15 Explosive Facts About Volcanoes

U.S. Geological Survey via Getty Images
U.S. Geological Survey via Getty Images

On May 3, the Kilauea volcano erupted on Hawaii's Big Island. Since then, 18 fissures have opened in the earth, some hundreds of feet long. The USGS's Hawaii Volcano Observatory reports that some of these fissures are producing "lava fountaining, explosion of spatter bombs hundreds of feet into the air, and several advancing lava flow lobes." More than 2000 people have evacuated, and dozens of structures and vehicles have been destroyed. Five earthquakes have rattled the island as well.

Volcanoes are amazing portals to the hot, living interior of the Earth, but they're also dangerous. Even small-ish ones can have a global impact. Here are 15 explosive facts about volcanoes.

1. THE VOLCANIC EXPLOSIVITY INDEX MEASURES THE STRENGTH AND SIZE OF ERUPTIONS.

Created in 1982 by Chris Newhall of the United States Geological Survey and Stephen Self of the University of Hawaii, the VEI quantifies the strength of volcanic eruptions by measuring the volume of pyroclastic material spewed by a volcano, including volcanic ash, tephra (fragments of volcanic rock and lava), pyroclastic flows (fast-moving currents of gas and tephra), and other debris. The height and duration of the eruption are also factored in. The scale ranges from 1 to 8, and each step indicates a tenfold increase of ejecta. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a VEI-8 eruption in the past 10,000 years.

2. "WAH WAH SPRINGS" SOUNDS KIND OF FUN. IT WAS ACTUALLY DEVASTATING.

One of the biggest eruptions ever occurred about 30 million years ago in what is today eastern Nevada and western Utah, when a supervolcano exploded 3500 cubic kilometers of magma over an area of about 12,000 square miles. The eruption left behind deposits of debris 13,000 feet deep. Consider that the 1883 eruption of Krakatau, in Indonesia, was heard thousands of miles away—and yet it was a minor burp compared to Wah Wah Springs, a VEI-8 eruption.

3. LAVA IS THE LEAST OF YOUR WORRIES.

Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii
Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii

Lava generally moves too slowly to be the biggest threat from an eruption—but that’s not the case with pyroclastic flows. These super-hot, fast-moving currents of gas and tephra did in history’s most famous volcano victims: the residents of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The flow that hit Herculaneum was as hot at 500 degrees—enough to boil brains and vaporize flesh—while the later, cooler wave that hit Pompeii “cooked” people’s flesh, as the BBC puts it, but left their bodies intact; they were preserved by the falling volcanic ash.

4. JUST FOR FUN, THERE ARE 10 WAYS AN ERUPTION CAN KILL YOU.

As Io9 recounts, flying shrapnel, scalding-hot seawater, falling into a lava tube, poisonous gases, and volcanic smog, or vog, can also do you in.

5. THERE ARE THREE TYPES OF VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS.

Magmatic eruptions involve the decompression of gas within magma that propels it forward. Phreatic eruptions are driven by the heat from magma creating superheated steam. Phreatomagmatic eruptions are caused by the interaction of water and magma.

6. VOLCANOLOGISTS ARE CONTINUOUSLY KEEPING TABS ON ACTIVITY ALL OVER THE WORLD.

One of the many initiatives tracking potentially dangerous activity is the Global Volcanism Program of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It also puts out a weekly report in conjunction with the USGS that features a map. The International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior (IAVCEI) especially monitors the so-called Decade Volcanoes—16 volcanoes that are potentially hazardous due to their history of large, destructive eruptions and proximity to populated areas. Among them are Rainier, Sakurajima, Vesuvius, and Santorini.

7. THERE ARE VOLCANOES ON OTHER PLANETS AND MOONS IN OUR SOLAR SYSTEM.

Plumes on Io captured by the Galileo spacecraft
Plumes on Io captured by the Galileo spacecraft
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

That Jupiter’s moon Io is volcanically active has been known since 1979, when Voyager 1 imaging scientist Linda Morabito discovered the first evidence of active volcanism on a body other than Earth. But it’s far from alone. For instance, while Mars’s volcanoes appear to be either dormant or extinct, recent evidence from the Venus Express spacecraft suggests that many of Venus’s volcanoes are active.

