The Eruption of Mount St. Helens: The Untold History of this Cataclysmic Event

By Robin Lindley / 12.11.2016

If you’re over age 40 or so and lived in Washington State in 1980, you probably have a story about the eruption of Mount St. Helens.

On Saturday, May 17, 1980, my wife Betsy and I were married on a bright, warm day in Spokane, Washington. The following morning, oblivious to any news, we saw a dark bank of what we thought were thunderhead clouds approaching Spokane from the southwest.

It turned out that the inky clouds carried volcanic ash from the 8:33 a.m. eruption of Mount St. Helens, more than 250 miles away. By afternoon, the Spokane sky was dark as night and a steady downpour of the powdery ash obscured the sun through the day.

Steve Olsen

Many of our wedding guests that Sunday were caught in the blinding ash storm as they drove west, toward Seattle. Several holed up in motels or emergency shelters in churches or schools for the day and sometimes longer.

Our friends eventually made it home unscathed but that wasn’t the case for everyone. The massive volcanic blast from Mount St. Helens left 57 people dead, dumped ash on eight U.S. states and five Canadian provinces, and caused more than a billion dollars of damage.

Acclaimed author Steve Olson deftly interweaves the history and science of this cataclysmic event in his groundbreaking new book Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens (Norton). Based on exhaustive research, his book tells the story not only of the eruption and its toll, but also looks back at economic and political developments that determined the fate of those near the mountain when it blew, particularly the cozy relationship of the powerful Weyerhaeuser lumber company and some government bodies.

Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens / Steve Olsen

Mr. Olson’s book is a work of investigation as well as vivid storytelling that takes readers from the world of logging and railroad barons more than a century ago to the lives of scientists, loggers, government officials and many others at the time of the eruption. His book demonstrates how history is a constant presence in our lives as he illuminates fateful decisions that preceded the eruption and shares in evocative prose the previously untold stories of those who perished as well as those who survived this massive volcanic explosion. Mr. Olson also describes the aftermath of the eruption: the resilience of nature, scientific advances, policy changes, and the creation of a national monument—and he shares ideas on preparedness for natural disasters to come.

Mr. Olson is a Seattle-based science writer. His other books include Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins, a finalist for the National Book Award and recipient of the Science-in-Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers; Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Competition (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin), named a best science book of 2004 by Discover magazine; and, with co-author with Greg Graffin, Anarchy Evolution. His articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Science, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and many other magazines. Mr. Olson also has served as a consultant writer for the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the National Institutes of Health, and many other organizations.

Mr. Olson generously responded by email to a series of questions about his new book on Mount St. Helens.