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Volcanoes are awe-inspiring. Here are 7 things to know about them.

Vox.com logo Vox.com 5/12/2018 Umair Irfan
a lot of smoke around it: A fissure on Kilauea volcano billows ash on Hawaii’s Big Island. © Demian Barrios/@dbphotogallery A fissure on Kilauea volcano billows ash on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Kilauea’s eruption reminds us that volcanoes are beautiful, dangerous, and closer than we may realize.

There are few things in the world more awesome than a volcanic eruption. The earth itself comes apart, and from its depths blastfiery molten rock, acrid gas, and towering plumes of ash.

Eruptions create new lands and destroy civilizations. They release more energy than nuclear weapons. They are visible from space and can change the temperature of the whole planet. The Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia produced the loudest sound ever heard. Even mild eruptions, like the ashy burp from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, can force the global economy to grind to a halt.

The ongoing eruption of Kilauea volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island this month is a potent reminder of what can happen when people choose to live near or on volcanoes, drawn by their fertile soil and breathtaking scenery. Despite the risks, many choose to stay or are unable to leave, bound by history, culture, or economics to land that could rupture.

a pile of smoke: An ash column rises from the Overlook crater at the summit of Kīlauea Volcano. © USGS An ash column rises from the Overlook crater at the summit of Kīlauea Volcano.

An ash column rises from the Overlook crater at the summit of Kīlauea volcano.

Some 15 fissures have opened up since May 3 in Kilauea’s east rift zone, where a few small subdivisions have been built in recent years. The lava that has shot hundreds of feet into the air and oozed from the fissures has swallowed cars, destroyed about 25 homes, and forced around 2,000 residents to flee. (It’s also visually stunning, as the photos above attest.)

And it’s not over. The US Geological Survey warns that “additional outbreaks of lava are likely” and that steam pressure building below the surface could soon cause explosions raining “ballistic projectiles and ashfall” within half a mile or more from the volcano.

A volcano is considered potentially active if it has erupted in the past 10,000 years. America has 169 active volcanoes, mainly clustered in the West — in Hawaii, Alaska, Wyoming, Washington, and California. Around the world, there are 1,500 potentially active volcanoes, with 500 having erupted in human history, according to the USGS. Some of these volcanoes may never erupt, some may ooze lava slowly for years, and some may one day have a massive ejection that wreaks havoc.

a close up of a fire: Lava from Kilauea volcano flowing into the ocean, creating new land. © Marc Szeglat/Barcroft Media/Getty Images Lava from Kilauea volcano flowing into the ocean, creating new land.

Lava from Kilauea volcano flowing into the ocean, creating new land.

To study volcanoes, scientists brave the rippling heat of lava and acrid gases, climbing up slopes and sometimes into craters to place instruments and take measurements. Here are some of the coolest things they’ve learned — from the most likely way a volcano would kill you to whether it’s okay to throw your garbage into one.

1) How volcanoes form, and what makes them erupt

A volcano is what happens when the earth’s crust leaks and molten rock squirts through. The crust is made of giant blocks called tectonic plates that slide on top of the mantle, which can reach temperatures of 3,700 degrees Celsius.

a close up of a map: Tectonics diagram © Provided by Vox.com Tectonics diagram

The mantle makes up 84 percent of Earth’s volume, and though it’s solid rock, over the course of millions of years, it behaves like a liquid. This leads the tectonic plates on top to slowly jostle one another. The buildup and sudden release of friction from this movement can cause earthquakes.

The movement also creates gaps in tectonic plates, which reduces pressure on the mantle beneath it, allowing it to melt and push through. These rift zones are where new land is created as magma bubbles up to the surface and cools off, forming basalt rocks. Plates also slide on top of one another, pushing the edge of one plate up and the edge of the other plate down in a process called subduction. The Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the world, occurs in a subduction zone.

At plate boundaries in the ocean, subduction moves water into the mantle, lowering the melting point of rock underneath the edges of continental plates. The molten rock can then push its way up to the surface of the Earth.

This is the mechanism behind the geologic activity in the Ring of Fire, the 25,000-mile perimeter of the Pacific tectonic plate, running from Southeast Asia toward Russia, Alaska, and down toward South America. The region is home to 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes and 75 percent of all volcanoes.

a close up of a map © US Geological Survey
A map of tectonic plates.

