Mount St. Helens Ecologist Spent His Life Researching the Volcano; Science Is Reaping the Rewards


Charlie Crisafulli was a 22-year-old grad student when he caught a helicopter ride over the blast zone of Mount St. Helens, just a couple months after its eruption. What he saw below him was pure devastation.

On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens exploded in one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded U.S. history. The mountain’s top was gone. It was vaporized into ash, 540 million tons of it, spewing 15 miles into the sky. Fifty-seven people were killed. As he observed the landscape below, Crisafulli recalled “seeing everything that had once been green was now shades of gray, there was no way to wrap your head around it. I knew something incomprehensible had happened here and something I had to have more of.”

Crisafulli was young and just starting his scientific career. He had no idea how his life would change.

In 1980, Crisafulli worked with a collection of dedicated scientists.

“We were all so eager to learn from whatever the mountain had to offer,” he said.

Scientists saw this as an extremely important opportunity because rarely are they able to start a study after an eruption, especially one as powerful as this one.

“There was no life present — just pumice. The basic building blocks of an ecosystem, namely, carbon and nitrogen, were absent,” Crisafulli said, reflecting on the areas hardest hit by the eruption.

From an ecological perspective, it was a clean slate from which life would regenerate, but no one had a clue as to how long and in what ways this would happen.

“Most life was obliterated,” he said.

The ancient forest was annihilated. What remained covered the lake in floating logs. Spirit Lake was unrecognizable. Lodge owner and local celebrity Harry Truman’s cabins were gone. The water was warm and bubbled with new hot springs. The once famously clear water turned to murk.

“If you put your fingers in … you couldn’t even see your fingertips,” Crisafulli said. The whole area was gray and foul. It was putrid and “smelled like rotten eggs.”

But within hours of the eruption, bacteria flourished. The bacteria rapidly consumed oxygen, making the water inhospitable for fish, amphibians and insects. And, the water was dangerous.

“There were a couple of (sources) of pneumonia (in the lake) and the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease, Legionella. Many of us working in the lake in the early days came down with a fever,” Crisafulli recalled.

Three years after the eruption there was another discovery — microscopic plants. Phytoplankton, likely carried by birds or blown by the wind, colonized the lake and transformed sunlight into oxygen, crucial to other forms of life.

Between 1983 and 1986, 135 different species of these tiny plants colonized Spirit Lake, providing oxygen and prey for the food web, Crisafulli said. Once organisms found a way back, they had to persist. Surviving in this harsh landscape was not easy. Many perished. But Crisafulli is quick to point out that even in death, their bodies helped supply building blocks for other plants and animals. Before the eruption, this lake was oligotrophic, or nutrient poor, a common condition of other high-altitude mountain lakes.

The downed trees floating on Spirit Lake served as a long-term, slow-release food bank. As logs bumped into each other, bits of wood would break off and sink, continuing to slowly add nutrients into the lake. The surface of the logs were coated with algal growth, habitat for insects, and even germination sites for new shrubs and trees that grow from the logs. The entire mat of logs moved like a giant creature. Wind would blow them from one side of the lake to the next. This continuous movement prevented the lake from freezing completely, an annual occurrence before the eruption.

The word “ecology” comes from the Greek word oikos meaning “house,” or “place to live.” Ecologists don’t study single organisms so much as they study how they interact. They are interested in the entire house rather than a single piece of furniture. And through the years, Crisafulli was discovering that Mount St. Helens was a perfect laboratory.

Gophers were found in one of the most devastated areas, surviving by eating roots, bulbs and rhizomes. Gophers enrich the pumice by burrowing through the ash, mixing in fresh soil and helping new plants to spread. Then herds of elk would come, collapsing the tunnels, creating cool and moist habitat for amphibians.

Crisafulli was getting to know this landscape intimately.

“The volcano began to be so much more to me. There’s not a lake or pond that I haven’t waded in, not a stream that I haven’t sampled in or lake that I haven’t snorkeled.”

This was Crisafulli’s backyard.

“Every year I scramble up a steep slope on the Pumice Plain and greet the same parsley fern, like an old friend, and see that it survived another year. I know that it’s survived because I check on it every year.”

This is the longest continuous study focused on documenting how life returns from scratch — it’s been 41 years now and counting. Crisafulli has been through all of it. Ecologists can see change on a grand scale and rethink some hypotheses. In the early 1990s they discovered rainbow trout in Spirit Lake. Crisafulli was puzzled by how they got into the lake. Because all fish were killed during the eruption, and the lake was cut off from all downstream source populations, the working hypothesis was that they were “clandestinely planted.” The fish were huge, uncharacteristically huge. At 4 years old, they were three times as big as trout elsewhere in the Cascades. But, they died young — living only a third of their average lifespan.

From 2000 to 2020 the average size of trout declined by 50%, becoming closer to the size of trout in comparable lakes. New information reveals the possibility that the fish may not have been planted, after all. It’s possible that the shifting, post-eruption landscape may have created temporary flows, permitting fish passage from the North Fork of the Toutle River to Spirit Lake. That opens the theory that the fish in Spirit Lake are actually progeny of native wild winter steelhead that tenaciously found their way back into the lake. If true, this would be a remarkable case-study of natural colonization.

More of this story remains to be told.

“Each time I would come out here there would be a surprise, something would be unveiled.” Crisafulli says that good science takes time, and the value of such long-term ecological work is incalculable.

“The value of such a body of knowledge is that it increases exponentially. With data spanning from 41 years and counting, you can look at nuances and tease out change and patterns that would be impossible to do without that duration of study.”

Long-lived species such as western red cedars can live up to 1,000 years. Studying how a forest returns from scratch would be a tremendous opportunity for ecologists.

“It would be terrible to drop the ball after 40 years. We have so much into it,” he said.

The conifers, though small, have just started producing cones on the Pumice Plain. A forest is growing up. When Crisafulli first flew over the blast zone in his grad-school days, he had no idea how his life would change. Crisafulli retired in April from his ecology job with the Forest Service. He still plans to continue his science independently and in cooperation with the Mount St. Helens Institute. His life and the mountain’s story are intertwined. “It’s where my children learned to identify mushrooms, pick huckleberries, learned to fish for trout and ski … my identity has been tied with the volcano.”

My first encounter with Crisafulli came decades into his life’s work studying the return of life to Mount St. Helens. I was there as a photographer for OPB’s “Oregon Field Guide” with producer Vince Patton. We could barely keep up with Crisafulli, who dodged rocks with the agility of a gazelle while carrying a 60-pound pack. It seemed like he had every rock memorized.

As we filmed Crisafulli, following him on foot, boat and underwater, I was struck by how much of his life was dedicated to the mountain. How the volcano pulled him in. Part of the assignment called for me to scuba dive with a camera in Spirit Lake. As I dipped under the floating logs and gazed into the nothingness below, I found a strange quiet. Light filtered through logs, once a forest on the mountain’s slope. Their patterns danced with the darkness. I thought of all that was lost. I thought of Harry Truman, the lodge owner who stayed on the mountain and died in the eruption.

“I’m going to stay right here because, I’ll tell you why, my home and my (expletive) life’s here,” Truman had told one of the many reporting crews that had come to interview him in the weeks before the mountain blew its top. “My wife and I, we both vowed years and years ago that we’d never leave Spirit Lake. We loved it. It’s part of me, and I’m part of that (expletive) mountain.”

Truman wouldn’t recognize the lake and he wouldn’t recognize the mountain. But life is gritty. It’s clawing back. With every microbe, salamander and gopher, it’s coming back.