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Volcano Calm, Observers Excited

The flurry of earthquakes at Mount St. Helens seems to have reached a plateau.

The volcano began rumbling more intensely Wednesday, with earthquakes ranging from magnitude 2 to 2.8 coming about four times a minute and possibly weakening the lava dome in the crater of the 8,364-foot mountain, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

As scientists monitor the ominous rumbles inside Mount St. Helens, they admit that every jolt of the seismograph brings a jolt of adrenaline, reports CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone.

"It's very exciting for those of us who study volcanoes to be studying a restless volcano and try to understand what's going on," said Dr. Willy Scott of the USGS.

Their prediction remains a 70 percent chance of a small to medium eruption within a month or so.

"There's also a one-in-three chance that whatever is happening right now could stall out and we could start getting some sleep again," said Seth Moran of the USGS.

Still, Oregon's emergency coordination center is on "standby" because of the threat of an eruption at Mount St. Helens.

"A volcano can be a fickle thing, even though the scientists say their best guess is it would be a small explosion or eruption," said James Roddey of the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries. "If they are wrong, if it turns out to be something bigger, there might be an ash cloud that could move our way.

"The winds are blowing in this direction."

The scientists aren't the only ones enthralled by Mount St. Helens' reawakening. For painter Roderick Smith, the mountain has a new energy that he wants to capture on canvass.

"We're all right on the front row, balcony seat looking at this thing and, yeah, you can feel the energy, you can look up there and see that volcano and you can feel what's going on inside it," Smith said.

The 1980 eruption killed 57 people and coated towns 250 miles away with ash.

Few people live near the mountain, which is in a national forest about 100 miles south of Seattle. The closest structure is the Johnston Ridge Observatory, about five miles from the crater.

In living memory, few landscapes have changed as dramatically as that of Mount St. Helens. When the side of the mountain blew out in 1980, it knocked down every tree for miles, then reshaped the valley with an avalanche of debris and a thick blanket of ash.

"I don't think we're going to have another explosion like that in my lifetime," said Mount St. Helens visitor Joe Scuderi.

The effects of the eruption 24 years ago bring thousands of visitors here every year. And school field trips are still coming with the assurance that the viewpoint 5 miles from the crater remains safe.

Ardy Scralgus remembers the eruption of 1980 but had no worries about being so close this time.

"If anything it's going to burp," he told Blackstone.

Visitor Lee Smith is skeptical about the scientific prediction.

"You can't figure out Mother Nature," she said. "She's going to do what she wants to do anyway."

The scientists don't make any claims to controlling Mother Nature. Their goal is to understand it.

"What we have is really a very vigorous seismic swarm that has us both interested and concerned," said Cynthia Gardner of the USGS

The volcano watchers haven't seen much molten rock underneath the crater so any eruption is likely to be mainly steam and ash. The ash could go high enough to be a hazard of some kind to aviation. Also, fist-sized boulders could be hurled as perhaps three miles.

Scientists don't deny that what could happen at Mount St. Helens may amount to little more than a volcanic burp, but even that will add to knowledge that can make volcanoes more predictable.

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