Volcanoes can form in the middle of tectonic plates as well. Hot spots can emerge in the mantle, creating a conduit for molten rock in the plate toward the surface.

The Hawaiian islands were formed over such a hot spot as molten rock breached the earth’s surface and cooled down, layering with each eruption until islands cropped up from the bottom of the ocean.

In fact, Mauna Loa on Hawaii’s Big Island, the largest active volcano on earth, can also be considered the largest mountain since the distance from its base beneath the ocean to its peak is 30,085 feet, higher than Mount Everest’s 29,029 feet. Above the water, Mauna Loa is 13,678 feet tall.

Molten rock that reaches the surface of the earth is, of course, called lava. How syrupy or watery the lava is depends on the kind of rocks being melted. Goopier magma and lava tends to cause more explosive eruptions and form steep-sided volcanoes, while runnier rocks tend to ooze out and create gradually sloping volcanoes.

2) It’s really hard to predict when volcanoes will erupt. But there are warning signs.

The forces that create volcanoes act over hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. Humans have only been around for a measly 200,000 years.

That mismatch is the key reason geologic activity in general and volcanoes in particular are so hard to predict. We’ve only experienced a narrow slice of their existence.

In general, an eruption occurs when the pressure of magma, underground molten rock, exceeds that of the rocks on top holding it in place, though earthquakes can also trigger eruptions.

a group of people that are standing in the water: Mount Agung in Bali, Indonesia has been intermittently erupting since November 2017. © Solo Imaji/Barcroft Images/Getty Images Mount Agung in Bali, Indonesia has been intermittently erupting since November 2017.
Mount Agung in Bali, Indonesia, has been erupting intermittently since November 2017.

“All of us ... have an experience with a toilet backing up,” said Tracy Gregg, an associate professor of geology at the University of Buffalo. “What causes the eruption is that the pressure insides the pipe builds up until the pipes burst, and earthquakes help open up pathways.”

Though the past can’t perfectly predict the future, the history of eruptions does show what is possible and where. The Kilauea volcano, the most active volcano in the world and one that has been slowly dribbling out lava since 1983, is a case in point.

It’s one of the best-studied volcanoes in the world, and geologists knew that a larger eruption was possible. They were able to read some warning signs ahead of the recent surge in activity and anticipate how it would play out.

“Cracks appeared within a few kilometers of where we expected them to,” Gregg said. “From a scientific standpoint, it was a fantastic coup.”

Unlike earthquakes, volcanic eruptions are often heralded by rumblings, fissures, and releases of gases like sulfur dioxide in the weeks, days, or hours ahead of an eruption.

“Volcanoes show precursory signs of eruptive activity — what we call ‘unrest,’” a spokesperson for the US Geological Survey said in an email. “One of the ways we detect signs of unrest is actually using earthquakes. At volcanoes, earthquakes can tell us that the ground surface is fracturing as a result of magma pushing against and through rocks.”

However, scientists are uncertain whether large earthquakes occurring farther away could trigger an eruption.

With better instruments and monitoring, geologists are aiming to build more robust forecasts to get people out of harm’s way. But the amount of warning these signals can give varies depending on the volcano. Emily Brodsky, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California Santa Cruz, noted that volcano monitoring has a high false positive rate since earthquakes and fissures don’t always mean a big eruption is imminent. The trick is to develop warnings for people in volcanic areas that instill caution without complacency.

3) There are lots of ways volcanoes can kill you

Some of the most haunting relics of history are the plaster casts made of the people of Pompeii, Italy, who died during the massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in CE 79 and left behind hollows in the solidified ash.

a group of people sitting at a table: Workers restore casts of victims of the Mount Vesuvius eruption in Pompeii, Italy. © Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB /LightRocket Workers restore casts of victims of the Mount Vesuvius eruption in Pompeii, Italy.
Workers restore casts of victims of the Mount Vesuvius eruption in Pompeii, Italy.

Excavations of the ash there have revealed a civilization frozen in time as a roaring torrent of extreme heat, ash, and toxic gas suddenly swept over it, killing at least 13,000 people.