8. SHARKS HANG OUT IN ONE VOLCANO.

Scientists recently recorded video of sharks happily swimming around in the acidic, hot, ash- and gas-filled waters near the Kavachi underwater volcano in the Solomon Islands, which is a mere 66 feet below the surface. This suggests extremophiles may be even more diverse than we thought.

9. THE USGS’s ALL-TIME BEST-SELLING MAP FEATURES VOLCANOES.

"This Dynamic Planet" is now in its third edition. This map [PDF] features more than 1500 volcanoes, 44,000 earthquakes, and 170 impact craters, as well as the major, minor, and micro tectonic plates whose movement creates these features. About 60 of Earth’s 550 historically active volcanoes blow every year.

10. AN EARLY 19TH-CENTURY ERUPTION IN THE PACIFIC WAS WORLD CHANGING.

Gillen D’Arcy Wood argues in his book Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World that the 1815 eruption of the volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, which created a massive sulfate dust cloud that fundamentally altered the planet’s climate for three years, led to such diverse impacts as the first worldwide cholera pandemic, expanded opium markets in China, the U.S.’s first economic depression—and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

11. A VOLCANO STAMP SOLD CONGRESS ON THE PANAMA CANAL.

Before the Panama Canal opened in 1915, rival proposals for an Atlantic–Pacific link included a plan to carve a canal through Nicaragua, which had a lot more fresh water and much less deadly malaria than Panama. It also has significant volcanic activity, and in the early 20th century, one of its stamps featured an erupting volcano. In 1902, just before a U.S. congressional vote, a pro-Panama Canal French engineer sent this stamp to all 90 senators to hype the volcanic threat in Nicaragua. Panama got the vote by a slim margin. Today Nicaragua says it’s building the canal with help from a Chinese funder.

12. SPEAKING OF NICARAGUA’S VOLCANOES—YOU CAN SURF ONE.

Cerro Negro, a new and very active volcano that first erupted in 1850—and has blown 23 times since, most recently in 1999—has black pebble-covered slopes you can surf down on a metal-bottomed wood board, if you're adventurous and also kind of insane. Intrigued? Here’s our 7-point guide to surfing volcanoes.

13. THE MOST VOLATILE AREA ON EARTH IS THE RING OF FIRE.

Located at the rim of the Pacific Basin, the so-called Ring of Fire is a nearly continuous chain of oceanic trenches and hundreds of volcanoes spanning some 25,000 miles that’s home to 75 percent of the world’s volcanic activity, with some 452 volcanoes (active and dormant), 90 percent of the world's earthquakes, and 22 of the 25 biggest volcanic eruptions in the last 11,700 years.

14. THERE ARE MANY WARNING SIGNS OF VOLCANIC ACTIVITY.

According to the USGS’s Volcano Hazards Program, volcanologists keep an eye out for ground movements caused by magma forcing its way upward through solid rock, earthquakes resulting from this heaving, and changes in heat output and volcanic gases. Other indicators include cracks in the ground, small steam explosions, melting snow, and the appearance of new hot springs.

15. YOUR EUROPE FLIGHT WAS DELAYED IN 2010 BECAUSE OF AN ICELANDIC ERUPTION.

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano began erupting on April 14, 2010 and didn’t stop for six weeks, spewing magma, ash, and gas. Planes were grounded across Europe. Though the eruption was a small one, it had an outsized impact because it spread unusually far and stayed for an unexpectedly long time in the atmosphere thanks to the irregular shape of the tiny porous ash grains, as LiveScience reports.

BONUS: NASA IS TRAINING FOR LIFE ON MARS ON THE SLOPES OF AN ACTIVE VOLCANO.

For several years, NASA has been simulating life on Mars through a simulation on the slopes of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano, one of the Decade Volcanoes. Each year, a small team of adventurers who meet the basic qualifications for the NASA astronaut program live in a solar-powered geodesic dome. If they want to go outside, they have to put on space suits. Still beats trying to escape poisonous gases and pyroclastic flows.

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

iStock.com/stevanovicigor
iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
iStock.com/ananaline

It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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