After devastation … the recovery

An amazing bounce-back after catastrophe gives us insights into how the world recovered from the Flood.

by Keith Swenson and David Catchpoole

Published: November 14, 2012
Keith Swenson

When Mount St Helens erupted on 18 May 1980, the resulting devastation of the area around the volcano left many stunned at the sheer scale of the destruction. More than 200 square miles (over 500 square km) of what had been a vast green blanket of pristine forest, clear mountain streams and tranquil lakes was now a monotonous grey ash-covered wasteland of fallen timber, steaming pumice plains, barren mudflows and avalanche debris. Shortly after the eruption, the then U.S. President Jimmy Carter compared it to a moonscape. Scientists studying the affected area referred to an ‘apparently sterile landscape’,1 lamenting that ‘It will never be again, in our lifetime’2 and speculating that it would even be ‘impossible for insects to recover at all.’3

Gloomy predictions wrong

Scientists who flocked to study the devastated area soon found that the initial pessimistic forecasts of long-term barrenness were largely unfounded.4 For example, within just three years, 90% of the original plant species were found to be growing within the blast zone.5 As is evident from the ‘before-and-after’ photographs on these pages (more photographs were originally included with this article), the innate resilience of the creation had been greatly underestimated.

Life’s return—the details

However, many species were completely eliminated from the Mount St Helens blast zone because of the eruption. While most volcanoes erupt in an upward fashion, Mount St Helens initially exploded sideways, spewing its oven-hot blast over the forested landscape to the north. Nicknamed the ‘stonewind’, the rock-laden, ground-hugging steam blast advanced rapidly outward from the volcano in a 180° arc, flattening over 200 square miles (500 square km) of forest in less than ten minutes. The extent of biological destruction was staggering. The timber felled by the eruption would have been sufficient to build almost 500,000 three-bedroom houses. Virtually all the visible mosses, ferns, shrubs and wildflowers vanished. Not only did all living organisms in the upper North Fork Toutle River die, but 15 miles (24km) of the river itself was no more!6 The estimates of animal deaths by the Washington State Department of Game included 11 million fish; 1 million birds (including 27,000 grouse); 11,000 hares; 5,000 deer; 1,500 elk; 1,400 coyotes; 300 bobcats; 200 black bears; 15 mountain goats;7 and 15 cougars.8 In addition, 57 people were counted as dead or missing.

Photos by Keith Swenson

Virtually all species of medium-to-large sized mammals in the affected area,9 and presumably all bird species,10 were obliterated. But many have come back, by immigrating from outside. Various bird species were recorded in the area soon after the eruption, probably feeding on insects (the first helicopter crews to land in the devastated area reported that flies and other conspicuous insects had preceded them).11,12 Although not all of these insect migrants survived (herbivorous insects could not live until plants had started to grow again), many species did survive—often by consuming their airfall companions, both alive and dead. Among the aerial arrivals were millions of wind-borne spiders,13 plant seeds and fungus spores.

Once vegetation had begun to regrow, the large herbivorous mammals such as elk and deer re-entered the blast zone. Elk, being highly mobile, were able to move into and out of the blast zone at will, and this further hastened plant recovery, as their dung contained seeds and nutrients transported from outside the devastated area. Beavers from the adjacent forests followed water courses upstream to blast zone lakes. Amazingly, salmon and trout maturing in the Pacific Ocean at the time of the eruption (and thought to be intolerant of anything other than cold, clear, well-oxygenated streams), successfully ascended muddy and ash-clogged waterways in their instinctive urge to spawn.14

Although millions of organisms living above ground at the time of the eruption were wiped out, many life-forms within the devastated area survived the fury of the blast.15 How? Ants survived in underground colonies,16 salamanders in the soft wood of decomposing logs, fish in ice-covered lakes, and roots of plants were protected from the blast inferno by soil and snowpack. Although large numbers of these subsequently succumbed to the unforgiving post-eruption environment, some lived on and reproduced. In fact, ecologists acknowledge that the presence of such ‘unexpected survivors’ greatly accelerated recovery. The aquatic and streambank areas exhibited the most rapid recovery. At least 10 of the 16 original species of amphibians (frogs, toads and salamanders) survived the eruption.17 Frog and toad survivors exploded onto the recovering landscape, rapidly establishing large breeding populations by the mid-1980s.

