Mount St. Helens – April 1980

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At 8:27 a.m. on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in the Pacific Northwest of the United States was 9,677 feet high. Over the next five minutes, the volcano lost 1,300 feet, blowing its top in an explosion so massive that trees toppled 17 miles away. A force equivalent to a 7-megaton nuclear weapon was unleashed into the Washington countryside, and hurricane-force winds stripped tree and soil out, leaving nothing but bare earth. Each places over a hundred miles away were coated with two inches of ash. “It was like going to the land of Mordor,” recounts one logger afterwards, according to Steve Olson’s masterly Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens.

For the preceding two months, since a small earthquake struck below the north face of the mountain, the authorities and the locals had been monitoring Mount St. Helens, but they didn’t expect such an explosion. After all, the mountain had been dormant since 1850s. So they watched fretfully, tensions rising between locals, businesses and government ran high over access restrictions, even as the mountain developed a constantly growing bulge on its side for weeks leading up to the blast.

On April 30, 1980, the governor’s office barred the public from areas around the mountain, but the order did not contain a map and citizens were led to believe that the forbidden zone was only a small area around the summit. When the explosion came, many were caught up in the pyroclastic flow — mixture of very fine ash and gas with temperatures around 350 degree Celsius, which came down the mountain at a very high speed. May 18th was a Sunday. If it had been any other day, the death toll would have been higher, because for of all the warnings, people were still working in the area. Among the dead were an 83-year-old local innkeeper whose cantenkerous refusal to leave the area despite warnings made him something of a folk hero, a newly-wed couple who were fishing and camping at a nearby lake, four vulcanologists, and two photographers.

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The photos in this post are from Reid Blackburn, whose body and camera were recovered from the car he was in, outside the closed zones. Shortly after the explosion, colleagues from the local paper he worked for, visited the blast zone and recovered some of the gear, but the photos were unrecoverable. The photos here are from an earlier roll, which he left at the paper’s studio, and was only re-discovered in 2013.

 

 

Pinatubo Erupts

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In March 1991, when a series of earthquakes hit the western side of the island of Luzon along the Zambales Mountains, locals awoke to the reality that in the middle of the Zambales range, there might be a dormant volcano. Pinatubo — quiet since before the lands under it were named the Philippines — erupted a few months later, in June.

The explosion was to be the second largest of the 20th century (second only to that of Novarupta in Alaska in 1912). Unlike the Alaskan volcano, half a million people lived next to Pinatubo and several important river systems stem from its peak. A logistical and environmental nightmare loomed. Adding to the woes, a typhoon was ripped through the island, mixing Pinatubo’s ash with rains, which created concrete-like mud that collapsed roofs and buildings miles away.

Many photojournalists came to the area, and the most iconic shot of the explosion — and perhaps of any volcanic eruption — was that of a Ford Fierra fleeing a gargantuan cloud of pyroclastic flows, a fast-moving current of hot gas up to 450 mph and 1,000 °C strong.  [See a pyroclastic flow in action on video here.] The photo was taken by Alberto Garcia,  chief photographer of Tempo, a tabloid affiliated with the Manila Bulletin, who remembers taking the photo about 20-30 km away from the caldera:

“It took me 30 minutes to prepare my things and headed back to Zambales where the [volcanologists] were stationed. … So everybody jumped into our vehicles and I was trying to put on my gas masked when I saw a blue pick-up ahead of that beautiful wall of gray. I opened the door and tried shooting the picture with my 50mm lens but it was too tight, so I decided to change the lens and used the 24mm instead and made sure my setting was correct and shot eight frames. Although I had only eight shots, I rewound the entire roll of film, keeping it safe in my pocket.”

Garcia won the World Press Photo, in the nature and environment category. The photo was included in Time’s “Greatest Images of the 20th Century” (2001) and National Geographic’s “100 Best Pictures” (2001).

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Krakatoa Explodes

Since Eyjafjallajökull is grounding me and providing thousands of people in Northern Hemisphere with the Icelandic volcano excuse for flaking out on their commitments, I thought I would just lay in bed and blog. This explosion is not even the biggest (Volcanic Explosively Index of probably 2 to 3) we have seen.

In May 1883, after having been dormant for more than two centuries, the volcano of Krakatoa in Indonesia erupted — and kept on erupting for another 4 months. The explosions peaked with four blasts on the 26th and 27th August, when the above picture was taken. One of the explosions — heard 3500 miles away from Perth and Mauritius and considered the loudest sound ever made in history — had the force of 100.000 hydrogen bombs and created an acoustical equivalent of an earthquake. (Every barograph in the world ducumented this wave, which bounced back and forth between the eruption site and its antipodes for nine days).

The island itself sank into water, unleashing tsunamis that reached 10 miles inland and killed more than 36,000 people. The waves travelled at the speed up to a 350 miles per hour and reached height of 135 feet, and were detected even in the English Channel. Twenty cubic kilometers of ash were erupted some thirty kilometres creating “blue suns” and “orange moons” in Europe and North America. It cooled the global temperatures by 1.2 degrees C in five years that followed.

The explosions were one of the first photographically recorded natural disasters. Spectacular sunsets and cloud formations were painted by artists all over the world, including Edvard Munch who painted the celebrated The Scream. The Royal Society formed Krakatoa Committee and invited responses from the public. They received “wagonloads” of material for their 494-page report, two-thirds of which was devoted to unusual visual phenomena of the atmosphere. A lithographic copy of the above photo was included in their final report in 1888.