Large Earthquake Strikes off of Mexico, Generates Small Tsunami

By Erik Klemetti | September 8, 2017 10:04 am
Map of the epicenter (star) and modeled shaking intensity for the M8.1 Pijijiapan earthquakes on September 7, 2017. USGS.

Map of the epicenter (star) and modeled shaking intensity for the M8.1 Pijijiapan earthquakes on September 7, 2017. USGS.

One of the largest Central American earthquakes ever occurred last night off the coast of Mexico and Guatemala. The USGS estimates it was a magnitude 8.1 that ruptured about 70 kilometers off the shore, with the city of Pijijiapan closest to the epicenter. At least 32 people have died  (the death toll now looks to be at least 58) in the earthquake so far according to early reports.

Now, earthquakes are not uncommon on the western coast of Central America. Jascha Polet (Cal Poly-Pomona) posted some images of historic seismicity in the region and there are LOTS of earthquakes. Very few are as large and occur as deep as last night’s temblor, but there is lots of seismicity along this coast.

However, the magnitude and depth weren’t the only thing odd about this earthquake. Most earthquakes in an area like this where two plates are colliding and one is losing (i.e., being shoved down into the Earth’s mantle) are compressional. However, if you look at the beachball* (aka moment tensor) for this earthquake, it has normal motion — that is, the fault was showing extension rather than compression. A long stretch of the fault appears to have moved as well, as the most intense shaking appears along a strip that runs over 100 kilometers (62 miles) along the coast.

* Curious about earthquake beachballs? Check out Chris Rowan’s primer.

Also, Mexico City felt a lot of shaking … and it is 750 kilometers (~470 miles) from the epicenter. In fact, some places closer to the epicenter felt less shaking than Mexico City. You can kind of see this in the USGS Shake Map for the earthquake. Now, this likely has to do with the material underneath the city. Sediment (like we find in the valley were the city is built) will tend to jiggle with an earthquake … or hard rock will transfer seismic waves long distances, like what happened in the Virginia earthquake of 2011. Maybe a combination of this caused the intense shaking felt in Mexico City (see below). The city had over two minutes warning after the earthquake occurred before the seismic waves that cause shaking reached there, so it is a great example why building “early warning” systems (the siren in the video below) for earthquakes could be vital for many cities.

This earthquake also produced a small tsunami, which was a bit of a surprise considering the depth of the earthquake. The tsunami was 1-3 meters on the Mexican and Guatemalan coasts. However, it did prompt marine tsunami warnings as far as New Zealand as the waves generated by this earthquake raced across the Pacific Basin, where the tsunami is potentially 0.3-1 meter in places like Fiji and the Cook Islands.

If you want to get into the details of the earthquake, please check out Callan Bentley’s post.

NOTE: Before anyone goes there: there is no connection between the hurricanes and this earthquake. They are totally unrelated. Earthquakes happen at a nearly random distribution, so don’t believe any crock about anyone “predicting” this earthquake due to planetary alignment, the moon, bunions or whatever. And no, the Earth isn’t more active either.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

First Eruption since 2009 Started at Fernandina in the Galapagos

By Erik Klemetti | September 5, 2017 5:59 pm
The plume and thermal signature (red box) of the new Fernandina eruption as seen from Terra's MODIS imager on September 4, 2017. NASA.

The white plume and thermal signature (red box) of the new Fernandina eruption as seen from Terra’s MODIS imager on September 4, 2017. NASA.

News out of Ecuador is that Fernandina in the Galapagos Islands has erupted for the first time since 2009. Starting just after noon (local time) of September 4, the volcano produced new lava flows and a steam-and-gas plume that reached upwards of 4 kilometers (13,000 feet). Video of the eruption (see below) taken that evening show the strongly glowing summit area of the volcano and images show the lava flows working their way down the flanks of the volcano.

The last eruption of Fernandina in 2009 was a fissure eruption that sent lava flows down the slopes of the shield volcano and imperiled some of the rare wildlife of the Galapagos Islands. The island itself is uninhabited, so the hazards are really to the animals living on the island. Rarely do eruptions from Fernandina become explosive, but geologists from the Instituto Geofísico said that small explosions are not out of the question. The most recent eruptions at Fernandina lasted a few weeks.

The last eruption in the Galapagos Islands was from Wolf in 2015. That eruption last almost 2 months as ranked as a VEI 4.

Note: Interestingly, an M4.6 earthquake occurred between Fernandina and Isabelle on September 2, just to the south of Fernandina. The depth was ~10 kilometers, which wouldn’t be unreasonable for magma moving from its mantle source under the Galapagos into the oceanic crust. Now, this isn’t causation, but definitely an interesting correlation.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Who Owns the Rocks?