Keith Swenson

Today, the diversity of species (e.g. birds18) living in the area devastated by the eruption of Mount St Helens in May 1980 is approaching its pre-eruption levels. The kinds of birds and animals that have not yet returned are mostly species preferring old-growth forest habitat. While it will probably take at least 200 years before old-growth forest again occupies the blast zone (providing another disturbance does not intervene), Mount St Helens has forced ecologists to rethink their theories of ecological ‘succession’. This was because they found both ‘pioneer’ and ‘climax’ species growing side-by-side!

Mount St Helens and the world-wide Flood

Observing the return of life to Mount St Helens can provide some insight into the return of life to the world after Noah’s Flood. Both Mount St Helens and the world-wide Flood were cataclysmic geologic events involving extreme volcanism (Genesis 7:11), flooding, and the destruction of life—one on a local, the other on a global scale. In both, organisms survived and repopulated the post-disturbance landscape. Consider:

  1. Many species were completely wiped out from the blast zone, particularly the birds and the large land mammals (e.g. deer and elk).

    In the Flood, everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died; the only ones to survive were those with Noah in the Ark. At Mount St Helens, these species returned to the devastated landscape through migration from beyond the zone of destruction. After the world-wide Flood, animals migrated out from the Ark’s landing place, multiplying and repopulating the earth.

    Interestingly, reproductive rates of elk (large herbivores) early in the recovery period at Mount St Helens were among the highest ever seen, probably due to availability of high-quality forage from recovering vegetation. Survival of offspring also increased, probably a reflection of the low numbers of predators, which only moved in and multiplied later once herbivore herd numbers had increased.

    Just as hunting pressure drove elk into the blast zone at Mount St Helens (local authorities had put restrictions on hunting in the devastated area), the post-Flood human population, as it spread across the earth following the dispersion from Babel, must have induced wild creatures to move to more distant regions. With their much higher reproductive rates, herbivores probably occupied the far-flung unoccupied zones of the earth well in advance of predators and man. Birds, with their capacity for flight, are likely to have been at the forefront of the dispersal into the devastated post-Flood landscape, as at Mount St Helens. This may explain why birds such as New Zealand’s Moa that could have lost the ability to fly through mutation (loss of genetic information) were able to survive in apparently large numbers—until hunters eventually migrated to the area.

    Interestingly, the animals and birds that were the first to colonise the devastated landscape at Mount St Helens are known by ecologists as ‘generalists’, i.e. able to tolerate a wide array of environmental conditions and dine on a variety of foods. Among the most conspicuous of the first colonisers at Mount St Helens was the common raven, known to eat almost anything, including carrion. Back in Noah’s day too, it was the raven that was the first to leave the Ark (Genesis 8:7), weeks before the dove was able to survive in the devastated post-Flood world (Genesis 8:8–12).

  2. Tourists and researchers visiting Mount St Helens and Spirit Lake are amazed—not only by the extent of destruction wrought by the volcano, but by the incredible ‘bounce back’. The area has given great insight into rapid formation of such things as layers and canyons; now, also, into how rapidly ecosystems can recover from cataclysm. Photos by Keith Swenson

  3. Many species—plants, microbes, insects, amphibians and aquatic creatures—survived within the blast zone, if not in adult form, then as seeds, spores, eggs and/or larvae.

    It is noteworthy that God brought only birds and air-breathing land animals to the Ark. Mount St Helens shows us that species not taken on board the Ark can indeed survive cataclysmic geologic events.

    Though many plants, amphibians and fish died in the eruption (as undoubtedly occurred in the Flood, as per the fossil evidence), many survived to reproduce. As for insects, it is known that there are billions of insects in the air column, even up to altitudes of 4,500m (15,000 feet).19,20 Though most if not all would not have remained aloft during the 40 days of rain, many insects would have survived the Flood in floating logs and other debris.

    Even dead insects would, through their carcasses, have been an important source of food for survivors and nutrients for the vegetation sprouting as the Flood waters receded. And as at Spirit Lake (see aside below) legions of microbes probably helped restore the volcanically degraded post-Flood lakes and seas. Animals on the Ark could thereafter have migrated gradually from the Mount Ararat region into a prepared landscape, already populated by abundant microbial, plant, insect and aquatic life.

