On March 11, around 7:16 pm local time, a magnitude 1.1 (M 1.1) earthquake occurred at Mount St. Helens (MSH), followed by about 40 smaller earthquakes over the next 25 minutes. Earthquake depths ranged from 0.8 to 1.7 km (0.5 to 1.0 miles) below sea level. Seismicity rates were back to normal within a half-hour.
The M 1.1 event had complex waveforms that could indicate small-scale underground movement of hydrothermal fluids or gas. In contrast, waveforms for the smaller earthquakes only had rock-breaking signatures. Events similar to the M 1.1 have been observed before at MSH, most recently in June 2017. As with prior similar events, there was no evidence of any gas or steam emission at the surface on March 11.
One very important piece of evidence supporting the no-emission interpretation came from an infrasound array installed in 2018 inside the crater of Mount St. Helens. "Infrasound" measures sound waves that are so low-frequency (< 20 Hz) that the human ear can't hear them. At volcanoes, infrasound can be created by rockfalls, avalanches, lahars, and explosions. The purpose of the new infrasound array is to enable CVO scientists to listen to sounds created within the crater of Mount St. Helens in real-time.
The March 11 event was the first real test of this new infrasound array, and the instruments performed well. And they detected… nothing. The absence of an infrasound signal gave CVO scientists a strong independent piece of evidence that no explosion had occurred in association with the March 11 event. Infrasound arrays are fairly new to the Cascades, and their importance in CVO's interpretation of the March 11 event is just one more example of how diverse instrumentation networks on volcanoes can enhance the monitoring capabilities of the USGS.
Mount Rainier National Park is a unique classroom, rich in resources for observing geologic change. Join us July 22–26, 2019, for a 5-day educator workshop in the Park, where we will explore the diverse and dynamic processes that have shaped the volcano and share new classroom ideas that will engage middle school students. Free camping is available to participants and Washington State clock hours are available. Registration information is on the Mount Rainier Teacher Professional Development webpage.
On September 25, 2018, a team of three scientists based at the Cascades Volcano Observatory conducted the first-ever USGS-led Unmanned Aircraft Systems ("drone") volcanic gas emissions survey at Mount St. Helens. The survey was conducted with the permission and coordination of the U.S. Forest Service Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
The team used a multi-rotor UAS outfitted with a miniature USGS-developed MultiGAS sensor to measure quiescent gas emissions above the 2004-2008 lava dome within the crater of Mount St. Helens. These new technologies allowed the team to characterize degassing at Mount St. Helens in unprecedented detail.
The UAS survey confirmed that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the 2004-2008 lava dome are extremely low and that water vapor constitutes the vast majority (>99%) of present-day gas emissions. Much of this water vapor is not derived from magma, but instead is produced when shallow meteoric and surface waters, like snow melt, comes into contact with hot dome rocks, generating steam.
The UAS fills an important monitoring role at volcanoes. Its small size and maneuverability allow scientists to use portable monitoring technologies like the MultiGAS, in remote or hazardous areas. The data is combined with that collected using traditional manned aircraft, field sampling, and at a permanent monitoring station, to gain a better understanding of gas emissions at Mount St. Helens. The successful application of these technologies at Mount St. Helens demonstrates the importance of these surveys in the Cascade Range and at other active volcanoes around the globe.
Since 1980, there have been 120 eruptions and 52 episodes of notable volcanic unrest at 44 U.S. volcanoes. When erupting, all volcanoes pose a degree of risk to people and infrastructure. However, the risks are not equivalent from one volcano to another because of differences in eruptive style and geographic location.
The USGS assesses active and potentially active volcanoes in the U.S., focusing on history, hazards and the exposure of people, property and infrastructure to harm during the next eruption. The assessment uses 24 factors to obtain a score and threat ranking. The findings are in the newly published 2018 Update to the U.S. Geological Survey National Volcanic Threat Assessment.
Eleven of the eighteen very high threat volcanoes are in Washington, Oregon, or California, where explosive and often snow- and ice-covered volcanoes can project ash or lahar (debris flow) hazards long distances to densely populated and highly developed areas. These include Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, Three Sisters, Newberry, Mount Baker, Glacier Peak and Crater Lake (in Washington and Oregon), and Mount Shasta, Lassen and Long Valley (in California). The threat ranking is not a list of which volcano will erupt next. Rather, it indicates how severe the impacts might be from future eruptions at any given volcano.
The volcanic threat assessment helps prioritize U.S. volcanoes for research, hazard assessment, emergency planning, and volcano monitoring. It is a way to help focus attention and resources where they can be most effective, guiding the decision-making process on where to build or strengthen volcano monitoring networks and where more work is needed on emergency preparedness and response.
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