LESSONS FROM MOUNT ST. HELENS
by Trevor J. Major, M.Sc.
"The present is the key to the past" is a saying that has dominated
the science of geology for the last two hundred years. In the late
eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, men like James Hutton and
Charles Lyell promoted the idea that geological processes have operated
at the same rate and in the same way throughout all time. This
philosophy, called uniformitarianism, spilled over into other natural
sciences, and was embraced wholeheartedly by Charles Darwin.
It displaced catastrophism, the prevailing view that the world had
undergone many major upheavals, the final one representing the Great
Flood of Noah. Uniformitarianism denied the occurrence of
catastrophes, even on a regional scale.
That picture has changed in the last few years. Today, most
geologists would refuse to wear the uniformitarianist label. They still
maintain that processes have operated in the same way through time, but
admit that rates can vary on occasion. This new view, called actualism,
allows for an occasional global or regional catastrophe in Earth's
alleged 4.5 billion-year-old history. Of course, any suggestion that
God can intervene in the natural course of events is rejected out-of-
One reason geologists are starting to move away from
uniformitarianism is that nature continues to surprise them. Violent
forces like floods, volcanoes, and earthquakes shame man's efforts to
describe and control the world. Just when he thinks he understands
some geological phenomenon, the present gives him a key to a totally
different door, and beyond that door lies a past he didn't expect.
Regional catastrophes, subjected to the scrutiny of modern science,
have changed our view of the geological record. Nowhere is this more
evident than in studies of recent volcanic activity. This article will
present some lessons from volcanism, especially from the 1980 eruption
of Mount St. Helens. These lessons may help us better understand that
greatest of catastrophes, the Flood.
The Eruption of Mount St. Helens
Mount St. Helens rises over eight thousand feet in the southwest
corner of Washington state. It is one of fifteen major volcanoes in the
Cascade Range which stretches from northern California to British
Beginning on March 20, 1980, geologists noticed a lot of earthquake
activity under the mountain. Over the next few weeks, they saw steam
explosions, a new crater, and earthquake faults. By April 12, a huge
bulge had developed on the northern flank, and continued to grow at the
rate of five feet a day. Finally, at 8:32 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Mount
St. Helens lost its head---literally. A magnitude 5.1 earthquake
transformed the bulge into a massive avalanche. More than 3.5 billion
cubic yards of rock and ice raced into Spirit Lake and the North Fork
of the Toutle River at up to 155 miles per hour. It laid down a deposit
13 miles long, half a mile to a mile wide, and as much as 500 feet
Somewhere beneath the mountain, gases had built up huge pressures
at the top of a "chamber" of molten rock. Suddenly, like taking the cap
off a shaken soda bottle, the avalanche allowed these pent-up gases to
shoot up and sideways through the new gap in the mountain. The lateral
blast fired a 500øF, debris-filled steam cloud at 60 to 250 miles per
hour. It travelled 17 miles, traversing four major ridges and
devastating 136,000 acres of forest to the northwest, north, and
northeast of the summit. Trees were charred up to 11 miles away.
Pyroclastic flows (composed of hot water, and pulverized rock and
pumice) poured out of the vent at up to 60 miles an hour.
For the next nine hours, an ash-laden column of old rock from the
mountain, and fresh rock from the magma chamber, erupted 60,000 feet
into the sky. Two hundred miles to the east, Ritzville, Washington was
dusted by almost three inches of ash having the consistency of talcum
In just a few seconds, the mountain shrunk 1,300 feet, and gained a
crater almost 2,500 feet deep. Decker and Decker (1981, 244:68)
compared the sustained power output of that day to 27,000 Hiroshima-
size bombs exploding every second, or 100 times the generating capacity
of all U.S. electric power stations. Sixty-two people lost their
lives, and property losses were estimated at one billion dollars.
Smaller eruptions and pyroclastic flows followed until
mid-October. The monster is resting, for now. Yet---and this is no
comfort to people who have a volcano for a neighbor---the 1980 eruption
of Mount St. Helens pales in comparison to other eruptions in the last
two thousand years. On April 5, 1815, on the island of Sumbawa in what
is now Indonesia, the mountain of Tambora exploded. It ejected 150
times more ash and rock than Mount St. Helens. The blast killed 10,000
people; 82,000 more died of the famine and disease that followed.
LESSONS IN CATASTROPHISM
In the days and years following the eruptions at Mount St. Helens,
scientists were able to study the effects with unprecedented attention
to detail. Now let us glean some lessons from those studies which
apply to the Flood, and to catastrophism in general.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for geologists studying the volcano is
that so much work could be done in so little time. As mentioned
previously, deposits over 500 feet were laid down in just one day.
Subsequent eruptions added another hundred feet. This rapid deposition
is amazing, but the features of those deposits are challenging as well.
