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In the three decades since the eruption, the mountain has been an incredible place for scientists to study how life recovers from a catastrophe and recolonizes the landscape. Some of this can be seen in the time-lapse video above, which combines photo-like images from the Landsat series of satellites, run by the USGS and NASA, from 1984 through 2009. Prior to 1984, the Landsat satellites didn’t have the ability to see blue wavelengths of light, and consequently images appear red, such as the ones below of the mountain before the eruption in 1979 and shortly after in 1980.
The area around the mountain was devastated by the collapse of the northern flank of the mountain in what amounted to one of the largest landslides ever recorded, which buried 24 square miles of land under as much as 600 feet of debris. The nine-hour eruption blew 520 million tons of ash over 230 square miles and knocked down 14 billion board feet of timber. Fifty-seven people died, including one geologist, and more than $1 billion in damage (1980 dollars) was done, making it the most destructive eruption in U.S. history.
In the time-lapse, you will first notice some recovery in the northwestern part of the blast zone, away from the volcano. Then the area around Spirit Lake becomes greener in the late 1990s. In the most recent images, the only area that still appears to be desolate is known as Pumice Plain. Research on the ground has found the first signs of life in recent years as flowers, insects and small animals have begun to reinhabit the plain. But these changes can’t yet be seen from space.