Becoming Our Own Volcano: the Fires of Nature and Humanity

The ash cloud produced by the eruption of Mount St. Helens.Photograph Source: Rocky Kolberg – CC BY-SA 3.0

As I write this, it is the 43rd anniversary of the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. On that day the mountain certainly lived up to its Klickitat name,  Tahonelatclah, Fire Mountain. The eruption was a reminder of our own fragility, the deep impermanence of human society, how it could all go in an instant. On another 43rd anniversary, that of my own entry into the world, I was granted a sight that embodied that reality.

Taking the day off to celebrate my birthday, I went hiking on Sauvie Island, a rural landscape formed north of the confluence between the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, one of my favorite places on Earth. The north end is a magnificent wildlife sanctuary, a riparian forest sometimes washed by the Columbia, and a stopover point for many bird species. That day I was standing on the beach looking across the Columbia at lines of forested hills and mountains rising to St. Helens.  The river takes a sharp bend to the north at the confluence.  So Loowit, another of its native names, is due east. Over time, the apparent size of the mountains varies, a lensing effect depending on air temperatures. Today, the Cascadian stratovolcano towered over the scene, seeming to rise just beyond the other side of the river.

In the foreground a small flotilla was chugging up the river past the mountain. In the lead was a classic-style tugboat, low-slung without the high bridge that marks the newer boats. It was pulling a large barge that was almost empty except for a big, black cylindrical object lashed sideways in the middle. Behind the combo was a matching tug deadheading up the river, pulling nothing. Bringing up the rear was a small, sleek, gray patrol boat, the numbering on its bow clearly distinguishing it as U.S. Navy.

This procession unambiguously announced its purpose. No commercial load is ever accompanied by a back-up tug or naval escort. That grim black tube could only be one kind of cargo, a reactor assembly from a nuclear submarine decommissioned at the Bremerton naval yard on the Puget Sound, being transported to its final resting place at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation about 200 miles upriver.

But wait! What was I seeing? A piece of the nuclear apocalypse was taking up permanent residence in my bioregion. A radioactive hulk was being hauled past a mountain that has existed in its modern form for around 40,000 years, and whose most recent peak was around 2,000 years old when it blew off in 1980. In a land underlain by seismic faults, including the coastal Cascadia subduction zone fault, where continental plates grind against each other to produce some of the world’s largest earthquakes, as well as the Cascades volcanic chain.

The sheer incongruity of the scene set me off, the blindness and arrogance of expecting the patch of ground at Hanford to remain static and unchanging when the Cascadian earth is so visibly not. No sight brought this absurdity into sharper contrast than a nuclear garbage barge sailing under St. Helens’ cratered visage. I let out across the water at the top of my lungs, in rage and fury telling the crews of those ships they were end-of-the-world fools who should turn around, get off my river and away from my land.  The tug crew responded with an extended horn blast, and seemed to speed up.

In the release of nuclear energy, humanity has finally achieved a power on the order of volcanoes. Nothing is so much like a volcanic eruption as a nuclear explosion. In fact, the mushroom cloud that formed on the horizon when Tahonelatclah erupted with an estimated 20 megatons of force caused many to believe war had broken out. With a nuclear war, humanity could even mimic the effects of a supervolcano, soot from the fires reducing sunlight enough to cause years of winter-like conditions and global famine killing more people than the nuclear exchange.  In the face of the volcano, we can see our own.  We are the new volcano.  Our powers might well consume us.

Waste from the plutonium bomb that devastated Nagasaki in 1945 still sits in leaky storage tanks at Hanford.  The production site for much of the U.S. nuclear stockpile before it was shut down. Hanford is one of the most radiation-polluted sites on Earth, exceeded only by its old Russian counterpart, Chelyabinsk in the Southern Urals.  Today Hanford is site for a massive clean-up that will cost more than producing the bomb material, and last longer than the first Cold War.  Hiking Boundary Trail on Johnston Ridge around 5 miles north of the mountain in 2009, I met a retired geologist who worked on that effort.  He tracked radionucleides leaking from the tanks into groundwater and ultimately the Columbia River.

In retirement he was sharing his geological knowledge as a volunteer National Volcanic Monument docent.  I stopped to ask something, I don’t recall what.  We talked about our work past and present.  He told me that from his expert standpoint, we don’t have the technology to really clean up the Hanford mess.  I shared that I was working professionally on the climate issue.  “I am not sure his grandchildren will live,” he responded. Citing the complex ecological challenges facing humanity, he said, “We are not taking this seriously enough.” When serious, scientifically-educated people can rationally contemplate the death of humanity, it should give one pause.

But we are collectively hubristic, not contemplating our own impermanence or that of the shifting Earth on which we live. Nor are we taking into account the consequences of our own powers, the fires we have released through exploiting fossil fuels and unlocking the secrets of the atom.   Ironically, this week a landslide caused by rapid snow melt from unusually high temperatures shut down the highway to Johnston Ridge Observatory.

May 18 came months before the Reagan Administration and the original Cold War’s most extended time of danger, when the leaders of the Soviet Union honestly feared a U.S. first strike and were on hair-trigger alert. That almost resulted in a war in 1983.Today, in a time of a new Cold War, we arguably face the greatest threat of nuclear holocaust since the first atomic explosions in 1945, when we should have realized the world had fundamentally changed and great power competition was obsolete. Nearly 8 decades later we still have not learned the lesson. When experts such as Daniel Ellsberg, who worked on nuclear war planning, or Peter Kuznik, director of the American University Nuclear Studies Institute, say the danger of nuclear war is at the level of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, one of the Cold War’s closest brushes with a full nuclear exchange, and possibly greater, we had better take note.

Yet in our collective hubris, humanity proceeds as if we can continue on our current course indefinitely, without having our own volcanos erupt on us. On this May 18, commemorated as Cascadia Day, we would do well to consider the impermanence that Tahonelatclah’s eruption expressed, and recognize that our continued presence as a species is contingent on gaining the collective wisdom to limit the use of our own volcanic powers. In today’s atmosphere of nuclear danger and climate disruption, that wisdom seems painfully absent.

Here is an earlier reflection I wrote on the May 18, 1980 eruption.

This first appeared on The Raven.