The NOVA documentary, Mt. Saint Helens, focuses on the
eruptions of this active stratovolcano, one of the major peaks in the Cascade
Mountains, located in Skamania
County, 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 of
the eruptions of the 1980s. For
over a century of lying dormant, several small earthquakes were recorded in May
of 1980. These small quakes were followed by a massive earthquake with a
magnitude of 5.1. Following the earthquake, the volcano erupted, releasing
millions of tons of magma and poisonous steam and ash into the air, creating
the largest landslide that has ever been recorded, forests were flattened, and
all life was distinguished. What I found amazing was how the episode captured
the enormous scale of destruction that had occurred. The area surrounding the
mountain was filled with beauty and was rich in wildlife, so I was transfixed by the shots of the
eruption and the devastated area. I did appreciate the fact that the
episode showed the amount of geologic research that went into this trying to
answer the three big questions: what triggers an explosion this
powerful, when will it happen again and has any life survived? The research
involved seismographs to detect tremors set off by lava and looking at rocks in detail to
understand how they formed which brought up the discussion of the gas content in
the magma, which I found to be interesting. Small wildflowers called lupins were first to arise among an
inhospitable thick layer of volcanic ash, a plant that has unique root
structure that provides its own fertilizer. Small mammals, like the gophers,
survived underground during the violent explosions, created underground tunnel
systems bringing with them and spreading soil that could support other plant
life. Elk returned, collapsing the tunnels and creating entrance ways to amphibians
to help them survive in hospitable areas. And Spirit Lake, which was once toxic, began to clear and
microscopic plants and the plankton population grew. All these changes are laid out for us
and demonstrated the area’s rapid recovery.

However, I felt somewhat disappointed when the episode
ended because the big question was left unanswered. The scientists couldn’t
find a strong enough connection with the eruptions, so they couldn’t predict when
this volcano would erupt again. Despite this, I thought the documentary was
amazing and it appealed to me with its astounding photography and video. I saw a cycle of flourishing life, destruction
by a natural disaster, then nature’s steady recovery, showing how resilient
Earth is and how tenacious life itself can be.