Earlier this week, May 18 marked the anniversary of an epic geological event: the eruption of the Mt. St. Helen's volcano in 1980. Mattia Pistone, assistant professor in the department of geology, offered an assessment of the scientific effort in the 40 years since the eruption:
After 40 years since the eruption of Mt St Helens of May 18, 1980, volcanologists strive to forecast the likelihood, magnitude, and style of eruptions. In the last year, volcanoes Fuego (Guatemala), Anak Krakatau (Indonesia), Stromboli (Italy), and Whakaari/White Island (New Zealand) erupted violently with unpredicted eruption style and magnitude, resulting in the death of hundreds of people, as well as severe damage to key infrastructures of millions of dollars. Anticipating the magnitude of future eruptions (i.e., mass of erupted magma) is a vital piece of information for ~800 million people living near ~550 active volcanoes worldwide, but remains extremely challenging. More than half of the world’s active volcanoes are not monitored instrumentally. Hence, even eruptions that could have rung an alarm can occur without people at risk having a clue of the upcoming disaster. This is why modern volcanology is key to thriving 21st-century societies aiming to understand geological processes such as volcanic activity that modulate the Earth’s atmosphere composition and climate, can either maintain or perturb biotic equilibria, favor volcanic winters by raising the Earth’s albedo and cooling its troposphere, and cause disruption to aviation, telecommunications, and water networks.
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Image: An ash plume billows from the crater atop Mount St. Helens hours after its eruption began on May 18th, 1980, in Washington State. The column of ash and gas reached 15 miles into the atmosphere, depositing ash across a dozen states. USGS / Robert Krimmel