If you lived in the Pacific Northwest on May 18th, 1980, you probably remember precisely what you were doing at 8:32 a.m. that Sunday morning when Mt. St. Helens erupted killing 57 people and destroying 250 homes. It also wiped out 15 bridges, destroyed 17 miles of railway and 185 miles of highway.
I remember that day clearly. May 18th is my father’s birthday and also my younger sister’s birthday. I was returning home from a trout fishing trip in Central Oregon. Mt. St. Helens is located in Washington state, 50 miles north of Portland, my hometown at the time. For a few months prior to that day, as an ominous preview of what was to come, Mt. St. Helens had been raining ash on the city. The evening news was filled with stories on the activity of the volcano, but no one, not even the scientists studying the mountain, expected it to blow up in such a devastating way. Predicting volcanic eruptions at that time was guess work, more than science, and is still uncertain, if somewhat more reliable today.
Like thousands of others, I remember clearly what I was doing that morning, but the true impact of what happened did not affect me until some days later as the events unfolded in the news. In the aftermath, perhaps the memory that impacted me the most was that of David Johnston, a young scientist who radioed the call to the Vancouver watch station. "Vancouver, Vancouver this is it!" Those were the last words the young man ever uttered. Johnston was in the direct path of the explosion as a third of the mountainside blew out annihilating thousands of square miles of landscape.
As devastating as St. Helens was, it can not compare to the potential devastation that another active volcano, one of our favorite National Parks, will do when it erupts again. Yellowstone National Park is known for it’s beautiful scenery, majestic mountains, crystal clear streams and limitless variety of wildlife, but it has a darker side in its history. Six-hundred-forty thousand years ago Yellowstone erupted with a force 6000 times that of St. Helens. The better part of 13 states were buried under many feet of ash. Virtually every living thing, for hundreds of miles in every direction, was destroyed, plants and wildlife alike. What we know today as the Central United States, the Breadbasket of America, was annihilated. One third of what is now the United States of America was left a barren wasteland.
Yellowstone is what is known as an active super volcano. There are only six of these potentially devastating monsters know in the world and ours is centrally located where an eruption would annihilate millions of our citizens, changing our country forever. By far Yellowstone has the highest potential for destroying human life of any of the other super volcanoes, and Yellowstone is overdue for an eruption. When I started writing my novel Caldera it was with the memory of David Johnston and the many other’s who lost their lives on that fateful day and a concern that there is no way for us to prepare for the day Yellowstone wakes up.
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