By Erik Klemetti | September 5, 2017 10:04 am
The Grasburg Mine in Indonesia. The pit itself is 4-km and sits near the top of Pancake Jaya. Small glaciers can be seen too the right of the mine. NASA Earth Observatory.

The Grasburg Mine in Indonesia. The pit itself is 4-km and sits near the top of Puncak Jaya. Small glaciers can be seen to the right of the mine. NASA Earth Observatory.

Who owns the land beneath your feet? That might seem like a simple question, but what about the stuff beneath the surface? The rocks and minerals … and resources? Who owns those items of potential value and who gets the profits if that resource is exploited? These questions have existed for centuries and are still being bitterly fought around the globe as certain resources become more scarce  and new resources are sought. What “worked” in the 1800s doesn’t work in the 21st century and it could have some major repercussions for how we access the mineral resources we need.

An article in Bloomberg News recently detailed how many large mineral, metal and petroleum deposits around the world are no longer controlled by large multinational corporations. Instead, the countries that host these deposits are taking back control so they can reap the profits of the subsurface. Just this past week, Freeport-McMoRan, a company based out of Phoenix, agreed to divest in its mining properties in Indonesia, allowing for 51% control by local concerns (PT Freeport Indonesia) … and by “agree”, I mean they were leaned on heavily by the Indonesian government to allow for more local control of mining and profits from mining.

Freeport still operates and is “in charge” of the Grasburg mine in Papau that is the top gold and third highest copper producing mine in the world. The mine also produces significant silver, so you might understand why control over the mine is so important when so much value is locked in the rocks of Puncak Jaya. Acacia (part of Barrick Gold), a gold mining firm working on deposits in Tanzania, is in a bitter conflict with the Tanzanian government over payment for the rights to work gold deposits. The government contends that Acacia owes taxes worth at least $190,000,000,000 (four times the GDP of the country!) over gold exports and has now banned the export of unprocessed gold ore. This means that Acacia is stuck with ore and no real way to get the gold out. In response, they have started to limit their production in the country.

However, it goes beyond that. The mine (and many large mines) have a legacy of environmental damage. The Grasburg mine itself likely plays a role in the destruction of a rare equatorial glacier that exists on Puncak Jaya. More importantly, when you mine for metals like copper, gold and silver, this isn’t like what you might imagine with gold nuggets. These metals are likely disseminated in the rocks so that tonnes of material has to be extracted, crushed and processed to produce grams of metal. All that waste has to go somewhere and that somewhere is usually the land around the mine. This creates what are called “tailings” piles that can have side effects like producing acid mine drainage, where rain water causes sulfuric acid to be produced as it reacts with the leftovers, or damage to watersheds as sediment is carried downslope in rivers. 

In many cases, these large mines have local workers but many foreign managers, so relations between the labor and management can become intense. This is doubly so when it is perceived that the local people are being ignored and exploited by a large international company. This might lead to strikes or violence — and this violence can go back and forth between local citizens and security hired by mining firms. In many places, mining has occurred since long before the arrival of foreign companies, so balancing local miners with big money firms is challenging.

In attempts to have more say in how the mines are operated and bring more money to the local or national economy, countries will want a larger stake in the mines themselves. This can go as far as nationalizing a segment of the mining industry like what happened with oil in Mexico (Pemex) and copper in Chile (Codelco). However, such nationalization is rare these days — instead, governments work to build partnerships with companies to make sure they get their fair share of what they consider the wealth of the nation.

In the case of Freeport and Indonesia, that is exactly what happened. Indonesia had the resource, Freeport had the expertise … and you can guess which is worth more. Indonesia agreed to extend Freeport’s lease on Grasburg from 2021 to 2041 and the local branch of the company got a majority stake in the mine.

This doesn’t come without consequence. Recently, Indonesia also took control of some important gas and oil fields and put the national petroleum firm Pertamina in charge of the field. However, there is now concern that Pertamina doesn’t have the expertise or resources to fully exploit those fields. They have now started to reach out to international firms to help shore up the ability to extract the oil and gas, but this is difficult to do when local control is paramount in the current political climate.

Countries want their cut of the mineral wealth hiding beneath their feet. However, it can be challenging to take over and exploit such resources without the help of international corporations — especially before the right expertise has been developed in a country. Sometimes it works, like Codelco in Chile. Sometimes it doesn’t, as shown by what is happening in Indonesia with gas and oil. Mineral resources are the lifeblood of many countries, so determining who controls that wealth will be challenging as countries look to protect their resources.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

No, NASA Isn’t Going to Drill to Stop Yellowstone from Erupting

By Erik Klemetti | August 31, 2017 8:26 am
Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the geothermal features of the Yellowstone Caldera. Photo by Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia CC-by-SA 3.0

Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the geothermal features of the Yellowstone Caldera. Photo by Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia CC-by-SA 3.0

Let’s cut to the chase: The purported NASA plan to “defuse” Yellowstone is pure science fiction.

