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Rudi Kiefer: Volcanoes pose major danger
It was a few minutes before the 5 p.m. close of business. Herbert Wahl, master technician at the language institute at Heidelberg University in Germany, had rigged a TV set to pick up news broadcasts from the American Forces Network. “Everybody come in here!” he shouted from his crammed studio. “They have a mountain exploding!”

What we were watching live was taking place near Yakima, Wash., on May 18, 1980. At 7:42 a.m. Pacific Standard Time, the north flank of Mount St. Helens was erupting. An enormous landslide sent waves of volcanic debris, boiling water and lava down the slopes, while an ash plume was rising all the way to the stratosphere.

Entire forests were knocked down by the blast. On the north side of the volcano, Spirit Lake filled up with debris and mud. The towns of
Castle Rock and Yakima became covered with a foot-deep layer of volcanic ash. Log jams from fallen trees dammed up the Toutle River, building a dangerous flood hazard.

The death toll from the eruption, which removed a full third of the mountain, was limited to 54. It would have been much higher if the U.S. Forest Service hadn’t gone door to door the week before the event, telling nearby residents to evacuate and tourists to avoid the area. Those who chose to remain paid the price. Photographer Robert Landsburg made post-mortem history by snapping pictures of the eruption while it was coming at him. His final shots are an eerie reminder of the power unleashed by the Earth’s interior.

Mount St. Helens’ volcanic ash doesn’t resemble the ash in your fireplace. It’s very finely ground rock dust, gray in color and extremely lightweight. Most of the victims on the slopes of the mountain died from asphyxiation by inhaling the ash. Emergency services had a tough time securing the region because automobile and aircraft engines can’t function in ash-laden air.

The region between Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams and Mount Rainier is sparsely populated, which was a blessing in terms of the human toll. Other countries aren’t as fortunate. Foremost in my closet of worries is Mexico’s capital. The basin containing Mexico City has two volcanoes towering over a population of 20 million: Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. Both are active, with small eruptions occurring since the 1990s. A massive major eruption and its aftermath would be devastating to our neighbor country.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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