Science After the Volcano Blew
Research near Mount St. Helens proceeded despite bureaucratic hurdles, limited funding and an extremely hazardous environment
Grateful for Shelter and Helicopters
Then there was the matter of shelter. For four years after the eruption, we conducted laboratory tasks—sample preparations, packaging and analyses—out in the open. We were exposed to blowing ash and searing heat in summer, drifting snow and bitter cold in winter and gale-force winds year-round. Helicopters whipped up great clouds of ash, which enveloped us as we huddled around delicate laboratory equipment, trying to keep precious water samples from being contaminated.
After I reported that these conditions posed a health hazard and compromised scientific precision and accuracy, the Corps authorized the construction of a field laboratory at Spirit Lake. A Sikorsky helicopter airlifted a small fiberglass Quonset hut to the south shore of the lake on June 14, 1984. About 4 by 2.5 meters, the building was equipped with storage shelves on one side and a laboratory bench on the other. Outside, we reinforced it with a 1.5-meter-high earthen berm, which we enclosed with a wall of roughly 600 sandbags. (Throughout the lab’s existence, we filled and stacked sandbags. In time, I began asking all visitors to fill 10 sandbags each before boarding a helicopter to begin their trip away from Spirit Lake. I’d say: “No sandbags, no boarding pass.” No one refused.)
The shelter greatly increased our safety and comfort, especially during winter when we could retreat to the lab’s warm interior to avoid hypothermia. Also, boat gear, outboard motors, laboratory equipment, analytical supplies, propane stoves, survival suits, parachute flares, emergency rations and other essential materials could be left at the site, thus largely removing weight as a constraint on helicopter flights. As required by the U.S. Forest Service, which managed the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, the lab was painted with camouflage to be “inconspicuous.” On that terrain, however, the laboratory was anything but. It was the only bit of color in an unrelieved expanse of vast grey mudflow and bleached, broken skeletons of tree trunks strewn across the lakeshore.
Helicopter transportation was essential to scientific research on blast-zone lakes and rivers, including Spirit Lake. The helicopters provided rapid, safe transport to and from scattered study sites, some of which were inaccessible by road vehicles. Many of the pilots had learned to fly while serving in the military during the Vietnam War and could execute unconventional operations that required innovation and daring. Milt Walker, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot, once flew us to Spirit Lake during a snowstorm, then returned several hours later in near-zero visibility to take us home. Another veteran pilot regularly landed his jumbo Sikorsky helicopter on an island of loose avalanche debris in Spirit Lake, waiting for us to disembark while his craft perched precariously on the island’s summit.
In addition, helicopters provided a quick and reliable means of escape if someone was hurt or if the volcano stirred. The importance of having a means of evacuation was made clear during the summer of 1983. While en route to a Spirit Lake sampling station aboard Traveler, a USGS scientist who was a member of our research team tried to open a reagent bottle containing a mixed solution of highly concentrated sodium hydroxide, sodium iodide and sodium azide. The bottle’s cap suddenly blew off, spraying her face with caustic reagents. Blinded and screaming, she fell to the deck. Frantic, we scooped water from the lake and splashed it across her face, trying to flush the burning chemicals from her eyes and skin. I radioed a medical evacuation request to our helicopter pilot, who was heading to the airport at Longview, Washington, to refuel. When we reached the boat moorage, the helicopter was waiting with its rotor blades spinning, ready for immediate takeoff. The injured researcher and a fellow USGS scientist were flown to a hospital in Longview, about 65 air-kilometers away. Within minutes, she was in the hospital’s emergency room undergoing treatment. She fully recovered from her burns.
In June 1984, we tried another approach to getting where we needed to be on the lake to collect our samples. I obtained a 5-meter-long Zodiac inflatable boat, which was much sturdier than the dinghies used in the initial Spirit Lakes studies. The new boat was also equipped with a harness that allowed a helicopter to lift it over the log raft into the lake’s open-water area. Strong east winds regularly pushed the log raft against the shore where our field lab was located, making it impossible to launch our boat. After the boat was lowered into the lake and anchored, the helicopter returned to the lab and delivered us to the waiting boat. If, at day’s end, the logs had not moved, the helicopter flew out to our position and lifted us back to the lab before retrieving the boat.
When the wind was blowing strongly and unpredictably, the log raft would often surround us and press in from all sides, threatening to crush both boat and crew. On one occasion, as we sat trapped amidst logs scraping ominously on the boat’s rubber hull, I radioed our pilot and urgently requested that he extract us. Demonstrating considerable skill, he set one of the chopper’s skids on the edge of the boat and held his craft steady as my two colleagues climbed aboard. Revving up the engine for takeoff, the pilot waved goodbye and instantly rose skyward, blasting me with a brief but tornado-like downburst of air. The helicopter returned within minutes, and while it hovered overhead, the pilot slowly deployed a cable, which I grabbed when it got within reach and attached to the boat’s harness. He then dropped the helicopter close to the boat and motioned to me to climb aboard. I pulled myself into the helicopter and crouched in the door, looking down at the boat and directing the pilot as we ascended straight up. I signaled to him when the cable was taut. The boat rose suddenly from the log raft and swung beneath us as we returned to shore.