As always, humans are less patient than geology.

Clash Over Rebirth of Mt. St. Helens

Basically, there are getting to be louder and louder disagreements over the Forest Service management of the study area at Mt. St. Helens. It’s been almost thirty years since the eruption. No doubt most people are ready to move on, but not those pesky scientists.

I really do sympathize with the viewpoint of the people who want to get rid of the study area. From their viewpoint, it’s a bunch of land that’s just sitting there, doing nothing, acting as a financial drain since it’s not producing much in the way of revenue for the state. People can’t really use the land for recreation, and it can’t be made profitable by handing it over to lumber companies like some of the other land.

People also have a very difficult time grasping what sort of time is truly necessary to observe the recovery near the mountain. Geological surface processes are normally very slow, and that’s only part of it. While a lot of plants and animals have much shorter lifespans than us, when we’re dealing with trees and the natural growth of a forest, that’s really not the case.

I think people who aren’t as interested in the detail as scientists can also look at something like this and think that it doesn’t matter. But the devil is so often in the details when we’re talking science, and being able to observe things as they happen is so much more valuable than just extrapolating from what little we do know, be it three years or thirty.

Also, this really struck me:

Ms. Dick said she was “disgusted” by studies of, for example, the way deep-rooted plants were able to recover from the blast, a finding she called “intuitively obvious.”

It’s all well and good when you can claim something is ‘intuitively obvious.’ But how many things do we think are intuitively obvious that science has proven aren’t. I remember even in my first physics class, how much time I spent fighting against my own intuition because the physical world simply doesn’t act the way we think it ought to. For me, the mind-blower was the idea that if the sun suddenly disappeared, all of the planets would go shooting off in a straight line rather than spiraling outward. The mathematics and vectors eventually made sense of it, but the point is that my monkey brain thought the answer was ‘intuitively obvious’ at first.

Also: People think so-called Intelligent Design is “intuitively obvious.” Because, hey, if something’s complex, it has to be designed, right? We know that’s a load of bull puckey. It always makes me a little crazy that people complain about scientists studying things that seem obvious. The real point is that scientists have realized that the obvious is not always true, and that you cannot assume that your intuition and preconceived notions are correct – you have to test them and make certain that they are.

It sounds like the study area will continue, which I think is a very good thing. While a volcano blowing up and making a mess isn’t exactly unusual, Mt. St. Helens is a superb and unique site if for no other reason than how accessible it by scientists. The actual eruption was closely observed, and we’ve been documenting and observing the site since basically minute one. So the study area isn’t just a site… it’s a site with thirty years of incredibly detailed history, which makes it all the more valuable.

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