Disclaimer: this blog has nothing to do with Spencer Manning Mysteries… except that it also uses the art of placing one word in close proximity to another with some sense of meaning.
You all have seen video and photos of Kilauea erupting. It’s beautiful, and mesmerizing, and destructive, and… ironic. I’ll get to the irony, which is really the point of this piece. Most of us have lists of things we know we shouldn’t do because of the common sense factor, such as “don’t touch a hot stove.” There are, of course, exceptions among us. As a geologist, my number one rule is “don’t live next to a volcano.” Fault lines come in a close second. I would think you wouldn’t need a degree in Geology to realize that, but it seems not to be the case. And there are reasons why people choose to fly in the face of common sense.
The American Indians didn’t have permanent settlements on the coastlines. Volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes… seem like good places not to build big cities. But the views are great! And commerce beckons. Still, cities on the coastlines are disasters waiting to happen. Mt. Ranier is a sleeping giant, as are all of the other gorgeous mountains in the Cascade Range along the west coast.
A disaster in Seattle (and all of the other cities that lie on the Ring of Fire) is just a matter of time. I do realize that cities were built before the danger was known. But living in Seattle involves a risk. The risk may be negligible… the odds of it erupting in any given lifetime are small, but living next to a volcano, active or dormant, involves a roll of the dice. Seattle will be gone someday.
The island of Hawaii is a paradise. But living there is hard to understand. It sits over the hot spot (source of magma that the plate is moving over) that has created all of the islands in the Emperor seamount chain, including the Hawaiian islands. And it is, and has been for many years, active. Choosing to live there involves a huge risk. The volcanoes that created the other islands are extinct. They have moved off of the hot spot and are wonderful places to live! Hawaii will be one day also as the future island of Loihi, a seamount now forming on the floor of the ocean off of Hawaii’s southern shore, becomes the active island volcano.
I’ve walked on the black sands of Punalu’u Beach, a bit of a misnomer because it’s not sand… it’s volcanic particles formed when the hot lava exploded as it hit the cold water. I’ve stood near the rim of the crater and watched the bubbling lava and walked in one of the lava tubes. Very cool! And very little risk. Kilauea doesn’t erupt with the sudden force of mainland volcanoes such as Mt. St. Helens that caught fifty-seven people by surprise. (Perhaps that should be fifty-six. Harry Truman said he had lived there all his life, and he wasn’t about to leave!) It usually produces slow-moving flows of oozing lava. There are videos of people walking away from the wall of lava coming down the road. But why build a house in the possible path of a lava flow?
Volcanic eruptions have killed thousands. One of the worst was Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. People were buried alive. The next time Yellowstone erupts, the consequences for life everywhere on Earth will be beyond imagination. And it is due. But “due” in the geological sense can mean tens of thousands of years. Or not. It is considered a “supervolcano,” one that could alter the atmosphere of the planet. It has erupted at least three times, 2.1 million, 1.6 million, and .64 million years ago. If you do the math…
Judging by the results, scientists estimate that the oldest eruption was 6,000 times larger than the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. A new eruption would kill tens of thousands. Twenty or more states would be severely affected by the ash fallout, including a major portion of America’s cropland. Ash from the most recent eruption has been found on the east coast. An ash cloud would block the sun, causing an immediate temperature drop. Crops would fail worldwide. All that would be horrible. But, again, the odds of it happening in any given lifetime are slim, so I’m not going to let it spoil my breakfast.
But, back to the irony. We would not be here without those volcanoes that are such a threat to life. Earth is an active, living planet. Volcanoes are the result of the interior heat that is left over from formation and radioactive decay. That heat has made this planet habitable. And volcanoes have helped to produce an atmosphere that keeps us warm. When the interior heat dissipates to nothing, the plates will stop moving, all volcanoes will become extinct, and Earth will be a cold, dead planet, no longer able to support life as we know it.
So, we owe our existence to volcanoes, but choosing to live next to one makes no sense.