This report provides a detailed picture of the rockslide-debris avalanche of the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St. Helens volcano. It provides a characterization of the deposit, a reinterpretation of the details of the first minutes of the eruption of May 18, and insight into the transport mechanism of the mass movement.
Details of the rockslide event, as revealed by eyewitness photographs, are correlated with features of the deposit. The photographs show three slide blocks in the rockslide movement. Slide block I was triggered by a magnitude 5.1 earthquake at 8:32 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (P.D.T.). An exploding cryptodome burst through slide block II to produce the ‘blast surge.‘ Slide block III consisted of many discrete failures that were carried out in continuing pyroclastic currents generated from the exploding cryptodome. The cryptodome continued to depressurize after slide block III, producing a blast deposit that rests on top of the debris-avalanche deposit.
The hummocky 2.5 cubic kilometer debris-avalanche deposit consists of block facies (pieces of the pre-eruption Mount St. Helens transported relatively intact) and matrix facies (a mixture of rocks from the old mountain and cryptodome dacite). Block facies is divided into five lithologic units. Matrix facies was derived from the explosively generated current of slide block III as well as from disaggregation and mixing of debris-avalanche blocks.
The mean density of the old cone was measured to be abut 20 percent greater than the mean density of the avalanche deposit. Density in the deposit does not decrease with distance which suggests that debris-avalanche blocks were dilated at the mountain, rather than during transport. Various grain-size parameters that show that clast size converges about a mean with distance suggest mixing during transport.
The debris-avalanche flow can be considered a grain flow, where particles -- either debris-avalanche blocks or the clasts within the blocks -- collided and created dispersive stress normal to the movement of material. The dispersive stress preserved the dilation of the material and allowed it to flow.