OK, now that we have that out of the way, let’s get into the details of the numerous articles that have jumped all over what might best be termed a “thought experiment” by scientists at NASA. Yellowstone, the massive caldera in the middle of North America, is definitely a volcanic threat. Is it a high volcanic threat? Not as much as other, much more active volcanoes in the United States. However, it has produced some really massive eruptions in its history—well, three times in its history dating back to ~2.1 million years ago.

There have also been many more small eruptions over that time period, which is much more typical of activity at the restless caldera. Basalt and rhyolite lava flows and domes have occurred frequently and the most recent activity at the Yellowstone caldera was relatively small rhyolite dome eruptions about ~70,000 years ago.

Those big eruptions—the Lava Creek at ~640,000 years ago, the Mesa Falls at ~1.3 million years ago and the Huckleberry Ridge at ~2.1 million years ago—were huge. The Huckleberry Ridge tuff was the largest of these explosive eruptions, producing over 2,400 cubic kilometers of volcanic debris that spread over much of the continent. How big is 2,400 cubic kilometers? That’s about the same as filling and emptying Lake Erie five times!

Yet, although the caldera has these massive eruptions, the likelihood of such an eruption is very low. They are such uncommon events that we don’t even know if they happen with any cyclicality. A pattern defined by three points is not one you want to hang your hat on, but that is what we have at Yellowstone.

There are no signs right now that Yellowstone could be heading to any sort of gigantic eruption—in fact, there is little sign of any time of eruption. Sure, there are all the noises of a “restless caldera” such as the hot springs, geysers, ground deformation, earthquakes, but in a place where we know there is some amount of partially molten magmatic goo down there, this is to be expected. However, there is little evidence that that magma is in a state that could erupt, and it’s likely the process to make it eruptable would take much longer than a human lifetime to transpire. If you read otherwise, unless it is from the US Geological Survey, be skeptical.

So, why is NASA worried? I don’t think they actually are (and if you look at the article that started this on the BBC, you’ll see exactly that). Rather, just like pondering what to do about a potential asteroid impact, they wanted to consider if anything could be done if Yellowstone started to show signs of a massive eruption. Really, the short answer is no, you can’t do anything, at least with our current technology and understanding. However, being scientists, they speculated and considered a number of options: (1) releasing pressure and (2) cooling the magma.

That’s where we get into science fiction realms. The magma at Yellowstone is stored at depths of at least ~8-10 kilometers (over 5 miles). If you want to drill into it to release pressure or pump water, you would need to drill that deep and right now, our deepest drill holes just barely make it that deep with holes that are less than a foot across. So, to a magma body holding thousands of cubic kilometers of magma, that’s like the tiniest pin prick.

We aren’t even close to the technology to do this easily in a volcanically unstable area. A massive eruption would have profound climate impacts for decades, but note: There are no identified mass extinctions related to giant Yellowstone eruptions. Even during the Toba eruption in Indonesia ~74,000 years ago (the last truly massive eruption), humans survived the local and global impacts of such a blast.

Second, the volume of water needed to cool such a large magma body would be enormous. Where would the water come from? Literally, you would need to pump the volume of a Great Lake into the magmatic system to even make a dent. Again, science fiction (and a resource impossibility at this point). And even if we did have the water, there is likely as great a chance that the water could make the eruption worse. The heightened explosively of the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland was caused by the addition of water (from melting ice), so unless you get the balance just right, you can make the eruption more violent rather than quench it.

Now, the NASA “plan” tries to get around that problem by circulating water to keep things cool. This is something like your car’s radiator, which moves heat out by sending coolant around the engine and bringing it to the front to cool down again. However, this assumes that no new heat is being added, such as new magma from deep below that would be fueling the potential eruption. In the short-term, we might get one heck of a geothermal power plant, but in the end, it would likely not be enough.

When all is said and done, a massive eruption at Yellowstone, or any other caldera for that matter, isn’t a question we should answer by trying to stop it. Instead, we need to build resilience into our society to survive after such an event. This means things like seed vaults, international agreements to evacuate and emigrate volcanic refugees, water protection measures. A lot less sexy than, “Let’s pump water into a magma chamber!” but the sort of stuff that helps ensure survival rather than trying to hit the mid-court (if your basket is, say, in the orbit of Mars) shot.

