Perhaps the most surprising accumulations are the pyroclastic flow deposits amassed from ground-hugging, fluidized, turbulent slurries of fine volcanic debris, which moved at high velocities off the flank of the volcano as the eruption plume of debris over the volcano collapsed. These deposits include fine pumice ash laminae and beds from one millimeter thick to greater than one meter thick, each representing just a few seconds to several minutes of accumulation. A deposit accumulated in less than one day, on June 12, 1980, is 25 feet thick and contains many thin laminae and beds. Conventionally, sedimentary laminae and beds are assumed to represent longer seasonal variations, or annual changes, as the layers accumulated very slowly. Mount St. Helens teaches us that the stratified layers commonly characterizing geological formations can form very rapidly by flow processes. Such features have been formed quickly underwater in laboratory sedimentation tanks, and it should not surprise us to see that they have formed in a natural catastrophe.
Erosion during volcanic eruptions at Mount St. Helens was accomplished by scour from steam blast, landslide, water waves, hot pumice ash flows (pyroclastic flows), and mudflows. Since the eruptions, the erosion process has been dominated by sheet flooding and channelized flow of water, with occasional mudflows.
About 23 square miles of the North Fork of the Toutle River Valley was obstructed by two-thirds cubic mile of landslide and pyroclastic debris, which has been rapidly eroded since 1980. Jetting steam from buried water and ice under hot pumice reamed steam explosion pits with associated mass-wasting processes at the margins of pits, producing rills and gullies over 125 feet deep. Photographic documentation assembled by ICR scientists demonstrates that very pronounced rills and gullies had formed at the margins of seam explosion pits before May 23 – less than five days after the pumice was deposited. The rills and gullies resemble badlands topography, which geologists have usually assumed required many hundreds or even thousands of years to form.
Mudflows, from Mount St. Helens, were responsible for the most significant erosion.
A mudflow on March 19, 1982, eroded a canyon system up to 140 feet deep in the headwaters of the North Fork of the Toutle River Valley, establishing the new dendritic pattern of drainage. As ICR scientists surveyed this new terrain, they began to contemplate the processes which may have formed the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.
The little “Grand Canyon of the Toutle River” is a one-fortieth scale model of the real Grand Canyon. [emphasis added]
The small creeks which flow through the headwaters of the Toutle River today might seem, by present appearances, to have carved these canyons very slowly over a long time period, except for the fact that the erosion was observed to have occurred rapidly! Geologists should learn that, since the long-time scale they have been trained to assign to landform development would lead to obvious error on Mount St. Helens, it also may be useless or misleading elsewhere.
UPRIGHT DEPOSITED LOGS
The landslide generated waves on Spirit Lake stripped the forests from the slopes adjacent to the lake and created an enormous log mat, made up of millions of prone floating trunks that occupy about two square miles of the lake surface. These logs float freely as the wind blows them, and the decreasing size of the log mat indicates that the trees are gradually sinking to the lake floor. Careful observation of the floating log mat indicates that many trees float in upright position, with a root ball submerging the root end of the trunk, while the opposite end floats out of the water. Hundreds of upright floated and deposited logs have been grounded in shallow water along the shore of the lake. These trees, if buried in sediment, would appear to have been a forest which grew in place over hundreds of years, which is the standard geological interpretation for the upright petrified “forests” at Yellowstone National Park.
In order to get more information on the upright deposited logs in Spirit Lake, members of the ICR research team worked with Dr. Harold Coffin, of Geoscience Research Institute, to survey the lake bottom, using sonar and scuba. Hundreds of upright, fully submerged logs were located by sidescan sonar, and scuba divers verified that they were, indeed, trunks of trees which the sonar detected.
Extrapolating from the area of lake floor surveyed to the entire lake bottom, we estimate more than 19,000 upright stumps existed on the floor of the lake in August 1985. The average height of an upright deposited stump is 20 feet. Sonar records and scuba investigations verified that many of the upright deposited trees have root masses radiating away from the bases of the trunks. Furthermore, the trees are randomly spaced, not clumped together, over the bottom of the lake, again having the appearance of being an in situ forest. Scuba investigation of the upright deposited trunks shows that some are already solidly buried by sedimentation, with more than three feet of sediment around their bases, while others have no sediment around their bases. This proved that the upright trees were deposited at different times, with their roots buried at different levels.
