Tag Archives: volcano

Four years ago this island didn’t exist. Now it’s full of vegetation and “mystery mud”

In 2015, a new island formed due to an eruption of an underwater volcano. Now, one NASA scientist has visited it.

The three-year-old volcanic island (center) as seen from the SEA drone. The island remains officially unnamed, but it is generally referred to as Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. Credit: Sea Education Association / SEA Semester / NASA.

“There’s no map of the new land,” said Dan Slayback of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Nestled between two other volcanic islands, the newly formed landmass was mostly known from satellite. Even so, it taught geologists quite a bit about how islands can form — but there’s only so much you can learn from satellite. Right off the bat, it was clear that the island was full of surprises.

First off, it wasn’t the flat landscape the team was expecting.

“Immediately I kind of noticed it wasn’t quite as flat as it seems from satellite,” Slayback comments. “It’s pretty flat, but there’s still some gradients and the gravels have formed some cool patterns from the wave action.”

The surprises just kept on coming. The team came across something no one was expecting: mud. How this mud came to be on a volcanic island is anyone’s guess at this point.

“there’s clay washing out of the cone. In the satellite images, you see this light-colored material. It’s mud, this light-colored clay mud. It’s very sticky. So even though we’d seen it we didn’t really know what it was, and I’m still a little baffled of where it’s coming from. Because it’s not ash.”

Vegetation taking root on the flat isthmus of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai. The volcanic cone is in the background. Credit: Dan Slayback / NASA.

As they were walking across the island, they also noticed the vegetation, as well as the fauna. The first animal they saw was a barn owl — which, while unexpected, isn’t all that surprising, as barn owls are found all over the world. How the owl got there, however, remains a mystery.

They also came across hundreds of nesting sooty terns that had taken shelter in the deep gullies etched into the cliffs surrounding the crater lake.

Slayback also took samples of rocks — like any respectable Earth scientist would. He harvested several small samples (with Tongan permission) for mineral analysis back at Goddard’s Non Destructive Evaluation Lab.

But perhaps even more importantly, he took exact measurements of the island’s position and elevation.

“The point is to try to take the satellite imagery and tie it to a known reference point, particularly the vertical elevation. The software that generates Digital Elevation Models (a 3D map) from stereo imagery is using a geoid model, and it’s not great in remote places like this. So if you were standing there with your GPS and you’re looking at the ocean at sea level and it’s telling you you’re at four meters elevation, you’re like, But I’m not! I’m at sea level,” he said. So he wanted to find a reasonable adjustment to the geoid model for local mean sea level.

The cliffs of the crater lake are etched with erosion gullies, which are getting bigger. Image credits: Dan Slayback / NASA.

So he used two GPS systems: one which was fixed, as a reference, and one which was mobile. With this, he was able to take 150 measurements, obtaining a precision of under 10 centimeters.

He found that the island is quickly eroding, making for an excellent time-lapse geological study.

“It really surprised me how valuable it was to be there in person for some of this. It just really makes it obvious to you what is going on with the landscape,” Dan said. One feature that was eye-opening in person was the deep erosional gullies that run down the side of the volcanic cone. “The island is eroding by rainfall much more quickly than I’d imagined. We were focused on the erosion on the south coast where the waves are crashing down, which is going on. It’s just that the whole island is going down, too. It’s another aspect that’s made very clear when you’re standing in front of these huge erosion gullies. Okay, this wasn’t here three years ago, and now it’s two meters deep.”

The data is currently being processed and analyzed, and Slayback hopes to return next year to find out even more answers about the island.

252 million years ago, climate change nearly wiped out life on Earth; something similar is happening today

Great climatic changes triggered the Earth’s biggest extinction, which wiped off 70% of terrestrial life and 96% marine life 252 million years ago, a new study suggests. A similar process seems to be taking place today, researchers warn.

The barbary ape is one of the many creatures currently threatened by extinction as a result of human action.


We’re 252 million years in the past, in a period called the Permian. Almost all of the Earth’s landmass is clumped together into a supercontinent called Pangaea. Although it’s still in its earlier phases, life on Earth has developed to be remarkably diverse. But evolution was about to suffer a massive setback — a dramatic extinction that came to be known as “The Great Dying.”

“It was a huge event. In the last half a billion years of life on the planet, it was the worst extinction,” said Curtis Deutsch, an oceanography expert who co-authored the research with University of Washington colleague Justin Penn and Stanford University scientists Jonathan Payne and Erik Sperling.

Despite the magnitude of this event, researchers have found relatively few clues about it — until some 20 years ago.

The problem is that 252 million years is a long time (even in geological terms), and finding reliable evidence that survived the onset of this much time is not easy. However, modern dating techniques (particularly the U–Pb dating of zircon crystals) allowed geologists to pinpoint this extinction to a few thousands of years — which given the scale of things, is quite impressive.

Similarly, radiometric studies have revealed that the extinction coincided with (and was likely caused by) massive volcanic eruptions. However, not all was clear. Specifically, it was unclear how the volcanic eruption and the extinction event were related.

Now, a new study suggests that the determining mechanism was an all too familiar one: climate change.

Image credits: University of Washington.

Essentially, the eruptions caused intense and abrupt global warming, which in turn depleted the oxygen from the oceans, causing the ocean’s creatures to effectively suffocate. Using a complex model powered by a supercomputer, the authors found that the combination of these two factors alone (warming water and low oxygen) can “account for more than half the magnitude of the ‘Great Dying’”.

If those two factors seem somewhat familiar, it’s because they’re also taking place today.

… and now

The story seems remarkably similar to what we’re experiencing today, as researchers themselves underline in the study.

“Voluminous emissions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, rapid global warming, and a decline in biodiversity—the storyline is modern, but the setting is ancient,” Penn State geosciences professor Lee Kump, who was not part of the research team, wrote in a Science piece responding to the new findings.

Indeed, it’s stunning how similar the two situations are. In both cases, an event caused temperatures to rise in a relatively short amount of time — but whereas 252 million years ago that was a volcanic eruption, in this case, it’s the greenhouse gas emissions outputted by mankind.

“The ultimate, driving change that led to the mass extinction is the same driving change that humans are doing today, which is injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” Justin Penn, a University of Washington doctoral student in oceanography and the study’s lead author, told the Seattle Times.

“The study tells us what’s at the end of the road if we let climate [change] keep going,” warned Curtis Deutsch, Penn’s co-author and PhD adviser, as the latest projections show emissions hitting record-breaking levels this year. “The further we go, the more species we’re likely to lose… That’s frightening. The loss of species is irreversible.”

Scientists are also tracking oxygen depletion in the oceans, and have reported some worrying trends, which already start to resemble what was happening in the late Permian.

[panel style=”panel-danger” title=”Greenhouse gases” footer=””]The extinction event likely occurred over a timeframe of tens or hundreds of years, during which Earth’s temperatures increased by around 10°C (18°F). Oceans lost around 80% of their oxygen, and many parts of the seafloor became completely oxygen-free. This warming was almost certainly caused by a huge spike in greenhouse gas emissions, caused by volcanic activity.


Simply put, we may be witnessing the start of another catastrophic period for Earth’s biodiversity, and contrary to popular belief, life doesn’t necessarily “bounce back” — it may be permanently affected. Previous studies have indicated that it took life at least 4-6 million years to recover after the Great Dying, while other authors put that figure towards 30 million years.