So, sure, we can come up with plans that are akin to Bruce Willis flying shuttles to asteroids to save the planet. In reality, there is almost no chance that we will need to deal with a massive Yellowstone eruption and if we did, there’s an even smaller chance we would ever employ such a plan to “stop” the eruption. NASA isn’t going to start drilling. It is a fun science fiction short story where we somehow make the eruption worse, but it isn’t any sort of real plan to save the planet from Yellowstone.

Harvey’s Lesson: Always Be Prepared

By Erik Klemetti | August 28, 2017 10:52 am
Texas National Guard members rescue survivors from Harvey on August 27, 2017. Photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West, 100th MPAD) CC-by-2.0

Texas National Guard members rescue survivors from Harvey on August 27, 2017. Photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West, 100th MPAD) CC-by-2.0

The biggest news right now is the devastation caused by Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey. It wasn’t the arrival of the storm itself but rather the long and intense rains that have done the damage — and really, the flooding that the Houston area is experiencing right now is some of the most stunning and devastating in the last century for the United States. I’m not going to go through all the details here but you can read the ongoing updates on Buzzfeed or check out the Twitter feeds of Eric Holthaus, Brian Kahn or Marshall Shepherd.

Some of the video and images I’ve seen from Houston are astounding. The stream gauge at Buffalo Bayou crested at over 5 meters (17 feet) above the maximum flood stage. Yes, you read that right — we’re experiencing a flood that is truly catastrophic (and it is likely going to get worse).

Roads have literally become rivers, and deep rivers at that.

Now, we can all shake our heads and say what a tragedy this is. However, this event is yet another example of how underprepared we can be for disaster. The coast of Texas knew Harvey was coming and yet thousands upon thousands of people were left unevacuated — and this isn’t because many didn’t want to evacuate, but rather they just couldn’t due to health and monetary reasons. Easy evacuation is a luxury for most people, so without government assistance, many are left trapped in rising waters. Worse, this disaster won’t be over for months to years according to FEMA director Brock Long. Much like New Orleans after Katrina, this will cause a significant impact on the country’s economy and a massive impact on the Gulf coast of Texas.

We face all sorts of disasters in the United States. Some can be very localized like tornadoes or landslides. Others, like Harvey, can be widespread. Imagine the impact of a large earthquake in the Los Angeles area, where roads could be cut off for days. These are places where we should expect that we should be building in full earthquake resiliency, yet we still see houses such as these on stilts being built:

Disasters like an L.A. earthquake or large eruption of Mt. Hood are events that may not happen in our lifetime — in fact, they are unlikely to occur. However, they could happen and that is all we need to know about being prepared. If we ignore the threat and allow for lax building codes, development in regions that face high hazards (like the flooding in Houston), if we don’t fund planning for disasters or recovery after the fact, then we leave ourselves in a very vulnerable place.

It is somewhat akin to the grasshopper that didn’t plan for winter: you starve without the help of others. We need to embrace what science can tell us about hazards (and that takes money) and make plans that not only help people get out when needed but also prevent expansion into areas that could be devastated.

How do you safely evacuate millions of people? How do you house tens of thousands of people safely for possibly years? How do you rebuild with an eye to future crises? These questions take broad participation and money … both of which tend to disappear after the disaster is “over” in the media.

This is hard. Humans aren’t great about thinking about long-term hazards. People stop being worried about a disaster when the memory of the last one has faded. We can take an individual approach, such as prepping a disaster kit, but in order for true resilience, we need government organizations that can coordinate across wide areas to get people out and keep them safe for what could be years. Society exists for a reason and we have to all band together to make sure these events don’t continue to become humanitarian disasters.

We may never meet the people we save if we prepare broadly now. The disaster may not come for a century, but when it does, our forethought now could mean thousands of people who don’t need to suffer.

If you’d like to help, please donate to the Red Cross for Harvey relief.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Volcanoes and Glaciers Seen from Space

By Erik Klemetti | August 22, 2017 10:11 am
A July 2017 eruption of Sinabung in Indonesia captured as it happened by Earth-observing "Doves" launched by Planet Labs. Image used by permission of Planet Labs, CC BY-SA 4.0.

A July 2017 eruption of Sinabung in Indonesia captured as it happened by Earth-observing “Doves” launched by Planet Labs. Image by Planet Labs (CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of the most exciting aspects of geosciences in the 21st century is the ability to watch geologic events from space. We can see an eruption or earthquake as it happens—sometimes catching it in the act. We can also roll back the film and look at what things were like in images taken beforehand. It is one of the most fundamental changes to how we look at earth processes since we were able to go the other way and see rocks at a microscopic level.

