On the web: Mount St. Helens goes online to reach the masses

by Julia Rosen
Wednesday, August 14, 2013

If you’ve ever felt the mysterious allure of volcanoes — both terrifying and spectacular — you can now experience the infamous eruption of Mount St. Helens from the safety of your computer. You can also witness the eerie emergence of the lava dome that began rising from the crater floor in 2004, or explore what might be the youngest glacier in North America, nestled in the shadows below the mountain’s shattered summit. The new Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center website (www.mshslc.org) offers all of these experiences and more to volcano enthusiasts and earth science students with just a few clicks of a mouse.

The site launched days before the 33rd anniversary of the historic eruption, which occurred on May 18, 1980, when an earthquake triggered an enormous landslide, obliterating the upper 400 meters of the mountain and uncorking pressurized volcanic gases and super-heated groundwater trapped beneath the surface. The ensuing explosion killed 57 people, blanketed more than 50,000 square kilometers in powdery ash, scorched vast tracts of forest and sent lethal slurries of sediment, logs and water known as lahars more than 100 kilometers downstream to the banks of the Columbia River.

The new website explores the anatomy of this and older eruptions with a clean, appealing aesthetic that is light on words and heavy on imagery — an effective combination. But the site also allows users to observe something they could not see by visiting the volcano in person: the slow return of life that has proved to be the enduring scientific gift of Mount St. Helens over the last three decades.

Visitors can watch time-lapse videos of forests reclaiming trunk-strewn slopes, hardy alpine plants colonizing barren deserts of ash, and vigorous alders obscuring the chaotic rubble of landslide debris — gradual processes of recovery that scientists have documented with keen interest. You can even travel in time, watching greenery overtake the decimated landscape using an interactive map of the greater Mount St. Helens area.

More than 25 years ago, this biological awakening drew forest ecologist Peter Frenzen to the mountain, where he now serves as Monument Scientist for the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Frenzen recently helped launch the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center (MSHSLC) in a repurposed U.S. Forest Service visitor center along the monument’s Spirit Lake Highway.

The MSHSLC opened its doors just over one year ago, on the 32nd anniversary of the eruption, and represents a collaboration between the National Monument and the Mount St. Helens Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to science and educational outreach. “Mount St. Helens is an absolutely fascinating natural laboratory and classroom,” Frenzen says. “The goal of the MSHSLC is to make that laboratory and classroom accessible and exciting both onsite and online.”

Students are a major focus of the website, Frenzen says, but it isn’t just for kids. By making the material accessible and engaging, he hopes that the website will appeal to students of all ages. He is also excited about the capability to link to more advanced content, such as scientific abstracts related to Mount St. Helens research and other materials that provide a deeper understanding of the science.

“I think that people who come to Mount St. Helens realize how powerful Earth is,” Frenzen says. “But we realize that not everybody has that luxury. We want people to be able to experience some of that [power] without having to visit.”

Those interested in getting involved with the MSHSLC or the Mount St. Helens Institute can contact Frenzen through the website.

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