Credits: NASA.

Another striking similarity between the Great Dying and modern times is the devastation of insect populations. The ancient extinction is the only known mass extinction of insects — and insect populations have declined dramatically in the past few decades — the blink of an eye, in geological time.

If this all seems a bit alarming, well, it should. Finding so many similarities between the world’s greatest extinction event and today’s times is not something to be happy about. If our greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed, life on Earth (including humans) may be irreparably damaged.

“As our understanding of the drivers and consequences of end-Permian climate change and mass extinction improves,” Kump wrote, “the lessons for the future become clear.”

Within the Paris Agreement, countries pledged to reduce emissions and limit global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial levels, but globally, action has been lackluster, and several studies have found that an increase of over 4 degrees Celsius is much more likely.

World leaders are currently meeting in Katowice at the annual UN climate summit (in which the Paris Agreement was also signed) to decide the best course of action, but despite some remarkable initiatives, there are few reasons for optimism.

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such massive processes, but it’s important to remember that collectively, our decisions are one of the most powerful geological forces in our planet’s history. Your decisions do matter — make it count.

The study “Climate change and marine mass extinction” has been published in Science.

Hawaii volcano.

Volcanoes are fed by ‘mush reservoirs’ instead of magma chambers, study suggests

Eruptions are more of a ‘squeeze’ than a ‘bang’, a new study suggests.

Hawaii volcano.

Image credits Adrian Malec.

New research shows that volcanoes aren’t fed by large reservoirs of magma as previously believed. Instead, all that molten rock builds up into ‘mush reservoirs’ from which it later pops. These reservoirs consist of mostly solid crystals (i.e. rocks), with magma filling the pores and cracks in between them.


Our understanding of volcanic processes is currently built upon the magma chamber model. Boiled down, the model posits that each volcano lies atop a large chamber or cave filled with liquid magma. If you’ve seen Lord of the Rings, imagine that scene (spoiler alert) on Mount Doom when the ring gets destroyed in a river of magma; the chambers we’re talking about are pretty much the same, only deeper underground (and usually capped with cold, hard rock).

Students in Geology 101 are taught this model, and, for the most part, it works quite elegantly. It helps us make heads and tails of why certain volcanoes erupt while others lie dormant, fits with indirect evidence (such as pre-eruption events observed on the surface and geophysical readings), and is easy to wrap your head around.

The concept of magma chambers gained so much appeal in geology for a simple reason: volcanoes need a source of magma to erupt, and they need a lot of it. Furthermore, that magma needs to contain relatively few solid crystals, so that it’s flowy enough. A magma chamber would be able to store enough material and allow any cooler crystals to precipitate, satisfying both of a volcano’s requirements.

However, nobody has actually seen one of these chambers directly. Recent magma chemistry analyses have challenged the model. Instead of a huge chamber, such studies point to smaller pools of magma formed in the gaps between solid crystals — all of which points to the ‘mush reservoir’ model. The catch was that such a structure couldn’t explain how magmas with relatively few crystals form and reach volcanoes in order to fuel surface eruptions.

The new study, published by researchers at Imperial College London and the University of Bristol, suggests the assumption of a magma chamber needs a re-think.

“We now need to look again at how and why eruptions occur from mush reservoirs,” says lead author Matthew Jackson, a Professor at the Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering at Imperial.

“We can apply our findings to understanding volcanic eruptions with implications for public safety and also to understand the formation of metal ore deposits associated with volcanic systems.”

The team digitally modeled a mush reservoir to see exactly how it would function — and function they do, indeed! Within a mush reservoir scenario, the team reports, magma rises through the nooks and crannies since it’s less dense than the surrounding crystals. It chemically interacts with the crystals on its way up, partially melting them — this is more pronounced in areas of magma build-up, creating areas with relatively few crystals.

It’s these pockets — although short-lived — that can lead to eruptions, they explain:

“A major mystery about volcanoes is that they were thought to be underlain by large chambers of molten rock. Such magma chambers, however, were very difficult to find,” says co-author Stephen Sparks, a Professor at the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences.

“The new idea developed by geologists at Imperial and Bristol is that molten rock forms within largely crystalline hot rocks, spending most of its time in little pores within the rock rather than in large magma chambers. However, the rock melt is slowly squeezed out to form pools of melt, which can then erupt or form ephemeral magma chambers.”

Even better, the mush reservoir model also fits with other phenomena observed in volcanic systems: how the chemical composition of magma changes over time, for example, or the occasional inclusion of very old crystals in ‘young’ magmas. All in all, things seem to be going in its favor, and the days of the magma chamber model may be numbered.

The paper “Chemical differentiation, cold storage and remobilization of magma in the Earth’s crust” has been published in the journal Nature.

One Icelandic glacier-volcano duo is emitting 20 times more methane than all other volcanoes in Europe

Turns out humanity doesn’t have a monopoly on self-destructive behaviors.

Sólheimajökull glacier.

Sólheimajökull glacier, Iceland.
Image credits Chris / Flickr.

One glacier in Iceland is putting out large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, a new study reports. The  Sólheimajökull glacier — which flows from the active, ice-covered volcano Katla — generates and releases about 41 tonnes of methane (through meltwater) each day during the summer months. That’s roughly equivalent to the methane produced by 136,000 cows, the team adds.


“This is a huge amount of methane lost from the glacial meltwater stream into the atmosphere,” said Dr. Peter Wynn, a glacial biogeochemist from the Lancaster Environment Centre and corresponding author of the study.

“It greatly exceeds average methane loss from non-glacial rivers to the atmosphere reported in the scientific literature. It rivals some of the world’s most methane-producing wetlands; and represents more than twenty times the known methane emissions of all Europe’s other volcanoes put together.”

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) — 28 times more powerful, to be exact. Knowing exactly how much of it makes its way into the atmosphere thus becomes very important, both from an environmentalist and a legal point of view (for cap-and-trade or similar systems).

Whether or not glaciers release methane has been a matter of some debate. On the one hand, they’re almost perfectly suited for the task: they bring together organic matter, water, and microbes in low-oxygen conditions (all very conducive to methane), capping them all off with a thick layer of ice to trap the gas. On the other hand, nobody had ever checked to make sure. So the team decided to take the matter into their own labs.

They visited the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland to retrieve samples from the meltwater lake it forms. The team then measured methane concentrations in the samples and compared them to methane levels in nearby sediments and other rivers, to make sure they weren’t picking up on environmental methane emissions from the surrounding area.

“The highest concentrations were found at the point where the river emerges from underneath the glacier and enters the lake. This demonstrates the methane must be sourced from beneath the glacier,” Dr. Wynn explains.

Subsequent spectrometry analyses revealed that the methane was generated by microbial activity underneath the glacier. However, the volcano also has a part to play here. It doesn’t generate methane directly, but it “is providing the conditions that allow the microbes to thrive and release methane into the surrounding meltwaters,” explains Dr. Wynn.

