Mount Saint Helens: 30 years later and hundreds of miles away

November 17, 2010

On May 18, 1980, a bulge on the north face of Mount Saint Helens in Washington State erupted, jettisoning ash nearly 20 miles into the atmosphere, spewing lava that would devastate nearly 230 square miles of timber, and claiming 57 human lives. In the years since the eruption, research on the volcanic ash has been conducted near the site. However, the ash went far and wide and there has been no analysis of ash that fell as far away as Colorado.

During the summer of 2009, undergrad Douglas Fischer ran across a jar full of ash from Mount Saint Helens that his grandfather had collected off the hood of a car in Aurora, Colo., a day after the eruption. Ryan Sincavage, instructor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, is working with Fischer to examine the ash. “This sample provides a unique opportunity to revisit this eruption 30 years later and to compare and contrast the composition of distal volcanic materials with materials collected and analyzed in close proximity to the eruption site,” Sincavage says.

With a grant from the Center for Faculty Development, Sincavage is helping his student further his research and scientific documentation on the ash. The grant is also funding laboratory analysis of the sample to determine the bulk composition of the ash. 

Because the analysis will be performed on samples from a site that has not been previously analyzed, the research will provide an opportunity for publication in scientific literature. “The manuscript will aim to compare and contrast historical analyses with the current sample and suggest causes for differences in results related to distance from eruption, atmospheric effects, sample storage time and more,” he explains.

The results of the research also will be used for laboratory exercises in future courses. “This project will be to create a unique dataset in future sections of mineralogy as a laboratory exercise,” Sincavage said.