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Fired Up: A Guide to Earth's Biggest Hot Heads

Have you ever reached your boiling point? You know what I mean, that point where you feel like you’re going to bubble over and explode. It might feel kind of like this.

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Even if you’ve never blown your top, the planet you live on sure has.

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Consider this. According to the United States Geological Survey, “Mount St. Helens released 24 megatons of thermal energy, 7 of which was a direct result of the blast (when it erupted in the 80s).” That is an incredible amount of energy. So much so, in fact, that it was the “equivalent to 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.”

There are a number of important things to know when it comes to volcanoes. First, you have to understand them. LiveScience.com does a good job explaining their creation.

“Volcanoes form when chambers of magma, or hot molten rock, boil to the surface. These magma chambers often remain sealed for hundreds of years between eruptions, until the pressure builds sufficiently to break through a vent, which is a crack or weak spot in the rock above.

“The blast creates a crater, where lava and ash spill out, forming the cone. On some volcanoes, the magma chamber collapses after a violent eruption and a caldera forms, which is just a large, bowl-shaped crater. (See Long Valley Caldera below.) Sometimes these calderas fill with water, as happened at Crater Lake in Oregon.”

The 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption wasn’t just powerful. It was expensive. Estimates from the explosion totalled nearly $450 million between federal, private, state, and local costs for cleanup and recovery. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $1.3 billion in damage.

If monetary damage is crippling, than the deaths they can cause is heartbreaking. As recently as 1985, the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia claimed the lives of 23,000 people. The impact of that volcano was drastic, but the eruption of Laki in Iceland in the late 1,700s far surpassed it. It’s been estimated that its total impact may have claimed the lives of nearly a million people and about 25% of Iceland’s entire population. Wired did a long form piece on this blast a few years ago. It put out so much magma and ash that it impacted almost the entire Northern Hemisphere.

“There are not many historical records from North America that mention the arrival of the Laki haze, but tree ring records from northern Alaska suggest that July and August 1783 were very cold. The mean temperature in northern Alaska is 11.3ºC, but the mean temperature recorded in May-August 1783 was only 7.2ºC. Russian traders in Alaska noted a population decrease in the years after the eruption while Inuit oral histories do refer to a “Summer that did not come” that could correlate with the Laki eruption as well.”

While we can’t stop a volcanic blast, we can prepare for them. Today there are many ways that we can track conditions to recognize when one is coming to prepare and protect property and human lives through evacuation. One measureable factor is seismic activity. Earthquakes and tremors can often be a precursor to a volcanic event and is why Iceland is wired with seismometers as to detect them likely long before an eruption might occur.

That’s only one of the many ways volcanologists prepare and predict when a volcano might erupt. According to GeoNet in New Zealand there have been five key ways that volcanoes have been monitored in the past.

  • Visual and Cameras — Some data can be collected by just taking time to look.
  • Seismic Monitoring — Seismic monitoring is the most widely used method and almost all monitored volcanoes have some kind of seismic monitoring system.
  • Ground Deformation — Measure to see what geographical changes have occurred
  • Chemistry — Monitor the kinds of gases released as they rise to the surface.
  • Gas — Measure SO2, CO2, H2S

LiveScience also discusses the importance of measuring surrounding water temperature and pH. An increase in either of these can suggest changes in the surrounding environment.

As you may imagine, monitoring doesn’t stop once the lava has started to flow. Scientists are measuring the ongoing effects of volcanoes on both the surrounding environment and the impact they may have on a global scale. Long story short, an eruption both cools and warms the Earth. An article in the Guardian provides some additional context.

“The cooling influence of an individual volcano will dominate for the period immediately after the eruption but the warming impact will last much longer. So the significance of each depends on the timeframe being considered. A very large volcano in 2011 may significantly reduce temperatures in 2012 but slightly warm them in 2100.”

NASA has also authored a number of pieces on the study of volcanoes and their impact on the environment. In this piece they discuss the importance of monitoring water to better understand ongoing impact. That’s because data they’d collected contradicted the hypotheses they’d believed true.

“In a climate model simulation of the past thousand years, mega-eruptions are, unsurprisingly, followed by mega-cold spells that reduce global temperatures by 2°F (more than 1°Celsius). But tracers of past climate, such as tree rings and polar ice thousands of years old, tell a different story. These records don't indicate such a drastic, worldwide cooling.”

A mismatch in this climate data was recognized in 2012 after a major international study of climate model performance had been completed. Dr. Allegra LeGrande of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York, concluded in a study she authored that the problem likely centered on the models themselves. They’re simplified in a way that can’t represent the full complexity of the data and modeling.

“Strong eruptions shoot a complex stew of gases into the atmosphere: sulfur compounds, water vapor, halogens, carbon compounds and others. Atmospheric chemists have learned a great deal about the chemical reactions these gases and aerosols trigger in the atmosphere — and the climate consequences. Until very recently, however, computational technology limited the scientists’ ability to put all of their understanding of volcanic emissions’ chemistry-climate interactions to work in computer simulations. Sulfur compounds, especially sulfur dioxide, are key to post-eruption cooling, so modelers had previously focused on sulfur chemistry. New technology now allows them to see how all the various gaseous emissions — including water in addition to sulfur dioxide — influence climate following a mega-eruption.”

LeGrande explained what happened in her research when she changed the climate models to include this new data.

“We did a preliminary set of experiments that kept track of both sulfur and water. We showed that water can change the response to the sulfur dioxide injection.”

Her research is only the starting point though. The team still needs to understand a full chemical makeup of what’s actually contained within a volcanic plume.

“We believe future work will show the importance of other constituents, like ash and halogens. Our goal is to make sure that we have the best toolkit we can have for studying climate, including future volcanic eruptions,” she continued in her discussion.”

Those studies may be closer than ever to completion thanks to advancements in drone technology.

“Volcanologists and engineers in the UK have collected measurements from volcanic clouds, together with visual and thermal images of inaccessible volcano peaks, using an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), also known as a drone.”

That according to a piece published in Sputnik News. The team used lightweight sensors connected to the drone and we able to measure the temperature, humidity and thermal data within volcanic clouds. This is still a far cry from measuring the chemistry of a volcanic plume, but it’s closer than we’ve ever been and we’ll keep getting closer the more we continue to innovate and advance.

Technological advancement is as important in chemistry as it is in the world of temperature monitoring. It’s why we continue to update and introduce new products for our customers that better simplify the monitoring landscape in highly regulated environments. It’s why scientists are always on the lookout for new innovations that can make their work easier. We like to believe that’s why so many of them turn to us to keep their work safe. Hopefully, with technological advancement leading the way, products like ours will keep their assets safe, their auditors happy, and always allow cooler minds to prevail.