04/21/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
It was hardly Vesuvius or Krakatoa, but when Mount St. Helens—near Washington's border with Oregon—began to gurgle seriously last month, geologists and thrill-seekers gathered from all over the world. They hoped to see one of the rarest and most spectacular of nature's performances: a volcanic eruption. Not since Mount Lassen in California began seven years of activity in 1914 has a volcano in the lower 48 states put on such a show. Still, some watchers may be disappointed by Mount St. Helens. "People have this idea about lava from old South Sea movies," says Donal Mullineaux, a volcanologist in the U.S. Geological Survey, "with everybody in sarongs hotfooting it away from this smoky, glowing stuff that comes oozing out of the crater and down the mountain like cake batter. Lava can be dangerous, sure, but that's only a part of it."
The rest of it—clouds of poisonous gas, searing hot winds and cascades of mud and rock—now seems unlikely at Mount St. Helens. Mullineaux, who had predicted an eruption in a scholarly 1975 article, is maintaining a vigilant calm. "The probability of a big, big eruption is very low," he says. Asked if the gases already escaped pose a pollution threat, he smiles and says, "Any comment I could make would be facetious. I grew up in a paper-mill town."