The Crash of 2015: Vancouver! Is This It?

mt st helens usgs

Mount St. Helens, giving a preview of events to come. When, exactly, would the main event occur? Therein lies the lesson. (USGS Photo)

On the last day of his life, May 18, 1980, David Johnston was probably tired of waiting for Mount St. Helens to erupt, much as some of us are sick of waiting for the global bubble economy to blow up. And he was no doubt tired, as are we, of warning people that it was going to blow. Back in March, swarms of earthquakes rising from deep in the earth indicated magma rising and caused volcanologists such as Johnston to proclaim, “It’s going to blow!” It didn’t. Then the mountain burped a 7,000-foot-high plume of ash. “It’s going to blow,” they said. It didn’t. By mid-April the mountain was burping ash and steam a hundred times a day, and bulging massively toward the north. Still it didn’t blow. In fact, in early May, it quieted down. It had become a tourist Mecca.

Then, on May 18, it blew. Not straight up but laterally, to the north, where Johnston was watching from the ridge of a different mountain six miles away. He had time only to grab his radio and shout to his headquarters (in Vancouver, Washington), “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!.” Then, in less than a minute, the first pyroclastic flow — hot gases and rock, over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, moving at 700 miles per hour — hit him, and he was gone.

Three years later I flew over the ridge in a helicopter. What had been a verdant, forested place had been scrubbed down to bedrock, and gleamed in the sun like a skull. No trace of Johnston or his pickup truck was ever found. Thirteen years later they found a few scraps from his camping trailer.

So back to the global caldera: Now that China’s bubble-ized stock market is in mid-crash, Europe is suffering a sudden unscheduled disassembly, America’s oil-fracking miracle is imploding, Greece, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Egypt and others are on the brink of default — now that mainstream, sober Bloomberg Business is running a headline that says, “Good Luck Finding a Place to Hide as Global Markets Crumble” —  is this it, Vancouver?

Hard to say. Like a volcano, the forces at work here are unimaginably massive and are doing most of what they do underground. We see the occasional steam vent, feel an earthquake shake our shoes now and then, but to predict when it all blows up is not possible. What is undeniable, however, is that when earthquakes swarm and magma rises and mountains burp and swell, something really big is going to happen.

What actually triggered the Mount St. Helens eruption was a landslide that slightly reduced the thickness of a portion of the north face, and hence its ability to resist the pressure building behind it. And that was it, Vancouver.

Three really big takeaways here:

  1. When natural laws ordain that something is going to happen, such as the big San Andreas earthquake or the eruption of the Yellowstone caldera or the crash of an overheated stock market, the likelihood of its happening is not diminished by the passage of time or by the number of false alarms. To the contrary; the longer the wait, the bigger the bang.
  2. It’s not just that we don’t know when it’s going to happen — it is unknowable. We’d rather discuss our own death than even admit that anything in the age of smartphones is unknowable, but we really need to take it into account. What we cannot know can really hurt us.
  3. When you’ve been warned, and you’ve seen and heard and felt the precursors — get more than six miles away. Remember David Johnston.
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14 Responses to The Crash of 2015: Vancouver! Is This It?

  1. Tom says:

    Awesome, Mr. Lewis – now THAT’S a warning!

  2. Mike Kay says:

    Ultimately, there is not one issue here, rather a plethora of issues.
    It is a certainty that the world is held by the shorthairs, subject of a power structure that is both insane and convinced of its own divinity.
    Mainstream media is a purveyor of illusion, of normalcy that isn’t, soothing the herd into a smug arrogance as the man cows stamp in the excrement of their leaders, and viciously attack those who don’t mindlessly follow along.
    Modern talk is centered around anomalies, the apparent anomaly of the lone crazed shooter that repeats ad adnauseum, the anomaly of “islamofascism” the anomaly of a savagely avaricious ruling class that wants you to suffer as they label you with terms like “useless eater”.
    In a way, those who thirst for change still hope, deep down inside, that such change will be “positive” and “good”. That it will finally make space for the noble and better qualities that truly thinking people fervently hope-have to hope-truly define the human condition.

  3. Apneaman says:

    I remember that day Because we heard it up in the suburbs of Vancouver BC then got some ash later on. My dad was a teacher and a news junkie and he had the atlases and encyclopedias spread out on the kitchen table and the all news radio station going (good ole pre internet days). He even phoned my uncle who was an officer in the Canadian air force hoping for some kind of inside info (did the same thing when Regan was shot). I remember being stunned when I saw the pictures on the news. Early lesson for me on how puny we are compared to the forces of nature.

