By Christian Stenner and Kathleen Graham
It has been 40 years since the destruction of May 18, 1980. In the years since, a natural laboratory has sprung forth from the devastation and Mount St. Helens is now one of the most intensively studied volcanoes on Earth. Episodic unrest in the crater between 1980 and 1986 brought forth a new series of lava domes that grew to 350 meters tall. Another period of unrest started in September 2004, when a second lava-dome-building eruption initiated in the crater. These domes ultimately grew 455 meters high. Within the crater, the glacier officially called “Crater Glacier,” is the newest and one of the last expanding glaciers in the Cascade Volcanic Arc.
Volcanic steam and gas rising from around the 2008 lava dome has carved an intricate network of cave tunnels within the ice mass. Expeditions from 2014 to 2019 were successful in exploring and mapping 2.3 km of new glaciovolcanic cave passages in the Crater Glacier. The 10 distinct caves are named mostly after classical Godzilla monsters. A reference starting with the Godzilla Hole, a gaping chasm in the Crater Glacier was the first cave entered behind the 2008 lava dome.
These explorations have enabled integrated studies by the team that included sampling cave soils for astrobiology research and to search for antibacterial agents effective against resistant pathogenic bacteria and fungi. Climatology work was conducted to understand the formation of the caves. It was in Mothra Cave, the largest we have discovered so far within the Crater Glacier, that the conditions were right for testing the world’s first ice climbing robot. Dubbed IceWorm, it was created by researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab as a way to move about on icy bodies of the solar systems and collect samples.