VOLCANOES can destroy land and cities -- even several miles away. If you have any volcano threat in your region, whether from an active volcano or sleeping volcano, take the time to learn what it takes to survive, should a sudden volcano eruption take place. Volcanoes can erupt unexpectedly, giving you little time to evacuate. How to Survive a Volcano.
At precisely 8:42 Sunday morning on May 18th, 1980, the greatest natural
explosion ever recorded on American soil ripped apart a massive, sleepy peak
in Washington state called Mount Saint Helens.
This was a massive volcano eruption.
Shaken 10 minutes earlier by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter
scale, the north face of this tall, symmetrical volcano collapsed, resulting
in the largest known landslide in world history. These slabs of earth and ice
slammed into nearby Spirit Lake, crossed a ridge 1,300 feet high, and roared
14 miles down the Toutle River.
The avalanche rapidly released pressurized
gases that had long been surging inside the mountain. For at least a week its
northwestern flank had been bulging out as much as 12 feet a day from the
increasing pressure of rising magma.
And then Mount St. Helens - a pristine, previously dormant volcano that
had long been a major part of the eastern Washington landscape - mostly
ceased to exist.
The explosion was five hundred times more powerful than either of the atom
bombs dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
The tremendous lateral blast turned 250 million cubic yards of mountain
into a turbulent, stone-filled wind that swept over ridges, toppled trees and
scorched the earth nearby at temperatures well over 600 degrees Fahrenheit,
flattening or disintegrating practically everything within a 150 square miles
of the volcano's northern side.
Within minutes the eruption began blasting material straight up into the
sky; it would continue for 9 hours. The top 1,317 feet of the peak and most
of its northwestern side were no more. In its place would eventually be a
gaping, horseshoe-shaped crater 2,460 feet deep, making St. Helens little
more than a gargantuan shell.
The final result of this activity was a mushroom-shaped column of volcanic
ash that rose thousands of feet skyward and drifted across eastern Washington
and beyond, turning day into darkest night as gray ash fell over a major part
of the southwest. Melted snow and earth became wet, cement-like slurries of
rock and mud scouring all sides of the volcano. Searing flows of white-hot
lava oozed from the gaping crater.
Fifty-seven people lost their lives when Mount St. Helens erupted that May
morning. But a few like Jim Scymanky actually lived through it, thanks only
to a simple combination of sheer endurance and dumb-assed luck.
If you've ever considered trying to 'tough through' a massive volcanic
eruption to see the sights, consider Jim's story.
Scymanky was working that day as part of a four-man logging team above the
Toutle River. Washington Gov. Dixy Lee Ray had ordered all people out of a
10-mile-zone around St. Helens. Scymanky and his crew were issued work
permits allowing them to work just outside the perimeter.
The crew figured they were safe.
Until a Hispanic co-worker on the ridge suddenly raced downhill shouting,
in Spanish, "The volcano is exploding!"
Scymanky barely tossed his saw when he heard what he says sounded like two
jetliners racing toward him. That's when the forest disappeared.
Rocks-cum-missiles blew the trees apart. Then came the ash. A hot wall of
cinder, blown by a force that even 10 miles from the blast whipped winds
around Scymanky at around 55 mph, battered most everything to the ground.
There was no light. Scymanky sucked in pure ash for more than a minute. "I
can't see. I can't breathe. I feel like I'm being buried. The pain is just
unbearable," he recalled recently to MSNBC News.
Scymanky says the heat was so intense that his cotton gloves melted onto
his hands. "You didn't know where the hell you were," Scymanky says. "One
minute you've got landmarks all over - you know where the stream is, where
the roads are . . . [but after the blast,] no roads. No streams. No nothing.
I mean, just gone. It was like it picked you up and put you on a different
Scymanky saw that all four men somehow survived the blast.
Their luck was about to run out.
Their bodies scorched, the four wandered 4.5 miles before reaching the
result of a huge rock avalanche that blocked the only way out of the mess.
Meanwhile the river below was rising quickly, filling the valley with mud and
Two of the men refused to give up. One climbed the avalanche; the other
tried going across the river. They were never heard from again.
And Jim? "I thought to myself - and I didn't say it to anyone else - 'How
long is it going to take to die? This is a long, painful death,'" says
But shortly before that thought became reality, two National Guard
helicopters swooped down to rescue Scymanky and the other co-worker. The
other man later died.