Resilience of the creation

The overarching conclusion to be drawn from Mount St Helens is the extreme resilience of the creation. Sceptics often argue that recovery from a global catastrophe such as the Flood would be impossible within a short biblical time-frame. Mount St Helens, however, demonstrates how quickly and completely recovery can occur in the natural world. So, following the Flood of Noah’s day, the regreening and repopulating of the earth could also have happened within a very short time-frame. Just like the Bible says.

Keith Swenson
Keith Swenson
U.S. Geological Survey

The death and rebirth of Spirit Lake

On the morning of May 18, 1980, Spirit Lake, a paragon of tranquility and beauty, was virtually obliterated. About one-third of the avalanche of debris ploughed directly into this azure jewel, causing its water to slosh over 240 metres (800 feet) up the mountain slopes to the north, where it picked up the soil and vegetation of an old-growth forest, including a million logs. When this organic soup returned, it was to a new lake basin, elevated over 60 metres (more than 200 feet) above its pre-eruption level. Oven-hot flows of volcanic debris boiled into the lake’s south shore, and volcanic rocks and ash rained from the sky. The first helicopter crews into the blast zone reported they were unable to find Spirit Lake. They did not recognise it with its surface obscured by a mantle of floating logs and pumice.

When scientists returned to Spirit Lake in June of 1980, they found it had been ‘transformed into a roiling [‘roil’ = to stir, to make muddy], steaming body of degraded water choked with logs and mud.’1 They predicted it would take 10–20 years to return to its ‘pre-eruption chemical and biological condition.’ As it turned out, it took closer to five! How did this happen so quickly?

After the eruption, Spirit Lake became a ‘paradise’ for microbes. Its waters, once cold (10°C = 50°F) and clear, became warm (over 32°C = 90°F) and muddy, laden with organic debris, mineral nutrients and other chemicals. Bacteria proliferated to an astounding degree in this broth, ultimately peaking at half a billion bacterial cells per millilitre—a ‘concentration that is possibly unprecedented in the annals of environmental microbiology.’2 For a time, the oxygen levels were so depleted by the decomposition activity that the lake could support only anaerobic (i.e. can live without oxygen) microbes. Spirit Lake thus bubbled like a cauldron from escaping carbon dioxide, methane and hydrogen sulfide generated by these bacteria in bottom sediments. For scientists visiting the area, the odour was overwhelming! However, the ‘no oxygen’ bacteria were crucial in decomposing the huge amounts of organic debris settling on the bottom of the lake during this phase of the recovery process.

Restoration was greatly hastened by the coming of the winter rains. This seasonal influx of fresh water diluted the concentration of toxic chemicals and raised oxygen levels. Wind, waves and seasonal lake turnover stirred in still more oxygen, enabling the return of oxygen-dependent microbes, which absorbed mineral nutrients from the water, and thus helped clear the lake of these and other chemicals. Water clarity improved, and with increased light penetration the phytoplankton reappeared. They produce food by photosynthesis and release oxygen as a by-product. Within just five years, the water quality had nearly returned to its pristine pre-eruption state—a remarkable transformation.

Keith Swenson
U.S. Geological Survey

Log mat floating on Spirit Lake following eruption disaster.


  1. Larson, D., The Recovery of Spirit Lake, American Scientist 81(2):166, March–April, 1993. Return to text.
  2. Ref. 1, p. 170. Return to text.

