Nature has indeed found a way, in this case assisted by humans.
NASA recently released a new satellite photo of the Mount St. Helens area taken on Aug. 20. The space agency’s web site contrasts it with a similar photo taken of the blast area on June 17, 1984, only four years after the volcano has blasted the surrounding landscape.
That the land is rebounding is nothing new to anyone who visits the area with any regularity. Still, the photographs, displayed next to one another, are vivid evidence of how much the landscape has recovered — and how far it has yet to go.
Visitors frequently ask: How fast is nature rebounding? The answer is simple, yet complex: It depends what piece of ground you’re asking about, and the satellite images highlight that.
On Weyerhaeuser Co. ownership northwest of the volcano (upper left in the photos), the forest is indistinguishable from any other typical commercial forest. The company planted 18.4 million seedlings to reforest its share of the blast zone, and some of those trees already are being logged. The U.S. Forest Service also reforested parts of its blast zone ownership, and the results of that effort are the green-up of the areas to the east (right) of the volcano.
In the Mount Margaret Backcountry — the area between and above Spirit and Coldwater lakes — the forest is emerging more slowly, on its own. The recovery there has been driven largely by trees and roots that survived the eruption under a mantle of snow in place on May 18, 1980. Alder trees, which can grow in infertile soil, also have pioneered some of these areas, particularly the area to the south of Coldwater Lake
In contrast, the area immediately north of the volcano is still largely barren. The so-called Pumice Plain has the worst soil, had no surviving vegetation to kick start the recovery and is constantly disturbed by erosion. Besides lupine, and a few other pioneering plant species, little has gotten a toe-hold here — at least to be visible from space.
The contrasting rates of recovery yield an important ecological lesson: The more profound the damage, and the more frequently nature is set back, the more slowly she recovers.