Sharing a planet with volcanoes

Augustine volcano eruption Alaska ash
Mt. Augustine eruption January 2006, showing trailing ash cloud. / Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

The scientists at the United States Geological Survey – Alaska Volcano Observatory (USGS-AVO) in Anchorage, Alaska don’t only have an impressive title – volcanologists – they also pursue an engaging, challenging career. Alaska contains over 130 volcanoes and volcanic fields. The AVO’s extremely informative website provides forecasts and warnings, and lists their primary objectives:

“To conduct monitoring and other scientific investigations in order to assess the nature, timing, and likelihood of volcanic activity;
To assess volcanic hazards associated with anticipated activity, including kinds of events, their effects, and areas at risk; and
To provide timely and accurate information on volcanic hazards, and warnings of impending dangerous activity, to local, state, and federal officials and the public.”

These objectives are more challenging than they may appear at first glance, but provide a wonderful example of people working together to advance knowledge and safeguard their fellow man.

Spotted from space

In FrontierScientists video Volcano from Space, AVO research geologist Michelle Coombs tells an exciting story: astronaut Jeff Williams of the International Space Station took a picture of a volcano in the Aleutian arc (the island chain straying south-and-west from Alaska). He contacted the AVO in order to find out which volcano was erupting. Together, they determined it was Cleveland’s (2006) eruption plume captured by his lens. Cleveland is a restless volcano, and a challenge to monitor. Do you have questions about Volcano from Space or other volcano queries? Michelle Coombs is FrontierScientists’ current Scientist on Call. You can email her from the FrontierScientists front page [Ask Me!] button.

Astronaut reports of volcanic activity are not uncommon. You can see a breathtaking image library of at least 620,723 photographs from the International Space Station on NASA’s site Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth.

ISS astronaut photographer Jeff Williams
NASA astronaut Jeff Williams aboard the International Space Station, with camera. / Courtesy National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Modern-day technology bolsters scientific advances, and allows organizations like the AVO access to powerful tools like satellite imagery to assist in monitoring eruptions. Satellite images help us navigate our complex world… here are NASA images of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull (2010) eruption, an event which complicated air travel to Europe.

Managing volcanic hazards

Volcanoes pose dangers. Expelled ash clouds are hazardous to aircraft, which must be diverted from the area. The Redoubt (1989) eruption, for instance, temporarily disabled the engines of a passenger airplane over Alaska. Now, the AVO Anchorage crisis center works with the National Weather Service to track ash clouds and assists the Federal Aviation Administration in safeguarding aircraft.

There are still other hazards for communities. Eruptive clouds frequently consist of ash, sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen chloride (HCl), hydrogen fluoride gases (HF), and carbon dioxide (CO2). Inhalation of particulate ash and other harmful gas pollution can have negative health impacts. Flows of magma or pyroclastic flows can cause fire and destruction of property, while ash fall accumulation can cause structural damage. Lahars, or floods of mud and debris formed during eruptions due to melting snow or displacement of crater lakes, lead to flooding and destruction.

Despite volcanoes’ dire reputation, though, with preparation and timely warning they are a manageable risk. As Joel Hard, superintendent of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve told NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Earth Science video producer Jefferson Beck: “When you live in close proximity to two volcanoes—we have two that dominate the landscape—you just kind of get used to it…. It will do what it’s going to do and we’ll all adjust.”

volcanic voluminous explosion deposited boulder
Rock deposited by a voluminous volcanic explosion. / Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

Can we learn to accurately predict volcanoes? There are many clues. Seismic activity, surface deformation at volcanic sites, fumaroles or gas expulsion increase, thermal cameras, satellite-pictures and eruptions can all be monitored to increase our body of knowledge about volcanoes and hopefully make accurate prediction more likely. However, NASA’s Solid Earth Sciences Working Group notes: “The ability to predict the timing, magnitude, and style of volcanic eruptions is a laudable but still generally unmet goal.”

Nonetheless, the USGS-AVO has shown success in forecasting eruptions and in managing the effects of eruptions, and continues to progress our understanding of volcanic activity. Sometimes, as volcanologist Game McGimseyp roves, you just have to hop in an airplane and see for yourself what’s going on.

Volcanic ash and gasses have environmental effects. Volcanic eruptions of sufficient magnitude can release towering volcanic plumes, ash clouds containing particulates which – windborne – may circle the globe multiple times. Suspended ash particles from volcanic plumes can spread swiftly throughout upper atmospheric levels and block out solar radiation. The sulfur-rich gasses released by volcanic eruptions that reach the stratosphere join with water vapor to form long-lasting clouds of sulfuric acid droplets, aerosol clouds which absorb solar radiation and also scatter it away from Earth’s atmosphere. These phenomena have lead to lowered mean global temperatures following major volcanic events.

Atmosphere and art

For example, the eruption of Mount Tambora (1815) in Indonesia released so much ash and sulfur-rich gases into the stratosphere that it restricted the amount of sunlight reaching the ground. The resulting global atmospheric cooling caused what became known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’, a year in which failed harvests – especially in Europe and New England – were prevalent.

Augustine volcano ash plume
Mt. Augustine continuing eruption March 2006; ash plume imaged from space. / Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey

Interestingly, Karen Harpp writing for Scientific American points out links between art forms and volcanic eruptions. She writes of Lord Byron’s poem Darkness’ inspired by the long winter following Tambora’s (1815) eruption. Harpp writes: “There is a story that Byron invited some of his friends to his home in Switzerland that summer to relax by the shores of Lake Geneva. The lack of sun and warm summer weather led the group to hold a competition writing ghost stories to keep themselves entertained. One of the guests, Mary Shelley, wrote the famous novel Frankenstein for this contest…”

In addition, William Ascroft’s painting of a brightly-colored sunset from the banks of the Thames River (November 26, 1883) closely followed the August eruption of another Indonesian volcano, Krakatau (1883), which caused significant atmospheric haze; atmospheric haze can lend more-than-usual vibrant reddish colors to sunsets.

The San Diego State University Department of Geological Sciences points out that the ‘haze effect’ bolstered by volcano-released ash and sulfuric acid in the stratosphere helps to offset global warming caused by greenhouse gases. “Without the cooling influence of such eruptions as El Chichon (1982) and Mt. Pinatubo (1991),” the combined effects of which decreased mean world temperatures by roughly 1 degree Centigrade over the following two years, “Greenhouse warming would have been more pronounced.”

Laura Nielsen

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond

Cook Inlet Volcanoes project

  • ‘Climate Effects of Volcanic Eruptions’ San Diego State University Department of Geological Sciences
  • ‘How do volcanoes affect world climate?’ Karen Harpp, assistant professor of geology at Colgate University, for Scientific American
  • ‘How Do Volcanic Eruptions Affect Society?’ NASA Solid Earth Sciences Working Group (SESWG)
  • ‘Icelandic volcano: The impact is broad, but could be worse’ Elizabeth Weise, Dan Vergano and Doyle Rice, USA TODAY
  • ‘Volcano from Space’ ‘Spurr’s Eruption’ ‘Mt.Augustine Breathes’, FrontierScientists videos for research project: Cook Inlet Volcanoes featuring Michelle Coombs & Game McGimsey