If found buried in the stratigraphic record, these trees might be interpreted as multiple forests which grew on different levels over periods of thousands of years. The Spirit Lake upright deposited stumps, therefore, have considerable implications for interpreting “petrified forests” in the stratigraphic record.
PEAT LAYER IN SPIRIT LAKE
The enormous log mat floating on Spirit Lake has lost its bark and branches by the abrasive action of wind and waves. Scuba investigations of the lake bottom showed that water-saturated sheets of tree bark are especially abundant on the bottom of the lake, where, in areas removed from volcanic sediment added from the lake shore, a layer of peat several inches thick has accumulated. The Spirit Lake peat resembles, both compositionally and texturally, certain coal beds of the eastern United States, which also are dominated by tree bark and appear to have accumulated beneath floating log mats.
Coal is supposed, conventionally, to have accumulated from organic material accumulated in swamps by growth in place of plants and burial. Because the accumulation of peat in swamps is a slow process, geologists have supposed that coal beds required about one thousand years to form each inch of coal.
The peat layer in Spirit lake, however, demonstrates that peat accumulate rapidly. Swamp peats, however, have only very rare bark sheet material because the intrusive action of tree roots disintegrates and homogenizes the peat. The Spirit Lake peat, in contrast, is texturally very similar to coal. All that is needed is burial and slight heating to transform the Spirit Lake peat into coal. Thus, at Spirit Lake, we may have seen the first stage in the formation of coal.
Mount St. Helens provides a rare opportunity to study transient geologic processes which produced, within a few months, changes which geologists might otherwise assume required many thousands [if not “millions”] of years.
The volcano, therefore, challenges our way of thinking about how the earth works, how it changes, and the time scale we are accustomed to attaching to its formations. These processes and their effects allow Mount St. Helens to serve as a miniature laboratory for catastrophism.
Mount St. Helens helps us to imagine what the Biblical Flood, of Noah’s day[s], may have been like.
[Quoting Steve Austin, “Mount St. Helens and Catastrophism”, ACTS & FACTS, volume 15, issue 7 (July 1986), posted at https://www.icr.org/article/mt-st-helens-catastrophism .]
Volcanic ash blanket form Mount St. Helens eruption (Vintage News photo)
For those with eyes to see, the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens illustrates how sudden and drastic geological change can occur, and why uniformitarian canyon-formation assumptions fail.
Mount St. Helens devastated the landscape, killing people, animals, trees (Pinterest photo)
Many eyewitnesses observed, and cameras recorded, how a 1/40-scale-model version of Grand Canyon was violently formed within just a few days, during AD1980 (and later again in AD1982, just 2 years after Mount St. Helens’ AD1980 explosion), disproving the notion that such stratified-rock-layered canyons require “millions of years” to form their “evolution”-facilitated pancaked layers (of mud-hardened-into-sedimentary-rock).
“Little Grand Canyon of the Toutle River” (photo by Dr. Steve Austin)
[see also Steve Austin, “Mount St. Helens and Catastrophism” (1986),
So why are uniformitarians reluctant to appreciate catastrophic canyon formation? They continue to assume that “today’s present world is the key to understanding the past”, especially unique events that occurred in the ancient world. Today, both Mount St. Helens and Grand Canyon appear peaceful. But the relatively non-catastrophic natural processes operating today are not trustworthy guides for understanding past geological events such as Mount St. Helens’ eruption, or the Genesis Flood, or the Ice Age. But there is more, much more, that uniformitarian thinking gets wrong.
Uniformitarians also assume (like atheists) that God is operationally absent — or else they assume (like Deists) that God is relatively uninvolved, from what occurs in nature. They willfully ignore (to use the apostle Peter’s words) the many physical and historical evidences of His Creatorship (and of the global Flood), as they act as if God wasn’t (and isn’t) obviously active in, and with, His own creation.
