Hovering Over a Live Volcano

Oct 18, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Vince Patton

Special to TelevisionWeek

On Oct. 1, for the first time in 18 years, Mount St. Helens burped. It has belched several times since. And I’ve had the best seat in the house from which to watch.

But when it comes to active volcanoes, the best seat is also the most dangerous one. There could be more hiccups, or it might erupt more violently.

There’s no better view for an environmental reporter covering a volcanic eruption than hovering near the mountain in a helicopter. When KGW-TV, Portland, Ore.’s NBC affiliate, hired me to cover the environment, Mount St. Helens seemed an artifact of the past. I never dreamt I might see it awaken again. In fact, just two years ago two geologists, a photographer and I were walking in the crater itself.

Now no one’s allowed closer than four miles away on the ground. In the air, we have permission to get closer. We take our chances.

All signs indicate something bigger is coming. We are, in the words of photographer Karl Petersen, “flying over a ticking time bomb.” But the experts don’t know how large a blast to expect and they can’t read the subterranean countdown clock with precision. It could be days, weeks or months away.

The scientists have repeatedly said they don’t expect an eruption the size of the blast of May 18, 1980. We’ll take them at their word. That official prognostication gives us the reassurance to dart in toward the crater rim, peek over, get some shots, fly out a ways, then return again for longer and lower orbits.

But 1980 remains in our minds. That eruption started with a supersonic blast. We’d be no match for a knockout punch traveling faster than the speed of sound. Back then, 230 square miles of forest lay flattened in less than three minutes. That knowledge nestles in the back of our minds, but we don’t dwell on it.

Sky 8 pilot Brian Sonnier concedes he’s uneasy flying near the crater, let alone soaring 10 times higher than usual. “Normally, we fly at a thousand feet, not 10,000 feet,” says Sonnier. “This is out of my comfort zone.” On Tuesday, Oct. 5, just after 9 a.m., the mountain gives off its third and largest steam and ash emission. We launch as soon as we get an opening in the clouds. From 30 miles away a giant, gray plume surges from the mountaintop. Fortunately, it’s blowing away from us. That ash could clog an engine in an instant. We won’t be flying anywhere near it.

While ash and steam blows northeast 50 miles, we approach from the south. The mountain spews for about an hour. It’ll take nearly two more hours for the ash in the crater itself to thin and settle enough for us to see what’s happening on the crater floor.

Finally, we get our glimpse. The blast hole vent has grown dramatically, sitting filled with melted glacier water. Another smaller vent spits steam next to it. Most significantly, a new dome has thrust its way up, now 200 feet tall. It didn’t exist two weeks ago. It stands nearly as tall as the cone-shaped dome, which forced its way into the crater in 1986, the last time Mount St. Helens acted up.

We have a view like no other of the fissures, vents and steam. Our news helicopter has two gyro-stabilized broadcast-quality cameras on board. The FLIR Ultramedia II allows us to zoom in on the miles-long ash cloud to make it look like we’re flying right next to it. The other sets us apart from any other TV news operation in the United States: It’s a FLIR Safire I, which provides live infrared thermal images, those black-and-white images more common on “Cops” than on the evening news.

Once the clouds of ash dissipate, we approach the edge of the crater. Sonnier positions us perfectly in a clockwise orbit so the side-mounted thermal camera can see the hot spots. Steam vents pop out more visibly than ever. Some spots of rock glow white.

When we switch back to the color camera, Petersen, KGW’s chief photographer, spots a landslide. He zooms in to catch a cascade of boulders tumbling into the blast hole. Volcanologist Carl Thornber of the U.S. Geological Survey stops by our satellite truck on the ground miles from the crater and is excited to see our live broadcast. “I feel really, really good to be able to see these things and not have to wait,” Thornber says. “Our imagery people will be looking at this very carefully.”

Petersen considers this the riskiest flying he’s done since combat duty in Vietnam. “I usually feel safe to fly,” Petersen says, “but based on the history of this mountain, you know, there’s nothing safe about flying over Mount St. Helens.”

The larger eruption scientists expect, if it comes at all, will arrive with no warning. Petersen knows it, yet this is exactly where he wants to be. He adds, “This is breathtaking, always spectacular. I’d rather do this than be on the ground miles away.”

Two years ago, after months of applying for permits, I had the privilege to fly into and land in the crater. Sonnier set us down inside the crater rim on the south side of the dome. We explored North America’s fastest-growing glacier, forming in the volcano’s mouth. It’s stunning to realize those spots where we walked and the ice caves where we crawled occupy the precise spot where the new dome has shoved its way up.

This new dome building has convinced scientists that magma has moved up to very shallow levels. Nearly constant earthquake activity has lasted two weeks. Something’s brewing. Percolating. Ready to boil. Choose your metaphor. The scientists believe we haven’t seen the end of this.

The day after the largest of these mini-eruptions, clouds ground us. By Thursday visibility returns; we find the dome has grown again. Now six clearly distinct vents spout steam. Petersen zooms in on one that has turned dark. As I look at the monitor in the cockpit I see the roiling clouds turn nearly black. The spewing cloud looks more powerful. The billowing clouds look huge. I grow alarmed, but keep my misgivings to myself. Is this it? Is this the beginning of the eruption? Are we flying too close? Is it time to back away-fast?

I look from the monitor out the window to the crater only to realize I’ve been fooled by the power of the zoom lens. The camera showed the boiling ash so closely it filled the entire screen. But it’s just another small event. The steam and ash mixture won’t rise anywhere close to the crater’s rim. When the significant eruption happens, the volcanologists predict the ash cloud could surge up 10 to 15 miles into the atmosphere.

As I write this, the dome has reached new heights, thrusting up to nearly 400 feet.

As you read this, the mountain may have erupted. Or it may be keeping us waiting.

For now, Mount St. Helens appears greedy for attention. Everyone’s so fascinated, we’re happy to oblige. n

Vince Patton has reported for 20 years in Kansas, Texas and Oregon. He has served as environmental reporter for Belo-owned KGW-TV, Portland, Ore., since 2000.