A Visit To Mt. St. Helens

Many years ago, I gave a lectureship program in Longview, Washington, and was privileged to stay in the home of Duke and Lucille Rainone on Mt. St. Helens Drive. Their house had an incredible view of Mt. St. Helens, and I remember talking with them about the beautiful symmetry of this very conical mountain, considered to be a dormant volcano not far from Portland, Oregon. On May 28, 1980, as we all know, the north side of the mountain blew away, moving a monstrous body of material down the mountain and leaving a very irregular and oddly shaped volcano.

In recent years, denominational creationists have attempted to use the erosion of Mt. St. Helens since the eruption in 1980 to justify millennial religious positions; and being unsure of their factual claims, it seemed wise to visit the mountain. On November 16, 2000, while on a trip on the Columbia River celebrating my retirement from public school teaching, we visited the mountain. We had a beautiful, clear day, a rarity in this part of North America, and were able to talk with rangers, geologists, and historians as well as visiting the mountain ourselves.

When a volcano erupts through cracks in its side or top, lava flows out like a river and hardens into rock. This material is usually basalt. It is heavy and hard and erodes very slowly. Much of the Columbia Plateau is covered with this type of rock. When a volcano explodes because of a build up of pressures, the rock that is exploded out of the volcano is much different. Gas blowing through the rock makes holes in the rock and makes it very light weight. Some forms of this kind of rock can have so many holes in it that it is less dense than water. This rock will actually float! If you have seen a movie in which someone picks up a huge boulder and throws it, this is the kind of rock they used. A 6' diameter boulder could weigh as little as 50 lbs. This kind of rock is called pumice, but there are other closely related rocks like scoria that are produced in the same way. Flakes called ash can also be erupted during this process, and the whole group is called pyroclastics (pyro meaning fire and clastic referring to being thrown).

Mt. St. Helens When Mt. St. Helens erupted, it had swollen and bulged several hundred feet. What followed was a huge explosion which blew off the side of the mountain (as seen to the right). Massive amounts of ash, pumice, scoria, and other light weight material were ejected from the mountain. This happened with such a massive amount of energy that trees several feet in diameter were knocked down, shredded, or splintered in an instant. The picture below shows debris blown into a river bank. The material was so light weight that huge amounts of it were swept from the mountain into local streams and rivers and carried to the Columbia River--a flow distance of over 50 miles. The Columbia River was so filled with this material that shipping had to be stopped until it could be dredged.

hillside cut In the last 20 years, there have been many surprises on Mt. St. Helens. The rate of recovery of lakes, forests, and wildlife in the area has been much faster than anyone imagined could have happened. Today the devastation is still visible, but is mitigated by new growth, herds of elk, and fish populating the lakes and rivers of the area. Along the flanks of the volcano, huge canyons have been cut in the soft ash, some of them hundreds of feet deep. We actually saw a huge piece of pumice--the size of a car--moving down one of the flow areas near the bottom of one of these canyons. Out on the valley floor below the mountain are huge flats of volcanic ash. As rain falls, glaciers melt, and storms batter the mountain in this very wet place, huge amounts of ash and pumice are still being moved down the valleys toward the Columbia River.

Is this how the Grand Canyon was produced? The answer is clearly "no!" There are lava flows in the Grand Canyon and in the lower end, there are even a few old volcanic necks, but virtually none of the rock you see from the rim of the Canyon is volcanic in nature. The Grand Canyon is made up of limestone, sandstone, shale, and conglomerate. At the very bottom of the Canyon, you see granite, but granite is not a rock extruded by a volcano. It is produced deep underground by heat from the interior of the earth. Limestones are produced in deep quiet oceans. They are hard, dense, crystalline materials that we use extensively to make buildings (you will never see a pumice skyscraper). Sandstone is sand grains cemented together to make a rock. Shale is mud turned into rock, and gravel cemented together to make rock produces conglomerate--a rock that looks like a coarse cement. These are hard, dense, compacted, layered, massive rocks. We use all of them for construction materials. They are tough, hard to erode, and hard to move.

Those creationists who use Mt. St. Helens to explain the production of the Grand Canyon are making an apples and eggs comparison. No volcanic area can be compared to a sedimentary rock area in a consistent way. When you add glaciers to Mt. St. Helens which are not found in the Grand Canyon; and when you look at the fact that different histories are revealed by the different kinds of sedimentary rocks in the Grand Canyon, you realize even more how inequitable comparisons between Mt. St. Helens and the Grand Canyon are.

The distressing thing to this writer is the message that such comparisons send to young people. Home schooling material, Bible study packets, and church bulletins frequently carry claims that Mt. St. Helens proves that the flood of Noah caused the Grand Canyon and the entire stratographic record as we see it in the rocks.

Most third graders have made or seen a model of a volcano. They know that ejected material is easily eroded and carried great distances. They know that fossils are found in limestone, not pumice--and they know why. It is bad enough for Bible believers to be written off as "uninformed wackos" by the secular society in which we live, but to have seeking, sincere, curious, intelligent, thinking young people told that such positions are what you must accept to believe the Bible is God's word is catastrophic.

The Bible does teach us that the earth is a planned, designed, working system--produced in an intelligent way by God. The nutrients produced by volcanoes produce a profusion of life of all kinds. New land materials replace the old, allowing the land masses to continue to stand above the sea. The history of the earth seen in the Grand Canyon and elsewhere speaks of patience, change, and a dynamic living planet that is and has been full of life. All of this has made it possible for us to exist. Every piece of evidence that we have in Mt. St. Helens and the Grand Canyon speaks eloquently of that common message. To attempt to use one part of God's creation to conflict or denigrate the message of another part is a human error, not an error of God.

--John N. Clayton

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