Volcanic Steam Plume on May 19, AD1982 (Mount St. Helens re-eruption)
IS MOUNT ST. HELENS RELEVANT TO ESTIMATING THE AGE OF THE EARTH?
Mount St. Helens illustrates how quickly catastrophic geology can form sedimentary rock canyons, so it refutes the idea that sedimentary rock canyons must require millions of years to form. Yet there is more to the age debate! If you really think it through, you’ll see that how old Earth is cannot be determined by looking at its present condition — yet empirical scientists pop out opinions about Earth’s age like popcorn!
But the age of something, or of someone, cannot be known with certainty without a reliable eye-witness. Here’s an example: How old are you, exactly? How do you know when you were born? Obviously you were there, when you were born, but you were so young at the time, you don’t remember what day it was! Because your birth is a unique event, and it is no longer observable, the uniformitarian assumption can’t be used to prove your birth-date. However, a reliable eye-witness was there – your mother! (Trust me, she was there — and she remembers the day you were born!) And your birth-date was promptly written down, by reliable record-keepers, before it could be forgotten. Without a reliable eye-witness you can only guess when you were born.
Likewise, without the book of Genesis (which contains God’s eye-witness report of Earth’s creation, in error-free writing), we cannot know how old Earth is. But if we close the Holy Bible, we only make wild guesses about how old Earth is (and how it got here).
Ecological recovery at Mount St. Helens (U.S. Forest Service photo)
WERE ANY SCIENTISTS SURPRISED AT THE ECOSYSTEM’S POST-ERUPTION RECOVERY?
Evolutionists assumed that it would be generations before the volcanic ash-blanketed area around Mount St. Helens would “bounce back”, ecologically speaking. Yet within weeks, revitalization was evident: avalanche lilies grew up through the deposited volcanic ash. During AD1992 our family vacationed near Mount St Helens, and we visited the area, noticing bright-covered flowers growing up through the devastated landscape.
Wildflowers (lupines, Indian paintbrush, &c) at Mount St. Helens (Seattle Times photo)
Less than 20 years later bushes and deciduous trees were growing there, providing food and cover for insects, birds, and mammals. Now an entire canopy of trees have restored much of the area to productivity, with a mix of plants and animals thriving at the very site of total devastation less than 40 years ago.
So Mount St. Helens illustrates ecological resilience, a trait that God intentionally designed into ecosystems around the world, because God values biodiversity that “fills” Earth’s various habitats. No surprise on that, really, because it was God Himself Who originally commanded (and equipped) diverse life-forms to “fill the earth”. (And this divine decree was renewed after the Flood — see Genesis chapter 9.)
In short, Earth’s ecology is a lot more resilient than design-resistant evolutionists think it is – Mount St. Helens proves it!
Stauer Helenite necklace, earrings & ring (made from Mount St. Helens ash)
CAN MOUNT ST. HELENS’S ASHES HELP GODLY HUSBANDS AND THEIR GODLY WIVES?
Mount St. Helens can provide a witness for God, and a benefit for your marriage, if you and your spouse are witnessing Christians. Part of our family’s vacation (in AD1992) included a visit there, and I still have some vessels filled with volcanic ash (including some that I obtained from friends or merchants who gathered ash during AD1980).
Better yet, some Mount St. Helens volcanic ash was used (somehow) to make brilliant green “Helenite” jewelry (some of which I bought for my wife). Whenever someone comments on her Helenite necklace, she can tell them about the scientific importance of Mount St. Helens — and how it illustrates that a geologic catastrophe can quickly produce a miniature Grand Canyon, in just a few days, with no need for the gazillions of years that uniformitarian evolutionists assume is needed.
(Hey, there’s an idea for you ladies! – tell your husband to google “jewelry” and “Helenite”, because you want to wear some Helenite jewelry, to help you give a Biblical witness to those who ask for a reason for your faith!)