References and notes

  1. Franklin, J.F., MacMahon, J.A., Swanson, F.J., Sedell, J.R., Ecosystem responses to the eruption of Mount St. Helens, National Geographic Research 1(2):198, 1985. Return to text.
  2. Lumsden, R., 1997 Mount St Helens Field Study Tour, Institute for Creation Research, CA, USA, p. 30, 1997. Return to text.
  3. Adams, A.B., Leffler, S., Insect recolonization of the northwest sector of the Mount St. Helens blast zone, in Keller, Ref. 4. Return to text.
  4. Keller, S.A.C. (ed.), Mount St. Helens—five years later, Cheney, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, USA, p. 307, 1986. Return to text.
  5. Ref. 1, p. 198. Return to text.
  6. A resident along the Toutle River described a mudflow passing his house on the afternoon of May 18, 1980, as having the consistency of wet concrete and looking like ‘a sandy beach going by’ with ‘fish flopping on top’. Other observers noted salmon and trout jumping out of the Toutle; the water had suddenly heated from normal 45°F (7.2°C) to over 90°F (32.2°C). Return to text.
  7. Mountain goats from the Olympic Mountains (Washington) were relocated to the Mount St Helens area in 1972 by the State of Washington Game Department, and were known for occasionally chasing hikers. All 15 goats died in the eruption. Return to text.
  8. Carson, R., Mount St. Helens: The Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano, Sasquatch Books, Seattle, USA, p. 83, 1990. Return to text.
  9. Andersen, D.C., MacMahon, J.A., The effects of catastrophic ecosystem disturbance: the residual mammals at Mount St. Helens, Journal of Mammalogy 66(3):587, 1985. Return to text.
  10. It is estimated that approximately 80 species of birds would have been present in the blast zone during May (permanent residents, winter residents and some migrants). See Ref. 18. Return to text.
  11. Frenzen, P. and Crisafulli, C., Biological Responses to the 1980 eruptions of Mount St Helens, (information sheet provided by the Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument), p. 4, 1990. Return to text.
  12. Edwards, J.S., Crawford, R.L., Sugg, P.M., Peterson, M.A., Arthropod recolonization in the blast zone of Mount St Helens, in: Keller, Ref. 4. Return to text.
  13. Many species of spiders ride the wind in a process known as ‘ballooning’. A long silken thread is released into the air and acts as a kite or balloon which transports the spider even hundreds of miles. Entomologists (refer Ref. 12, p. 332) identified over 75 species of spiders ballooning onto the pumice plain at Mount St Helens, and estimated that two million spiders fell per square mile each day from June to October 1983. Return to text.
  14. Lucas, R.E., Recovery of game fish populations impacted by the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens: winter-run steelhead in the Toutle River watershed, in: Keller, Ref. 4. Return to text.
  15. Ref. 8, p. 88. Return to text.
  16. Sugg, P.M., Arthropod populations at Mount St Helens: survival and revival, in: Ref. 4. Return to text.
  17. Figures based on data from Karlstrom, E.L., Amphibian recovery in the North Fork Toutle River debris avalanche area of Mount St Helens, in: Keller, Ref. 4 (modified based on additional information). Return to text.
  18. ‘Before-and-after’ comparisons of numbers of bird species at Mt St Helens must take seasonal variation into account. As mentioned in Ref. 10, it is estimated that 80 species of birds were present at the time of the eruption. Asikainen, M., Birds of Mount St Helens (checklist), Mount St Helens National Volcanic Monument, 1996, reports that by 1996, 118 species of birds, 80 of which were nesting species, were regularly observed in the blast zone! Return to text.
  19. Coad, B.R., Insects captured by airplane are found at surprising heights, Yearbook of Agriculture, U.S. Dept. Agr., pp. 320–323, 1931. Return to text.
  20. Hardy, A.C., Milne, P.S., Studies in the distribution of insects by aerial currents, Experiments in aerial tow-netting from kites, Journal of Animal Ecology 7:199–229, 1938. Return to text.
Larson, D., The Recovery of Spirit Lake, American Scientist 81(2):166, March–April, 1993.
Ref. 1, p. 170.