The thing is that methane really likes oxygen. It likes it so much, in fact, that whenever the two meet they hook up into CO2. What generally happens with glaciers is that oxygen-rich meltwaters seep to the bottom and convert any methane trapped there into CO2. At Sólheimajökull, however, most of the oxygen in this meltwater is neutralized by gases produced by the Katla volcano. The methane remains unaltered, dissolves into the water, and escapes from under the glacier unscathed.

“Understanding the seasonal evolution of Sólheimajökull’s subglacial drainage system and how it interacts with the Katla geothermal area formed part of this work”, said Professor Fiona Tweed, an expert in glacier hydrology at Staffordshire University and co-author of the study.

Heat from Katla also keeps the environment cozy for the microbes living under the glacier and may “greatly accelerate the generation of microbial methane, so in fact you could see Katla as a giant microbial incubator,” adds Dr. Hugh Tuffen, a volcanologist at Lancaster University and co-author on the study.

Such active, ice-bound volcanoes and geothermal systems are abundant in both Iceland and Antarctica. The present paper suggests that these systems can have a meaningful impact on our climate projections. Katla “emits vast amounts of CO2 — it’s in the top five globally in terms of CO2 emissions from volcanoes,” Dr. Tuffen explains.

“If methane produced under these ice caps has a means of escaping as the ice thins, there is the chance we may see short term increases in the release of methane from ice masses into the future,” says lead author Dr. Rebecca Burns.

However, the team says it’s still unclear such processes will play out in the context of climate change. There could be a short-term spike of methane released while glaciers melt and thin out, but the process may be self-limiting in the long-term: without ice, the conditions for methane production are removed.

The paper “Direct isotopic evidence of biogenic methane production and efflux from beneath a temperate glacier” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Volcano glass underwater.

Deepest volcanic eruption lies in a field of glass at the lip of the Mariana Trench

Researchers found the deepest known volcanic eruption — right on the cusp of the Mariana Trough.

Volcano glass underwater.

Image credits Oregon State University.

Nestled in a vast field of volcanic glass on the lip of the Mariana Trough at a depth of 4,050-4,450 meters (2.51 to 2.76 miles), researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Oregon State University (OSU) have found the deepest volcano known to man.

The volcano experienced a massive eruption sometime in 2015, they write, creating the 7.3 kilometer-(4.5 mile-)long field of glass.

At the bottom of the sea

The Mariana Trough is a back-arc basin created by the active volcanoes running along the lip of the Mariana Trench. As it sits on the edge of a subduction zone (where one tectonic plate sinks under another), the Trough sees a lot of volcanic activity. However, it’s usually far beyond our sights.

“We know that most of the world’s volcanic activity actually takes place in the ocean, but most of it goes undetected and unseen,” said OSU marine geologist and paper lead author Bill Chadwick.

“Undersea quakes associated with volcanism are usually small, and most of the instrumentation is far away on land. Many of these areas are deep and don’t leave any clues on the surface. That makes submarine eruptions very elusive.”

Such eruptions are so hard to study that we weren’t able to capture one on camera until 2009, less than a decade ago. Only about 40 submarine lava flows have been detected in total.

The eruption in the current paper was first found in December 2015, by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s autonomous underwater vehicle Sentry. At that time, the glass flows were brand new and pristine — there were no plants growing on them, and no sediments from which any could sprout. Hydrothermal vents were releasing a milky fluid, which indicated that the lava flow was still warm.

The team returned to the site in April and December of 2016 with remotely-operated underwater vehicles. These were NOAA’s Deep Discoverer and Schmidt Ocean Institute’s SuBastian, which allowed the researchers a much greater degree of freedom in exploring the eruption site. The hydrothermal system was in rapid decline by this point, the team notes, which suggests that the eruption likely occurred just a few short months before the initial discovery.

“Typically after an eruption, there is heat released and venting for a few years and organisms will colonise the vents, creating a new ecosystem,” Chadwick explains.

“But after a while, the system cools down and the mobile organisms will leave. There was still some venting, but it had obviously greatly declined.”

Images at site.

Images captured during a SuBastian dive, December 2016.
Image credits Chadwick et al., 2018m Frontiers.

We might have missed the main event, but the site is still a treasure trove of data for researchers. Apart from being the deepest, this is also the ‘freshest’ underwater eruption we’ve found so far. The team used this opportunity to see how quickly life colonizes such vents. By April 2016, species such as shrimp and lobsters — which are commonly seen living around hydrothermal vents — had started moving in at the site. Less mobile species such as anemones and sponges, however, were yet to make an appearance.

“Undersea volcanoes can help inform us about how terrestrial volcanoes work and how they impact ocean chemistry, which can significantly affect local ecosystems,” Chadwick said. “It’s a special learning opportunity when we’re able to find them.”

The paper “A Recent Volcanic Eruption Discovered on the Central Mariana Back-Arc Spreading Center” has been published in the journal Frontiers in Earth Science.

Italy’s Mount Etna might soon collapse into the sea

Researchers carried out a precise survey of the mountain’s shifting tilt, and the results are pretty worrying.

An Etna eruption as seen from the International Space Station.

Mount Etna is an active stratovolcano on the east coast of the Island of Sicily. It’s by far the largest active volcano in Italy and second largest in Europe, surpassed only by the Mount Teide in Tenerife. Mount Etna is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and is almost always in a state of activity. This is good on one hand since fertile volcanic soils support extensive agriculture, with vineyards and orchards on the volcano’s lower slopes. But on the other hand, because the area is so densely populated, its eruptions are also very hazardous.

But there might be even more to worry about.

Ever since the 1980s, geologists have known that Etna’s south-eastern flank is falling into the sea at a rate of a few centimetres per year, but this process has not been thoroughly understood. This was once believed to be caused by increasing pressure from magma swelling from the depths. But the new study finds that it may be gravity, not magma, that brings the doom of Etna.

A team led by Morelia Urlaub from the EOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, in Germany, found that the flank is actually collapsing under its own weight.

They gathered data from seafloor instruments, tracking the volcano’s movement. Initially, for the first 15 months, nothing happened. Then, over only 8 days, Mount Etna’s southeastern flank moved 4 centimeters to the east — a much larger displacement than what was observed on land. This suggests that previous observations, which largely based on land observations, may have been understatements. The magmatic activity also influences flank movement, but overall, the gravitational collapse appears to be the dominating factor.

A map of displacement around Etna (the displacement is not uniform). White dashed lines show principal geological faults. Dots show locations of the seafloor geodetic receivers. Image credits: Urlaub et al / Science Advances.

Researchers also raise an alarm flag, using some of the strongest language realistically available in scientific publishing:

“We cannot exclude flank movement to evolve into catastrophic collapse, implying that Etna’s flank movement poses a much greater hazard than previously thought,” the study reads.

Based on available information, there’s no telling when or where this might collapse, and how hazardous this collapse may be.

The study has been published in Science Advances.

Hawaii Authorities: Please don’t swim near erupting volcano

As the Kilauea volcano continues to erupt, and lava flows into the ocean, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) have an important message for people in the area: don’t swim there!

It’s always funny when authorities have to tell you not to swim near an active volcano, but this is where we’re at now in Hawaii. “Lava is entering the sea this morning on the southern portion of the flow front,” an HVO status report stated Tuesday, emphasizing that the area is still not stable and should be avoided for several reasons.