For instance, a common assumption is that one layer of ash represents
one eruption. Thus, many layers could represent many eruptions over
Similarly, it is assumed that sediments laid down in a catastrophe
would be deposited in a single, thick, consistent layer. However, some
deposits at Mount St. Helens had layers a fraction of an inch thick to
over three feet thick, each representing a few seconds to several
minutes of accumulation (Austin, 1986).
The June 12 eruption of Mount St. Helens produced a twenty-five
foot thick deposit of ash with several layers. In the `Nova' television
documentary about the mountain's new activities, one geologist
confessed that such features caused him to reconsider all his
assumptions about volcanic eruptions in the geological record.
Almost as soon as the deposits were laid down, destructive forces
sculpted them into new forms. Steam blasts, landslides, water waves,
pyroclastic flows, and mudflows scoured the soft ash and mud. Fast-
moving remnants of the mountain produced waves up to 850 feet high on
the north shore of Spirit Lake (Coffin, 1983). Masses of water incised
the new surface, forming deep gullies as the channels widened. A
mudflow on March 19, 1982, eroded a gully over a hundred feet deep in
the North Fork of the Toutle River. Older lava flows of hard rock were
not immune, being eroded to depths of tens of feet in some places.
Geologists often envision such landscapes evolving over hundreds or
thousands of years. However, Mount St. Helens has shown that if there
is a great deal of energy available, valleys, hills, and many other
features can form very quickly.
As creationist geologist Steve Austin notes,
"What conventional geomorphic theory says takes thousands
of years may, instead, be accomplished within a few years.
Geomorphologists have learned that the time scale they have
been trained to attach to landform development may be
misleading" (1984, 11:98).
Analogies to the Grand Canyon
Such rapid deposition and erosion may provide some analogies to the
development of the Grand Canyon (see Austin, in press). For the first
half of this century, uniformitarian geologists explained the Grand
Canyon by the "antecedent river" theory. In their view, the Colorado
River existed before, or antecedent to, the uplift of the surrounding
countryside. As the river cut down into the rock, the land was forced
up at the same rate. The canyon formed slowly over 50 to 70 million
years. Two major problems arise: (a) sediments eroded over this long
period of time should have been deposited somewhere to the west of the
Grand Canyon, but they have not been found; and, (b) if the upper
Colorado River has been eroding at current rates for millions of years,
the average depth of erosion in its watershed should be about seven
miles, but it is less than a mile.
The antecedent view has been eclipsed by the "stream capture" or
"precocious gully" theory. This idea begins with an "ancestral"
Colorado River flowing north-south, and a "Hualapai stream" flowing
east-west. Around five million years ago, erosion at the head of the
Hualapai \reached the Colorado River. The stream, being at a lower
elevation, "captured" the river, causing it to change its course into
the current east-west drainage system. Austin offers four objections:
(a) it is unlikely that the stream head would erode in this way; (b)
the timing of the capture is not consistent with the location and
nature of geological formations in the area; (c) like the antecedent
theory, the capture theory requires deep erosion in the upper plateau
regions, but this does not exist; and, (d) there is no evidence for the
existence of an ancient north-south river.
As an alternative, Austin suggests a "breached dam" theory. This
idea proposes that the Grand Canyon was formed by a catastrophic
drainage of water held in massive lakes behind what is known as the
Kaibab Upwarp. This area could have contained 3,000 cubic miles of
water---more than three times the volume of water in Lake Michigan.
Sometime after the Flood of Noah, this water spilled over a low point
in the Kaibab Upwarp. The tremendous quantity of water, with its high
velocities, was sufficient to erode through sediments and bedrock to
great depths. Analogies from natural and man-made dam failures,
including rapid gully formation on the North Fork of the Toutle River,
provide evidences of the catastrophic processes and their resulting
According to prevailing theories of coal formation, the organic
matter which makes up coal originally collected in a swamp over many
millions of years. However, the forces at work in the Mount St. Helens
eruption show that peat can accumulate rapidly. The blast left millions
of uprooted trees in Spirit Lake. Most formed a dense log mat over the
surface, and many were partially buried in the lake sediments. Bark and
branches from these logs fell to the bottom of the lake forming a layer
of peat. According to Austin (1986, pp iii,iv),
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.... All that is
needed is burial and slight heating to transform the Spirit
Lake peat into coal. Further, upright tree stumps in many
coal beds are assumed to be in "growth position." This is
meant to prove that the peat collected in the same place
the trees were growing. In Spirit Lake, however, logs with
an attached root system were found floating in an upright
position. This shows that peat can be transported in a
flood or similar disaster, and still contain upright
stumps (see also, Major, 1991, pp 9-11).
Petrified forests represent the remains of forests buried and
preserved in ancient sediments. In some places, like Yellowstone
National Park, there are many layers of sediments and stumps.
Supposedly, each layer represents the growth and burial of a forest
over many hundreds of years.
