What we can learn about volcanic eruptions from the vehicles trapped in their path

The car in this photo was 13 kilometers northeast of Mount St. Helens when that volcano erupted on May 18, 1980. This photo was taken about a month later by researchers from the United States Geological Survey. At the Rosetta Stones blog, Dana Hunter has a really fascinating story — with more eerie photos — about why geologists would want to study totaled vehicles and what we can learn from machines that we can't learn from people.


  1. I think the “unidentifiable” photo is metal around an instrument panel and the center post of the steering column.  Looked like a cylinder gasket at first, but was not symmetrical.  

    1. I think you may be right, although I’m surprised something that is largely plastic wasn’t turned into a fused lump.  It would help to have a larger context with positioning, rather than a closeup.

      1. If I’m not much mistaken, the car appears to be something like a 10-year-old Mercury Cougar.  My 1970 Cougar came with wheels exactly like those, although the beltline and apparent lack of side marker lights would suggest a ’67.

        In any case, whatever it is, it’s from the late 60s.  That instrument cluster would have plastic lenses, but most of the rest of the visible portion of the instruments would be metal.

        Weird that the tires are still more-or-less intact.

  2. I went on a family vacation about 10 years after that happened.  It was astounding to be several states away, and see Mt. St. Helens ash on the ground.  The area itself was mind-blowing to see.  I have no idea what it looks like in person 20 years later, but judging from photos, it hasn’t changed much.  You drive down roads that are mostly used for logging, and drive through this green forest until you hit the devastation.  At first, you think you’ve driven back into the desert, but no.

  3. The main thing we learn from studying vehicles trapped in the path of a volcanic eruption is that you should try very hard not to get trapped in the path of a volcanic eruption.

  4. I saw an interview with a survivor who fled the pyroclastic flow.  IIRC  He said he was doing about 110 when he passed a station wagon doing about 85.  Then they showed the scorched station wagon in a pile of tree trunks.  The road itself was invisible.   

  5. I was born about twenty miles from the mountain just eight days before it blew. I can tell you that growing up around the area and watching the blast zone change has been one of the most fascinating parts of my life. If you ever have a chance to go, it’s still a very cool thing to see. I’ve been on top of the mountain twice, looking down into the crater and out into the blast and the effect is incomprehensible. 

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