Here are two great examples. The first is a GIF of a small eruption at Sinabung in Indonesia. If you aren’t familiar with Sinabung, it sits near the Toba caldera—the volcano that produced the largest volcanic eruption in the last 100,000 years. Now, Sinabung is a small fry compared to Toba, but it is one of the largest volcanic humanitarian crises today. People have been evacuated from their homes near the volcano for over 5 years and most have had to live in “temporary” shelters.

Sinabung produces some of the deadliest of volcanic products: pyroclastic flows. These flows are avalanches of hot volcanic debris moving down the volcano at hundreds of kilometers per hour. They can run out for kilometers around the volcano and destroy everything and everyone in their path. The best examples are pyroclastic flows that buried Pompeii during the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius.

Now, Sinabung has been growing a lava dome near its summit for years and as it gets too steep, it collapses. This collapse produces an explosion and pyroclastic flow. That’s what we see in the images above: a puff of an eruption and pyroclastic flows moving down the volcano. You can see the area on the lower right hand side of the volcano that has been covered in volcanic debris (also known as tephra) over the years. Those squares on three sides of Sinabung are fields and homes … so people still live close to the volcano!

This ash doesn’t just linger on the slopes of the volcano. It can be moved as volcanic mudflows (lahars) years after the eruption. You can see the river channel at the bottom that is carrying volcanic debris away from the volcano, sometimes as these potentially deadly mudflows.

Khurtopin Glacier in Pakistan, seen during August 2017. The arrow shows the direction the glacier is surging, blocking the flow of the river to create the small lake. Image by Planet Labs (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Khurtopin Glacier in Pakistan, seen during August 2017. The arrow shows the direction the glacier is surging, blocking the flow of the river to create the small lake. Image by Planet Labs (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Another example is this high-resolution image of Khurdopin Glacier in Pakistan (above). The glacier is surging down the valley it occupies into the channel of the Shimshal River. This blocks the river creating a small pond behind the glacier. However, glaciers melt, so these ponds are a high hazard for producing floods when the ice dam fails.

You might wonder, “Wait, if glaciers are ice, why is this one dark?” Glaciers actually carry a lot of rocks, so Khurdopin Glacier is moving piles of dark, rocky sediment on top of the ice that you can see through the cracks and crevasses. You can read more about this phenomenon in this great explanation by the NASA Earth Observatory.

These observations give use rich details of geologic features that would be very difficult to monitor as they are in remote locations. Imagery like this can be used to help watch the state of the glacier and lake and possibly be used to assess how much of a hazard this represents.

Why Thousands of Volcanologists are Meeting in Portland

By Erik Klemetti | August 15, 2017 1:40 pm
Volcanologists at the IAVCEI meeting in Portland.

Volcanologists at the IAVCEI meeting in Portland.

So, this whole week I’ll be taking part in the IAVCEI meeting in Portland, Oregon. Of course, most people have never heard of IAVCEI, which is an abbreviation of the International Association of Volcanology and the Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (now you can see why we use the abbreviation.) This meeting is bringing together over 1,200 volcanologists and petrologists (who study magma, not petroleum) from all over world to talk about volcanoes.

We will even be visiting volcanoes during the meeting as almost everyone will be going to Mount St. Helens, Mt. Hood or the Columbia River Basalts during the meeting’s midweek field trip … because geologists love strapping on boots and heading out into the field.

So, why do we (scientists) have meetings like this? The answer isn’t as clear as you might think.

The good things: 

  • First and foremost, it is to interact with your colleagues and community. I’m a volcanologist in Ohio, so you can imagine I don’t run into many people in my field. In today’s world, that is less of an issue because I can reach most collaborators and colleagues easily over email, phone, social media. However, there is much to be said to one-on-one discussions in person to get things done quickly.
  • We also go to get excited about the field. Most meetings are a mix of talks and posters by scientists about their research (you can see mine below). We can hear about the latest developments, many of which aren’t published yet. We can also present our own work to get others interested and (at least for me) to throw some ideas on the wall to see what the community thinks.
  • Make new connections: Sure, you see your longtime friends and colleagues, but meetings are the place to meet on purpose (or by accident) new collaborators.
  • Meetings also allow us geologists to see more of the world. Geology is a field where seeing the rocks is key — and the more you see, hopefully the more you can understand.
  • They are great for science outreach. Many meetings get media attention, so they can help the public realize why studies volcanoes (or whatever your field) is so important. In today’s America, it can’t be overstated how important it is to rebuild public confidence in science.
My IAVCEI poster on my work at the Lassen Volcanic Center in California. This is how I tell fellow volcanologists about my current ideas (and hopefully get feedback).

My IAVCEI poster on my work at the Lassen Volcanic Center in California. This is how I tell fellow volcanologists about my current ideas (and hopefully get feedback).

