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Science After the Volcano Blew

Research near Mount St. Helens proceeded despite bureaucratic hurdles, limited funding and an extremely hazardous environment

Douglas Larson

What Scientists Need Post-Disaster

By 1986, as funding ended, our work at Spirit Lake was winding down. I estimate that the Corps spent about $2 million on lake research in the Mount St. Helens blast zone between 1980 and 1986. By then, my colleagues and I had collected data there about 100 times, measuring temperature and other physical properties; analyzing water chemistry; and determining species composition and relative abundance of phytoplankton, zooplankton and bacteria. On September 29, 1986, the field lab was stripped of its contents and airlifted out. After that, funding for limnological research for Spirit Lake was virtually unavailable, even though the lake is a key feature of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Consequently, only about a dozen trips were made to collect limnological data at the lake between 1986 and 2005—all of them, as far as I know, by me and Richard Petersen of Portland State University.

2010-07LarsonF14.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageNone of this later work amounted to long-term, coherent, methodical research, as it should have. Spirit Lake has a unique status as a large body of water that was severely transformed by a massive volcanic eruption and that was also the source of discharge into another waterway. If we had obtained the full funding the project deserved, we could have broadened our limnological scope by studying nutrient recycling and water optics in greater detail. We also could have observed the ways that physical, chemical and biological factors influenced rates of photosynthesis in the lake as well as the distribution of energy though the aquatic food chain.

Recently the ecologist and conservation biologist David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University and others argued that it is necessary to better prepare for scientific study of effects from catastrophic ecological disturbances before they happen. The fact that Spirit Lake was barely studied during the first three years after the 1980 eruption and then again after 1986 is a case in point that better planning is needed. Lindenmayer and colleagues, in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, proposed that adequate funding, operational plans and infrastructure (logistics and equipment) be made available in advance of such a disturbance.

This argument has merit, of course, but my experience at Spirit Lake after the 1980 eruption taught me that other factors can hinder research after a natural disaster: Bureaucratic foot-dragging, interagency rivalries and poor judgment can forestall essential research. Funding, planning and infrastructure may be available in advance, but how these elements are deployed is another question. Although Congress appropriated millions, if not billions, of dollars for projects in the vicinity of Mount St. Helens, only a tiny fraction ended up financing research.

The challenges we encountered in the blast zone were often simply unpredictable, requiring on-the-spot innovation. Most of the effort I made at Spirit Lake was devoted to solving unforeseen logistical and operational problems that stood in the way of the science. No amount of planning would have prepared me or my colleagues for these contingencies. Problem solving was accomplished largely through trial and error. Our efforts to study Spirit Lake were propelled ultimately by reasoning, initiative, creativity, enthusiasm and, perhaps most important, an abiding belief that it could be done. Any scientist determined to conduct research in a natural disaster zone would be well advised to pack the same qualities before departing for the field.


  • Dahm, C. N., D. W. Larson, R. R. Petersen and R. C. Wissmar. 2005. Response and recovery of lakes. In Ecological Responses to the 1980 Eruption of Mount St. Helens, edited by V. H. Dale, F. J. Swanson and C. M. Crisafulli. New York: Springer. pp. 255–274.
  • Larson, D. W. 1993. The recovery of Spirit Lake. American Scientist 81:166–177.
  • Larson, D. W., and N. S. Geiger. 1982. Existence of phytoplankton in Spirit Lake near active volcano Mount St. Helens, Washington, USA: Post-eruption findings. Archiv für Hydrobiologie 93:375–380.
  • Larson, D. W., and M. W. Glass. 1987. Spirit Lake, Mount St. Helens, Washington, Limnological and Bacteriological Investigations. Final Report to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland, Oregon District, Volumes 1 and 2.
  • Larson, D. W., J. W. Sweet, R. R. Petersen and C. M. Crisafulli. 2006. Posteruption response of phytoplankton and zooplankton in Spirit Lake. Lake and Reservoir Management 22:273–292.
  • Lindenmayer, D., G. E. Likens and J. F. Franklin. 2010. Rapid responses to facilitate ecological discoveries from major disturbances. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, doi: 10.1890/090184.
  • Tison, D. L., J. A. Baross and R. J. Seidler. 1983. Legionella in aquatic habitats in the Mount Saint Helens blast zone. Current Microbiology 9:345–348.

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