OK, one more volcano awesomeness

By Phil Plait | July 1, 2009 2:30 pm

Via Ian O’Neill and Richard Drumm I have one more set of shots of the explosive plume from the Russian volcano Saraychev Peak… but oh, is this so worth it. It’s an animation made up of single images taken by astronauts aboard the ISS.

Whoa. You really get a sense of how the plume is changing minute by minute, and the view of the pyroclastic flows is truly fantastic. A good way to see this is to let the video load, then use the controller to scroll back and forth in time along the footage.

As I look at it, I realize just how amazing this sequence is… the ISS is always up there, so it’s bound to see just about any explosive volcanic event on Earth. But it just so happens that it flew very close to being directly over this one, so we’re looking straight down the plume. Incredible.


Comments (38)

  1. Stark

    Just a nitpick… but lahars and pyroclastic flows are completely separate phenomena. A lahar is a sudden and usually eruption induced mud flow made up of ash and water – very destructive and dangerous. Think of a flash flood of concrete and you get the picture. A pyroclastic flow on the other hand is an airborne 500+ degree cloud of pulverized rock (tephra) travelling down the mountain at up to 700Kph which destroys absolutely everything in it’s path. Both are bad news if you are in the way.

  2. ctcoker

    Pretty cool video, but you ought to put an epilepsy warning on that thing! All the frame and lighting changes are pretty seizure-inducing.

  3. wright

    Made of awesome.

  4. Jeff

    You can actually see a large circular hole created in the deck of altocumulus clouds (probably due to heating or shock wave) and the pileup cloud on the top of ash plume probably created by the ash pushing the air up and crystallizing

  5. Mena

    Jeff, it’s a shockwave:
    What I’m curious about is whether the round area without clouds was part of the shock wave or just because of the difference in temperature around the volcano. Meteorology just isn’t my strong suit…

  6. greg

    Nice video. But now I got a headace


    @ Stark,

    Just a nitpick… that should be: its path, not it’s path. 😉

  8. «bønez_brigade»

    Killer video. Me likes.

  9. BJN

    I could have done without umpteen variants of the image series. If you’re going to loop, run the sequence forward and backward, jumping straght back to the first frame is just queasy-making. But the image is quite amazing.

  10. Not to be too picky about the great footage put together by the NASA Earth Observatory team, but I would be very surprised if the flows they highlighted are lahars. Typically lahars don’t have large ash clouds that accompany them – that is a characteristic of a pyroclastic flow instead. My guess is the two flows are pyroclastic flows that might have incorporated some water vapor to give them the more white color.

  11. Of the many speeds… what is most real? I have never seen a volcano erupt nor do I know how fast the ISS goes overhead. Is the 20% speed about right?

  12. jasonB

    How much “green house” gases were released in that sequence?

  13. rob

    tres cool. i likes teh intertoobz again!

  14. Stark

    Ivan…. thanks. :)

  15. dhtroy

    Way cool Phil. Although I’ll agree with some of the other posters here, that video can make a person sea sick.

    Talk about being at the right place, at the right time.

    The right place being: Way the heck up in space and no where near that puppy.


  16. cmflyer

    JasonB, are you a climate-change-denying troll? If not, lots. (But Earth sucks a lot down with deposited and subducted carbonates, etc.) But if so, could you fire up the Mack truck and go pick up a gallon of milk please?

    On the video, I wonder if there is a way to rotate it 90 degrees left for more natural viewing.

  17. Randy A.

    Jeff and Mina, for a discussion of the round hole in the clouds over the volcano, see: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=38985&src=eoa-iotd

    The Earth Observatory has the best picture from this set, plus lots of other pictures of the Earth from space.

    And Phil, Stark is right. Those are pyroclastic flows, not lahars. But interesting either way…

  18. MadScientist

    Anyone else think that the claimed “lahars” should instead be labeled “pyroclastic flows”?

  19. Flip


    (CNN) — The metric system is the kind of thing that you can expect from the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority Democrats now have in the United States Senate.

  20. Jack Mitcham

    This video makes Bobby Jindal uncomfortable.

  21. Am I the only one that thinks this looks like a giant mushroom waving in the wind?

    This is so cool. I live on Canada’s west coast, where I am in a valley surrounded by dormant volcanoes. Much of the landscape here was shaped by lava flows and volcanic eruptions.

  22. MadScientist

    @Michael L: It sure looks that way – but that’s just changing perspective. However, the multiple shots did make it possible to create a genuine red/green 3D image which the BA pointed to previously.

    @Mena: Stuff actually cools down very quickly, which we can verify by measuring the temperature of the plume as it leaves the vent and ascends. In the analysis of satellite data it is assumed that the plume is at the same temperature as the surrounding air. I’m not quite sure if that is valid for a young plume but certainly valid for one which is a few hours old. I would expect a young still strongly advecting plume to differ in temperature from the surrounding air even though I also expect fairly rapid cooling despite the huge mass of material.

    The clouds within the large opening could simply be due to lower (more moist) air being pushed up into cooler air where the moisture condenses into clouds.