Scymanky suffered severe burns on his back, neck, arms and legs. He
vomited ash for days. A vast, gray landscape lay where once were acres of
forested slopes. The total eruption lasted 9 hours, but Mount St. Helens and
the surrounding countryside would be changed for years.
Scymanky never logged again. He now makes a living restoring antique cars.
Most active volcanoes don't explode like this one or Vesuvius, the volcano
that buried and perfectly preserved the ancient Roman city of Pompeii about
2,000 years ago, killing all its inhabitants with rivers of lava and ash.
In most cases, an volcanic eruption simply produces a combination of
slow-moving lava and poisonous gases - a wonder very dangerous in its
own right. However, some rather benign eruptions can be viewed, provided you
always follow a guide's advice, stay far clear of the lava and upwind of the
But even with the slowest-moving lava flows, danger can occur if you're
not careful. How can you escape it? Understanding and listening to the
experts is key.
Vulcan's Workshop: The Workings of a Volcano
Very few natural wonders inspire as much awe and fear as the workings of a
Stanley Williams, a vulcanologist (volcano expert) who led an ill-fated
scientific party into the mouth of an Arizona volcano shortly before its
eruption a few years ago, co-wrote with ghost writer Fen Montaigne in the
preface to their recent book, 'Surviving Galeras':
My fascination with volcanoes, now a quarter century old, taps into
something universal and timeless. As they watched fountains of lava spew from
Mount Etna in Italy or Popocat�petl in Mexico, the ancients believed they
were witnessing a phenomenon linked to the origins of the universe. The
flames and magma gushing from a volcano came from a place as mysterious as
the heavens above. Small wonder that the Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas tossed
virgins into the mouth of this beast; it was capable of destroying villages,
towns, entire civilizations in an instant. Human sacrifice, they believed,
would placate the monster.
To the Greeks, volcanoes were a direct conduit to Hades. The Romans
believed the entrance to hell was in the Phlegraean Fields, next to Vesuvius,
where gases poured out of hundreds of fumaroles. Vulcan - the Roman god of
fire - lived deep inside a mountain on Vulcano, in the Aeolian Islands.
There, at his underground forge, he rocked the earth and unleashed eruptions
as he made weapons for Apollo, Hercules, and the other gods. The Icelanders,
living on an island that was but a mound of volcanoes, believed Hell's
gateway was the crater of the massive fire mountain Hekla.
One things the ancients understood was that there is a lot of
activity going on beneath the earth's crust.
This little planet may look like a single solid mass, but it's really made
up of several massive plates of earth and rock. These crustal plates are
constantly moving and colliding with one another, creating earthquakes and
the pressure zones that lead to volcanic eruptions.
Underneath those sliding and colliding plates is hot, melted rock known as
magma; it sometimes collects in areas of high pressure called, naturally
enough, magma chambers. When this pressure builds up and becomes too great,
the magma sometimes explodes upward in a great cataclysmic event. This is a
When this magma has reached the surface of the earth's crust, it's called
Volcanic gases are also emitted during the eruption. The chief gas is
water vapor or steam, although it can also contain carbon dioxide, nitrogen,
sulphur, carbon monoxide, hydrogen, chlorine, and numerous other gases. The
high-pressure gases also eject red-hot fragments that range in size from huge
blocks to fine dustlike particles.
There are many types of these fragments, officially called pyroclastics.
Blocks - larger fragments, made of crustal pieces or older lava;
Volcanic bombs - masses of new lava blown from the crater and
hardened during flight, becoming spindle-shaped as they fly through the air;
Breadcrust bomb - a type of pyroclastic that resembles a loaf of
French bread with large cracks in the crust;
Lapilli - (Italian, meaning "little stones") Smaller, broken
fragments about the size of walnuts;
Pumice - Produced by acidic lavas where there is so much gas
content that the magma bubbles as it rises to the surface. Pumice contains
many air spaces that were formed by expanding gases, so it will float in
Pele's hair - A material resembling spun glass created by lava
fountains (where steam jets blow lava into the air); named after the Hawaiian
goddess of volcanoes; very similar to rock wool, a man-made material widely
used for insulation, etc.
Lava is composed mostly of silicon dioxide (SiO2). The lava's silicon
dioxide amount can be:
Basic - Lava with less than 52% of SiO2
Intermediate - Lava that contains between 52% and 66%
Acidic - Lava that contains 66% or more of SiO2.
After issuing forth from the crater via cracks, holes, or fissures, lava
will spread out like tongues of hot, melted rock. Sometimes sheets of lava
can cover thousands of square miles, far away from their source. Liquid lava
can flow farther than the thicker, more viscous lava types.