The bad things (or why we don’t go to meetings sometimes)

  • They are expensive … and in more ways than you think. The meetings themselves cost hundreds to thousands of dollars just to attend. Then there is the travel and lodging in the city. And you have to eat. In the end, a single meeting can easily cost a researcher $5000. Now, where does that money come from? If you are lucky, you might have a research grant or institution that can cover a lot of it. If not, you’re paying out of your pocket to do something vital for your career. This is doubly so for early career people who might not have any many resources from which to draw. If you are a faculty with students, you need to figure out how to help your students attend the meeting as well so they can present their work and start to build needed professional networks. It can be a massive burden, especially for faculty from colleges that can’t (or won’t) fully support attending meetings. So, this can cause people teaching at community colleges, small colleges or from developing countries much less able to participate fully in their field.
  • But that’s not all. Meetings are doubly challenging for scientists with children. What do you do if both parents are attending the meeting? Some organizations offer childcare but at a cost beyond the registration. Some don’t offer any childcare. Very few universities help faculty pay for needed childcare (although I did hear of one that does offer conference care grants, so that’s awesome!) This burden falls strongly onto female scientists who have to skip meetings when their children are young because there are few accommodations for infants at meetings. So, they might miss a few years of conferences, which can be bad if you’re just starting out in the field.
  • People can sometimes misbehave at conferences. For better or worse, there are a lot of events that feature alcohol so inhibitions drop. This means that sexual harassment can be a major problem at meeting, especially when there are major power differences between senior faculty and students. This is unacceptable on so many levels, but the problem persists are people continue to treat female scientists differently than their male counterparts.
  • They are exhausting. For example, the scheduled events at IAVCEI go from 8:30 AM to 9:00 PM every day for 5 days. There are workshops and field trips before and after the meeting. If you’re not someone who revels from social interactions, then they can leave you feeling like you were run over by a bus.
  • They are take a lot of time — to prepare, to travel, to attend. If you are part of a teaching-focussed universities (or a high school teacher), finding time off to attend meetings during the school year can be almost impossible.

Yet, the meetings keep coming because they are the lifeblood of an active scientific community. Can they continue to happen so often at such a high cost? I don’t know, especially in times where scientific support at universities is being cut. Some organizations are starting to stream their meetings online to help with people who can’t attend (although meetings are a big source of organizational revenue). People are even being able to present remotely with digital posters.

In the end, conferences do an excellent job of letting scientists make connections, conceptual or professional or personal. I have many projects that have been borne out of conversations at meetings like IAVCEI. They can be wonderful experiences that make one’s belief in science grow stronger. However, they are also not without their major problems that make it unfair for access and comfort to be a scientist. As long as we can try to continue to solve these issues, we’ll make science stronger.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Welcome to Rocky Planet!

By Erik Klemetti | August 11, 2017 11:11 am
A view across the San Francisco Volcanic Field to the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona. Taken by me, March 2017.

A view across the San Francisco Volcanic Field to the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona. Taken by me, March 2017.

Welcome to Rocky Planet! This blog is all about the geosciences, from the Earth’s surface down to its core (and even stuff going on off the planet). It is a little tricky to try to describe what you can expect out of Rocky Planet, so why not start with a little about me.

I am Dr. Erik Klemetti (you can see me up in the banner, peering out at you). I’m a professor of Geosciences at Denison University – if you haven’t heard of Denison, we’re a small liberal arts college in the middle of Ohio. My field of specialty is volcanology, which you might admit is a little weird considering that I’m based out of the Midwest … but that’s OK! Geologists love to travel, so that’s what I do to my current field areas: the Lassen Peak area of California, Mt. Hood in Oregon and a little-known but surprisingly large volcanic area near Bend, Oregon called the Tumalo Volcanic Center. I’m into time. Well, that is to say, I’m interesting in how these volcanoes evolve over time and how long it might take them to go from a state of being in “cold storage” to eruption. Interested? You can check out a paper I published in PLOS One about my work at Lassen Peak.

I’m originally from Massachusetts, but my background is what I call “Scandatino” — my mother is from Colombia while my father’s side of the family hails from Finland. So, I drink a lot of coffee, watch a lot of baseball (go Red Sox and Mariners!) and soccer. Oh yeah, and I also almost had a career in radio/music until I zigged and zagged back to geology.

However, I’m betting many of you know me from my previous gig: writing Eruptions for the last 9 years. Eruptions was a blog focused on global volcanism and it was a blast (no pun intended) to write for all those years. You can find the archives of Eruptions here on Rocky Planet.