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Readers’ comments
Jack C., Australia, 14 November 2012
Two Japanese cities were nuked to end the second world war. Yet those two cities today appear as if no such disastrous bombs were ever dropped, both in terms of vegetation and human habitation. So, nature is just as much if not more resilient than man to catastrophic changes. Why so many scientists are blind to this fact and say it's impossible for a recovery to happen after a great flood is beyond me.
R. M., United States, 15 November 2012
The use of the rapid recovery phenomena associated with the Mt. St. Helens eruption as an analog to the supposed rapid recovery from a putative world-wide flood is badly flawed, for a simple reason. The damaged environs of Mt. St. Helens were colonized from outside the affected region, which served as a plentiful reservoir of plants and animals that were not affected by the local cataclysmic event. But since the flood is supposed to have been universal and world-wide, there would have been no reservoir of plant and animal colonists available to participate in the recovery. Arguments by analogy are very weak when the physical situation does not support an analogous relationship. This goes for the present argument as well as for the weak analogy between the Grand Canyon and the erosion on Mt. St. Helens.
David Catchpoole responds
No reservoir of animal colonists? Then what was the Ark for? As for plant colonists, many seeds are jawdroppingly resistant to a whole host of 'damaging' treatments, as those familiar with seed scarification processes in agriculture and horticulture can attest. Twelve months in water would have been no problem for seeds of those plant kinds. Other plant kinds might have survived to reproduce asexually after the Flood. E.g. olive trunks have been floated in water for six months, and which then resprouted. And have you ever stopped to consider that the distribution of agricultural plants in the world fits with what you might expect of a post-Babel dispersion? Human families at that time, suddenly each with their own language, spreading out from Babel taking their particular cropping expertise/resources with them. Seed resources comprised of post-Flood progeny of the seeds carried aboard the Ark. (Genesis 6:21) And I don't see how the Grand Canyon/Mt St Helens canyons are a 'weak analogy'. Mt St Helens demonstrated to geologists that you don't need millions of years to form layers-upon-layers of sediment, nor millions of years to erode deep canyons. If 'Little Grand Canyon' on the slopes of Mt St Helens can form in a single day, then just imagine what a LOT more water would do, pouring off the continents at the end of the global Flood. No wonder geologists refer to the water flowing today at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as being a classic example of an 'underfit river'. You'd have needed a LOT more water to have carved the steep cliffs kilometres (miles) apart at the top of the canyon. The Bible describes just such an event needed to have generated such erosion. Believe it, or not.
Harold U., Canada, 16 November 2012
I'm just wondering how the meat eating animals would have survived after the flood before its prey would have be able to reestablish its population.
David Catchpoole responds
Here's some of what John Woodmorappe, author of the book Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study, wrote in a 2001 Letter to the Journal of Creation:
As I have shown, the oft-repeated Ark-carnivores-will-consume-Ark-herbivores canard does not stand up to critical examination. It would only be true if the Ark-released carnivores had no flesh to eat except the Ark-released herbivores. The fact is, however, that the post-Flood world was teeming with alternative sources of meat: the carrion from pre-Flood animals, fish and amphibians stranded on land, etc. Hence the Ark-released carnivores did not have to eat Ark-released herbivores for a long time after the Flood owing to the profusion of these alternative meat sources. Furthermore, as I have documented, carnivores will much rather eat even putrescent carrion than exert themselves in catching and killing live prey. As a result of all this, the Ark-released herbivore populations were naturally protected for a considerable period of time after their, and the carnivores’, release from the Ark, by these buffers. By the time that these alternative meat sources had been largely exhausted, the herbivore populations would have grown to large sizes, thus minimizing the danger of extinction once individual herbivores were eaten by the carnivores.
Daniel Z., United States, 9 December 2012
This flawed logic exactly addresses the main reason I don't believe in a world-wide flood. It would mean that EVERY single specimen of plant would have been submerged for between 8 months to a year. While there are a scant few that could survive, or have seeds that survived, no bulbs,tubers,corms or rhizomes reproducing plant could survive year-long submersion. Most seed bearing plants and their seeds would be nonviable. The vast majority of plants would be permanently wiped out. Your example of a tiny area of devastation compared to utter and total devastation of a world wide deluge is faulty.
David Catchpoole responds
Even though you are dismissive of factors such as hard-seededness and vegetation rafts, don't forget the hand of man. Even if it's true that the post-Flood world has various kinds of plants that could not have survived the inundation, doesn't that mean that they are among the kinds of plants which were taken on board the Ark by Noah? (Genesis 6:21) Humans are clearly a very powerful agent for plant dispersal. E.g. consider the worldwide distribution of agricultural crop plants, vis-a-vis dispersal of "clans, each with their own language" from Babel. Most, if not all of those kinds of crop plant would surely have survived the Flood on board the Ark. Then the dispersing families moving out from Babel would have carried their particular crops and cropping expertise with them. Also the animals on board the Ark might well have been unwitting agents of plant survival and post-Flood dispersal, too, e.g. carrying seeds/burrs from the pre-Flood world embedded in their fur.
Ray B., United States, 27 December 2012
I find it interesting those of us who believe that God created all that we we see are the ones that have to prove our understanding of our universe, however those who believe in a billion years of chance get away with circular reasoning without one KEY factor that is required in true science, and that is, it must be testable. We state that the Grand Canyon could have formed rapidly, that theory was tested and confirmed in 1980. We say that the Colorado river could NOT have formed it as the end of the Canyon is higher than the start of the Colorado river, this is something I never see addressed by evolutionists. Thank you for your informative article.