Lava will eventually cool and harden, usually into one of two types. The '
pahoe' type (known as "corded" in Italy) has a smooth, billowy surface, and
resembles huge coils of rope; these mainly develop from basic lava. The 'aa'
type of cooled lava consists of angular, jagged blocks, often with sharp
edges and spiny crags.
Sometimes, the outer surface of a lava flow will harden when the inside
core is still hot and flowing. If this middle part flows away, it will leave
the outer cylinder, creating a lava tube. Lava tubes can continue for several
miles. The world's longest tube is in Northern California, extending 13.8
miles in length. In fact, one such tube near Dubois, Idaho, has been made
into a bomb and fall-out shelter that in a pinch can hold the town's entire
population of about 2,500.
Another interesting creation is the tree mold or lava tree, formed when
liquid lava encases a tree trunk. The tree will usually burn, leaving details
of its bark or wood preserved in the cooled lava.
How Do I Survive This Thing?
There is not much an individual can do to prepare for a volcanic eruption,
but it is always good to have a good knowledge of this phenomenon. Be aware
of the hazards that can come with an eruption: the flying debris, hot gases,
lava flows, potential for explosion, mudslides, avalanches, and geothermal
areas. Prepare provisions, water, food, blankets, and medical supplies if you
live around a volcano before anything happens. Also be ready to get up
and outrun flowing lava . . . and yes, we're quite serious.
Visitors to volcanoes will find themselves experiencing a beautiful
outdoor recreation. These tourist sites usually ask people to use common
sense when climbing slopes and sightseeing, and we're not about to argue with
them. Take lots of water, don't overstrain yourself, and use a
knowledgable guide whenever you can.
Above all, use caution when visiting active volcanoes. Do not venture
toward any activity, and consult local experts on the area. Follow all
recommendations, regulations, or requests of officials.
Here are some things to watch out for:
a.) Lava flows - Stay away from lava flows. Not all of them will be
red-hot and obvious; some move very slowly and appear as dark and solid, but
are liquid beneath the surface. Also, do not try to cross an active
flow; you might get trapped by multiple lava streams.
b.) Pyroclastic flows - Do not visit volcanoes that are having or are
about to have pyroclastic explosions like Mount St. Helens had in 1980, for
(hopefully) obvious reasons. The high temperature around such a volcano can
itself be life-threatening.
c.) Colcanic domes - Volcanic domes and plugs in craters may seem
harmless, but they can explode without warning. Footing and glassy rocks can
also be very dangerous. Some cooled lava of this sort can resemble jagged
pieces of glass. Wear good, solid hiking boots on the mountain - never
go barefoot. Be sure of your step.
d.) Lahars and floods - Be careful when crossing lahar (debris flows), for
they can gush in large and small floods.
e.) Gases - Avoid areas where volcanic gas is released. Carbon dioxide,
sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide can kill quickly and silently. You may
not be able to hold your breath long enough. If you see a location around an
active volcano with dead vegetation, carcasses, or bones, do not enter it.
f.) Geothermal areas - hot springs, mudpots, and geysers are also very
interesting, but don't go across unexplored areas that contain many of them.
Stay on marked trails, because the thin silica crusts over boiling pools can
break if stepped upon. Falling in can cause third-degree burns or death.
The bottom line? Appreciate the natural wonder of volcanoes, but be
Okay, How Do I Really Protect Myself from a Volcano?
Alright, let's get to the nitty-gritty on surviving a volcano.
Before an Eruption Occurs:
Discover whether there are volcanic hazards in the area likely to affect
If you live in an active volcanic zone, always assume that you may have to
deal with the effects of an eruption.
If you live in an area that could experience a lava flow during a volcanic
eruption, know a quick route to safe ground.
Listen to authorities regarding volcanic activity.
If vulcanologists agree that a life-threatening eruption is likely to take
place, a Civil Defense Emergency will be declared and the danger area
evacuated. Listen to your radio or TV for information and follow civil
During an Eruption
Save water in your bath, basin, containers or cylinders at an early stage
- supplies may become polluted.
Stay indoors with your pets as much as possible.
Wear mask and goggles if you go outside, to keep volcanic ash out of your
eyes and lungs.
Keep gutters and roof clear of heavy deposits of ash, which can collapse
Take your outdoor clothing off before entering a building - volcanic ash
is difficult to get rid of.
