Read a moving account of surviving (and dying on) Mount St. Helens

At National Geographic, you can read Rowe Findley's 1981 account of surviving the Mount St. Helens eruption — and his deeply moving profiles of many of the people who did not. Includes this seminal quote from 83-year-old Harry R. Truman, who Findley describes as raising "the adjectival use of profanity to a new high": "It's a part of me, and I'm part of that ______ mountain," said Truman. "If I got out of here, I wouldn't live a _____ day, not a ______ day." Read the rest

What a Yellowstone supervolcano eruption would actually mean for humanity

It's kind of a "That's no moon" moment in real life — a series of discoveries in the 1960s and 1970s led geologists to realize that most of Yellowstone National Park was one giant volcanic caldera. If you've seen the cable TV specials, you've probably come to the conclusion that an eruption of this supervolcano could doom humanity and that said eruption is bound to happen at any time. But the reality is more nuanced than that, write Annalee Newitz at iO9.com. Not only is a Yellowstone eruption not imminent, but there's also more than one way it could erupt — and the most likely scenarios don't equate to worldwide horror. Read the rest

Amazing images of salt harvest in Ethiopia

National Geographic calls Ethiopia's Danakil Depression "the cruelest place on Earth." It's a desert wasteland, where temperatures can push past 120 F, where ancient and current lava flows impede movement, and where water is so scarce that that people build rock domes over the top of volcanic vents to trap and condense steam.

It's also a place where Ethiopian men and boys regularly travel in order to cut slabs of salt off of the surface of the Earth and haul them back to civilization. Salt flats like this occur when entire bodies of water totally evaporate. In the Danakil Depression, you'll also find salt towers and other formations caused by evaporation off of volcanic geysers and hot springs.

The photo above was taken by Reuters photographer Siegfried Modola, who traveled with a group of salt miners into the desert and then followed their haul all the way back to the marketplace. You can see his full slideshow of images online. I chose this one because it gives you a view of the salt as it's found on the ground, and the neat, rectangular blocks the merchants cut it into for shipping.

The spot is a favorite of photographers. I'd also recommend checking out the photos and story put together by Christina Feldt, who posted about the Danakil salt flats earlier this year. Read the rest

Exploding things for science

Earlier this month, volcanologists blew 12 holes in an otherwise peaceful meadow in Ashford, New York. It's not that they had anything against the meadow, per se, it's just that it was a convenient place to do some real-world experiments in how explosions affect the Earth and what we can do to monitor and predict volcanic eruptions. Read the rest

Did a volcanic eruption nearly kill off ancient humans?

Short answer: We don't know. What makes this story by Erin Wayman interesting is the way it carefully breaks down an almost Hollywood-ready narrative and finds the fascinating uncertainty lurking underneath. The truth is, uncertainty is cool. Because it means there's more stuff left to discover. Read the rest

The birth of a volcano

On February 20th, 1943, Dionisio Pulido watched as a crack in his farm field collapsed in on itself and began to vomit out ash, rock, and fire. The birth of Mexico's Parícutin volcano is a story I've heard before, but I really enjoyed Dana Hunter's two-part series on the occasion of its 70th volcanaversary. Her posts really get into the perspective of Pulido and other local residents in a way I haven't seen in other accounts, and she does an amazing job of giving you a sense of just how well-documented the birth of this volcano was and why that fact matters so much. Here's Part 1 and Part 2. Read the rest

What we can learn about volcanic eruptions from the vehicles trapped in their path

The car in this photo was 13 kilometers northeast of Mount St. Helens when that volcano erupted on May 18, 1980. This photo was taken about a month later by researchers from the United States Geological Survey. At the Rosetta Stones blog, Dana Hunter has a really fascinating story — with more eerie photos — about why geologists would want to study totaled vehicles and what we can learn from machines that we can't learn from people. Read the rest

