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Many inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest vividly remember the towering plume of gray volcanic ash that filled the skies on the morning of May 18, 1980. It was visible from as far away as Seattle and Eugene, Oregon.

Over a billion cubic yards of rock near the summit of Mount St. Helens became airborne, eventually settling as ash and debris on eleven US states and five Canadian provinces. The largest volcanic eruption in American history, it killed 57 people and caused more than $1 billion in damages.

Seattle author Steve Olson recounted this cataclysm in a March 19 Orcas Currents lecture, “Eruption! The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens,” at the Orcas Island Community Church. Shedding new light on this disaster and events leading to this eruption, he related the human, environmental, economic, political and scientific stories behind it.

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The subject of a book of the same title published by W. W. Norton & Co., Olson’s account is filled with tales of loggers and lumber tycoons, foresters, geologists, and conservationists whose lives and careers were utterly transformed by this eruption. The Weyerhauser family and company, owner of much of the land surrounding Mount St. Helens, loom large in this history.

To Olson, this eruption also marked a transition from the old, extractive Northwest economy to a new one based largely on information technologies.

Steve Olson is a widely recognized writer on science and culture. His book Mapping Human History using DNA was a National Book Award finalist in 2002. Kirkus Reviews calls his new book, Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens, a “riveting trek combining enthralling nature writing with engaging social history.”

As with all Orcas Currents events, admission to this lecture was free, but donations are gratefully accepted at the door.