Review: NOVA's "Mt. Saint Helens: Back from the Dead"

Mt. Saint Helens erupting in 2004.

I had a chance to watch a new NOVA special that airs May 5 (PBS) on the 1980-1986 and 2004-2008 eruption cycles at Mt. Saint Helens, along with the recovery of the blast zone from the 1980 eruption. It is a fitting episode as we approach the 30th anniversary of the eruption that took out the north side of the volcano and devastated a vast swath of Cascade wilderness in Washington on May 18, 1980. Many of you have already sent me your Mt. Saint Helens memories (keep them coming!) for my tribute to the eruption, but if you want to get started on remembering that historic event and looking how the ecosystem and volcano has changed since then, this is a good place to start.

NOVA: Mount Saint Helens - Back from the Dead
Watch the preview.

Now, first, the plus side: A great deal of the footage in this episode is absolutely stunning - it is either new footage of the volcano or what looks like remastered footage of the eruptions of the 1980s. I was definitely transfixed by the shots of the eruption and the devastated area after the 1980 eruption. It was especially fun to hear from John Pallister and Dan Dzurisin (USGS) about their thoughts from both the 1980s and 2000s eruptions. I did appreciate the fact that the episode showed that a lot of geologic research involves looking at the rocks in detail to understand how they formed - when Pallister discusses the gas content of the magma, it is done in a very realistic and reasonable fashion (i.e., none of this "shocking discovery" nonsense that plagues many documentaries lately). The ecological side of the story was interesting, albeit a little fluffy. Again, the footage of Spirit Lake was great and the discussion of how rapidly it recovered was something I had not heard before this episode. Even the discussion of when St. Helens might erupt again was mostly done in a responsible fashion - I was worried at first when they quoted Pallister saying that large explosive eruptions (~10x the 1980 eruption) occur "on the order of 1000 years" and then tried to link it to the idea that St. Helens was "due" for such an event. However, they turned it back around to mention the twin, large explosive events in 1479 and 1482 AD that Pallister said shows how the volcano can produce large events only years apart - putting to rest any idea that a "recurrence interval" for large eruptions has meaning.

Now, the down side: Maybe this is more a criticism of nature documentaries on the whole today, but I am still annoyed by the "Discovery Channelization" of these shows. The quick cuts, the overbearing obsession with destruction (the "gloom-and-doom") and the insistence on inserting unnecessary computer animations just distracts from the really interesting story about the volcano. There is an overemphasis of Saint Helens as being a "threat" (usually accompanied by ominous drumbeats) to mankind, calling it a "ticking timebomb" - just unnecessary in my opinion. My gold standard for volcano documetaries is still "In the Path of a Killer Volcano" on Mt. Pinatubo, which might have been made long enough ago to compare, in that that documentary, they let the geologist and Air Force personnel ramp up the excitement rather than artificially augmenting it with MTV-style production and 2012-like doomsday prognostication.

Some of the science in the episode was played a little loose for my liking as well - much of the events leading up to the 1980 and 2004 eruptions were glossed over in such a way as to suggest they came out of the blue (especially in regard to the 1980 event). Some of the connections that were implied, such as the length of time to build up gas pressure is directly related to an eruption and that only explosive events are "eruption" were a little glaring. Also, the explanation and graphic for subduction-zone magmatism was, well, appalling. Sorry to say it, but it might have been the worst I've seen in a long time - implying some huge, bubbling vat of liquid as thick as the crust underneath the Cascades, with a conveyor belt of magma coming from what I think was supposed to be the Juan de Fuca plate ... but you got me. Luckily, it was only briefly used in the episode. The same might be said for the graphic on the "Ring of Fire", which implied that the entire Hawaii-Emperor Seamount Chain is active, but again, it was only briefly used.

Overall: All that being said, I actually enjoyed the episode - one of the first to connect the 1980 eruption, the post-1980 recovery and the 2004-08 activity into a single thread about the active volcano. It definitely gives viewers the impression that events like the 1980 eruption are not "out of the ordinary" at a volcano like Mt. Saint Helens, but instead that we should expect that volcanoes will have violent eruption - and life will recover, likely faster than we could imagine. It really is the footage of Saint Helens that is the star of the episode, letting people see how much the volcano has changed since the 1980 eruption, up close and personal.

Grade: B (Well worth watching, but watch out for some of the tone and loose science).

Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of the video to watch from WGBH.

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I agree that the Pinatubo video is the gold standard. Even though it is getting a little long in the tooth I still show it in introductory courses. I also showed a more recent NOVA special on Nyiragongo and was disappointed. Although the images were spectacular and the science content was OK, the whole was weakened by melodramatic music and doom and gloom narration.

