People and Volcanoes

A woman and child flee the eruption at Sinabung in Indonesia.  (Source - Indonesian language)

A woman and child flee one of the 2013 eruptions at Sinabung in Indonesia. (Source – Indonesian language)

Four volcanoes made big news this week. None is a supervolcano, but each eruption, in its own way, highlights aspects of the complex relationship humanity has with these beautiful but deadly fire mountains.

In Hawaii, the ongoing eruption at Kilauea entered its 31st year. El Hierro volcano in the Canary Islands showed signs of renewed activity – to the great concern of its tourism-dependent residents – and Sinabung and San Miguel/Chaparrastique volcanoes, each located on the opposite side of globe from the other, had dramatic eruptions.

Sometimes one of the lava lakes at Kilauea looks like an electric city at night.

An electric city in a Kilauean crater.

Gut responses

Of course, wonder is our first reaction when mountains – those symbols of “absolute unity in the midst of eternal change,” per Thomas Wolfe – suddenly shake, breathe fire, and rain brimstone and destruction onto surrounding lands.

Said ruination kindles fear and can lead to tragedy very quickly, or it may “just” cause a life-changing nightmare for tens of thousands of people who don’t know whether they’re going to be displaced for a few days, a week, months or perhaps forever.

Along with fear comes a determination to assert control. Out into the field go the scientists. Government officials and emergency planners meet to develop good response tactics. Public education and safety awareness programs begin in communities that are at risk.

USGS by way of "Pacific Island Parks."

Kilauea has neighbors. (USGS by way of “Pacific Island Parks.”)

A-a-nd more communities go up in risk zones, sometimes because no one knows it’s an active volcano (Auckland comes to mind) but generally because people do know but are gamblers at heart.

The land near volcanoes is very fertile, after all. The views might even attract a lot of tourists, but in many cases people live under the volcano simply because there’s nowhere else to go.

In Hawaii, for example, it’s all three – rich soil, beautiful scenery and nowhere to go. The entire Big Island consists of volcanoes, and Kilauea isn’t the biggest.
The wonder of nature

Today there are many cameras pointed at volcanoes all over the world, and still no one expects to catch the initial stages of an eruption on video.

It happened December 29, 2013,  in El Salvador at San Miguel/Chaparrastique volcano after 37 years of quiet.

Of course, the eruption didn’t end with the song, but it didn’t last all that long, either – just a little over 24 hours. Some people were evacuated, but this probably vulcanian eruption caused no deaths, injuries or destruction (per the latest news reports [Spanish]).

El poder de naturaleza – the power of nature. But wait, there’s more!

Humanity, in the form of El Salvadoran volcanologists,  then asserted control.  They did an overflight of the crater two days after the eruption.

Yes, they probably learned a lot (I can’t understand spoken Spanish very well but am always surprised to see a relatively small active vent in a huge summit crater like that), but it also delivers the reassuring message that even after such a destructive event, people are still standing tall.

Edit: And the volcano is still challenging them. On January 5th, El Salvador evacuated people from the Chaparrastique area again, saying this time it might erupt again, this time with lava.

Fear and economic loss

Incredibly, a week after its eruption the Weather Channel still reports that Chaparrastique – an El Salvadoran volcano – sits on El Hierro island in the Atlantic, off the coast of northwest Africa. Ash from any eruption at El Hierro would be extremely unlikely to reach the capital of El Salvador, which sits on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Meh - everybody speaks Spanish.  It must be in the Americas.

Meh – “El Hierro” is Spanish. It must be in the Americas.

Spain’s Canary Islands are located just above the Tropic of Cancer – again, in the Atlantic Ocean near northwestern Africa.

The Canaries are a paradise. The weather there is spring-like year around. The sea’s waters are warm and support rich, diverse underwater life and scenery for scuba divers to explore. The night sky is so clear and the view so expansive that scientists have established an “astronomy reserve” on two islands – La Palma and Tenerife. If you have ever used the online Slooh telescope, chances are that you have robotically controlled one of the telescopes on Tenerife!

El Hierro on October 23, 2011, with the green plume of its underwater vent roiling away almost 100 km to the southwest.  (NASA)

El Hierro on October 23, 2011, with the green plume of its underwater vent roiling away almost 100 km to the southwest. (NASA)

However, on one of the islands – El Hierro – things aren’t so rosy just now.

You see, the islands are actually the tips of a line of seven large underwater volcanoes. Similar to what’s happening in the Hawaiian Islands, scientists (PDF) and laymen say, there is a hotpot of upwelling magma here that forms a volcano, and then tectonic plate motion moves that structure away and a new volcano forms.

These volcanoes do tend to have flank collapses, so when they erupt there used to be some concern about an Atlantic-wide megatsunami being generated. Don’t worry. The idea has since been debunked.

Anyway, La Palma and El Hierro are over the hotspot now, and in 2011, El Hierro had an underwater eruption (PDF).

Atlantic waters boiling up a rock and ash stew near El Hierro in 2011.  (Source)

Atlantic waters boiling up a rock and ash stew near El Hierro in 2011. (Source)

A vent opened under the area where an international diving event was to have been held, the local newspaper reported at the time.

Not only did water boil – the resulting volcanic gases turned the ocean an ugly green and along with ash and pumice fouled a large area near the coastal and ocean waters.

Earthquakes shook the island, causing rock falls and forcing the closure of roads (and there aren’t many on the island, so this was an incredible hassle). Some seaside areas, like the fishing village of La Restinga, were evacuated.