  23. Anthony

    re: lahars vs. pyroclastic flows

    If you go through to YouTube, there’s a video response with changed labels.

  24. jasonB

    Just a resident conservative that really enjoys Phil’s astronomy news/blogs. And yea, I would like to know how much CO2 this beast puts out compared to what we produce.


    PS , I actually drive a Dodge van with a V8 for my business, but generally commute on a bike with my dog in a open top box on the back. Cutest darn thing you ever saw.

  25. Gary Ansorge

    21. JasonB:

    In Houston, about 1970, I saw a motorcyclist on the freeway with a large German Shepherd with its paws over the drivers shoulders, while it was seated on the rear portion of the bikers seat. Wasn’t particularly cute. Looked bloody dangerous for the dog,,,

    Is it known how substantial are the sulphur oxides this beast is expelling? I was under the impression there was great deal of variation in such gas output between different volcanoes. SO2 has the opposite effect of heat trapping gasses like CO2, as in this article about SO2 acting as cloud seeding nuclei:


    Gary 7

  26. Naomi

    Was going to point out the difference between pyroclastic flows and lahars (I’m a geology student who wants to be a volcanologist, you’d better HOPE I know!), but someone’s already got there, so I’m just going to go AWESOME 😀 Seeing a large eruption from space is pretty much two of my dreams come true at once!

  27. Stone Age Scientist

    I hesitated to say this before, but I think the white plume looks like boiled eggwhite.

  28. Ah, interesting. When I saw the smoke above the flows, I wondered about how they could be lahars as well, but assumed I had missed something. I should have trusted my instincts and my knowledge, Nuts. OK, I’ll fix the text here.

  29. Interesting, but… as a geologist I fell bad when people say ‘lahar’ and actually don’t know what they are saying…
    just see ‘Stark’ comment.

  30. Levi in NY

    That should be Sarychev Peak (“Вулкан Сарычева” in Russian), not Saraychev Peak.

    Nonetheless, thanks for sharing this one with us Phil! That’s pretty cool!

  31. Stone Age Scientist

    Hi Phil, on a different subject matter here, I came across this piece from BBC Earth News and can’t help but be reminded of “I, for one, welcome our new ant overlords.

    Turns out it was all our own doing.

  32. MadScientist

    @Phil: Sure I’m being picky, but there’s no smoke in that plume. It’s mostly sand, some other minerals, a bit of iron. (I have to hide from vulcanologists now – some want to strangle me when I say ‘sand’.)

    @Gary Ansorge: For the SO2 we’ll have to wait for someone to do the analysis of the OMI images; it’s the best instrument for the job which is currently in orbit. It’s still very difficult to get a decent estimate though since SO2 is fairly easily converted to sulfuric acid in the presence of water vapor. The plume usually ends up being pretty large and although the estimates of total mass in the plume are pretty good, we would also need to guess at the removal rate to be able to guess at the total amount put out over time.

    @jasonB: A lot of CO2, but that is the most difficult gas to estimate via remote sensing because there is already so much in the atmosphere. It was hoped that the Orbiting Carbon Observatory could help out, but unfortunately the launch failed and (as usual) there was no spare bird built. CO2 also varies a lot between volcanoes – several orders of magnitude. Existing estimates of CO2 emissions from volcanoes have inherently huge uncertainties.

    @Naomi: Do you read Eric K.’s blog? (Click his name) Tavurvur should be an easy volcano for you to get to – but don’t forget your malaria pills. :) Oh, and your escort. And don’t hunt for megapode eggs – the natives are a bit silly and frequently die trying to get the eggs of this bird which is slightly smaller than a bantam.

  33. Hey folks,
    That’s my animation. I found out after I submitted it to YouTube that those aren’t lahars but pyroclastic flows (PDCs). I made another version with corrected labels. Sorry for any confusion on that.

  34. Stark

    Eric – no problems … and might I say… thank-you! That is a little slice of awesome you put together.

  35. Wow! I go to Chapel Hill for a couple days, then head off on vacation and almost miss my first shout-out from Phil! (Note to self: Don’t do that again!)
    I saw the pyroclastic flows and immediately recognized them for what they were, and not lahars. I let it pass and didn’t say anything as it didn’t seem worth fussing about.

    I still to this day think about that girl in South America who was trapped in a lahar a decade ago. Her whole town was bulldozed by the lahar in the middle of the night. They dug her part way out, but couldn’t free her legs and had to abandon rescue efforts when the lahar flowed again, burying her. Heartbreaking.

    Another part of the animation I liked was the billowing ash cloud poking through the steam cap.


  36. Dave Miller

    I’m not sure how Flip’s comment (#19) predicting that the Democrats will impose the metric system on us pertains to the discussion on the eruption of Sarychev Peak, but I certainly hope the Republicans can bring back the Pounds, Shillings, and Pence system of counting money to replace our existing metric method. As has been observed, if God had intended for us to use the metric system, he would have given us ten fingers.

  37. ZERO

    I like the condensed water vapors around the mushroom cloud!


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