Journey into a volcano

Back in July, I told you about an crane system used to lower tourists into the now-empty lava tubes of an extinct volcano. Now, you can travel down into Iceland's Thrihnukagigur volcano yourself — via this fascinating video posted at the NOVA website. While you're probably not getting a view of Thrihnukagigur's magma chamber, you can see the massive tubes that brought that magma to the surface and stare, gawk-eyed, at the tiny scientists scrambling around inside them. Read the rest

The risks of visiting volcanoes

In 1993, Stanley Williams survived a close-encounter with a volcano. A volcanologist, he was standing on the rim of Colombia's Galeras volcano when it erupted with little warning. Six of his scientific colleagues and three tourists were killed. Williams fled down the mountain's slope — until flying rocks and boulders broke both his legs. With a fractured skull, he managed to stay conscious enough to huddle behind some other large boulders and dodge flying debris until the eruption ended and his grad students rescued him.

Williams and the other scientists were there to study Galeras, and hopefully get a better idea of what signals predicted the onset of eruptions.

This is something we still don't understand well.

While volcanologists have identified some signals — like distinctive patterns of small earthquakes — that increase the likelihood of an oncoming eruption, those signals aren't foolproof predictions. There are still volcanoes like Galeras that give no warning. And volcanoes like Mt. St. Helens. In 2004, that volcano gave signals that it would erupt. And it did. Sort of. The Seattle Times described it as "two small burps and a lava flow". Basically, the signals don't always precede an eruption, and even when they do happen it doesn't tell you much about how big any ensuing eruption will be.

And that presents an interesting question, writes Erik Klemetti at Wired's Eruptions blog. How close to volcanoes should tourists really be? That's a question with real-world applications. This year, New Zealand's White Island volcano has been ... Read the rest

The oldest Confederate volcano tells all

TIL: There is an extinct volcano sitting directly beneath the city of Jackson, Mississippi. Specifically, it is approximately a half mile below the Mississippi Colosseum and state fairgrounds. In the late Cretaceous period — about 100 million years ago — this part of North America was under water. In fact, "North America" back then was actually more like a couple of mini-continents surrounded by ocean. The Jackson Volcano was the heart of a 400-square-mile island in that sea. It hasn't erupted in 65 million years, but the ground is still hot enough that some local wells pump up 102°F water. [Edited to add that the relationship between groundwater temp and the Jackson Volcano may not be accurate. Eric Klemetti — geoscientist and Wired blogger — told me he would be surprised if an extinct volcano was the source of that heat.] Read the rest

Incredible lava lake video

Filmmaker Geoff Mackley captured this insanely hot footage of Marum Volcano on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu. Check out the incredible photos on Mackley's site too. (via Dave Pell's NextDraft) Read the rest

Volcano killed thousands of British people in the 13th century

In the 1990s, archaeologists found a mass grave in London, filled with more than 10,000 skeletons. There have been plenty of things over the centuries that could wipe out tons of Londoners en-masse—the Black Death, famine, fires, you name it. But this grave has turned out to be filled with victims of a far more unlikely natural disaster. Scientists now think those people were killed by a volcano.

Not a volcano in England, of course. But a massive eruption thousands of miles away.

Scientific evidence – including radiocarbon dating of the bones and geological data from across the globe – shows for the first time that mass fatalities in the 13th century were caused by one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 10,000 years.

Such was the size of the eruption that its sulphurous gases would have released a stratospheric aerosol veil or dry fog that blocked out sunlight, altered atmospheric circulation patterns and cooled the Earth's surface. It caused crops to wither, bringing famine, pestilence and death.

Mass deaths required capacious burial pits, as recorded in contemporary accounts. In 1258, a monk reported: "The north wind prevailed for several months… scarcely a small rare flower or shooting germ appeared, whence the hope of harvest was uncertain... Innumerable multitudes of poor people died, and their bodies were found lying all about swollen from want… Nor did those who had homes dare to harbour the sick and dying, for fear of infection… The pestilence was immense – insufferable; it attacked the poor particularly.

