What have scientists learned since Mount St. Helens erupted?

December 08, 2004

PORTLAND, Ore. December 7, 2004. When Mount St. Helen's blew its top in 1980, Charlie Crisafulli was 22 years old and just beginning his career as a research ecologist. One of his first assignments: travel to Mount St. Helens 2 months after the historic eruption and study the aftermath.

Crisafulli and his colleagues traveled by helicopter into the volcanic disturbance zones to gather ecological data. Crisafulli, a scientist at the USDA Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station, spent the next 25 years analyzing data that enabled him to produce long-term data sets to use to study the ecological patterns and processes of species survival and colonization. He observed the development of ecological relationships across the volcanic landscape. Fast forward to October 2, 2004.

"We flew a boat in by helicopter to Spirit Lake just 2 days before the October 4, 2004, eruptions to characterize the chemical, physical, and biological conditions of the lake," says Crisafulli. "We surveyed more than 100 ponds for amphibians and aquatic invertebrates, and live-small mammals at 14 sites right in front of the crater. Unlike in 1980, when we had very little pre-eruption data, we now have a broad network of established plots and lots of data on hundreds of aquatic and terrestrial species--from microscopic-aquatic plants, to insects to mammals. This information is important baseline data for assessing future disturbance from the volcano."

He says that arriving on the scene within hours to days after a disturbance event is paramount for understanding both initial disturbance severity and long-term biological responses. Of particular importance is documenting the types, amounts, and distribution of surviving organisms.

Scientists learned, explains Crisafulli, that traditional theories of disturbance and the succession processes were often inadequate for explaining ecological responses to the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Some of the findings include:"Even in areas where all life had perished, small-oasis habitats developed within a few years of the 1980 eruption," says Crisafulli. "Plants became established around small springs that promoted the colonization of many small mammals, birds, amphibians, and insects. Although embedded within a vast, barren terrain, oases habitats sustained many colonizing organisms, eliminating the need for dispersal corridors between source populations and newly created habitat patches. These oases habitats were of tremendous importance to the overall biodiversity of the larger landscape, they contributed much of the biodiversity.

"St. Helens has had a very active eruptive past, and if history provides any indication of future eruptive potential, we may well expect Mount St. Helens to cause additional disturbances to the surrounding landscape during this next century," Crisafulli explains. "Since 1980, the volcano has made a great template to study disturbance. More than 100 physical and life scientists have studied the 1980 eruption and subsequent ecological responses. And these studies continue to expand our knowledge and long-term database."

Crisafulli and his colleagues have a book due to be published by Springer Verlag in May 2005. Ecological Responses to the 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens is a synthesize of findings from the past two decades. A writers' workshop, "The meaning of Mount St. Helens," is also scheduled to be held in Portland, Ore., in 2005.
-end-


USDA Forest Service - Pacific Northwest Research Station

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