- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

MOUNT ST. HELENS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Wash. (AP) — Mount St. Helens stewed in volcanic gases and low-level earthquakes yesterday, with crowds of eager tourists hoping to glimpse an eruption that scientists said could happen immediately or take a few weeks.

A tremor yesterday lasted about 25 minutes and was milder than the 50-minute tremor that came after a steam release on Saturday, said Jeff Wynn, chief scientist for volcano hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) Cascade Volcano Observatory.

The volcano’s alert was raised to Level 3, the highest possible, after the volcanic tremor was detected Saturday for the first time since before the mountain’s 1980 eruption.

“I don’t think anyone now thinks this will stop with steam explosions,” geologist Willie Scott said yesterday at the volcano observatory in Vancouver, Wash., about 50 miles south.

But Mr. Scott said scientists discussed lowering their alert from a Level 3 “volcano advisory,” which indicates eruption is imminent, to Level 2 “volcanic unrest,” which indicates an eruption is possible. They needed more data before making any change, he said.

“What we haven’t gotten back today yet is a lot of field measurements,” Mr. Scott said yesterday. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. That will occur overnight and tomorrow morning.”

Scientists expect the impending blast to be much smaller than the May 18, 1980, explosion that killed 57 persons and coated much of the Northwest with ash. But the tremors and steam detected since quake activity began Sept. 23 signaled more seismic energy than at any other point since the 1980 explosion.

The 1980 blast obliterated the top 1,300 feet of the volcano, devastated miles of forest and buried the North Fork of the Toutle River in debris and ash as much as 600 feet deep.

“Of course the volcano reserves the right to change its mind,” said Peter Frenzen, a scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, which operates Mount St. Helens National Monument.

Some scientists had said Saturday that an explosion would probably happen within 24 hours. But as the hours passed, others cautioned that the timing is difficult to predict.

“No one is predicting it as a sure thing,” said Bill Steele at the University of Washington’s seismology lab in Seattle. “This could be going on for weeks.”

On Friday, the volcano spewed a plume of steam and ash thousands of feet into the air, but there was a scant release of steam on Saturday — a puff of white cloud, followed by a dust-raising landslide in the crater. A volcanic tremor signal that came next was what prompted the heightened alert level, and scientists detected elevated levels of volcanic gases later in the day.

Hundreds of visitors at the building closest to the volcano — Johnston Ridge Observatory five miles away — were asked to leave Saturday. Some relocated several miles north to Coldwater Ridge Visitors Center, which officials said was safe.

People pitched tents alongside park roads and spent the night waiting to see what the rumbling volcano would do.

Barbara Jardin, 53, of Camas, Wash., said she saw the plume at midday and was afraid she would miss something if she left the area.

“I just stare at it and stare at it. It’s too awesome to leave,” she said.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, who flew over the mountain on Saturday, said the seismic activity has weakened the 1,000-foot lava dome that began forming in the volcano’s crater after the 1980 eruption.

“The greatest concern at this point is an ash plume and the spread of ash itself that might come from an explosion,” Mrs. Norton said. “This is a concern for aircraft travel.”

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