    • Joe Clarkson says:

      We heard it too, from the east side of the Olympic Peninsula. It sounded like a sonic boom. Later in the day we drove up to an east facing mountain ridge and saw the huge plume of ash rising into the sky over eighty miles to the southeast.

      We now live in Hawaii, where we moved in the mid 80’s, mostly because of the saber rattling from the Reagan administration during the height of the Cold War. We wanted to get away from the number one nuclear target in the world, which at that time was (and probably still is) the Trident submarine base at Bangor a few miles across the Hood Canal from our house. It still feels good to be “more than six miles away” from nuclear missile targets. It’s also a good spot to hunker down in the face of global economic collapse.

      • Apneaman says:

        Lol on the Trident sub base. I use to hear my old man go on about that too….and the Dulles brothers and the united fruit company and a whole bunch of other stuff. Thanks dad……you done traumatized me. No wonder I ended up a doomer in later life.

  4. Tom says:

    In the current world situation, there’s really no place to run. Ecological/environmental collapse looms everywhere due to the overuse of fossil fuels for the past 200 years (and counting) which has triggered runaway/abrupt climate change – causing storms that wreak havoc on crops, sea level rise that permeates once-potable drinking water, changes (fracturing) in the jet stream so that heat domes and cold zones persist much longer than they once did, and so on.

    The entire globe is connected through commerce and trade, which is crashing, while oil is suffering from demand destruction due to economic lopsidedness/income disparity (along with many other factors). The bottom line is that it’s all connected – our pollution and overpopulation works its way through the complex systems we’ve developed as a ‘civilization’ and are now causing our demise. What effects one area – like the continuing Fukushima radiation – eventually effects all the rest of the world. Food shortages loom on the horizon, disease (especially novel ones) are on the rise (while our best defenses, antibiotics, are becoming ineffective), and we’re on the brink of economic collapse.

    So yeah, this is it Vancouver – but there’s no place to hide. Like a sinkhole, it happens, widens and/or deepens when you least expect it.

    Thanks for another timely post Mr. Lewis. There are so many issues to consider that you’ll never run out of information to highlight and post about – and i look forward to your essays on all these “interesting” (in the Chinese curse sense) topics.

  5. Mike says:

    Don’t think I’m quite “sick of waiting for the global bubble economy to blow up” just yet. I quite like being able to go to a store and buy food. I know it needs to happen, just not quite ready yet.

  6. Keith Hayes says:

    I watch from the ridge trying to figure out how to get further away and still get bills paid. It is a luxury in which I still indulge. I second Mike above:

    “I know it needs to happen, just not quite ready yet.”

    Daily I travel through the city but nowhere do I see any hint that anybody else even watches from the ridge. When she blows a lot of people are going to be pissed off and every delusion all these pissed off people have cultivated about what life is all about will be ripped away. The fantasy that progress just marches on is alive and well. It is summertime and everybody here believes in cornucopia days.

    Tom, this was a needed reminder about what is going on under the surface. Daily the lotus eaters besiege me and they are legion. I needed this tonic.


    well done !

  7. Tim says:

    Have you ever read Antifragility by Nassim Nicholas Taleb? The core messages of the book are that black swan events are unknowable and that time is the mother of all instability. Plan to be antifragile so that you don’t have to predict when it’ll all go down, and you gain from the disorder to boot. That being said, it’s hard to see what the potential upside to ecological collapse would be unless you consider nature herself benefiting from a lot less people sucking at her tit.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      A favorite book. How’s this for an upside: a smaller, chastened species that learns at last how to restrain human greed (on a healing planet)?

      • Tim says:

        A fine upside, and one I won’t live to see. Generations from now, we’ll serve as a reminder of what is the true cost of greed.

  8. I never heard that story of David Johnston before. “This is IT, Vancouver” should be right up there with “Houston, we’ve got a Problem”.

    Sadly, getting more than 6 miles away probably isn’t possible, unless it is 6 miles straight up in one of Richard Branson’s rockets, if he can ever get them to work and not kill test pilots.

    On the upside for DJ, he went out mighty fast there, and in the instant before he was vaporized and bought his Express Train Ticket to the Great Beyond, he got to see his prediction come true.

    The rest of us Cassandra’s and Nostradamuses should be so lucky.