For starters, there’s the painfully obvious: it’s hot — really hot. Kilauea releases what is called mafic magma, which reaches temperatures of about 2,140 degrees Fahrenheit (1,200 Celsius). Even by volcano standards, that’s hot; by comparison, Mount St. Helens spewed cooler lava, about 1,472 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius). Even though the lava cools off by a few hundred degrees the moment it comes in contact with the air, it’s still ungodly hot.

Then, the lava delta is very unstable. Even though it may seem rock-hard, it’s essentially just a bunch of unconsolidated material, which can break off or erode at any moment and slide into the sea.

Lava on Makamae Street. Image credits: USGS

Then, there are the toxic gases — the moment the lava comes in contact with the water, it releases something called “laze,” a mixture of white clouds of steam, toxic gas and tiny shards of volcanic glass, all of which can damage your skin, eyes, and lungs. So even though it may look harmless, it’s still very dangerous. Janet Babb, a geologist with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, says the plume “looks innocuous, but it’s not.”

“Residents are urged to minimize exposure to these volcanic particles, which can cause skin and eye irritation similar to volcanic ash,” the USGS wrote.

If that still doesn’t convince you, the USGS has one more warning: going near the sea exposes you to flying debris from the sudden explosive interaction between lava and water.

The bottom line — if you’re in Hawaii, you really, really shouldn’t go anywhere near the volcano or the water.

Lava from the Kilauea eruption engulfs a nursery in Kapoho, Hawaii. Image credits: Department of Defense.

So far, the eruption has forced over 2,000 people to evacuate, and the eruption is still very active. For more information on the still-developing situation you can follow:

  • Webcam images: https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea/multimedia_webcams.html
  • Photos/Video: https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea/multimedia_chronology.html
  • Lava Flow Maps: https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea/multimedia_maps.html

Kilauea volcano in Hawaii erupts, threatening local community. So far, everyone is safe

Kilauea, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, has erupted at around 4:30 p.m. local time, ejecting magma, rocks, and toxic fumes.

“It sounded like there were rocks in a dryer that were being tumbled around,” said Jeremiah Osuna, who lives near Leilani Estates, one of two subdivisions evacuated. “You could hear the power it of it pushing out of the ground.”

The eruption didn’t exactly come as a surprise, not only because Kilauea is extremely active and eruptions happened regularly, but also because the eruption was preceded by a series of over 600 earthquakes — one of them going as high as 5.0 in magnitude.

All 1,500 inhabitants of Pahoa, which is close to the eruption, were told to leave after steam and lava started pouring out of a crack. In total, thousands of people have been evacuated following the eruption, with Governor David Ige saying he activated military reservists from the National Guard to help with the evacuations.

Currently, new ground cracks have been reported in the area, but the eruption seems to have calmed down. However, authorities have urged people to remain on alert. The opening phases of fissure eruptions are dynamic. Additional vents and new lava outbreaks may occur and at this time it is not possible to say where new vents may occur, the USGS writes.

Thankfully, no one was reportedly injured during the eruption. If anything, Hawaiians have grown to be quite resilient in the face of such eruptions. But, even for veterans, the event can be disturbing.

“Living on a volcano, everybody has got pretty thick skin. They know the risk,” said Ryan Finlay, who lives in Pahoa and runs an online trade school. “Lava for the most part has flown to the ocean the last 30 years. Everybody gets in a comfort zone. The last couple weeks, everything changed.”

For all its spectacular eruptions, Kilauea isn’t a particularly dangerous volcano. Its name means “spewing” or “much spreading” in the Hawaiian language (referring to its frequent outpouring of lava), but Kilauea is a shield volcano — a type of volcano usually composed almost entirely of fluid lava flows. Because the lava is so hot and fluid, it flows instead of blowing up, which means that eruptions tend to be less violent.

The first well-documented eruption of Kīlauea occurred in 1823, and since then, the volcano has been erupting more or less all the time. The volcano lies directly over the Hawaii hotspot — an area which is fed hot material directly from the mantle. In a way, the Earth’s mantle is “leaking” through Hawaii.

For the first time, researchers record a volcanic thunder

A group of scientists achieved what many believed was impossible: recording a volcano’s thunder.

This satellite image shows Bogoslof volcano erupting on May 28, 2017. The eruption began about 18 minutes prior to this image and the cloud rose to an altitude greater than 12 kilometers (40,000 feet) above sea level. Image credits: Dave Schneider / Alaska Volcano Observatory & U.S. Geological Survey.

Not all volcanoes are made equal, and not all eruptions are the same. Depending on the chemistry and temperature of the lava, some eruptions are essentially a neat lava fountain, while others are more explosive, ejecting clouds of hot rock and ash that can reach the stratosphere. As they do so, these charged particles can create loud thunders, but these thunders tend to get lost in the overall cacophony of tumbles and rumbles in the eruption.

Now, for the first time, geoscientists have managed to isolate that thunder boom, digitally disentangling it from other sounds in the background.

“It’s something that people who’ve been at eruptions have certainly seen and heard before, but this is the first time we’ve definitively caught it and identified it in scientific data,” said Matt Haney, a seismologist at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage and lead author of the new study set to be published in Geophysical Research Letters.

You can listen to the sound here:

This audio file contains 20 minutes of microphone data recorded during the March 8, 2017 Bogoslof eruption, sped up 60 times. Credit: Matt Haney / Alaska Volcano Observatory & U.S. Geological Survey.

Isolating the sound isn’t just interesting as a technical achievement, it can be used as a proxy for volcanic lightning (the stronger the lightning is, the stronger the thunder is). Then, the lightning itself can be used to assess how big the volcanic plume is — and how hazardous it is.

“Understanding where lightning is occurring in the plume tells us about how much ash has been erupted, and that’s something that’s notoriously difficult to measure,” Johnson said. “So if you’re locating thunder over a long area, you could potentially say something about how extensive the plume is.”

Bogoslof Volcano erupting on June 5, 2017. Image credits: NASA Earth Observatory.

The team was able to record the rumbling and thunder using a microphone array, a tool which is becoming more and more common in volcano monitoring. Although zoning in on the thunder alone was considered impossible by some geoscientists, Haney believes the technique might become more and more common (and useful) in the near future.

“If people had been observing the eruption in person, they would have heard this thunder,” Haney said. “I expect that going forward, other researchers are going to be excited and motivated to look in their datasets to see if they can pick up the thunder signal.”

Journal Reference: ‘Volcanic thunder from explosive eruptions at Bogoslof volcano, Alaska’. Geophysical Research Lettersonlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10 … 017GL076911/abstract

Kick-‘em-Jenny: Scientists get rare chance to study volcano as it’s erupting

A team of British researchers chanced upon something unexpected as they were carrying out a marine survey: an erupting underwater volcano. Their new study helps shed new light on underwater volcanoes, which are notoriously difficult to study.

Bathymetric map from the survey. Image credits: Imperial College London

Aboard the research ship R.R.S. James Cook, scientists from several UK universities, in collaboration with The University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre, were collecting ocean-bottom seismometers, as part of a larger research project — when they got an alarm message. The culprit was an underwater volcano called ‘Kick ’em Jenny’, one of the Caribbean’s most active volcanoes.