History is filled with many accounts of devastating and deadly volcanic eruptions, though the death tolls are usually more modest. Mount Kusatsu-Shirane, 100 miles northwest of Tokyo, erupted in January, killing one soldier in an avalanche.

But we don’t have to go too far back to find an utterly catastrophic eruption. The Nevado del Ruiz volcano killed more than 20,000 people in Colombia when it erupted in 1985.

From rockslides to earthquakes to lava, volcanic eruptions pose many hazards. One common threat is the release of sulfur dioxide gas from deep underground. It’s colorless but has a pungent burnt odor. Sulfur dioxide can irritate the airways, and in high enough concentrations, it can suffocate. When mixed with water vapor and carbon dioxide, it creates a hazy volcanic fog, a.k.a. vog.

a person riding a wave on top of a mountain: Mount Mayon in the Philippines erupting in January 2018 © Romeo Mariano/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images Mount Mayon in the Philippines erupting in January 2018
Mount Mayon in the Philippines erupting in January 2018.

The next, more visible risk is ash. It’s rarely an immediate danger to health, though it can damage aircraft and hamper visibility for drivers, leading to accidents. Falling ash can accumulate on roofs and collapse structures as well. Jagged ash particles irritate the lungs and over the long term can lead to a disease known as silicosis.

And ash can destroy crops. The deadliest eruption on record, the eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia in 1815, killed 92,000 people, largely by starvation.

Earthquakes associated with eruptions can also knock over buildings and trigger deadly landslides.

Then there’s lava. While some lava flows inch forward, others can reach speeds up to 40 mph. This molten rock reaching temperatures of 1,250°C is nearly unstoppable, though people have certainly tried to redirect it. A study reported that aerial bombing “has a substantial probability of success for diversion of lava” based on US Air Force bombing experiments on Mauna Loa in the 1970s.

Perhaps the scariest consequence of an eruption is a combination of all of the above in a phenomenon known as pyroclastic flow, a fast-moving mix of lava, rock, ash, and toxic gas.

This cascading torrent of earth can destroy anything in its path at speeds up to 300 mph, which was observed when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980. “If you witness a pyroclastic flow, run in the opposite direction as quickly as possible,” the US Geological Survey notes on its website.

4) A single eruption can alter the whole planet

When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991 in the second-largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century, it injected 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and ash 12 miles up into the stratosphere. These particles and aerosols spread all over the world and scattered incoming sunlight.

Scientists found that global temperatures cooled by 0.6° Celsius on average in the 15 months following the eruption.

The eruption is a vivid example of how a single event can ripple throughout the planet. But not every volcano can nudge the thermostat.

“You need a very high plume and a lot of sulfur,” said NASA climate scientist Chris Colose in an email. “If there’s no material injected into the high atmosphere (the stratosphere) then there will be minimal climate impact, since the sulfur has a low lifetime in the lower parts of the atmosphere closer to the surface (the troposphere).”

a close up of some grass: A satellite view of Mount Etna erupting in Italy in 2001. © NASA A satellite view of Mount Etna erupting in Italy in 2001.
A satellite view of Mount Etna erupting in Italy in 2001.

The cooling effects of a volcano, if there are any, only linger for one to three years, so we can’t count on erupting our way to a cooler planet as the climate changes. But scientists are studying volcanoes in case humanity does need to deliberately cool the planet in the face of catastrophic climate change, an emerging field known as geoengineering.

5) A “high threat” American volcano might be closer than you realize

About half of the 169 volcanoes in the United States are considered dangerous because of the manner in which they may erupt and the communities nearby that are in harm’s way, according to the USGS. Though most of the volcanoes are in sparsely populated areas, their ash plumes and toxic gas emissions can spread for hundreds of miles.

Clear Lake Volcanic Field, for example, has a “high” threat potential and is 90 miles north of the San Francisco Bay Area, home to 7 million people. The last eruption at the site was 11,000 years ago around Mount Konocti, but “the numerous hot springs and volcanic gas seeps in the area point to its potential to erupt again.”

Despite the potential hazards, researchers say we know alarmingly little about many threatening volcanoes in the United States. “Currently, many of these volcanoes have insufficient monitoring systems, and others have obsolete equipment,” the USGS said.