Take your Getaway Kit with you if you have to leave. Turn electricity and
gas off at the mains. If you turn gas off, have a professional check for
leaks in case of damage before turning gas on again.
Keep below ridge lines in hilly terrain - the hills will offer some
protection from flying volcanic debris.
DON'T Go sightseeing!
DON'T Leave home unless advised to by the Civil Defense.
Light At The End
If we seem to be going on about Mount St. Helens now and again, it's only
because that eruption was the best-documented in history. Spurred on by
geologists, an array of photographers and reporters were there - along with a
small army of scientists - to record the events as they happened.
In 1982 the President and Congress created the 110,000-acre National
Volcanic Monument for research and education. Inside the monument, the
environment has been left to respond naturally to the disturbance.
The volcano continued to erupt until 1986, violently at first, then
quietly building a lava dome. Thick lava eruptions oozed out, each one piling
on top of the next, like a stack of gigantic pancakes. The lava dome is now
920 feet high. The United States Geological Survey scientists continue to
monitor the volcano for earthquakes, swelling, and gas emissions. The old
peak has taught us much about a volcano's inner workings and its aftermath.
One heartening tale of Mount St. Helens has been the surprisingly quick
return of plants to the mountain. Peter Frenzen, monument scientist for the
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, says the key was that much of
the nearby forest was still blanketed by snow that May day. The protected
plants laid the groundwork for the mountain to grow green once again.
Studying the many patterns of regrowth after a volcanic eruption like St.
Helens can help people in other parts of the world understand how life grows
back after an earthquake, hurricane or flood.
But for all the advances in forestry and ecology, the strongest scientific
legacy of Mount St. Helens is probably in vulcanology. Monitoring the
mountain for months before it blew allowed scientists to track the evolution
of an eruption from a very early stage.
The cataclysm altered their perceptions. Nobody had ever seen a volcano
fall apart before, but that's what St. Helens did when its north face
collapsed just before the blast, unleashing a torrent of debris.
A practical application of the new understanding of volcanoes is the
Volcano Disaster Assistance Program. When a volcano is about to erupt in a
developing country, scientists specially trained at the St. Helens site are
sent to assist with evacuation and recovery efforts.
The program's most famous success was with Mount Pinatubo in the
Philippines, where the team helped evacuate more than 75,000 people and saved
millions of dollars in damages by moving portable equipment out of harm's way
in the 10 weeks between the mountain's reawakening and its climactic
Rainier 'The Big One'?
What remains of Mount St. Helens is a cross-section of a volcanic crater
that reveals thousands of years of eruptive history for study. Huge faces of
white crumbly clay surround the crater floor. Volcanologists have since found
large deposits of the exact same clay on Mount Rainier, less than 100 miles
to the north.
That helps vulcanologists evaluate the potential damage of a Rainier
eruption, which would be colossal. Rainier is 4,000 feet taller than St.
Helens was, much closer to a large population center - Seattle - and covered
with millions of tons of ice that would unleash huge mudflows down the rivers
leading to Puget Sound, endangering more than 250,000 people.
Any evacuation would be a major undertaking, but Mount St. Helens has
motivated scientists and local governments to develop a detailed emergency
Eruption of Mount. St Helens - May 17, 1980
The wonderful, horrible loneliness vulcanologists experience can perhaps
be summed up by looking at David Johnston of the U.S. Geological Survey. In
1980 Johnston was a 30-year-old scientist sent to study the impending
eruption of Mount St. Helens.
On May 17, 1980, Johnston landed a helicopter on the bulging northwest
side of the volcano to take gas samples. Another young vulcanologist, Harry
Glicken, took two pictures of Johnston with the help of a telephoto lens as
he worked. They show a mere speck of a man, dressed in blue jeans, bending
over in the midst of taking a sample from the back of the beast.
Everyone knew some big eruption was imminent. No one went up with Johnston
Camping at an observation post on a ridge just 5.7 miles northwest of the
summit, Johnston barely had enough time the next morning to radio his
colleagues in the nearby town of Vancouver when it came.
He screamed his last words into a radio at 8:42 a.m. as the superheated
ash cloud, as destructive as the greatest nuclear blast, ripped toward him at
about 300 mph.
"Vancouver, Vancouver," he cried excitedly, "this is it!"
The Top 10 Survival Gear
The survival gear that makes this Top Ten list might surprise you. Effectiveness, ease of use, "survival power" and finally the price all play a factor. If our nation collapses or catastrophic disaster strikes, what gear will you have on hand?