Normally, when you’d hear that a volcano was erupting nearby, you’d want to get as far away as possible from it. But when you’re an Earth scientist aboard a research vessel, you might want to do the opposite: get as close as is safely possible.

Direct observations of submarine eruptions are extremely rare, but since the scientists were already nearby, they were able to get close enough to the volcano to record the immediate aftermath of the eruption, including the gas coming out of the central cone.

Survey of the cone with gas venting in April 2017. Image credits: Imperial College London.

It wasn’t the first time the volcano had been surveyed, but it was the first time one of its eruptions was imaged directly. Lead author and PhD student Robert Allen, from the Department of Earth Science & Engineering at Imperial College in London, said:

“There are surveys of the Kick-‘em-Jenny area going back 30 years, but our survey in April 2017 is unique in that it immediately followed an eruption. This gave us unprecedented data on what this volcanic activity actually looks like, rather than relying on interpreting seismic signals.”

The volcano has erupted on at least twelve occasions between 1939 and 2001 and it’s still quite active. The team found that Kick-’em-Jenny (a reference to the rough waters in the area) goes through a cycle of lava ‘dome’ growth, followed by landslides which trigger a collapse. A similar cycle has been observed with other volcanoes in the Caribbean, for instance on the island of Montserrat.

If a volcano as active as Kick-‘em-Jenny was on land, it would have been studied and monitored in great detail. But since it’s underwater, and thus both less dangerous and more difficult to study, geologists know far less about it than they’d like to. However, this study can also improve monitoring techniques to be used in the future. Co-author Dr. Jenny Collier, from the Department of Earth Science & Engineering at Imperial, concludes:

“Kick-‘em-Jenny is a very active volcano but because it is submarine is less well studied than other volcanoes in the Caribbean. Our research shows that whilst it has quite regular cycles, it is on a relatively small scale, which will help inform future monitoring strategies.”

The study has been published today in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems.

Geologists listen to volcanic murmur to predict eruptions

A new study found that monitoring volcanoes for inaudible, low-frequency sounds might help predict dangerous eruptions.

Audible sounds and earthquakes have a lot in common with each other — after all, they’re both caused by acoustic waves. Sure, they’re propagating at different frequencies and through different mediums, but at their core, they’re similar waves. With a bit of artistic license, you could say that seismology is the science that “listens” to the Earth.

Well, researchers from Stanford and Boise State University now want to actually listen to a volcano. They found that by monitoring the infrasound detected by monitoring stations on the slopes of the Villarrica volcano in southern Chile, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, they could predict impending eruptions.

The sounds (vibrations) they were picking up were produced by the rumbling of a lava lake located inside the volcano’s crater. When the volcano’s activity intensifies, the lake starts to shake and stir, creating more sounds.

“Our results point to how infrasound could aid in forecasting volcanic eruptions,” said study co-author Leighton Watson, a graduate student in the lab of Eric Dunham, an associate professor in the Department of Geophysics of the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “Infrasound is potentially a key piece of information available to volcanologists to gauge the likelihood of an eruption hours or days ahead.”

Of course, many of the world’s big volcanoes are already being monitored. Seismic activity can be a good indicator of an eruption. The idea isn’t to replace it with infrasound, but rather to complement it, along with all other methods used for volcano monitoring. However, there are still significant challenges.

Villarrica is one of Chile’s most active volcanoes.

While thus far, the infrasound readings have proven quite reliable, they also need to be confirmed in other environments, on other volcanoes. It’s not clear to what extent this information can be used to anticipate eruptions and how reliable this data can be.

Furthermore, this has only been tested on “open vent” volcanoes like Villarrica, where an exposed lake or channels of lava connect the volcano’s inner fire to the atmosphere. Applying the same method on a closed volcano will undoubtedly prove to be much more difficult, or even impossible.

“Volcanoes are complicated and there is currently no universally applicable means of predicting eruptions. In all likelihood, there never will be,” Dunham said. “Instead, we can look to the many indicators of increased volcanic activity, like seismicity, gas emissions, ground deformation, and – as we further demonstrated in this study – infrasound, in order to make robust forecasts of eruptions.”

Journal Reference: Jeffrey B. Johnson, Leighton M. Watson, Jose L. Palma, Eric M. Dunham, Jacob F. Anderson. Forecasting the eruption of an open-vent volcano using resonant infrasound tones. DOI: 10.1002/2017GL076506

Aerial view of the tetzacualco (shrine) with water drained from the pond. Credit: SAS-INAH.

Stone shrine discovered inside Mexican volcano depicts mythical Aztec universe

Mexican archaeologists have discovered a stone sanctuary at the bottom of a pond below the Iztaccihuatl volcano that seems to depict a mythical model of the universe.

Aerial view of the tetzacualco (shrine) with water drained from the pond. Credit: SAS-INAH.

Aerial view of the tetzacualco (shrine) with water drained from the pond. Credit: SAS-INAH.

The site, known as “Nahualac”, is at least 1,000 years old, judging from ceramic materials. Some of them have been identified as belonging to the Coyotlatelco (750-900 AD), Mazapa (850 to 900 AD) and Tollan Complex (900-1150 AD) cultures.

Archaeologists at the National Institute of Anthropology and History led by Iris del Rocio Hernandez Bautista believe that the site was designed to depict Meso-American myths about the creation of the universe. Namely, it’s believed the earth monster Cipactli floated on primeval waters and then split itself, thus creating the heavens and earth.

The Nahualac site covered in water. Credit: SAS-INAH.

The Nahualac site covered in water. Credit: SAS-INAH.

Archaeologists claim that the stone shrine, called a ‘tetzacualco’, emulates this myth due to its positioning. According to them, the way it was placed made the stone shrine look like it was floating on the water surface, fitting with the myth. The Mesoamericans likely used a ritual control of water from nearby springs to irrigate the pond and create the visual effect.

“These visual effects, in addition to the characteristics of the elements that make up the site and the relationship they have with each other, make us suppose that Nahualac could represent a microcosm that evokes the primitive waters and the beginning of the mythical time-space,” Bautista said in a statement.

“The intention that water surround specific ritual architectural elements seems to have been an important part of Mesoamerican thought.”

Mexican researchers at the site. Credit: SAS-INAH.

Mexican researchers at the site. Credit: SAS-INAH.

Credit: SAS-INAH.

Credit: SAS-INAH.

About 150 meters southeast of the structure, over a wide valley which has a number of natural springs, archaeologists also found decorative pieces associated with the rain god Tlaloc. These, along with pieces from the sanctuary itself, are currently examined for their use and origin. The ritualistic nature of the site is further strengthened by organic remains — charcoal and fragments of pink polished schist material — recovered from tripod bowls arranged as an offering.

volcano new zealand

Warming climate linked to more, bigger volcanic eruptions

Climate change might make volcanic eruptions more frequent and powerful, according to a new study which established a correlation between ice cover and volcanic activity.

volcano new zealand

Credit: Pixabay.

Scientists know of countless episodes in the planet’s history when volcanic eruptions have caused changes in the climate. For instance, the largest volcanic eruption in recent history, the 1991 blast of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, caused temperatures to drop worldwide and Asian rain patterns to shift temporarily.

The Pinatubo eruption increased aerosol optical depth in the stratosphere by up to 100 times the normal levels measured prior to the eruption. Over the next 15 months, global average temperature dropped by about 1 degree F (0.6 degrees C).

