a desert-like appearance, but the vast majority of
plant and animal species that were found at Mount
St. Helens before the 1980 eruption have returned.
Some, like the Roosevelt elk, have returned in
numbers that far exceed pre-1980 populations.
In the blast zone, the establishment of plants was
slow for the first few years following the eruption.
Three years after the eruption, the average plant
coverage on research plots was only 1 percent.
Fourteen years after the eruption, plant coverage
on those plots was up to 38 percent. Twenty
years after the eruption, plant coverage was
approximately 66 percent.
Wind played a key role in initiating early-succession
processes by blowing in spiders, insects, and seeds
from nearby undisturbed areas. One plant found
early on is the pearly everlasting. This plant has
lightweight seeds that were easily carried by wind.
Prairie lupine, a purple-blue wildflower, was also
one of the first plants to grow on the barren land.
Charlie Crisafulli, a research ecologist, arrived at
Mount St. Helens when he was 22 years old. He
and another ecologist were the first to spot a lone
Lupines do not usually colonize the middle of an
empty landscape. The deep volcanic ash where he
found the lupine held few nutrients. But lupines,
like other plants in the pea family, are able to
“fix” nitrogen, thus enriching the soil. Each lupine
plant created a microhabitat that was hospitable
to several other plant species. Besides enriching
the soil with nitrogen, the lupines also physically
trapped windblown debris and attracted insects.
As the insects died on or around the plant, they
enriched the soil with organic matter.
Within a few years, the lupine patches became
biological hotspots facilitating the growth of other
plant species and attracting numerous insects,
birds, and small mammals. The flourishing of life on the Pumice Plain of Mount St. Helens today may
have begun with that lone lupine. Crisafulli said that
it was the lupine wildflowers that taught him one
of the key lessons of succession: the importance of
development of ecological relationships across
the volcanic landscape. He saw that a log carried
downstream in a mudflow may transport nutrients,
microbes, fungi, and even small animals to an area
devoid of organisms. He also observed that whole
On May 18, 1980, the Mount St. Helens volcano
in Washington State exploded violently after
two months of intense earthquake activity and
intermittent weak eruptions, causing the worst
volcanic disaster in the recorded history of the
United States. This cataclysmic eruption and related
events rank among the most significant geologic
events in the United States during the 20th century.
During the eruption, a 300-mile-an-hour lateral blast
of hot air and debris flattened the surrounding old growth
forest. A cloud of ash climbed to 80,000
feet in 15 minutes and circled the globe in 15 days.
All told, the eruption blasted more than 230 square
miles of forests, lakes, meadows, and streams.
Virginia Dale was in the first helicopter-load of
ecologists to land at Mount St. Helens after it
erupted. “I just remember how bizarre it was going
out into that landscape,” she says of the suddenly
gray, ash-covered terrain. “It gave the impression
of total lifelessness.” Dale studies ecological
succession or how an environment recovers after
a major disturbance. She jokingly calls herself a
“disturbed ecologist.” When it comes to studying
devastation, she says, “Mount St. Helens was off
Although areas in the blast zone around Mount St.
Helens appeared barren and lifeless after the 1980
eruption, some plants and animals did survive.
Pocket gophers in underground burrows, fish in
ice covered lakes, and salamanders hibernating in
mud were protected from the hot, stone-filled wind
of the blast. Plants such as willow, vine maple,
and black cottonwood were able to re-sprout from
roots protected in moist soil. Those plants are
called survivors, and they were very important to
the re-initiation of plants on the barren landscape.
Some snow-protected Pacific silver fir and mountain
hemlock trees also survived. They served as
important sources of seed for establishing the future
forest inside the blast zone at Mount St. Helens.
Despite surviving the eruption, many of those
plants and animals were unable to live in the harsh
new environment. But some were able to tolerate
the extreme conditions and helped to pave the
way for new colonizers. Winds brought light seeds
and insects to the area, enabling them to enter the
area and become established. Plants and insects
attracted birds, deer, and elk from nearby areas.
Heavier seeds “hitchhiked” on the feathers of birds
and in elk droppings. Ponds and springs created by
the eruption became the centers of life for survivors