Learning From Destruction

With the gaping mile-wide crater and expansive pumice plain left by Mount St. Helens’ violent 1980 eruption as a backdrop, Alex Barnes ’20 balances on a floating log with a razor blade in one hand and a test tube in the other. He’s in the middle of Spirit Lake, on a manmade log raft gathering samples for his summer research project.

Known for the thousands of logs that float on its surface as a reminder of the eruption’s destruction, Spirit Lake received the full force of Mount St. Helens’ blast. Not only trees but ash and debris crashed into the lake, and volcanic gases seeped from the lakebed, turning the once pristine Spirit Lake into a toxic pond void of oxygen and life. But the lake is recovering, and today it provides a rare opportunity for scientists like Alex to study the restoration of a lake severely impacted by a major volcanic eruption. Alex is part of a team of local researchers working on a project to gather data about the insects, bacteria, and plankton living in the lake and on the logs.

“The research is motivated by curiosity,” said Avery Cook Shinneman, a geology and environmental studies lecturer at the University of Washington Bothell. “No one knows what happens after a large eruption like this.” 

During a recent three-day stint in the field, Alex was joined by Avery; Kena Fox-Dobbs, associate professor of geology and environmental policy and decision making at Puget Sound; Jim Gawel, associate professor of environmental chemistry and engineering at University of Washington Tacoma; and Angelica Lucchetto, an environmental studies major from UW Bothell. The group piled into a small rowboat outfitted with an outboard motor. Their destination? Small, white tents floating on top of logs lashed together with rope and eyebolts. 

Use the arrows at right to view photos of the research team at Spirit Lake.

The manmade log rafts are safer and easier to study than the unpredictable, massive log mat that occupies Spirit Lake, and they serve as floating laboratories where the research team can gather water samples, scrape biofilm from the underside of the logs, and collect insects from the white tent traps. “We’re trying to understand how important the log mat is to life here,” Kena says. “These mats provide a surface for life and give us a fingerprint of what’s going on.”

Alex’s work aims to help identify whether the bacteria that grow on the underside of the floating logs are an important source of nutrients for the lake ecosystem. At each log raft, he gets out of the boat, gains his balance on the logs, and scrapes the slimy greenish bacteria into a test tube that is placed in a cooler. Those samples will later be analyzed by Kena and Avery, who will determine what kind of bacteria is there, what they do, and how they fit into the larger lake system. 

This type of research falls into a field of study called geochemistry, which uses chemistry to investigate Earth and environmental systems. It’s a subject that piqued Alex’s interest early on in his studies. 

“It was so much more interesting than morphology, which is learning about rocks and land forms,” he says. “Geochemistry is the study of processes, and is a lot easier to apply. You can see it happening, and it’s based on research I enjoy doing.”

When the opportunity arose to participate in geochemistry research through one of Puget Sound’s Summer Science Research Grants, Alex jumped at the chance. “I wanted an opportunity to set me up well for writing a thesis and applying to graduate school,” he says. “Summer research wasn’t always something I thought I would do, but I’m really happy I did.” 


By Anneli Fogt
Photos by Sy Bean
Published Aug. 6, 2019