However, having the climate influence volcanism, and not the other way around, sounds counterintuitive. British researchers at the University of Leeds claim there’s indeed a relationship. Their study examined Icelandic eruptions from 5,500 to 4,500 years ago, recorded in the ash that settled over Europe’s peat bogs and lakes. This period was characterized by a cooling trend, though not quite an ice age.

The researchers found that there were fewer volcanic eruptions once the climate cooled and ice cover increased. What’s more, the eruptions themselves were weaker, tending to have a smaller magnitude.

Tephras - rock fragments and particles ejected by a volcanic eruption . Credit: University of Leeds.

Tephras – rock fragments and particles ejected by a volcanic eruption . Credit: University of Leeds.

According to Graeme Swindles, an associate professor of Earth system dynamics at the University of Leeds, this happens because a cooler climate favors ice buildup. The extra mass amplifies “surface loading”, restricting the flow of magma below the surface. The more ice that gets deposited over the crust, the bigger the impact it seems to have on magma flow.

“The human effect on global warming makes it difficult to predict how long the time lag will be but the trends of the past show us more eruptions in Iceland can be expected in the future,” Swindles said in a statement.

“These long term consequences of human effect on the climate is why summits like COP are so important. It is vital to understand how actions today can impact future generations in ways that have not been fully realised, such as more ash clouds over Europe, more particles in the atmosphere and problems for aviation. “

The reverse also holds. When the climate warmed and glaciers melted — as we’re experiencing today — volcanic eruptions became more frequent and bigger. That’s because the decreased surface pressure now allows the magma to easily erupt to the surface.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that eruptions will become more frequent in the near future. Swindles and colleagues found that there’s a 600-year lag between glacier buildup and diminishing volcanic activity. Global average temperatures have risen by nearly 1 degree C in the last 170 years, so it might be a while before we see a significant uptick in volcanism.

Scientific reference: Graeme T. Swindles et al. Climatic control on Icelandic volcanic activity during the mid-Holocene, Geology (2017). DOI: 10.1130/G39633.1.

Warm rock beneath New England hints of upcoming volcanic eruption millions of years from now

This magma eruption could happen in some parts of New England, but not in the next couple million years. Credit: Pixabay.

This lava eruption could happen in some parts of New England, but not in the next couple million years. Credit: Pixabay.

Geologists have identified a “mass of warm rock” that is rising beneath northern New England. The formation could be an ominous sign of a possible volcanic eruption millions of years from now.

“The upwelling we detected is like a hot air balloon, and we infer that something is rising up through the deeper part of our planet under New England,” said lead author Vadim Levin, a geophysicist at Rutgers University. “It is not Yellowstone (National Park)-like, but it’s a distant relative in the sense that something relatively small – no more than a couple hundred miles across – is happening.”

“Our study challenges the established notion of how the continents on which we live behave,” Levin said. “It challenges the textbook concepts taught in introductory geology classes.”

Levin and colleagues tapped into the EarthScope program which employs thousands of seismometers, each spaced 46.6 miles apart, covering the continental United States. The scale of the program, whose mission is to reveal the structure and evolution of the North American continent, is unprecedented.

Credit: A colored map of mantle flow under the North American tectonic plate. The warm colors indicate lower speed, implying that rock in those regions is less dense, likely warmer and rising toward the surface. Credit: Vadim Levin/Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

By studying seismic waves recorded over the last two years, the Rutgers researchers could peer inside Earth’s interior, where they could see the shapes and texture of structures but also changes in the state of materials. Levin’s team focused their study on the New England area because that’s where an anomalous area of great warmth in the upper mantle was previously reported.

Following a careful assessment of this area of interest, the researchers detected an upwelling pattern beneath central Vermont and western New Hampshire but also parts of western Massachusetts. In this region, mantle flow indicators are the smallest, likely because warmer rock flows upward and disrupts the horizontal flow. Given enough time, the magma could erupt to the surface.

New England residents shouldn’t be too worried that a volcano will suddenly pop up in their backyards. Such an event looks to be millions of years away.

“The Atlantic margin of North America did not experience intense geologic activity for nearly 200 million years,” Levin said. “It is now a so-called ‘passive margin’ – a region where slow loss of heat within the Earth and erosion by wind and water on the surface are the primary change agents. So we did not expect to find abrupt changes in physical properties beneath this region, and the likely explanation points to a much more dynamic regime underneath this old, geologically quiet area.”

“It will likely take millions of years for the upwelling to get where it’s going,” he added. “The next step is to try to understand how exactly it’s happening.”

Findings were reported in the journal Geology


Volcano in Bali has been erupting for over a week, and things might get even worse

The fiery Mount Agung started erupting on November 21. Yet, despite the impressive amount of lava, rock, and gas that it has already ejected, things can still get much worse.

Mount Agung on November 27. Image credits: Michael W. Ishak.

Scientists have been expecting an eruption from Mount Agung for quite a while, especially as local tremors started becoming more and more frequent since September. For months, magma had been gathering up inside the volcano, sending warnings which geologists picked up and then passed on to the local authorities and population. Up to 100,000 people have been ordered to evacuate the area before the eruption. Now, plumes as tall as 3 kilometers (2 miles) above the volcano have been reported and the Pacific Disaster Center estimates that over 5 million people have been affected.  However, it’s hard to say if the worst has passed or if the volcano will get even stronger.

“Lava is coming out of the volcano, there’s definitely enough to cause trouble. This can get much worse, you can’t outrun this,” volcanologist Dr Janine Krippner told news.com.au.

Mount Agung is a stratovolcano, the tallest point in Bali. A well-known active volcano, it’s closely monitored year-round. However, once an eruption actually starts, the volcano can only be remotely studied.

On November 27, the Indonesian authorities raised the alert to Level 4 (Awas, or Warning) — the highest official warning level. All people are urged to stay as far away from the mountain as possible. More than 400 flights have been canceled.

However, not all people are evacuating, especially as most people depend on cattle for their livelihood, and it’s very difficult to evacuate the cattle. Mount Agung is also a spiritual place for the Balinese, prompting a few priests to dangerously venture within the exclusion zone.

When Mount Agung erupted in 1963, it killed 1100 people, with clouds of searing hot ash, gases and rock fragments spreading several kilometers away from the summit. There are fears that the same could happen now.

If the Mount Agung eruption grows in intensity, the impact could spread beyond Bali and even Indonesia — the entire planet could be affected. Last time the volcano erupted, it caused a 0.1 to 0.2 of a degree Celsius drop in the global temperature. Large eruptions eject ash particles and sulfur-rich gases into the troposphere and stratosphere. These particles circle the globe and block some of the sunlight from reaching our planet, temporarily decreasing temperatures.

Supervolcano eruptions might be more common than we thought — but there’s still no need to panic

Supervolcano eruptions would make any other eruption pale in comparison. Image via Wikipedia.

Volcanic eruptions come in many sizes and “flavors”. There are the basic, almost harmless lava flows like in Hawaii, the small rock-throwers, the pyroclastic flows, and then there are the really big ones; on top of all eruptions, in terms of strength, are the so-called supervolcano eruptions, large enough to change life as we know it and potentially return humanity to a pre-civilization state. Needless to say, we’d want to know as much as possible about these eruptions.

