Peak flow responses to landscape disturbances caused by the cataclysmic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington

Geological Society of America Bulletin
By:  and 



Years of discharge measurements that precede and follow the cataclysmic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington, provide an exceptional opportunity to examine the responses of peak flows to abrupt, widespread, devastating landscape disturbance. Multiple basins surrounding Mount St. Helens (300–1300 kmdrainage areas) were variously disturbed by: (1) a debris avalanche that buried 60 km2 of valley; (2) a lateral volcanic blast and associated pyroclastic flow that destroyed 550 km2 of mature forest and blanketed the landscape with silt-capped lithic tephra; (3) debris flows that reamed riparian corridors and deposited tens to hundreds of centimeters of gravelly sand on valley floors; and (4) a Plinian tephra fall that blanketed areas proximal to the volcano with up to tens of centimeters of pumiceous silt, sand, and gravel. The spatially complex disturbances produced a variety of potentially compensating effects that interacted with and influenced hydrological responses. Changes to water transfer on hillslopes and to flow storage and routing along channels both enhanced and retarded runoff. Rapid post-eruption modifications of hillslope surface textures, adjustments of channel networks, and vegetation recovery, in conjunction with the complex nature of the eruptive impacts and strong seasonal variability in regional climate hindered a consistent or persistent shift in peak discharges. Overall, we detected a short-lived (5–10 yr) increase in the magnitudes of autumn and winter peak flows. In general, peak flows were larger, and moderate to large flows (>Q2 yr) were more substantively affected than predicted by early modeling efforts. Proportional increases in the magnitudes of both small and large flows in basins subject to severe channel disturbances, but not in basins subject solely to hillslope disturbances, suggest that eruption-induced modifications to flow efficiency along alluvial channels that have very mobile beds differentially affected flows of various magnitudes and likely played a prominent, and additional, role affecting the nature of the hydrological response.

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Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Peak flow responses to landscape disturbances caused by the cataclysmic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington
Series title Geological Society of America Bulletin
DOI 10.1130/B25914.1
Volume 118
Issue 7-8
Year Published 2006
Language English
Publisher Geological Society of America
Contributing office(s) Volcano Hazards Program
Description 21 p.
First page 938
Last page 958
Country United States
State Washington
Other Geospatial Mount St. Helens
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