Appreciating Subtlety, But Longing for Fireworks

By Dr. Robert Thorson

Teaching respect for nature’s power is the most important challenge facing science educators today. This is fairly easy to achieve when volcanic eruptions offer dramatic images that outmatch even a Hollywood spectacle. It’s much harder to achieve when nature works stealthily, as in global warming. Understanding the more subtle side of nature takes patience and plenty of hard work on the part of the public, science educators and the media.

The recent eruptions at Mount St. Helens in Washington state coincided with the first presidential debate between George Bush and John Kerry. The volcano visuals were certainly more stunning than those from the debate, neat hairdos, good makeup and nice ties notwithstanding. Though it was not visually arousing, I did appreciate the reasoned deliberateness of the television coverage for both events. The steady accumulation of seismic and geochemical data from Mount St. Helens allowed me to understand better the real hazard posed by Pacific Northwest volcanoes. And the measured remarks from each candidate allowed me to judge better each man’s character, depth of knowledge and ability to run this country.

I confess that, although one part of me was satisfied with the steady flow of information, another, more primitive part of me wanted something more. I wanted to see Mount St. Helens blow a huge hole in the planet with a full-scale, stratosphere-punching, earth- shaking, life-threatening eruption, one that could divert us from the steady drip of bad news about Iraq, Atlantic hurricanes, the mind-boggling national debt and health care costs. That’s the same part of me that wanted to see a red-hot political eruption at the debate rather than the simmering heat between the contestants — something unexpected that would get my juices really flowing. For instance, just imagine one of the presidential candidates suddenly hurling a chair at his opponent, who then retaliates with a podium- leaping, chest-beating, kung fu-flipping attack. Unfortunately, our gravest problems often lack visual drama and require that we take the time to think through them carefully and teach them one small step at a time.

This point was clarified for me last week. A radio news reporter asked me to comment on whether the recent activity at Mount St. Helens signaled an impending eruption. The reporter got his comment from me all right, something about magma, seismic tremors, ice melting and changes in gas content. I gave him the classic tepid “talking-head” response, similar to what the experts from the U.S. Geological Survey in Vancouver, Wash., were guardedly saying on national television. Molten rock is indeed rising beneath Mount St. Helens, but all indicators suggest that a catastrophic explosion is probably not in the works right now.

I was sorry to disappoint the reporter who seemed to be trawling for a juicier prediction than he landed. Had we been talking during May 1980, however, I would have told him something different. Then, the deep tremors, bulging slopes, melting snow and volatile gases were omens of a colossal volcanic eruption that did take place on May 18, 1980, taking the life of 57 people, including my office mate David Johnston, whose body was never recovered. I was able to tell the reporter that I had, in fact, had personal experience with Mount St. Helens. I had worked there in 1979 as part of a U.S. Geological Survey hazards assessment team, field-checking its eruption history. Soon thereafter, the volcano blew. Our nation’s most symmetrically beautiful peak had become a jagged stump, shrouding eastern Washington beneath thick volcanic ash and spreading silica grit east to New England and beyond.

Fortunately, there has been no catastrophic explosion of Mount St. Helens this year. Nor did any political explosion take place during the first presidential debate. In theory, of course, violent, media-riveting images are always a possibility from either the geological or political arena, but I don’t expect any this season.

At any rate, there is little we can do with a Cascade Range volcano, except treat it with the respect it deserves. In politics, in contrast, we can do something. We can watch the debates, read to stay informed, make an honest effort to understand the important and complex issues of our time and then vote with our heads rather than our hormones.