Times change and so does my blog. Rocky Planet will cover all those geologic wonders that I find fascinating. Don’t worry, it will still be chock full of volcanism, but it is also going to get into earthquakes and rivers and Pluto and why sand is awesome and climate change and everything that tells a story about our planet and beyond. I’m hoping to cover research that might not be blasted across the mainstream media headlines, dispel those over-hyped disaster scenarios, debunk pseudoscientific beliefs in things like earthquake prediction. I will also try to bring in diverse voices across the geosciences – no, we’re not just a field of white men (nothing against white men), but geology is packed with such a panoply of voices.

So, hopefully you’ll make Rocky Planet a regular interweb destination. I’ll be posting a few times a week depending on what the Earth feels like doing. If you need more, follow me on Twitter: @eruptionsblog (yes, I’m keeping the old handle). Leave a comment to say hello and let me know what you’d like to see on Rocky Planet as well or send me an email: rockyplanetblog on Gmail. I’m thrilled to get started here on Discover.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs

Volcanic Explosions Rock an Alaskan Island as Etna Rumbles

By Erik Klemetti | May 19, 2017 2:04 pm
An aerial photograph of Bogoslof and Fire Island taken on May 8, 2017.

An aerial photograph of Bogoslof and Fire Island taken on May 8, 2017.Max Kaufman/Alaska Volcano Observatory/University of Alaska Fairbanks

Let’s take a look at some volcanic eruptions going on around the globe this week!

In Alaska, after weeks of relative quiet, Bogoslof had another big explosive eruption. This time, the plume reached 11 kilometers (~36,000 feet) after the Alaska Volcano Observatory noticed an increase in earthquakes at the volcano. Ash from this eruption fell on Umnak Island (almost 100 kilometers away) as it drifted to the southwest. The eruption seems to have been brief, with seismicity dropping quickly after the blast, and Bogoslof now sits on the Orange/Watch volcanic alert. Be sure to check out some crazy pictures of Bogoslof Island, with the multiple craters created by the last six months of eruptions. The spire in the images are the remains of older lava on the island.

At the same time, Cleveland volcano further west in the Aleutians also experienced a small explosive eruption. This one was much smaller than what was noted at Bogoslof, but it still removed all the lava dome that had been forming at the summit of the volcano since March of this year. This is a very typical pattern at Cleveland, where lava domes grow and are then destroyed by explosions likely caused by pressure building up beneath the lava plug.

Over in Italy, Etna continues to be restless, but it has yet to follow up its earliest 11 paroxysms that have occurred since the start of 2017. Dr. Boris Behncke noted that the volcanic tremor at Etna—a sign of magma moving in the volcano—has been rising and falling (see below) but only very small explosions occur from the active vents. It is unclear whether any of this is leading towards a larger eruption with more lava fountains and flows like we saw earlier this year.

Speaking of lava flows, Piton de la Fournaise on Réunion Island had a very brief eruption on Thursday. The island volcano in the middle of the Indian Ocean had small lava fountains and lava flows during the eruption that ended only a few hours after it began. There was a brief seismic swarm before the eruption that allowed some warning that a new eruption was about to begin on the volcano’s Dolomieu cone. However, those earthquakes have not stopped. 

Manam in Papua New Guinea has also been erupting this week. Manam is located on a small island off the coast of New Guinea and has been the location of a long-brewing evacuation and resettlement. However, the PNG government has yet to provide the funds to local residents to move from the volcanically active island to safer locales. Almost 15,000 people will need to be resettled and currently ~25 acres of land have been set aside to help with this transition. However, there has been conflict between the landowners on the mainland and islanders who have tried to move away. This is another example of the issues of long-term volcanic activity and resettlement of people near these volcanoes (much like Sinabung in Indonesia). A delegation of EU officials arrived this week as well to help with the transition process.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Eruptions, Science, Science Blogs
MORE ABOUT: eruptions, volcanoes

Everyone Stop Freaking Out Over Italy’s Supervolcano

By Erik Klemetti | May 18, 2017 2:27 pm
The Solfatara of Pozzuoli is one of forty volcanoes that make up the Campi Flegrei.

The Solfatara of Pozzuoli is one of forty volcanoes that make up the Campi Flegrei.Getty Images

Yellowstone used to be the favored target of media volcano panic, but now it looks like Italy’s Campi Flegrei has taken that crown for itself. A recent study published in Nature Communications is the latest impetus for headlines like “Italian Supervolcano Might Be on the Verge of Exploding” or “European supervolcano Campi Flegrei ‘could be close to devastating eruption” or “Fears Italian supervolcano Campi Flegrei will blow after scientists spot magma swelling below Earth’s crust.” These make it sound like we’re in for a massive eruption that will forever change the global landscape. But when it comes down to the science of the Campi Flegrei, we aren’t even close.

