Desktop Project Part 20: Angling in on a smoking volcano

By Phil Plait | April 14, 2012 10:02 am

[The Desktop Project is an excuse for me to clear all the way cool astronomical images I have siting on my computer desktop. I’m posting one every day until they run out, which will actually be pretty soon. I’m catching up!]

Volcano pictures taken from space are a favorite of mine. Satellites that take photos of the ground are generally designed to see straight down (toward the nadir, the opposite of the zenith), and these are always nifty. But there’s a special place in my heart for pictures taken by astronauts in the International Space Station, because unlike satellites, they can see off to the side. And there’s something about a shot of a volcano chugging away when seen from an angle…

Like this one! [Click to haphaestenate.]

That’s Pagan Island, part of the Mariana Islands. This island chain is a series of volcanoes formed at the seam of two tectonic plates, where one plate is being pushed down under another (and forms the Mariana trench). Pagan is actually two volcanoes; the other is across the isthmus from the one that’s erupting. The active volcano in this pictures is about 570 meters (about 1/3 mile) high and 7 km (4 miles) across.

The space station was hundreds of kilometers south of the volcano when the astronaut snapped this picture, which is why we have an oblique view of the eruption. The island is uninhabited; an eruption in 1981 forced the evacuation of the small population that lives there. Since then it’s been fairly active, though nothing as big as the 1981 event. [UPDATE: I’ve been informed that there actually are a handful of people on the island; some Chamorros are still there, living off the land. I have to wonder — given the small size of the island, its volcanic activity, and the small number of people who must be there — if this is a good idea in the long run.]

This plume looks white, so it’s probably mostly water vapor as opposed to ash. I’ll note that since no one is on the island anymore, one of the only ways to monitor this volcano is by satellite imagery like this. And personally, I think it’s a Very Good Idea that we keep an eye on our active planet.

Image credit: NASA

Related Posts:

Desktop Project Part 11: Upside down volcano plume
Desktop Project Part 7: A new volcano parts the Red Sea. Kinda.
Desktop Project Part 4: Underwater volcano in teal
Verdant volcano in a silvery sea

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (7)

  1. Jim Craig

    The volcano on the other end of the island isn’t erupting.

    Isthmus be its day off. ūüėÄ

  2. I banish you to the world of Pagan! No one here knows of thee, Avatar…

  3. MadScientist

    The USGS has had some presence in the CNMI since the eruption of Anatahan in 2003. (I get conflicting stories over whether it’s AVO or HVO who are responsible for the region.) Anyway, we really don’t rely on humans to live next to a volcano to monitor it. Typically a portable seismograph or two would be installed near the volcano – in the case of island volcanoes like Anatahan and Pagan, the equipment goes right on the volcano. The first instruments placed on Anatahan didn’t last too long before the volcano got ’em. These islands are difficult to monitor though; you need a radio of some sort (such as a satellite modem) because the islands are ~80NM or so from the large islands of Saipan and Tinian. Despite Pagan being uninhabited (except for the pigs), folks living on nearby islands would have no trouble spotting the plumes.

  4. Wzrd1

    No tilt meters, MadScientist? I’d have figured they’d put those on the volcano as well as a portable seismograph.

  5. Most of the volcanoes on the globe are permanently monitored by various satellites, particularly NASA’s Aqua and Terra with their MODIS instruments keep an eye on them (they deliver pix twice a day). Active volcanoes, meaning those with clearly visible plumes and where lots of people are at risk in case of a major eruption, are monitored more intensively by other satellites too. In addition, the ISS is running an imaging program that comprises all the major volcanoes in the world for documenting the condition of craters, calderas, etc. The above shot is one such example of the recent “round” of inspections that includes all the major volcanoes in South America, South East Asia, and Europe too. It actually has been taken by a member of the Russian crew as can be seen from the image details in the JSC database. The space station was about 300 miles south-east of the volcano when the photo was taken.

  6. Just as a suggestion, try not to refer to a volcano as “smoking”. There is no smoke involved as smoke is produced from combustion. As you mention, the plume is steam (with maybe a little ash mixed in), so calling it smoke just perpetuates that idea that volcanoes are someone “on fire”.

  7. Matt B.

    “…one of the only ways to monitor this volcano…”

    Oddly, “one of the only” is a meaningless phrase, even though it feels completely grammatical, and it’s really hard to pin down why it doesn’t work semantically. (You can say, “I’m one of the only people on Earth.”) It works in a phrase like “this is one of only 3…”, but “only” can be replaced with “the” in that case. I think “only” just has to be modifying a quantity.


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