Once again, Mount St. Helens shows that this sort of thinking is
not necessarily true. The tree stumps in Spirit Lake were left at many
different levels in the lake. Some were buried in sediments, while
others settled over time. Side-scan sonar surveys of the lake bottom
suggest a submerged forest of 19,500 erect trees (Coffin, 1983). Yet,
these layers of sediments and stumps were formed in a single
The Washington Department of Game estimates that 11,000 fish,
27,000 grouse, 11,000 hares, 6,000 black-tailed deer, 5,200 elk, 1,400
coyotes, 300 bobcats, 200 black bears, and 15 mountain lions perished
in the 1980 eruption (Mohlenbrock, 1990). Many burrowing animals
survived in their subterranean shelters, and many representatives of
former species moved back into the area very quickly. According to
Michael Tennesen (1986), the Roosevelt elk moved in 400 years ahead of
schedule. By 1982, 70% of the plants in the devastated area were
regenerating from buds buried underground. Within seven years, 10% of
the forest had grown back (Witteman, 1987).
Such rapid recovery may have analogies to the expected repopulation
of the world after the Flood. There are some obvious differences. The
Flood covered every portion of the Earth to great depths (Genesis 7:18-
20), and all land-dwelling, air-breathing animals lost their lives,
except those in the ark (Genesis 6:17; 7:21-23). However, plants and
aquatic creatures which were not on the ark may have recovered quickly
after the land appeared. And, as the animals left the ark, it is
possible that they were able to recolonize the devastated land in a
relatively short time.
Analogies to Surtsey
Geologists have been surprised by other eruptions in recent
history. Sometime in early November, 1963, a volcano began to erupt
under the sea off Iceland's southern coast. By November 16, the new
island of Surtsey was born, measuring 140 feet high and 1,800 feet
long. In the next eighteen months, lava and ash built up a permanent
island over 500 feet high and covering over 600 acres. In the respites
between eruptions, and certainly after the eruptions ceased, life took
hold where it could. Insects, birds, and plants established themselves
In his pictorial chronicle of Surtsey, Icelandic geologist Sigurdur
Thorarinsson stressed his wonderment at the speed of the island's
creation. Within a few months he found hills, beaches, cliffs, hollows,
glens, and undulating plains. "On Surtsey," he wrote, "only a few
months sufficed for a landscape to be created which was so varied and
mature that it was almost beyond belief" (1967, p 39). On that same
page, Thorarinsson offers the following revelation:
An Icelander who has studied geology and geomorphology
at foreign universities is later taught by experience
in his own homeland that the time scale he had been
trained to attach to geological developments is
misleading when assessments are made of the forces---
constructive and destructive---which have molded and
are still molding the face of Iceland. What elsewhere
may take thousands of years may be accomplished here in
one century. All the same he is amazed whenever he comes
to Surtsey, because the same development may take weeks
or even a few days here.
The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens shows that thick, complex
sequences of sediments can be laid down in a short period of time. It
shows that erosion can occur quickly, cutting impressive channels in
rocks and sediments, and that varied landforms can arise within a few
days. Such rapid deposition and erosion provide important clues for the
post-Flood development of features like the Grand Canyon. It shows that
thick peat deposits and layers of tree stumps can form in a single
event. This challenges uniformitarian assumptions about the formation
of coal, and of petrified forest sequences. It shows that life can
recover quickly after devastation, which may provide clues to the post
Flood recolonization of the Earth.
Using a single, global Flood to explain much of the world around us
seems an absurd idea to any geologist with a deeply-engrained
uniformitarian mind-set. Yet, with its lessons on catastrophes, the
eruption of Mount St. Helens teaches us to have more trust in God's
Word. We could not, and would not, wish for a better case study.
Austin, Steven A. (1984), "Rapid Erosion at Mount St.
Helens," `Origins', 11:90-98.
Austin, Steven A. (1986), "Mount St. Helens and
Catastrophism," `Impact', No. 157.
Austin, Steven A. (in press), `Grand Canyon: Monument to Catas-
trophe' (El Cajon, CA: Institute for Creation Research).
Coffin, H.G. (1983), "Mount St. Helens and Spirit Lake,"
Decker, Robert and Barbara Decker (1981), "The Eruptions of
Mount St. Helens," `Scientific American', 244:68-80.
Major, Trevor J. (1991), `Genesis and the Origin of Coal &
Oil', Creation-Science Monograph #1 (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics
Mohlenbrock, Robert H. (1990), "Mount St. Helens, Washing-
ton," `Natural History', June, pp 26-29.
Tennesen, Michael (1986), "Rising from the Ashes,"
`National Wildlife', 24:34-39.
Thorarinsson, Sigurdur (1967) `Surtsey: The New Island in the
North Atlantic' (New York: Viking Press).
Witteman, Paul A. (1987), "New Life Under the Volcano,"
`Time', June 15, p 63.
(C) 1991 Apologetics Press, Inc All Rights Reserved
230 Landmark Drive
Montgomery, AL 36117-2752
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