We Ignore Expertise at Our Own Peril

By Erik Klemetti | September 12, 2019 9:50 am
Hurricane Dorian seen from the MODIS imager on Terra, August 31, 2019. NASA.

We seem to now live in an age where people are comfortable ignoring experts, especially those in the sciences.

You may have noticed that Hurricane Dorian didn’t hit Alabama. Depending on the circles in which you run, you might think it was a “close call” or a completely mistaken statement that Alabama was ever in any real danger from the hurricane. However, what is clear is that when experts in meteorology — the National Weather Service — made it clear that Alabama was not in peril, they were rebuked by a presidential administration who clearly holds scientific expertise in contempt.

This country, and some would argue the world, has started to drift away from trusting expertise. What do I mean by that? I mean people who have been trained and vetted in their knowledge and interpretation of information. A medical doctor is an expert on parts of the human body. A climate scientist is an expert on the planet’s climate. A meteorologist is an expert on the weather. A mechanic is an expert on how to fix your car. It is all expertise.

When we turn away from expertise we put ourselves and others in peril. That holds whether it be because we believe in conspiracies, the information experts present is in opposition to our worldview, or that we made a mistake and don’t want to own up to it out of pride.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

The Largest Volcano in Alaska gets New Monitoring

By Erik Klemetti | September 9, 2019 1:33 pm
Wrangell and its ice-filled caldera seen from the International Space Station in August 2005. NASA.

Alaska is full of volcanoes. Most of them lie along the long, arcuate chain along the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands, stretching far into the Pacific Ocean. However, they are not the only volcanoes in the vast state. to the east of the Aleutian arc are the Wrangell-St. Elias Range. It is one of the most complex tectonic area in North America and home to at least 10 volcanoes. In fact, some of the largest eruptions in the past 10,000 years come from the Wrangell-St. Elias range.

Why bring this up now? Well, the Alaska Volcano Observatory announced the installation of a new pair of seismometers for Wrangell. It is the most active volcano in the Wrangell-St. Elias Range, most recently erupting in 1912. We now have the ability to watch for signs of new eruptions from Wrangell.

Wrangell is big. The shield volcano is over 30 kilometers across and hosts multiple nested calderas at its summit. Some of these are formed from potential large explosive eruptions in the volcano’s past, others may have been formed by a more gradual collapse like we saw at Hawaii’s Kīlauea last summer. It has also produced lava flows that travelled almost 60 kilometers from their source!

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

What Makes Earth So Unique? It’s the Minerals

By Erik Klemetti | September 5, 2019 9:06 am
Earth seen from space. NASA.

There isn’t another planet in the solar system like Earth. If you were an alien explorer coming into our neck of the galaxy, you’d find a system with four large gas giants, lots of small, rocky objects without much other than rocks, a few larger rocky objects with some ice and four rocky objects with reasonable atmospheres.

A cursory scan of the surface of those last objects would find that two of the four are covered almost entirely in basalt — an iron and magnesium-enriched lava. You run into this stuff everywhere. The third is actually the moon of another planet and seems to be made of basalt, ice and some liquid methane. However, the last of these objects is not only mainly covered in liquid water, but the rocks … oh, the rocks.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Eruptions, Science, Science Blogs

Geology Isn’t Rocks

By Erik Klemetti | August 28, 2019 9:12 am
USGS geologist measuring the temperature of a fissure prior to the 2018 eruption at Kīlauea in Hawaii. USGS/HVO.

So, first off, I apologize for the clickbait headline, but don’t worry, there actually is a payoff here. What I’m going to say is 100% true. Geology isn’t just a pile of rocks, no matter what you might think. Sure, there are rocks involved … but “geo” doesn’t mean rocks. It means Earth, so when we talk about geology, we’re talking about the our planet — and our planet is more than rocks.

Don’t get me wrong. I love rocks. They’re tiny (and really huge) packets of history. They are time capsules left by our home planet for us to figure out. They are a greatest hits and deep dive into the discography of the solar system. Incomplete, sure, but captivating, intriguing, born long before us and existing well after we will.

What do I mean that geology isn’t rocks? I think we need to change how we all think about geology. Certain famous scientists and TV shows liken geology to stamp collecting (or not even a “real science”). This is, of course, nonsense, but it is the perception. Geologists (and paleontologists) go out and find rocks, minerals, fossils, slap a label on them and cache them away in museums or dusty drawers. It is born out of a Victorian idea of the discipline.

However, the last time I checked, it isn’t 1875. Geology has changed a lot since the time of cataloging and description. What is the modern science of geology?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

A Crater Lake and Pumice Raft in the Pacific right now

By Erik Klemetti | August 22, 2019 8:18 am
The new crater lake at Kīlauea’s summit, spotted on August 15, 2019. M. Patrick, USGS-HVO

Over the last few weeks, we’ve had two newsworthy events that involve volcanoes and water. This is a common combination on our planet and can have dramatically different results. One is a very small feature that’s new to one of the most active volcanoes on Earth. The other is now a large feature spreading across the Pacific that came from a previously unknown volcano under the sea.

First, the small: the US Geological Survey has been reporting on a new crater lake forming in the Halema’uma’u caldera in Hawai’i (see above and below). It has been almost a year since the last eruption at Kīlauea and as I’ve reported, the summit area might have experienced the most dramatic changes during 2018.

