This past May marked the 40th anniversary of one of the most significant natural disasters in U.S. history: the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. 2004 to 2008 brought another series of eruptions, but today Mt. St. Helens is quiet. Stratovolcanoes such as Mt. St. Helens generally provide some degree of warning (often in the form of earthquakes or surface deformation) before erupting. Given that Mt. St. Helens is one of the most closely monitored volcanoes in the U.S. (if not the world), the lack of activity in recent years has once again made the surrounding landscape a recreational destination.
The northeast side of Mt. St. Helens is just a few hours from our front door, accessed via a series of forest service roads that, while technically paved, are in such poor condition that one pines for the sweet rhythm of dirt washboards. Much of the land most directly affected by the 1980 eruption is protected as the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, established two years after the eruption. Camping and off-trail travel is restricted across a large swath of the monument to allow scientific study of how the landscape evolves post-eruption, with minimal human disturbance. Recently, we took a short backpacking trip to the northeast flank of the mountain, where camping is allowed, but where recurring volcanic activity has still left the landscape relatively devoid of tall vegetation. The result is spectacular views of Mt. St. Helens itself and the surrounding terrain (and, it turns out, any bright comets that happen to be gracing the skies.)
This was my third visit to the area but first in about 10 years. My previous visits had been in late summer and early fall, when the only wildflowers to speak of were some hardy stalks of late-blooming fireweed. On this visit, in early July, the grassy slopes of the lower mountain were awash in what can only be described as a riot of wildflowers. Paintbrush and penstemon dominated the scene, resulting in slopes that glowed red and purple from miles away and absolutely lit up at sunset and sunrise. It was truly one of the most spectacular wildflower displays I have ever seen!
We settled on a campsite located on a small, barren ridge of pumice and ash where we could set up for the evening without impacting the gorgeous display all around us. Shortly thereafter, a handful of mountain goats came wandering through…with a good deal less regard for the wildflowers. While this was slightly concerning at first, as mountain goats can be aggressive, they seemed to be enjoying the buffet too much to notice our presence. We watched them slowly eat their way up-slope behind our campsite for well over an hour (as we somewhat nervously heated up our cans of soup and baked beans, while hoping that they continued to find the scent of the penstemon more attractive) before they finally bedded down on a distant ridge for the evening.
On just a few hours of sleep, we hiked back out to our car the next morning and enjoyed some day hikes to the north of Mt. St. Helens over the next two days. This area provides the best vantage point for viewing the effects of the 1980 eruption. The blast reduced the elevation of Mt. St. Helens by over 1,000 feet, replacing the formerly sharp summit with a massive crater. Part of the crater has since been filled in by a lava dome extruded in the months following the eruption, and again during the eruptive sequence of 2004-2008. Another dramatic feature of the landscape is Spirit Lake. This once idyllic destination was directly in the path of the eruption on May 18, 1980. The massive landslide associated with the eruption filled in a large portion of the lake with debris, pushing the entire lake northward and raising the water level by about 200 feet, burying numerous buildings, camps, and, unfortunately, Mt. St. Helens Lodge owner Harry Truman, who had steadfastly ignored evacuation orders in the weeks leading up to the eruption. To this day, a massive raft of logs floats on the lake surface, the remains of trees uprooted in the 1980 eruption.
As a geologist, I find the landscape around Mt. St. Helens endlessly fascinating. Changes since my last visit 10 years ago were clearly visible in many places. Mt. St. Helens is the most active of the Cascade volcanoes and will certainly erupt again. Perhaps nowhere is it more clear that the current configuration of the Earth’s surface is ultimately temporary.
Today was our first 90 degree day, so I can confidently say that summer has arrived here in Central Washington. As Washington slowly begins to relax stay-at-home restrictions, the last few weekends have brought our first few forays into the mountains since early this year. We’ve deliberately avoided highly visited areas, which in Washington is basically synonymous with “trails with views”. The highlight of these excursions instead has been the wildflowers, which are currently in full bloom at elevations between about 2000 and 4000 feet. With higher elevations still buried in snow, the off-the-beaten path trails in the Cascade foothills are the sweet spot right now:
Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) are some of the most iconic figures of the southwestern deserts. While most often associated with California and Joshua Tree National Park, a tiny portion of their range extends into our corner of southwestern Utah. Not actually a tree but rather a tall gangling species of yucca, Joshua trees are frequent companions on low-elevation hikes in the St. George area, where the Mojave Desert makes its last stand before disappearing into the higher altitude mountains and valleys of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin.
Like many species of yucca, Joshua trees don’t flower every year, but instead only when temperature and rainfall conditions are favorable. We had yet to see a flowering Joshua tree in our three years in Utah, only the dry brown stalks of blooms gone by. This winter has been abnormally wet however, and in early March we started to notice large flower buds forming on a handful of Joshua trees (in the median of Interstate 15) that we drive past regularly. By the end of March, the bloom was in full swing! We decided to head into the Virgin River Gorge of extreme northwestern Arizona for a closer look.
Joshua trees produce truly massive flower stalks: 1-2″ feet long and densely packed with large, rubbery, cream to nearly yellow-colored petals. Perhaps even more impressive are the flower buds, which resemble gigantic green and purple artichokes in the days and weeks before the flowers emerge:
This year’s Joshua tree bloom wasn’t limited to Utah and Arizona. Throughout the Mojave Desert, Joshua trees have been flowering in large numbers, thanks to a series of wet and cold winter storms over the past few months. In fact, some Joshua trees in California were observed blooming as far back as last November. This fact may seem innocuous, but actually gives ecologists cause for concern given that Joshua trees are pollinated by just one insect: the yucca moth. Yucca moths are the sole species with the proper behavior and anatomy to pollinate the Joshua tree. Consequently, Joshua trees are 100% dependent on the yucca moth for reproduction and survival, while the larvae of the yucca moth are similarly dependent on the Joshua tree seeds for nutrition. For these symbiotic species to survive, the timing of the Joshua tree bloom must coincide with the life cycle of the moth. As climate change warms the southwestern deserts, there is concern that this could cease to be the case, as described in the linked article above. Joshua trees are a keystone species of the Mojave Desert, providing food and shelter for a host of other animals large and small. A decline in their populations would be devastating for the desert as a whole.
All of this is reason to work toward protecting our remaining stands of Joshua Trees, and a reminder to always be mindful and respectful when photographing sensitive species and landscapes. The “superblooms” of poppies and other wildflowers in the southwest over the past few months have highlighted the ecological damage that occurs when swarms of folks looking for their next Instagram photo descend en masse on delicate landscapes without regard for the environment.
Fortunately, many photographers are aware of the threat photography can pose to these beautiful environments and are working to combat the problem. I’m pleased to share that I have joined Nature First: The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography. The goal of Nature First is to promote responsible nature photography through adherence to seven core principles:
Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
Use discretion if sharing locations.
Know and follow rules and regulations.
Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
Actively promote and educate others about these principles
If you are a nature or landscape photographer, check them out and consider joining. Following these principles will ensure that spectacular events like Joshua tree blooms are still around for future generations of humans and yucca moths to enjoy!