Bill Nye The Science Guy on Mount St. Helens
Bill Nye discusses what’s so special about Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, his first hike into the volcano’s crater, and a strange wind that brings an insect rain.
Mount St. Helens was on Bill Nye’s list before it blew.
Still chasing his “teenage fantasy of becoming a mountain climber” as he worked on Boeing’s 747 program in Everett right out of engineering school, Nye had his sights on the summit.
He couldn’t get there before the eruption, and though he would later climb to the crater rim and even helicoptered into the crater when he featured the volcano in one of the most popular episodes of his beloved PBS television show, he didn’t hike the crater until September 2019.
Nye now serves on the board of the Mount St. Helens Institute.
“There are great lessons to be learned about the environment, our role in it and what’s possible,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing.”
How was your first trek into the crater?
“The thing about climbing Mount St. Helens is it’s a hike, not some amazing technical thing with ropes and pitons. There’s quite a bit of loose rock and clambering over boulders. Somebody took a bite out of the Earth and you can see the layers from the crater. That’s pretty awesome. It’s just spectacular.”
There’s more than just geology?
“Mount St. Helens has become a laboratory for hydrologists, geologists, ecologists, entomologists, mammalogists, every -ologist you want to come up with. The geology is amazing but the crazy story is the ecology. Everyone is surprised at how quickly ecosystems reestablish themselves.”
What can you tell us about the strange wind at Mount St. Helens?
“A crazy, amazing thing is this upslope breeze from lower elevation to upper elevation, which you wouldn’t expect. This wind carries insects uphill. Then the insects fall. Flowering plants that need nitrogen are able to get it from this insect rain. The soil — the dust, the ash — there’s a mixture of all kinds of chemicals plants love. Water’s always flowing down Loowit Creek from the snow and the glacier in the crater and everything grows. When beavers get established, that’s when all kinds of things happen in an ecosystem and larger animals come.”
What will we see in another 40 years?
“There’ll be a lot more plants growing higher on the mountain and a lot more animal life. The Spirit Lake logs will probably still be there.”
–Interview by Tim Neville; Photo by F. Scott Schafer/Getty
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.