The NOVA documentary, Mt.
Saint Helens, focuses on theeruptions of this active stratovolcano, one of the major peaks in the CascadeMountains, located in SkamaniaCounty, in the state of Washington. A great deal of the footage in this episode is stunning -it is either new footage of the volcano or what looks like made up footage ofthe eruptions of the 1980s. Forover a century of lying dormant, several small earthquakes were recorded in Mayof 1980. These small quakes were followed by a massive earthquake with amagnitude of 5.1. Following the earthquake, the volcano erupted, releasingmillions of tons of magma and poisonous steam and ash into the air, creatingthe largest landslide that has ever been recorded, forests were flattened, andall life was distinguished.
What I found amazing was how the episode capturedthe enormous scale of destruction that had occurred. The area surrounding themountain was filled with beauty and was rich in wildlife, so I was transfixed by the shots of theeruption and the devastated area. I did appreciate the fact that theepisode showed the amount of geologic research that went into this trying toanswer the three big questions: what triggers an explosion thispowerful, when will it happen again and has any life survived? The researchinvolved seismographs to detect tremors set off by lava and looking at rocks in detail tounderstand how they formed which brought up the discussion of the gas content inthe magma, which I found to be interesting.
Small wildflowers called lupins were first to arise among aninhospitable thick layer of volcanic ash, a plant that has unique rootstructure that provides its own fertilizer. Small mammals, like the gophers,survived underground during the violent explosions, created underground tunnelsystems bringing with them and spreading soil that could support other plantlife. Elk returned, collapsing the tunnels and creating entrance ways to amphibiansto help them survive in hospitable areas.
And Spirit Lake, which was once toxic, began to clear andmicroscopic plants and the plankton population grew. All these changes are laid out for usand demonstrated the area’s rapid recovery. However, I felt somewhat disappointed when the episodeended because the big question was left unanswered. The scientists couldn’tfind a strong enough connection with the eruptions, so they couldn’t predict whenthis volcano would erupt again. Despite this, I thought the documentary wasamazing and it appealed to me with its astounding photography and video. I saw a cycle of flourishing life, destructionby a natural disaster, then nature’s steady recovery, showing how resilientEarth is and how tenacious life itself can be.