Thankfully, they happen quite rarely. A 2004 study estimated that such eruptions (which throw over 1,000 gigatons of material) happen once every 45,000 to once every 714,000 years. There’s no fixed cyclicity and there’s an inherent variability of such estimates, but even at the lower end, that’s not a panic-inducing figure. After all, 45,000 years is much longer than the time that has passed since mankind emerged as a proper civilization. But a new study concluded differently.

Researchers from the University of Bristol’s Schools of Earth Sciences and Mathematics report that, according to their analysis, the average time between such eruptions is only slightly greater than the age of our civilization. Jonathan Rougier, Professor of Statistical Science, says the “best guess value” is once every 17,000 years:

“The previous estimate, made in 2004, was that super-eruptions occurred on average every 45 – 714 thousand years, comfortably longer than our civilization.”

“But in our paper just published, we re-estimate this range as 5.2 – 48 thousand years, with a best guess value of 17 thousand years.”

They reached this conclusion by analyzing a large database. The difference doesn’t necessarily come from a different type of analysis or statistical approach, it comes from the fact that we now we have access to a larger database than we did a decade ago. Basically, we’ve had enough time to do more studies and we now know more about eruptions than we did in 2004.

Based on these recent figures, we’ve been quite lucky to evade supereruptions in our recent history, but it’s also important to note that volcanic activity follows no strict cycle or pattern. Just because eruptions tend to happen with this periodicity doesn’t mean they’ll always stick to it.

“On balance, we have been slightly lucky not to experience any super-eruptions since then,” Rougier added in a statement. “But it is important to appreciate that the absence of super-eruptions in the last 20,000 years does not imply that one is overdue. Nature is not that regular.”

The chances of such an eruption happening in the next 1,000 years is relatively small, and our civilization will change in unforeseeable ways in the next thousand years (just think of how much has changed in the past century). Furthermore, researchers argue, there are other issues far more pressing than a supervolcano eruption.

Journal Reference: ‘The global magnitude-frequency relationship for large explosive volcanic eruptions’ by J. Rougier, S. Sparks, K. Cashman, and S. Brown, in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.


These sharks thrive in a real-life underwater volcano

It’s not Sharknado, but it’s definitely Sharkcano — researchers have found thriving, active sharks in an underwater volcano in the Solomon Islands near Papua New Guinea.

Life always finds a way; whether we’re talking about tardigrades living in extreme environments, plants in frozen landscapes, or, as it turns out, sharks in a volcano. In January 2014, National Geographic reported the unexpected discovery of several marine species living inside an active underwater volcano caldera, in the Kavachi Volcano in the Southwest Pacific Ocean (around the Solomon Islands). Particularly surprising was the presence of sleeper sharks.

“We were freaking out,” said University of Rhode Island Ph.D student Brennan Phillips to National Geographic.

Thought to be both predators and scavengers, sleeper sharks feed by suction and cutting of their prey. They live in frigid depths, where light is scarce and food is even scarcer. So what on Earth were these creatures doing in the hot, acidic caldera? That’s a good question, which researchers wanted to answer. So scientists went back for another expedition. But how do you explore an environment that’s toxic and hot enough to injure or even kill you? Why, you send in the robots, of course.

“Our goal is to send instrumentation there to get meaningful data, but sometimes it’s really fun to just blow stuff up,” says National Geographic explorer and ocean engineer Brennan Phillips.

Image credits: National Geographic / Youtube.

Phillips reunited with his 2015 expedition mates — Alistair Grinham of University of Queensland and Matthew Dunbabin of Queensland University of Technology and Director of GFB Robotics — to measure pH, carbon dioxide, temperature fluctuations, acidity, and have a glimpse of the location.
“The smaller robots have acoustic depth sounders for gathering bathymetry of the vent region, surface water temperature sensors, accelerometers, and cameras. The larger robots carry greenhouse gas monitoring sensors and measure direct gas release to the atmosphere as well as physical air samples. We also have simple drifting robots that are capable of collecting water samples,” says Dunbabin.

The water inside the caldera is hot, acidic, and turbid. Image credits: National Geographic / Youtube.

They’ve learned that Kavachi is a strong greenhouse gas emitter, water temperatures are ten degrees higher than normal, and the pH drops sharply. The water is also very cloudy. None of these things are really surprising, and they’re all these bad for fish, and but are they equally bad for sharks?
For now, that’s still an open question. While the expedition helped shed more light on the Kavachi situation, we still don’t know how the sharks got there, why they’re enjoying the place so much, and how they will adapt in the future. Can they anticipate an impending eruption? What do they feed on? Those are all still questions that need to be answered. These learnings are now driving the development of new experiments for the next trip, Dunbabin says, and the exploration of Kavachi is far from over. In fact, it may just be beginning.

Do volcanoes really emit more CO2 than humans?

No matter how you look at it, even during massive eruptions, mankind still emits much more carbon dioxide than volcanoes. In total, volcanoes barely emit 1% of mankind’s emissions. By itself, the US emits ten times more CO2 than volcanoes do.

Atmospheric CO2 levels measured at Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii (NOAA) and Stratospheric Aerosol Optical Thickness at 50nm (NASA GISS).

There’s a big disparity between what scientists know about climate change and how the media presents the situation. Perhaps not surprisingly in this situation, numerous nonscientific or outright false arguments have made their way into the discourse. Among them, there’s this idea that mankind’s emission just don’t matter — volcanoes output so much CO2, some people say, it massively overshadows everything we do. Let’s see what the data says.

Volcanic CO2

The United States Geological Survey (USGS), alongside several other similar organizations, monitors volcanic emissions. According to their data, volcanoes (both land and underwater volcanoes) emit 200 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually. Of course, it’s not exactly a linear figure and major eruptions can bring dramatic changes.

Volcano eruptions can change a lot of things, but they’re not responsible for climate change. Image credits: Christina Neal, AVO/USGS.

The eruption of Mount Pinatubo, for instance, brought vast changes to the atmosphere. It ejected roughly 10 billion tonnes of magma, bringing vast quantities of minerals, toxic metals, and of course, greenhouse gases. It spewed more aerosols than any eruption since Krakatoa in 1883. By the time it was all finished, 42 million tonnes of CO2 were ejected into this atmosphere. But even with this eruption, volcanic activity didn’t match human activity. Ironically, aerosols from Pinatubo’s eruption formed a layer which dropped global temperatures by about 0.5 °C (0.9 °F) in the years 1991–93.

The data from the British Geological Survey, the British equivalent of the USGS, is quite different. Their estimations claim that volcanoes emit 300 million tonnes CO2 on an average year. This is, as far as we could find, the higher estimation for volcanic CO2. However, that is also not even close to the anthropic contribution.

Mankind CO2

While estimates for volcanic CO2 vary mostly between 200 and 300 million tons, our own CO2 emissions range around 24 billion tons — and that figure speaks for itself. No matter how you look at it, 2.4 gigatons are much more than 0.3.

Mankind’s activity dwarfs the of volcanoes, and our emissions are constantly growing, year after year. As volcanologists emphasize, it doesn’t even make much sense to compare the two.

