Review: Eruption

EruptionEruption, Steve Olson. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2016 (forthcoming March 2016).

Summary: This narrative weaves together the science, history, and economic interests surrounding the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, and its subsequent history.

I’ve been a sucker for a volcano story ever since a volcano was a part of the plotline in a comic strip I followed as a kid. Years later, I devoured Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa Mount St. Helens occurred in my lifetime, one more disaster at the end of Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated presidency, one marked by darkened skies and spectacular sunsets, in our part of the country, but spectacular devastation and the loss of 57 lives in the area 15 to 20 miles out from the north face of the volcano.

Steve Olson’s account of this disaster describes not only the eruption but the history of the mountain, the region, and particularly the logging interests of the Weyerhaeuser Company that played such a big story in this narrative.

The narrative begins on March 20, 1980, when the volcano stirs to life. Soon we are introduced to Dave Johnston, a volcanologist whose life was to end on the fateful day of the eruption. And we are introduced to Weyerhaeuser, with 300 loggers working within miles of the volcano, pulled back after the initial eruption, but soon sent back in to continue logging old growth trees on Weyerhaeuser land near the volcano. Olson takes a detour at this point, giving us the back history of the Weyerhauser family, including the owner’s abduction as a child, and how they came to hold the lands around the mountain.

Part two turns to the warnings geologist were giving. Studies of the area around the mountain showed inches to feet thick areas of ash and pumice miles from the volcano including evidence of past lateral eruptions. Soon, geologists are noticing an ominous bulge on the north face that continues to grow. We are introduced to those living and working around the volcano, some like Harry Truman adamant about staying, others concerned with the dangers. And then there are the fateful red and blue zones, drawn around Weyerhaeuser lands that allow camper and others to get far closer than was truly safe, in collusion with the state’s conservative governor. Part three introduces us to the history of conservation efforts led by the likes of Gifford Pinchot and the continuing efforts of those like Kathy Saul leading a hike in the shadow of the mountain a week before the eruption. This part concludes with a list and map of those in the vicinity of the volcano the night before the eruption, including Dave Johnston, monitoring the volcano.

Part four is the eruption. The chapter begins with this description of geologist, Keith Stoffel, flying over the volcano the moment it erupted on Sunday May 18:

“Look,” he said, “the crater.” Judson tipped the Cessna’s right wing so they could get a better view. Some of the snow on the south facing side of the crater had started to move. Then, as they looked out the plane’s windows, an incredible thing happened. A gigantic, east-west crack appeared across the top of the mountain, splitting the volcano in two. The ground on the northern half of the crack began to ripple and churn, like a pan of milk just beginning to boil. Suddenly, without a sound, the northern portion of the mountain began to slide downward…

Olson goes on to describe the eruption, and the last moments of many of those around the mountain, and the stories of those who survived, along with, in Part five, the rescue efforts and the aftermath of flooding and devastation of the forests to the north and west of the volcano.

Parts six and seven concern the years after the eruption, beginning with efforts to set aside significant lands for a national monument, contested by logging interests who simply wanted to salvage, and replant the area. Evenually 110,000 acres are protected as the Mount St. Helens Volcanic Monument. What this has allowed is the study of how such an ecosystem recovers from the blast. This also spelled the end of logging in the area, but a growth of other tourism and recreation interests along with the diversified economic growth in the Pacific Northwest.

Olson tells us a tale in which public safety is held hostage to economic interest. It is perhaps providential that the eruption took place on a Sunday, when the numbers of those in the blast zone were at their lowest. On Monday, 300 loggers would have been in the area. Even on Saturday, lodge owners were given access to their property. We also see both the heroic in figures like Dave Johnston and the foolhardy in Harry Truman who refused to leave and was one of the first to die. Finally we are given a warning of the powerful forces we live alongside. Volcanoes actually give us the most tangible warnings, but fault lines, coastlines subject to surge and tsunami, hurricanes and tornadoes put many of us at some risk, as the author notes, risks of which we are often oblivious. Perhaps that’s why some of us like volcano stories–they are risks most of us do not face.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

3 thoughts on “Review: Eruption

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: January 2016 | Bob on Books

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