IMHO I think this trend is dictated by the audience the specials are aimed at. From my own exposure it seems that suburban middle-class Westerners (not just Americans!) are so cocooned and comfortable that they have not experienced and learned to deal with threats. So the reaction is either denial or hyperbolic doom-mongering. The powers that be come from that environment (yes, even at PBS), so they assume that over-the-top doom mongering is necessary in order to get any one to watch.

I agree with everything you say about the Discovery Channel and others. Volcanoes aren't my field but when programmes are about subjects I do know, many are unwatchable. The problem is that they all seem to have a ceiling of knowledge which prevents any in-depth analysis. I am reminded of a Simpsons episode where Lisa was criticised for watching The Learning Channel when she was ill in bed. "I'm really not learning very much," was her excuse. Many, many thanks for this superb blog.

To Erik and EKoh:

You can find parts 2 and 3 as well on youtube, although these parts put together only form the second half of the documentary. I'm glad to have it on dvd myself. As young as I was at the time of the Pinatubo eruption, I can still remember seeing live coverage in the news. 'In the path of a killer volcano' was on Dutch national television about two years after and I was addicted to watching it over and over again. Nowadays I show it to some of the classes I teach to give them an idea of what a big explosive eruption is and to give them a little bit of a comparison to what Laacher See in the Eifel did around 13.000 years ago.

Talking about documentaries that could have been done better: I'm currently in Edinburgh, Scotland and there are several British tv channels showing stuff on the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. The cr@p I hear about Katla... -_-'

The initial shot of the explosion in the preview video looks suspiciously like it was CGI-enhanced to me. Am I wrong? And the immediately following shots of smoke billowing through the trees is surely special effects of some kind, no?

By Swift Loris (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

Yeah, Discovery really NEEDED to CGI the eruption of St. Helens. Cuz, like, it wasn't spectacular enough on its own. *rolls eyeballs* And of course, in addition to attempting to turn it into an SFX extravaganza, these TV docu-makers also feel the need to give it a theatrical movie-trailer soundtrack, with over-the-top, deafening percussion and menacingly melodramatic orchestrations. If I wanted to see a Michael Bay film, I'd go to the movies or rent a DVD.

This is part of a deeper trend in society where reality is tailored to resemble a movie and our lives to mimic those of the stars. We live an illusion my friends as reality is not as appealing. Thus, the great mass of viewers for whose time companies pay networks will not watch if reality is not as dramatic as a Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg film.

By Henrik, Swe (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

Yeah, Discovery really NEEDED to CGI the eruption of St. Helens. Cuz, like, it wasn't spectacular enough on its own. *rolls eyeballs*

Not sure if you're rolling those eyeballs at my comment, or at the Discovery Channel. If the former, I just looked at the original footage again, and it looks different to me from that in the preview--not much in the way of streamers, just great billows of smoke. But it sure is spectacular.

By Swift Loris (not verified) on 04 May 2010 #permalink

Not sure if you're rolling those eyeballs at my comment, or at the Discovery Channel.

Definitely was rolling my eyes at Discovery--and at all the docu channels these days. For instance, I can't stand watching Nat'l Geo documentaries any more because their soundtracks have such over-augmented percussive noise.

If I wanted to listen to constant ear-splitting cymbals crashing, gongs exploding and bass drums thumping......I'd go to an orchestral concert. Or yes, another Michael Bay film. ;-)

Let's not be too harsh on the TV people. Your blog is obviously much more factual than the TV show -- but how large of an audience does it attract? There's a trade-off between correctness and digestibility. Even your own representations fall short of the pure truth, but the pure truth is infinite in magnitude. We all scale down the complexity of truth to achieve comprehensibility. The only difference between this blog and the TV show is the position of the trade-off line.

By Chris Crawford (not verified) on 05 May 2010 #permalink

If the portentous doom-&-gloom commentary and extraneous music annoy you, just turn down the sound and enjoy the images. You probably know enough to enjoy the visual reinforcement of what you've read.

I listened to the audio podcast Nova: Science Now plugging this episode of Nova... They seem to be misinformed as to which state the volcano in question resides.

Good blog

I was hired to shoot the geological additions to this film in order for NOVA to flesh out the important geological aspects to the the story. The 2004 eruption with the lava forcing its way out in the form of giant towers was amazing. The guys who jump out of helicopters to grab samples while this is happening are crazy but they do love their volcanoes.

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