A few days ago, the web was abuzz with something that looked like a very large meteor burning up over Peru. Here’s video from ITN news:
You can find similar videos on Youtube. However, is it actually a meteor?
Cutting to the chase, I don’t think so. I don’t have a lot of solid evidence either way, but all signs point that way. Here are my thoughts:
1) Meteors tend to move more quickly. They usually burn up around 100 km (60 miles) up, roughly, and are moving at a minimum of 11 km/sec (7 miles/sec) — Earth’s gravity pulls them in to at least this speed. If you’ve ever seen a meteor you know they zip across the sky in at most a few seconds.
2) The two trains (the technical term for what most people would call the tail or trail) are very odd — you can see them in the frame grab here. I’ve never seen a meteoroid (the actual solid bit moving through our atmosphere) produce more than one train. I don’t think this is an optical effect due to the camera but actually two distinct trains.
I don’t post every volcano image that passes by, but there are a few that catch my eye for some reason or another. Like this one, the Ubinas volcano in Peru:
[Click to hephaestenate.]
Wow. Even though I know the power and fury of these mighty beasts, they are just so simply lovely when seen from space! This one — snapped by NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite — looks like it’s been sculpted out of clay, but in fact is Peru’s most active volcano (in 2006 an eruption causes quite a stir for nearby towns), so the summit and surrounding areas are covered in fresh lava. There are no trees, no plants; just barren, alien rock. The whole region for kilometers around looks like another planet.
The last eruption was just last year, explaining the fresh look to it. You can see a small collapse funnel in it, though "small" is relative, it’s 200 meters deep. I also noticed that there is a summit collapse to the south, which is a feature of many stratovolcanoes. Part of the cone collapses and there can be sideways explosions, or pyroclastic flows (floods of searing hot ash) blasting horizontally. That southern break in the caldera leads to a canyon, which in turn (as can be seen in the high-res version of the image) leads to what looks like a huge rift on the right. As beautiful as it is from space, that’s basically the last place I’d like to be standing if this guy decides to throw a hissy fit.
This area is a subduction zone; the Nazca Pacific tectonic plate is sliding under the South American plate. Where this happens on Earth there are volcanoes (this one is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire) and earthquakes; the monster magnitude 8.8 Chilean earthquake last year was triggered by the subducting plate in fact.
Studying volcanoes means understanding tectonics better, and that means understanding earthquakes better, and that means saving thousands of lives and perhaps billions of dollars. And that’s a fine, fine idea.
Image credit: Robert Simmon, using ALI data from the NASA EO-1 team.