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Opening The Archives On 40 Years Of Science And Adventure On Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens peeking through the clouds.
Mount St. Helens peeking through the clouds.

Mount St. Helens is a restless and occasionally violent volcano that looms within Portland's view. It's also a beacon to scientists, adventurers and OPB video production crews.

Mount St. Helens isn’t a welcoming place. It’s a restless, rumbling, unpredictable and occasionally violent volcano that looms within view of the largest metropolitan region between Seattle and San Francisco.
The crater is rocked constantly by earthquakes and remains cloaked in gases and steam. The magma dome has  a penchant for surprise eruptions. And the crater glacier, one of the nation’s only growing glaciers, is pulverized mercilessly by rockslides raining down from unstable cliffs formed on May 18, 1980, when a violent eruption obliterated the top 1,300 feet of the volcano and killed 57 people in the surrounding area.

And yet since the eruption the volcano has become a beacon to a global panoply of scientists, adventurers and photographers. They come to bear witness to one of the newest, wildest and most fascinating landscapes on earth. And over the last several decades OPB reporters and producers have been there to document their experiences.

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the eruption, we are releasing our complete archive of St. Helens stories to the public.

Elk return to Mount St. Helens in first decade after eruption (1991)

Mount St. Helens still looked like a barren moonscape in the 1990s, but grass and young trees were already starting to emerge from the ash. As they did, elk moved in. The 60 to 70 elk present in the Toutle River Valley in 1991 would soon grow to a herd numbering in the several thousands. By the 2000s, biologists were aggressively promoting hunting to cull their numbers.

Glacier caves discovered in crater of Mount St. Helens (2014)

Eduardo "Eddy" Cartaya and a team of adventurers set out to explore a new cave system in one of the most dangerous landscapes in America, the crater of Mount St. Helens. Braving rockfall and avalanches, the team launches a five-day expedition to be the first people to explore a cave system within a glacier that is 300 feet thick in places. The expedition uncovers a never-before-seen world of ice and steam and volcanic beauty.

Invasive grass threatens scientific ‘laboratory’ of Mount St. Helens (1992)

As the landscape around Mount St. Helens recovered in the first decade after the 1980 eruption, the Soil Conservation Service launched a plan to stop erosion along the Toutle River. But the plan unleashed a wave of invasive exotic grasses that threaten scientists’ ability to learn how landscapes naturally recover after an eruption.

Snowboarders find volcanic views and spectacular slopes on Mount St. Helens (2002)

Mount St. Helens reopened to climbing in 1987, about the same time that snowboarding was emerging beyond the fringe of the winter sports community. By the 2000s, the relatively modest slopes of the volcano's south side had become a premiere destination for backcountry snowboarders. Snowboarders climb to the rim and get a chance to peer into a steaming and still active volcano before descending the wide, undulating slopes of the "worm flows."

Scientists deploy new tools in quest to understand Mount St. Helens (2009)


Between 2004 and 2007, Mount St. Helens entered a new period of eruptive activity. As the volcanic activity slowed, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey deployed a variety of new tools to better understand the forces at work on the Northwest’s most active volcano.

A glacier, and danger, grows inside the crater of Mount St. Helens (2004)

A precarious glacier in the crater of Mount St. Helens grows at an unprecedented rate, posing potential danger to the valley below. A group of adventurous researchers visits the crater to investigate and gets a rare up-close look at the odd coexistence of glaciers, boiling rivers and steam vents that are reshaping the landscape at a rapid pace.

Mount St. Helens remains a mystery to ecologists (2008)


After Mount St. Helens erupted, researchers had a blank slate from which to explore the science of ecological recovery. Scientist Charley Crisafulli was drawn to log-covered Spirit Lake, where nutrient-rich waters fueled an unusually fast resurgence in fish, plant life and amphibians. It’s a phenomenon that continues to fascinate scientists everywhere. 

Thousands of elk make Mount St. Helens home (2011)


Thousands of elk have returned to the landscape around Mount St. Helens. Are there too many for the land to sustain? Scientists go to great lengths to count elk, measure their health and restore elk grazing land washed away in a flood.

OPB crew endures storms, danger in the crater of Mount St. Helens (2014)

In 2014, the crew of OPB's “Oregon Field Guide” set off to explore a new cave system rumored to exist inside a glacier on Mount St. Helens. The video team captured a fascinating story of discovery, but the production did not end as hoped. This behind-the-scenes look reveals the challenges and circumstances that led to a dramatic departure from the crater in the midst of a raging storm.

Mountain goats return to Mount St. Helens (2016)


Prior to the eruption of Mount St. Helens, few people realized there were mountain goats living in the area. While that population was likely wiped out by the blast, anecdotal sightings of these high-climbing, sure-footed mammals began to crop up in the 1990s. By 2014, Gifford Pinchot National Forest biologist Mitch Wainwright had launched the first official mountain goat survey, while Cowlitz tribal members looked forward to a time when they could collect and weave tufts of goat hair into ceremonial blankets.

Skiers and snowmobilers clash over noise, access on Mount St. Helens (2003)

The south side of Mount St. Helens has long been one of the most heavily used recreation areas in the Pacific Northwest. In the early 2000s, tempers flared among snowmobilers, hikers and skiers in the area. Complaints about noise and pollution from two-stroke engines fueled the controversy. Could cleaner four-stroke engines ease the tension? The “new” four-stroke engines demonstrated in this video were, at the time, heavy, expensive and rare. Today, all major snowmobile manufacturers make cleaner, quieter four-stroke models, while Yamaha has eliminated two-stroke models from its current production line completely. On the volcano, people still manage recreation for multiple interests, but in one notable change, after 2008, visitors could no longer legally ride snowmobiles to the rim of the crater.

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Ed Jahn