VOLCANOESHow Mount St. Helens Eruption Changed the World

Published 26 May 2023

The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens had a profound impact on how we live with active volcanoes. Looking back over the last four decades, we have made great strides in understanding volcanic hazards and communicating with at-risk communities so we can better prepare for the next eruption.

The May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens was historic and fundamentally changed how we see volcanoes. For those who lost family and friends, homes, and their livelihoods, it was an unimaginable tragedy. For others around the world, the eruption was an exciting curiosity, an experience they could share with their kids and grandkids. For scientists, the eruption inspired innovation in monitoring technology and insights about explosive eruptions, volcanic hazards, and their long-term impact on surrounding landscapes. And for local officials, it prompted new discussions on how to better prepare for future natural hazard emergencies.

USGS researchers highlight the 10 ways the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens Changed our World.

1. People gained a profound appreciation for the destructive power of volcanoes
In March 1980, residents sat in open fields and perched on rooftops to photograph small ash and steam explosions from Mount St. Helens. Excitement grew that the volcano could erupt. Millions of people around the world waited for over two months to find out what would happen next. On May 18, 1980, at 8:32 am the reality became deadlier than anyone imagined. The mountain exploded sideways, sending a colossal landslide downslope. A super-heated pyroclastic flow plowed down the mountainside, leveling millions of trees. A pillar of ash and gas rose high into the sky, blocking the sun and turning daylight into darkness. Lahars swept logs, boulders, trucks, and homes downriver like toys. Fearing collapse into the muddy torrents, officials closed bridges and ceased operations on railroad tracks. All told, 57 people lost their lives.

2. Officials pioneered new ways to reclaim communities from volcanic ashfall
During the eruption, volcanic ash filled the sky and drifted with the wind for hundreds of miles. It fell like snow across eastern Washington, Idaho, and western Montana. Officials closed highways for a week, and airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights. Researchers from around the world began to study the impacts of ash and explore ways to clean up farmlands, roads, telecommunications and electrical power systems, and water treatment facilities.  The eruption was the first event to truly bring the health effects of volcanic ash to the public’s attention and led to more research on volcanoes around the globe.