Before I dive into the new study, let’s talk a little bit about the Campi Flegrei. As I mentioned in my countdown of the “most dangerous” volcanoes on the planet, it might actually deserve some of its foreboding reputation. Now, this isn’t because there are signs an eruption will happen tomorrow, but rather because it’s located in an area of high population (the Bay of Naples in Italy, population >6 million) and it has a history of nasty eruptions. However, its most recent eruption, in 1538, was relatively small and produced a cinder cone called Monte Nuovo. An eruption in 1198 from the Solfatara was likely a steam-driven explosion from the hydrothermal system.

Neither of the most recent eruptions came anywhere close to the two massive eruptions that the caldera has produced: the Campanian Ignimbrite (~36,000 years ago and possibly over 200 cubic kilometers of volcanic debris) and the Neopolitan Yellow Tuff (~15,000 years ago and ~40 cubic kilometers). If an eruption of either of those scales occurred today from the Campi Flegrei, it would be devastating to Europe, burying much of the Bay of Naples region in meters of volcanic debris while sending ash across the continent. However, these are rare events in the overall history of the caldera, so we shouldn’t be jumping to the conclusion that unrest is leading to anything close to these eruptions.


So, why is everybody concerned now? This study by geophysicist Christopher Kilburn and others in Nature Communications is an attempt to change how we think about the signs of a potential new eruption at the Campi Flegrei. Since the early 1950s, there have been three periods of unrest in the caldera, defined by uplift of the Earth’s surface and earthquake swarms. These events are normally attributed to little bodies of magma intruding about 3 kilometers beneath our feet. The unrest since 1970 has been pinned on about 0.03 cubic kilometers of new magma squeezing into the crust (the 1538 eruption, for comparison, released ~0.1 cubic kilometers of lava and debris).

These bouts of unrest have traditionally been interpreted as discrete movements of new magma under the volcano, so as the land rose and earthquakes occurred, magma was injected. Then the uplift stopped, earthquakes subsided and the event was over with no eruption. The magma bodies are small enough that they would cool to solid in a few years. Everything was back to normal. This is par for the course when it comes to “restless calderas.”

But Kilburn and others present a new model that treats all this unrest since 1950 as a continuous event rather than discrete events. This means that as the rocks of the crust start to deform (and break) due to new magma injections, that stress accumulates. At first, the crust will behave like a plastic and stretch when new magma is added. But add enough magma in a short enough timespan—say decades to a century—and the crust stops being so pliable. Instead, it will break, potentially allowing the magma to find a path to the surface and cause an eruption.

Many times, volcanologists look for massive surface changes as a sign of an impending eruption. This is what happened in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens: The volcano grew an enormous bulge from accumulating magma. But Kilburn and others think that large deformations aren’t the only signs of an eruption to come; you might only see a small uplift, but accumulated stress can cause the crust to “snap.” They point to new data from drilling into the Campi Flegrei showing that stress is accumulating in the crust. This could mean that any more unrest—that is, new magma—could push the rocks over a threshold where they will break and an eruption will happen.

The tricky part here is interpreting what kind of an eruption it might be. Most likely, it would look similar to the 1538 eruption of Monte Nuovo or possibly like the 1994 eruption of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea, another caldera that the authors say behaves like Campi Flegrei might. Neither of those eruptions were massive, but they did wreak havoc on the local communities near the volcano. So, if we don’t need as much uplift and seismicity before such as eruption, people who monitor the caldera need to be very careful when they look at signs of unrest.

And for the large population living in and around the Campi Flegrei caldera, knowing when to be prepared to leave will be vital. The last 70 years of unrest, unpunctuated by an actual eruption, means that people could be desensitized to the real hazards of volcanic activity. If the signs of unrest before an eruption are more subtle than what volcanologists and local residents assume will happen, then an eruption could cause more damage as people are left unprepared.

This all being said, this study is just that: a study. It doesn’t really change the state of the Campi Flegrei. What it does is propose a model that suggests that the signs of a new eruption might be more subtle than we think. The crust could be approaching a state where new injections of magma will lead to eruption.

However, this singular study does not say that the next bout of unrest will lead to a eruption. It does not say the eruption will be a massive, devastating explosive eruption. It doesn’t even really say that the area of the Campi Flegrei is in any more peril than ever. It just offers a new way to look at data from the volcano so that we might be better prepared for that next eruption at one of the planet’s most dangerous volcanoes.

[related_video wide-card=”true” post_id=”2036559″/]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Eruptions, Science, Science Blogs
MORE ABOUT: models, risk, volcanoes

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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