Since then, things have been pretty quiet. The summit area regularly steams with fumaroles thanks to the heat of the volcano and access to groundwater. Remember, when the lava lake at Halema’uma’u drained during the start of the 2018 rift eruption, explosions started when the lake drained below the water table. So, the new collapsed caldera at the summit has some points below that water table … and now one of those pits is filling with water.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

North America is About to Get Its Largest Copper Mine

By Erik Klemetti | August 13, 2019 7:46 am
10 Shaft in the Superior-Resolution copper prospect in Arizona. Resolution Copper.

Copper is one of the most valuable metals on the planet. Sure, it lacks the cachet of gold, silver or platinum — those are “precious metals” after all. Yet, without copper, the world as we know it would not operate. If you have electricity, you need copper.

This week, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, one of the world’s largest mining companies, were given permission from the U.S. Forest Service to move ahead with the Resolution prospect near Apache Leap in Arizona. This would become the largest copper mine in North America once the mine is operational in the 2020s.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

The Hidden Volcanoes of Central Oregon

By Erik Klemetti | July 31, 2019 8:06 am
TVC River Channel
A river channel filled with cliff swallow holes carved into the Desert Spring Tuff. Image by Erik Klemetti

Earlier this month, I spent a little over a week exploring one of the biggest mysteries in then Cascade Range. It’s a string of volcanoes spanning from Northern California into British Columbia and host to such well-known peaks as Mount St. Helens, Hood and Shasta. Yet, some of the largest eruptions over the past million years in the Cascades may have come from volcanoes that are totally hidden from view today. One of those mystery volcanoes is the Tumalo Volcanic Center.

I’ve been fascinated by the TVC since I was in graduate school. We would take field trips from Oregon State University to visit the area around Bend in central Oregon. If you’ve never been to Bend, you’re missing a true volcanic wonderland. The city is built on layer after layer of volcanic rock that goes back millions of years.

Some of the volcanic features are very young (geologically-speaking), having formed in the past few thousand years. This includes basaltic and rhyolite lava from Newberry, steep cinder cones like Mt. Bachelor and sticky rhyolite domes like the Devil’s Hills along with the ash and pumice from the TVC.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Alaska’s Shishaldin Sports a New Lava Lake

By Erik Klemetti | July 24, 2019 3:43 pm
The lava lake at the summit of Shishaldin in Alaska, seen on July 23, 2019. Image by David Fee, UAFGI/AVO.

It has been over a year since a volcano in the United States was host to a lava lake. At the beginning of 2018, Hawaii’s Kīlauea was home to one at the summit and one on the East Rift Zone at Pu’u O’o. However, when the lower Puna eruption struck last May, both lava lakes drained. Well, the wait is over for a new lava lake, this time in Alaska.

The Alaska Volcano Observatory reported today that a helicopter flight over Shishaldin, in the Aleutian Islands, revealed a new lava lake at the summit of the volcano. The lava lake was spattering lava close to this new vent and the sighting of the new lava lake meant that the alert status at Shishaldin was raised to Orange/Warning. The volcano was experiencing a seismic swarm before this new lava lake was spotted.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Italian Eruption Turns Deadly and California Rocked by Earthquake

By Erik Klemetti | July 5, 2019 10:44 am
Stromboli erupting on July 3, 2019. Image by Anil Charley/Twitter.

There is the strong tendency in humans to look for patterns, even when none exist. This is amplified by the modern effect of news media, where certain events make headlines for reasons not necessarily related to the severity of the event.

See the update below on the 7/6 earthquake in California.

We see this frequently in geology, where a news-making eruption or earthquake then starts a cascade of reports of other eruptions and earthquakes that follow, even if they aren’t disasters. This feeds into our propensity to construct patterns from things, even when one doesn’d necessarily exist. For example, when read about a bunch of geological events, it’s tempting to think: “Uh oh, the Earth must be getting more active!”

The truth is that earthquake and eruption activity does wax and wane, but over time, our planet is not “becoming more restless” than it was 100 or 1,000 or 10,000 years ago. Most earthquakes and eruptions are sprinkled randomly over time and that randomness sometimes produces clusters of events. Flip a coin 100 times and you might get 8 heads in a row, then none for another 10 tosses. That’s clustering in a random distribution.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Ulawun in Papua New Guinea Has a Towering New Eruption

By Erik Klemetti | June 26, 2019 9:33 am
The growing ash plume from Ulawun in PNG, captured just after the eruption started on June 26, 2019. Image: Himawari-8, JMA.

For the second time in a week, a blast from a new eruption been flung over 10 kilometers into the sky. However, unlike Raikoke in Russia, this one came from a volcano that has a well-known history of big explosions.

Ulawun, on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea, unleashed an eruption this morning (local time) that reached at least 13.5 kilometers (45,000 feet) high according to the Darwin Volcanic Ash Advisory Center. Himawari-8 captured a great sequence showing the growing, tan ash plume from Ulawun (below). Ash drifting out over the Pacific has now reached 19 kilometers (63,000 feet) but at least for now, the eruption looks to have ceased.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Rocky Planet

Rocky Planet covers all the geologic events that made and will continue to shape our planet. From volcanoes to earthquakes to gold to oceans to other solar systems, I discuss what is intriguing and illuminating about the rocks beneath our feet and above our heads. Ever wonder what volcanoes are erupting? How tsunamis form and where? What rocks can tell us about ancient environments? How the Earth might change in the future? You'll find these answers and more on Rocky Planet.

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