Friday, August 5, 2011

Life Finds A Way

In one of the early scenes in Jurassic Park, the 2 scientists nervously ask John, the park’s creator, how he could prevent the velociraptors from reproducing. Easy, he says, all the dinosaurs are female.

Despite his reassurances, the orientation video for visitors at the park reveals the fatal flaw in his plan – frog DNA. Later, when Jeff Goldblum discovers hatched dinosaur eggs, he remembers that some frogs, in the absence of males, spontaneously change gender in order to perpetuate the species. He deduces that the same thing must have happened here, enabling baby dinosaurs (and crappy sequels). Life finds a way.

In few places on earth is that more evident than at today’s destination – Mt. St. Helens. Just over 30 years ago, all life within a 17.5 mile radius of the volcano was annihilated and scientists feared it would take hundreds of years for the ecosystem present before the blast to rebuild itself. Today, only 31 years later, the state of life around the volcano has surprised nearly everyone.

The Johnston Ridge Observatory sits 99 miles from my hotel. The mountain it observes comes into view about halfway down the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (I never figured out the “memorial” part. The lake maybe? But the lake’s still there). At first, it just looks like another peak in the Cascade Range.

However, as the road winds around the north slope of Mt. St. Helens – the face blown off in 1980, it gradually becomes apparent that something big has happened here. The first clue is the river running next to the highway towards the mountain. Presumably, at one point it was a healthy mountain stream, but now it has been reduced to a trickle of water in a wide deep bed of volcanic mud.

Around the same time visitors notice the river, the crater where the mountain summit used to be also comes into view.

At first looking like it might only be a set of ridges leading to the summit, as you continue further and further east and the road turns further and further towards the north side of the mountain, the giant scar in the rock grows larger and larger, until it becomes clear that half of the mountain is missing.

Just when I was arriving at the visitor center, a ranger was beginning a talk on the scale and impact of the May 1980 eruption and how it showed the power the earth has to reshape itself. The figures she was throwing out were unreal. When the bulge that had been building on the side of the mountain finally collapsed that morning, it triggered the largest landslide in recorded history. The ranger pointed out large sections of the mountain summit, called hummocks, that now lie, intact, miles from their previous locations. She held up a container of volcanic ash and told us that the amount released would cover a football field to a depth of 150 miles. She pointed out the 3 areas of the blast radius, the closest, where trees were smashed into splinters, the second, where all the trees fell where the had stood, and the third, where only the heat from explosion was able to reach them, so they remained standing, but were basically cooked and remain today as a standing dead forest. But we couldn’t see those last 2 zones, because they were about 8 miles further away from the mountain than we were. Also, I had thought that the ash cloud darkened the skies in Seattle, but I was wrong, the wind was blowing the other way, so the streets of Yakima, 100 miles away, not Seattle, were pitch black at noon that day.

Evidence of that May day 31 years ago is still there, frozen in time. Entire downed forests, with the ashen dead trunks pointed uniformly away from the volcano, still lie untouched where they fell. Closer to the center of the blast zone, there are no felled trees, because the force of the blast shattered the trunks. The gray splintered stumps still remain.

However, the ecosystem destroyed by the 1980 eruption is returning. In reality, where we saws complete devastation, the forest reacted as if a massive fire had burned through. With that in mind, the pattern of regrowth is happening in predictable stages. Today, with the large trees blocking the sun gone, wildflowers have taken over and are flourishing like nowhere else I’ve seen on this trip.

Grasses have taken root in the pumice plain made up of fallout from the massive landslide. Chipmunks are doing whatever it is the chipmunks do, and a volunteer there insisted that if we squinted hard enough, there were half a dozen herds of elk grazing closer in towards the mountain. I just had to take her word on that one.

That all this is happening is not a surprise – it’s what always happens after a forest fire. Next will come bushes and shrubs, then conifers will return. In lower latitudes this would be followed by maple and oak trees moving in, but that probably won’t happen here because there were no broadleaf trees there even before the eruption. What’s surprised scientists is the speed at which this has all begun to happen. One of the rangers said that the elk began to return even before the grasses had started to regrow. Despite their attempts to get the elk to graze somewhere that might have some actual plants, the herds stubbornly returned to the barren plains around Mt. St. Helens anyway. Presumably, elk are not the stupidest animals around, so it’s safe to bet that other stupider animals did the same thing. Rather than wiping out the entire circle of life, pieces of the food chain remained intact, with enough energy to hold on until the rest of the pieces of the puzzle fell back into place.

Changing gears, I had one more destination (aside from a supermarket) for today. Driving through Portland yesterday, I thought that the place looked like a clean friendly city, so today I drove a few miles past my hotel in Vancouver, WA, back into Oregon, and drove around Portland a little. I ended up in Washington Park, a large public park in the center of the city, with nice views of the downtown skyline, dominated by Mt. Hood in the distance.

Washington Park is also known for its rose gardens. Now, to be clear, I did not go there to look at roses. I went there to see a giant friggin’ mountain just outside a big city. But while I was there walking around, trying to find the best vantage point, I walked through some of the rose gardens, as well. For those of you familiar with Boston, picture a place 3-4 times the size of the Botanical Gardens, but all roses. For those of you familiar with Manhattan, picture an area about 2 city blocks, just filled with roses. Even for a person with little to no interest in flowers, I just had to say, “Damn, that’s a lot of roses.”

So between the cool skyline, the copious flowers, the large free public jazz fusion concert that made parking so difficult, the 30-year-old skateboarders all around the city, and the fact that no one around seemed to be older than me, Portland seemed like pretty interesting place. Not quite as interesting as visiting an active volcano, though.

One of the reasons why it was so important for me to hit Mt. St. Helens on this trip, this year, is that it will never look the same as it does today. Someone visiting the National Monument a year from now will see a different landscape than someone who visits in 10 years, and none of them will have the same experience as someone who was there 15 years ago. More than anywhere else I’ve seen, this place is living, breathing, and constantly changing in very visible ways. Through the observations done at Mt. St. Helens, not only have we been able to gather more evidence to confirm the Jeff Goldblum hypothesis, but we’ve come closer to answering the question of just how life is able to find a way.

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