Volcanoes are ridiculous – people can be more ridiculous

I just finished The Good Rain, Tim Egan‘s 1990 exploration of the Pacific Northwest. I enjoyed the book tremendously, but that alone would not move me to write about it here. Instead, I wanted to share a particular passage about Mt. St. Helens I thought so worthwhile I typed it all up, just for you:

“Within a few minutes, the mountain went through three transformations. First, more than a cubic mile of rock, snow and ice – the entire surface of the mountain’s north face – avalanched at speeds of two hundred miles an hour. Spirit Lake, surrounded by an ancient forest and lodges to house the summer hordes, was raised by two hundred feet; in other spots, the debris piled eight hundred feet. The Toutle River, which flows from this lake that the Cowlitz Indians believed to be a home for the dead, was blocked by a mile-wide dam of debris. Blue went to grey, green went to black, all life was smothered.

A lateral blast followed the avalanche. This explosion carried pulverized pieces of rock, organic material and hot gases at speeds of up to hour hundred miles an hour. Imagine a hurricane, blowing at twice the speed of the highest winds ever recorded, with a temperature just under 700 degrees Fahrenheit, and you have some idea of the blast that carried the north side of St. Helens with it. All trees, including firs which had clung to the ground for three centuries, all shrubs, meadows and grass, all deer (more than 5,000), elk (1,500), mountain goats (15), black bears (200), birds and small game (several million), snakes, fish, bees and anything that might later have contributed to new life were wiped out within 150 square miles.

A third phase carried ash to a height of ninety thousand feet, the dark upper ceiling of the atmosphere. The ash darkened the orchard country of eastern Washington, clouded parts of Montana nine hundred miles east, and eventually circled the globe. All told, 540 million tons of ash rained down on more than twenty-two thousand square miles. An estimated 4.7 million board feet of timber was blown down – an amount equal to the entire annual harvest on all nineteen national forests in the Northwest. Such are the numbers from one small act in the ongoing formation of the earth.

A few days after the eruption, a helicopter full of reporters started up the Toutle valley on a survey of the carnage. As they flew over the deforested lower slopes, gasps were heard and jaws opened.

“I can’t believe it,” said one reporter. “Everything is gone.”

“Like the surface of the moon,” said another, pointing to gray-covered stumps and creekbeds shaved to bristle. “There’s nothing left standing.

Their frenzy was interrupted by a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the only local writer on board.

“This area wasn’t destroyed by the volcano,” he said. “We’re not over the blast zone yet.”

“Oh?”

“That’s a Weyerhaeuser clearcut below.”

OK, so the title of this post was a bit of a bait-and-switch (though technically true). And just so the post has some relevance to current events, here’s an old New Gingrich clip I was once planning to let slide:

If you don’t want to listen to him talk for a minute and a half (who does?), here is the key quote: “compared to the impact of the various geological patterns of the earth, all human activity is remarkably tiny.” My original rebuttal – which, as mentioned, I shelved – was going to include some facts and figures on the true scale of human impact on the planet.

I think the above excerpt will do nicely in its stead.

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