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Mount St. Helens eruption prompted trove of PNNL research

Thirty-seven years ago today, the eruption of Mount St. Helens clouded the Pacific Northwest in ash while also prompting a trove of research for some scientists at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, then known as Pacific Northwest Laboratory.

Several lab staff took candid photos of the eruption and its aftermath from multiple vantage points, ranging from the Battelle aircraft flying around the volcanic to on the ground sampling in Eastern Washington state. An album of those pictures can be found on PNNL's Flickr page.

Just weeks before the eruption, PNNL scientists were trekking around the mountain to collect samples of ash released during a series of pre-eruption activities. The team had placed 30-gallon trash cans gather the various substances being emitted before the big event.

The day after the eruption, the same staff flew a DC-3 atmospheric research plane over Mount St. Helens to better understand the elements and compounds coming from the mountain. The plane was owned by Battelle, the nonprofit research organization that still manages PNNL today. They flew into the volcano's cloud for 30-second intervals to take gas and ash samples. Rotten egg-smelling hydrogen sulfide was the most abundant gas found at the time.

"I'll never forget the sight," said Khris Olsen, who was among those who made the historic flight. He continues to conduct environmental and analytical chemistry research at PNNL today.

The lab also analyzed samples of Mt. St. Helens ash for their physical and chemical makeup, as well as their potential toxicity. A preliminary summary of that work was published in the journal Science on Sept. 5, 1980, followed by a more comprehensive analysis published in a March 1986 supplement of the American Journal of Public Health.

Jon Fruchter, then the lab's resident volcanologist, was also named to the President's Commission on Effects of the Mt. St. Helens eruption.