If El Hierro was Amity Island, then Jaws had just arrived.

Had the vent broken through to the surface in 2011-2012, it would have generated worldwide attention, just as eruptions at Surtsey and Nishinoshima (a/k/a “Snoopy Island“) did. The locals then might have benefited from volcano tourism the same way Iceland did when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010.

However, the action remained underwater. People on the rest of the Canary Islands breathed a sigh of relief, but the 10,000 or so residents of El Hierro were hard hit. Seismicity damaged its infrastructure. Hotel occupancy rates plummeted. Local fishermen had nothing to do – undersea life disappeared near the area, and the rest of the fish moved off to some other location.

The eruption and resulting multimillion-dollar economic disaster lasted through 2012, though I don’t know that there were any fatalities. Then things settled down and everybody started to rebuild their lives. Scientists wrote papers about it.

Now all that is just background for you, needed because most of the world knows nothing about it. The volcano wasn’t visibly spectacular and also…

What happened recently for El Hierro to be mentioned in this post?

A magnitude 5.1 earthquake on December 27th.

It was actually off the coast but near enough to cause landslides that trapped tourists at a couple of beaches and blocked roads. This, coming on top of increased seismicity and inflation of the island (Spanish), has island residents wondering if the nightmare is going to happen all over again.

As of today (January 5, 2014), it appears that things may be calming down and the chances for another eruption diminishing. Scientists at Spain’s National Geographic Institute are watching (Spanish) El Hierro closely, and the alert level for emergency planning remains green (normal) so far.

Perhaps El Hierro and the Canaries will get lucky this year.

Edit: And maybe not. The earthquakes at El Hierro have resumed, with 4 during the last 18 hours:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge.

Terror, Death and Destruction

Villagers living near Sumatra’s Mount Sinabung in Indonesia need all the luck they can get. The volcano woke up back in 2010 after a 1200-year sleep. This explosive volcano’s eruptive activity has been increasing ever since.

It’s a measure of the seriousness of the situation that the media aren’t running any scare headlines about it, even though Sinabung sits close to a bona fide** supervolcano called Toba – a situation ripe for journalistic exploitation, though Sinabung probably isn’t part of the main Toba system directly. (The source for that nonlinkage is informal, only because I can’t do the research today; please note that juxtaposition with the term “supervolcano” in this paragraph does not imply he cares for it – he definitely does not!)

In December 2013, Indonesian volcanologists put Sinabung on red alert and set a 5-km no-go zone around it.

In a 24-hour period ending yesterday, Sinabung had over 50 explosions (some Indonesian online papers put it as high as 77), and pyroclastic flows traveled up to 5 km from the volcano, so they extended the exclusion zone to 7 km.

Why are authorities so timid about extending the zone in the face of this …

…when a volcano like Popocatépetl – fairly quiet currently – has a 12-km zone?

It all has to do with where people live. In Mexico, the closest towns to the volcano, like Santiago Xalitzintla, San Nicolás de los Ranchos and San Pedro Benito Juárez, are about 12 km away.

On Sumatra, just a 5-km zone required the evacuation of over 20,000 people. They have been living (and sometimes dying) in evacuation centers ever since. Now affected villages 7 km from the crater like Jewara and Pintu Besi require help, per news reports, and more evacuees will be coming into an already strained system, with no end to the emergency in sight.

An even wider exclusion can’t be ruled out.

Besides pyroclastic flows to the southeast and east, landslides can happen on Sinabung’s north slope, where there are fumaroles, say the volcanologists (Indonesian, read with Google Translate). They add that landslides are also a possibility at the peak to the south, east and southeast because cracks have formed there. Sinabung can have lahars, too

The Jakarta Post online reported on January 2 that the volcano has built a 2,540,000 m3 lava dome in its crater and that officials say, if it collapses (as such domes are wont to do), all villages within an 8-km radius will be wiped out.

Well, this has been a long post, and perhaps you’re tired of reading. I don’t blame you – I’m getting tired of writing, too.

But the Sinabung evacuees were already tired and stressed back in early December:

As far back in November, the crowded conditions were making them ill:

And there is no end in sight.

When it’s all over, where will they go? Hopefully, home – if it’s still there. If not, well, somewhere else in Indonesia, then. Wherever they go, they will be under a volcano, for the country has 147 that are currently active.

But there’s nowhere else for them. And the volcanoes do make the land fertile and bring in tourists and scientists, so eventually most of the evacuees, if they get through this hard time, will be able to find support of some sort and will build their lives anew.

Construction, destruction and reconstruction – that’s really the story of people and volcanoes. The fire mountains are part of Earth – they release the planet’s internal heat and build new land on its surface. This process is devastating for human beings, but always down the millennia, we have rebuilt our lives and civilizations anew.

We always will.

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For the volcanoes give us wonder, too:


Sources for the gallery pictures: El Hierro, Hawaii (not an endorsement – I don’t know who they are, but the image is just quintessentially Hawaiian to me), and Indonesia.

** “Supervolcano” is a controversial term both because it has no scientific meaning and because it’s usually associated with scare headlines in the media for stories that have a tenuous (at best) connection with geological reality. I use it here at the blog because Jacob Lowenstern has defined it informally for “volcanic events in which at least 300 km3 of magma are explosively evacuated from a subsurface magma chamber … and deposited on the countryside as pyroclastic (i.e. fire-fragmental) materials—ash, pumice and rock fragments” – what’s good enough for the Scientist-in-Charge at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory is plenty good enough for this amateur, too.

Categories: Sunday morning volcano, volcanoes

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