Impact on Agriculture of the Mount St. Helens Eruptions

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Science  02 Jan 1981:
Vol. 211, Issue 4477, pp. 16-22
DOI: 10.1126/science.211.4477.16


Ash from Mount St. Helens has fallen over a diverse agricultural area, with deposits of up to 30 kilograms per square meter. Crop losses in eastern Washington are estimated at about $100 million in 1980—about 7 percent of the normal crop value in the affected area and less than was expected initially. Production of wheat, potatoes, and apples will be normal or above normal because the favorable conditions for growth of these crops since the ashfall helped offset the losses. Alfalfa hay was severely lodged under the weight of the ash, but ash-contaminated hay is apparently nontoxic when eaten by livestock. The ash as an abrasive is lethal to certain insects, such as bees and grasshoppers, but populations are recovering. The ash has increased crop production costs by necessitating machinery repairs and increased tillage. On soil, the ash reduces water infiltration, increases surface albedo, and may continue to affect water runoff, erosion, evaporation, and soil temperature even when tilled into the soil. Ash on plant leaves reduced photosynthesis by up to 90 percent. Most plants have tended to shed the ash. With the possible exception of sulfur, the elements in the ash are either unavailable or present in very low concentrations; and no significant contribution to the nutrient status of soils is expected.