Lawmakers have recently proposed creating a National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System to fill in these gaps. The bill is on the calendar for the current legislative session.

6) The Yellowstone supervolcano is real, but it might never erupt

There’s a massive volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park that has sparked speculation that its eruption could one day lead to devastation unlike anything humanity has ever witnessed, scattering ash over the entire continental United States.

Scientists say the volcano is capable of an eruption so powerful, it could eject more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of earth.That’s more than double the volume of Lake Erie, yielding a score of 8 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, the highest on the scale. This “super-eruption” would be one of the most powerful explosions in natural history.Cerro Galán in Argentina and Toba in Indonesia are other examples of supervolcanoes.

“Yellowstone has erupted before. And it can erupt again. And if it erupts again, it can be catastrophic to our way of life,” said Gregg.

a close up of a beach: Steam erupts from Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. © Dave Walsh/VW Pics/UIG/Getty Images Steam erupts from Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Steam erupts from Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Its last eruption was 664,000 years ago, before humans walked the earth, and was thousands of times more powerful than an average volcanic eruption based on the geologic record. It formed a caldera larger than Rhode Island. Were it to erupt like that again, it would coat parts of the US in more than 5 feet of ash.

But the odds of such an event are very low, there are no indications one is coming, and the earth would likely provide us with some advance warning in form of tremors. “It’s not something that’s going to take us by surprise,” Gregg said.

7) There are many foolish things to do around a volcano. Don’t do any of them.

The fearsome power of volcanoes have inspired awe and reverence for centuries, but they’ve also brought out some of humanity’s worst impulses.

The trope of virgins being tossed into a volcanic crater to appease gods is a Hollywood myth, but there is evidence of human sacrifice on volcanoes in antiquity.

Mummified remains of people, including children, have been found on the slopes of mountains in the Andes. Evidence shows that these people were ritually sacrificed by the Inca civilization.

“The high peaks of the Andes were sacred to the Inca,” researchers wrote in a 2007 study of frozen child mummies. “[S]ome are active volcanoes, from which smoke, noise, and fire could be at times observed, phenomena easily interpretable within superstitious or religious frameworks. Human sacrifice at significant peaks reinforced reverence for locally sacred mountains.”

People have also sought to weaponize volcanoes. During World War II, there were serious proposals to bomb Japanese volcanoes as both a material and a psychological tactic.

a close up of text on a white background © Popular Science

“Fear of volcanoes is so thoroughly ingrained in the minds of the Japanese that they have made gods of them,” wrote geology professor Harold Whitnall in Popular Science in 1944. “I believe that explosives dropped down their throats may cause such a vomiting of lava and ash as to hasten the day of unconditional surrender.”

Thankfully, such gonzo proposals never came to fruition. But people may have accidentally triggered eruptions.

In 2006, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the Indonesian island of Java. A company drilling for natural gas 2 miles below the surface on the island saw a borehole suddenly lose pressure before filling with liquid. Drillers sealed the well, but soon hot, steaming mud began bubbling up around the site. This mud volcano, now known as the Lusi mudflow, soon sprayed steaming mud over nearly 3 square miles, killing 20 people and forcing 40,000 to evacuate.

a view of a mountain: The Lusi mud volcano continues to spew toxic mud since it started erupting in 2006 in Java, Indonesia. © Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images The Lusi mud volcano continues to spew toxic mud since it started erupting in 2006 in Java, Indonesia.
The Lusi mud volcano continues to spew toxic mud since it started erupting in 2006 in Java, Indonesia.

Scientists are still debating whether the eruption was caused by humans or by natural activity.

Another bad idea is throwing garbage into volcanoes. Aside from being horrendously offensive (many volcanoes are considered sacred), it’s expensive to truck waste to lava flows, it’s often not hot enough to properly incinerate waste, it can release hazardous chemicals into the air, and the trash itself can trigger an explosive reaction, as you can see in this clip of a trash bag being thrown into Ethiopia’s Erta Ale volcano:

So while the awesome fury of volcanoes continues to make thrill seekers (idiots) tempt fate, the most prudent course of action is to keep a safe distance.

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