“In fact, present-day volcanoes emit relatively modest amounts of CO2, about as much annually as states like Florida, Michigan, and Ohio,” writes USGS scientist Terrence M. Gerlach. “Anthropogenic CO2 emissions—responsible for a projected 35 gigatons of CO2 in 2010 [a figure that has grown significantly since] — clearly dwarf all estimates of the annual present-day global volcanic CO2 emission rate. Indeed, volcanoes emit significantly less CO2 than land use changes (3.4 gigatons per year), light-duty vehicles (3.0 gigatons per year, mainly cars and pickup trucks), or cement production (1.4 gigatons per year).

In case you’re wondering, there’s really not a lot of uncertainty around this. If volcanoes would be the driving factor of the atmospheric CO2 rise, we would see a correlation between volcanic eruptions and this steep rise in CO2 — and we don’t. Furthermore, a global volcanic CO2 output exceeding 35 gigatons per year would mean that the annual mass of volcanic CO2 is more than 3 times greater than the mass of erupted magma (~10.8 gigatons per year), and that’s simply not believable. Lastly, even if these estimates are a bit off, and even if they are way off, there’s still no term of comparison between volcanic and human CO2 emissions.

The bottom line

CO2 is a greenhouse gas and it is the main culprit we blamed for climate change. Volcanoes emit a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but nowhere near what humans emit. We know this with a great degree of certainty.

Artist's impression of the Moon, looking over Imbrium Basin, with lavas erupting, venting gases, and producing a visible atmosphere. Credit: NASA MSFC.

The moon once had an atmosphere seeded by volcanic eruptions

Today, the lunar atmosphere is extremely thin, but 3-4 billion years ago, volcanic eruptions spewing giant clouds of gas may have seeded a much denser atmosphere.

Artist's impression of the Moon, looking over Imbrium Basin, with lavas erupting, venting gases, and producing a visible atmosphere. Credit: NASA MSFC.

Artist’s impression of the Moon, overlooking over Imbrium Basin, with lava erupting and venting gases producing a visible atmosphere. Credit: NASA MSFC.

Until rather recently, scientists thought the Moon has virtually no atmosphere. The various lunar probes we’ve sent through the years, however, sniffed traces of unusual gases, including sodium and potassium, which are not found in the atmospheres of Earth, Mars or Venus. Other gases present in the lunar air include helium and argon, and might also include neon, ammonia, methane, and carbon dioxide. Overall, the lunar exosphere is about 10 trillion times thinner than Earth’s atmosphere at sea level — comparable to the density of the outermost fringes of Earth’s atmosphere near the International Space Station. In other words, there’s not much, but there’s still a detectable atmosphere present, nonetheless.

A sight to behold

Scientists at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center claim that things may have looked radically different three to four billion years ago when the Moon’s ancient volcanoes were active. For about 70 million years, the volcanoes spewed gases that produced a temporary atmosphere bounded by the moon’s gravity. This information is based on an analysis of volcanic glasses collected on site by Apollo-era astronauts, which contained carbon monoxide, water’s ingredients, sulfur, and other volatile species.

From Earth’s vantage point, it all must have been quite a sight — like staring into the eye of a nearby alien planet.

“The total amount of H2O released during the emplacement of the mare basalts is nearly twice the volume of water in Lake Tahoe,” Debra Needham, a research scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, said in a press release. “Although much of this vapor would have been lost to space, a significant fraction may have made its way to the lunar poles. This means some of the lunar polar volatiles we see at the lunar poles may have originated inside the Moon.”

Volcanism on the moon is evident to this day by vast plains of basaltic lavas called maria which cover much of the lunar surface. Back in the day, early astronomers used to think these plains were seas of lunar water. The activity that created these ancient lava fields peaked about 3 billion years ago but a 2014 study found dozens of ‘burps of volcanic activity’, some as young as 100 million years, suggesting the moon is warmer than previously thought.

Map of basaltic lavas that emitted gases on the lunar nearside. Credit: Debra Needham.

Map of basaltic lavas that emitted gases on the lunar nearside. Credit: Debra Needham.

This new research, led by Dr. Debra H. Needham and Dr. David A. Krin paints a more vivid picture of ancient lunar volcanism. The NASA scientists calculated the amounts of gases that rose from the erupting lavas, finding the “two largest pulses of gases were produced when lava seas filled the Serenitatis and Imbrium basins about 3.8 and 3.5 billion years ago, respectively.”

The paper published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters may have implications for future lunar explorations, particularly the prospect of mining the Moon’s resources. Some of the volatile chemicals identified by the researchers could be trapped in the shadowed lunar poles. Mining these icy deposits could provide a settlement with the air and fuel required for a habitat and day-to-day surface operations, as well as the resources for missions beyond the Moon. What’s more, the volatile gases “may hold clues about the material that accreted to form the Earth and Moon and, thus, our planetary origins.”

Bali volcanic eruption seems imminent, after massive seismic activity increase

Over 70,000 people have already evacuated the area as an eruption from the Mount Agung volcano seems imminent.

Mount Agung is at the left. Image credits: NASA.

Indonesian scientists and officials warn that the island of Bali is entering a “critical phase”, with an eruption being highly likely within 24 hours. Although it’s not possible to predict exactly when a volcanic eruption will take place, increased temblors in and around the mountain indicate that magma is building up and stirring inside the volcano.

As the volcano becomes more and more active, hundreds of small earthquakes are created by the magma rising up through cracks in the Earth’s crust. These earthquakes are picked up by seismometers and traced back to the volcanic activity. It was also confirmed through thermal imaging techniques, which detect increasing heat from the volcano. The volcanology agency is also drawing data from GPS and satellite imagery, and everything seems to indicate the same thing: while it can’t be said for sure that the volcano will erupt, there is every reason to believe that the volcano will probably erupt.

“This number of seismicity is an unprecedented seismic observation at Agung volcano ever recorded by our seismic networks,” the Volcano Observatory Notice for Aviation said in a statement.

Monday, there were 844 volcanic earthquakes, with over 300 being already recorded today.

The Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management declared a 12-kilometer exclusion zone around the volcano. Evacuated people are taking shelter in hundreds of village halls and sports centers, as well as in the homes of their relatives.

Emeritus Professor Richard John Arculus from the Australian National University wrote that although infrequent, eruptions of Mount Agung have been among the largest of the past 100 years of global volcanic activity.

“Mount Agung is one of many similar volcanoes in Indonesia and the ring of fire surrounding the Pacific and eastern Indian oceans,” he wrote. “But during its sporadic eruptions, Agung has been one of the most prominent injectors of volcanic ash and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.”

Mount Agung is a stratovolcano with geographical and even mythological significance in Bali. It is the highest point on the island, dominating the surrounding area and affecting local weather, particularly rain patterns. The Balinese also believe that Agung is a replica of Mt Meru, the central axis of the universe.

Gunung Agung last erupted in 1963–1964, killing approximately 1,500 people. Cold lahars caused by heavy rainfall after the eruption killed an additional 200. Since then, the volcano has remained pretty active, with its deep crater occasionally belching smoke and ash. However, this eruption is expected to take much less of a toll. Detection techniques have improved so we know better how to expect the eruption, and infrastructure was also improved, meaning that more people could evacuate quickly and safely. This eruption is certainly threatening, but Bali has learned from its past.