DARIEN, Conn. — Darien High School teacher Les Thilow can tell you the exact moment when he decided what he wanted to do with his life. It was 8:32 a.m. May 18, 1980.
“When Mount St. Helens erupted, I was just smitten,” Thilow said as he sat smiling in the back of New Canaan's Garelick and Herbs. He had just finished his day teaching earth and space science at Darien High School.
The massive eruption of Mount St. Helens was the singular most destructive volcanic explosion in the history of the continental United States. Geologists studying seismic activity in the area persuaded authorities to begin evacuations two months before the big eruption. Even still, 57 people died, hundreds of homes were destroyed and acres of forest remain largely barren today.
Before that day, Thilow was uncertain of his future. He was heading on a path toward religious studies or social sciences but was enrolled in an introductory geology class. After seeing images of the ash plume rising 80,000 feet above the remains of the mountain, Thilow knew he wanted to pursue a life of trying to understand the forces at work within the planet.
Since then, he has worked as a geologist, a cartographer and a teacher. Aside from Darien High School, he also teaches earth science as part of the University of Bridgeport's Ideal program. In the summer, he works at Long Ridge Camp to teach the children about the natural world around them. Early in his career, Thilow made maps for oil companies.
He's also working on a research paper studying isostatic rebound, a phenomena in which land masses rise as a result of lessened weight from melting glaciers. The water runs off and redistributes the weight and pressures, making the solid rock floating on a core of molten magma shift accordingly. He is particularly interested in the effects on the San Francisco Bay area.
“Some of it is in terms of understanding future development. If we know that in 100 years an area is going to be underwater or require a complex levy system that could fail like in New Orleans, maybe we should reconsider how we approach building that region up,” said Thilow.