Mount St. Helens Eruption

When Mount St. Helens erupted, it blanketed Southwest Washington with ash, closing schools and businesses and canceling many planned events.

The irony is not lost to those who had been working for the last year and a half to plan what the events that would have happened this weekend to mark the 40th anniversary of that eruption, only to have the state shut down by COVID-19.

“There’s actually quite a few similarities to that time,” said Abi Groskopf, program director for the Mount St. Helens Institute. 

In alignment with state COVID-19 restrictions, Gifford Pinchot National Forest is closed to the public and with it the historic sites that would likely have drawn many visitors this weekend. The physical locations where these celebrations were to be held may be dark, but many of the events will continue in a different platform. 

Staff at the Mount St. Helens Institute have been part of work to bring virtual experiences to the public surrounding the 40th “Eruptiversary.” The Institute’s website (mshinstitute.org) is the clearinghouse for planned events to mark the 40th anniversary. Users can find links to: educational resources regarding the eruption; live streaming events offered by entities including the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the U.S. Forest Service; guided art projects; and even information on an event called “BOOM! With Bill Nye the Volcano Guy” planned for Saturday. Information on an offering Sunday, May 17 with the Portland Art Museum on the closing day of its virtual exhibit “Volcano!” will be coming soon. Groskopf said it was difficult for everyone involved in planning the Eruptiversary to have their events canceled but they are trying to move forward with some experiences they hope the public will enjoy. She also noted that she is optimistic that some of the in-person events might be able to happen next year.

“There’s no reason why 41 years can’t be a big deal,” Groskopf said.

Usually, springtime is when Mount St. Helens Institute opens its doors to the public for another season of learning. Arguably their largest group of visitors are young people. Annually, about 4,000 students participate in school field trips through Volcano Outdoor School at the Mount St. Helens Institute’s Science and Learning Center at Coldwater Lake.

“It’s really about science and learning to understand our world with a scientifically centered mind and making mindful decisions based on that science,” Groskopf explained of the educational offerings. “Mount St. Helens really changed the way we understand volcanoes and it found new technology and it continues to be this sort of testing ground.” 

State school closures also mean school trips will not happen this year. As soon as schools were closed, Groskopf said their team began making plans to offer more online learning opportunities. Through surveys to users they gauged how to best add more online learning content, including offering printable worksheets that could be distributed to kids who do not have Internet access. They also began offering Virtual Volcano Tuesdays, a live virtual talk Tuesday mornings aimed at students and teachers.

“We started to say ‘how can we still support the teachers with the kids at home?’ and then with shelter-in-place, we started to talk about ‘how can we support parents?’” Groskopf said. “Really, we’re learning more every week.”

COVID-19 has also changed the way the Institute offers programming for the general public as well. The popular Volcano Views and Brews program, normally held monthly at Loowit Brewing in Vancouver, has been moved to a weekly, online format. Groskopf said staff had originally hoped that at least some of their summer programming, which includes guided climbs, summer camps and family camps might still be able to happen this year. But this week, the board made the decision that the potential risk of offering these programs was too great and all summer events and programs have also been canceled.

“It was a heartbreaking decision to make,” she said. “But I’m optimistic for next year.” 

Virtual events are offered for free but the Mount St. Helens Institute is asking that those who take advantage of this programming consider making a donation to help keep them going. The Institute is funded through various sources including government and grant funding, mostly based on the center’s educational programs. A large part of its annual budget is also made through events, which evaporated overnight when the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders were made. 

“We haven’t laid anyone off but everyone is working part time to stretch our money into the future so that hopefully we’re ready to ramp right back up as soon as we are able,” Groskopf said.

Online Mount St. Helens Opportunities:

Virtual Volcano Views & Brews – every Monday 6-8 p.m. Topics announced weekly. (go to mshinstitute.org or @mshinstitute on Facebook)

Virtual Volcano Tuesdays – every Tuesdays 11-11:30 a.m. Topics announced weekly. (go to mshinstitute.org or @mshinstitute on Facebook)

BOOM! With Bill Nye – 6 p.m. May 16 on Facebook and YouTube. Celebrate the “Eruptiversary” with 45 minutes of explosive fun with Bill Nye the Volcano Guy, the Mount St. Helens Institute and King 5. This event replaces live appearances by Nye scheduled for the eruption anniversary.

Volcano! At the Portland Art Museum – virtual exhibit exploring the eruption available daily through May 17. A virtual event bringing together scientists and artists to discuss the exhibit is planned for Sunday, May 17. (go to portlandmuseum.org or mshinstitute.org for more information)

Volcano Preparedness – 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. May 18 – Brian Terbush, volcano program preparedness coordinator for Washington State Emergency Management will talk about the state’s five active volcanos via Facebook Live. Participants can post questions at the event link or join live and ask questions and listen. (go to mshinstitute.org or @mshinstitute on Facebook)

Talk with a Ranger Q&A – 2 p.m. May 18 – A Washington State Parks ranger will give a short talk on the May 18, 1980 eruption followed by a Q&A session. (go to @GiffordPinchot on Facebook)

Mount St. Helens Virtual Story Hour – 6-8:30 p.m. May 18 – This 40th anniversary of the eruption program will include stories told by eyewitnesses, a ranger-led eruption talk, art presentation and follow-along volcano craft. (go to @WashingtonStateParks on Facebook)

Mount St. Helens and the Cascade Range Volcanos – 6:30 p.m. May 18 – This program will feature four Northwest scientists who will talk about Cascade region tectonics, volcanoes and their hazards and how volcano science and monitoring has changed in 40 years. University of Washington Seismologist Steve Malone will also talk. (go to pnsn.org)

Mount St. Helens Mondays – all day May 18 – Washington State Parks is hosting bi-weekly social medial feeds to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the eruption. View video and listen to audio content and share your own memories. (go to @WashingtonStateParks on Facebook)

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