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How to: Lower tourists into a volcano

So, say you're an Icelandic tour company, with access to an extinct volcano (or, at least, a volcano that hasn't erupted in 4,000 years). And say you want to offer tours inside of said volcano, to tourists who don't have the rappelling experience to get themselves down and up the steep sides of the volcano's crater. How do you do it?

We use a system normally used to carry window cleaners outside of skyscrapers, an open elevator system. A basket that holds 5-6 persons is connected to a crane that has been placed vertically over the crater opening. Massive cable wires move the basket up and down the bottle-shaped vault. The 120 m/400 ft journey takes about 10 minutes to complete.

I really dig this solution!

Inside the Volcano tour, operating in Iceland through August 20.

Via Marilyn Terrell

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Scientists risk their lives to sample volcanic lava

There are few things quite as tense as watching one volcanologist mutter, "Oh my god. He's crazy. He's crazy," while watching another volcanologist scramble around the edge of a caldera.

It only gets more tense when you realize that the volcano in question is Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—which has some of the fastest-moving lava flows ever recorded. The key feature of Nyiragongo is that lake of lava in the center of the crater that you see in the video. In January 1977, the lava lake was 2000 feet deep. When the volcano erupted later that month, the lake emptied dry in less than an hour. Lava was clocked at 40 mph.

Video clip from the BBC's "Journey to the Center of the Planet"

More about the program this came from.

Via EstudandoGeologia and Chris Rowan

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A practical use for volcanic lightning (besides metal album covers)

Here's a story that combines two favorite bits of volcano news into one interesting discovery. You know those great, freaky photos of volcanic lightning? (In case you don't, I've got one posted above.) Remember how the Icelandic volcanic eruptions totally screwed up everybody's airplane travel plans?

Apparently, studying volcanic lightning could lead to better eruption detection systems that could make it easier to predict how big a plume of ash off that volcano will be—knowledge that can help airlines and travelers be better prepared. At Nature, Richard Monastersky reports:

The researchers found that the amount of lightning correlated with the height of the plume, something they could not test using more limited data collected during an eruption at Alaska’s Mount St Augustine in 2006. This observation is important, says Behnke, because systems to monitor lightning could provide an estimate for the size of an eruption, which is not always easy to assess for remote volcanoes.

During a previous eruption at Mount Redoubt in 1989 and 1990, for example, the size of the plume wasn’t known and a plane nearly crashed after passing through the ash cloud and temporarily losing all power from its engines. Behnke and her colleagues suggest that VHF stations similar to the ones they installed at Mount Redoubt could be used to monitor volcanoes to give early warning of an eruption and an estimate of its size.

Read the rest at Nature.com

Via Graham Farmelo

Image: Oliver Spalt via CC

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Volcano in a trash can

Plinian eruptions are named after Pliny the Younger and Pliny the Elder, who wrote about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 and died during said eruption, respectively. This is one of several different types of volcanic eruptions, but it's also one of the most iconic. In a Plinian eruption, a column of magma, gas, and ash shoots straight up, with the gas and ash reaching all the way up into the stratosphere. These are the big, explosive eruptions, with mushroom clouds and rains of rocks and boulders.

Matt Kuchta, geology professor at the University of Wisconsin Stout, recently recreated a classic Plinian eruption using a 32-gallon trash can filled with water, 100 rubber ducks, and some liquid nitrogen. In slow motion, you can see the column of water and ducks rise straight up, fan out at the top, and fall back down to Earth. Just imagine the damage if all the ducks were boulders, and you get the picture. Read the rest

Beautiful photo of a volcanic eruption

Volcano Tungurahua in Ecuador erupts about every 90 years—it's a schedule the mountain has kept for 1300 years. This photo was taken by Patrick Taschler in 2006. (Via Astronomy Photo of the Day and Alexandra Witze) Read the rest

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