The David Alexander Johnston Remembrance Day Thread

David A. Johnston was an American volcanologist. His work in the months leading up to the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, along with the work of his fellow scientists at the US Geological Survey, was instrumental in ensuring the mountain was closed to the public, an act that saved thousands of lives. Tragically, Johnson himself was one of the 57 people known to have died in that disaster.

On the day of the eruption, Johnston was at an observation post called Coldwater II, six miles from the MSH summit – a distance considered safe at the time. The following text is taken directly from Wikipedia:

At 8:32 a.m. local time … an earthquake measuring magnitude 5.1 rocked the area, triggering the landslide that started the main eruption. In a matter of seconds, vibrations from the earthquake loosened 2.7 cubic kilometers (0.6 cu mi) of rock on the mountain’s north face and summit, creating a massive landslide. With the loss of the confining pressure of the overlying rock, Mount St. Helens began to rapidly emit steam and other volcanic gases. A few seconds later, it erupted laterally, sending swift pyroclastic flows down its flanks at near supersonic speeds. These flows were later joined by lahars [a “violent type of mudflow or debris flow composed of a slurry of pyroclastic material, rocky debris and water” – ed].

Before being struck by a series of flows that, at their fastest, would have taken less than a minute to reach his position, Johnston managed to radio his USGS co-workers with the message: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” Seconds later, the signal from the radio went silent, and all contact with the geologist was lost.

Initially, there was some debate as to whether Johnston had survived; records soon showed a radio message from fellow eruption victim and amateur radio operator Gerry Martin, located near the Coldwater peak and farther north of Johnston’s position, reporting his sighting of the eruption enveloping the Coldwater II observation post. As the blast overwhelmed Johnston’s post, Martin declared solemnly that the camp and car sitting to his south were covered: “It’s gonna get me, too,” he said before his radio went silent.

After the eruption, multiple helicopters were sent to Coldwater II site, but due to the devastation, they were not only unable to find Johnston, but unable to find any evidence of the site itself. Thirteen years later, pieces of Johnston’s trailer were discovered by a highway project, but his body was never recovered.

According to his family and colleagues, Johnston fulfilled the cliche of dying doing what he loved. His mother stated the following in an interview: “Not many people get to do what they really want to do in this world, but our son did. … He would tell us he may never get rich but he was doing what he wanted. He wanted to be near if the eruption came. In a phone call on Mother’s Day, he told us it’s a sight very few geologists get to see.”

Since his death, he has been honored in a variety of ways: the USGS Vancouver office was named the David A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory; a memorial fund was established in his name at the University of Washington’s department of Earth and Space Sciences; the Johnston Ridge Observatory was built five miles from the volcano, and continues to be used for both volcano research and for public education.

Let’s take a moment to honor the lives saved by this dedicated scientist.