Just posting to keep my fans informed that I did a short interview about the fact that I like volcanoes over at the Reef Tank, a blog about marine interests and marine science.

Accretionary Wedge: Time Warp

This month’s Accretionary Wedge is the time warp! What time in geologic history would I like to visit (no livable conditions required) with this magical new technology? There are so many! How can I choose??

This fancy moon picture was on Wikipedia!

This fancy moon picture was on Wikipedia!

With the space warp component included, this is especially difficult. Do I want to see if a plume starts at the core-mantle boundary? (yes!) Do I want to see what happens to plumes and/or subducted slabs at the transition zone? (yes!) What about the production of a LIP, or a major caldera-forming eruption? (yes! yes!) But although I’m really a volcanophile, I think I feel a little more traditionally geologic about this. I want to see a mass extinction — a big, catastrophic, geologic-record-punctuating event. The formation of the moon would be really fun, too, but it’s not as controversial anymore (to most people). There are still poorly-understood mass extinctions — in particular, the biggest one of them all: the P-T. I want to see who’s right and who’s wrong, and I want to see what happened, all for myself.

Though I suppose it would be damn depressing to watch all that death. Maybe I should stick with the moon?

May 18, 29 years ago

Erik Klemetti at Eruptions reminds us that today is the 29th anniversary of Mount St. Helens erupting. There are some great pictures up at Wired, and this video of the newscast following the eruption:


Photograph of lightning from Redoubts 1:20 am, March 28 eruption, courtesy of Bretwood Higman.

Photograph of lightning from Redoubt, 3/28/09, courtesy of Bretwood Higman.

The Volcanism Blog has put up a heads-up about some spectacular Redoubt plume lightning pictures that have gone up at the AVO. I LOVE plume lightning pictures!

Redoubt update

Webcam image from March 23, 2009 19:55:58, Alaska Volcano Observatory

Webcam image from March 23, 2009 19:55:58, Alaska Volcano Observatory

My laptop is being repaired, so I’m internet-less at home right now and a bit behind on the reporting. Eruptions and the Volcanism Blog are on top of this, though, so I suggest you read their excellent posts since yesterday afternoon. I’ll offer a brief summary, based on the information available from the AVO so far: The Hut webcam came back online yesterday afternoon and has provided some good pictures of a sixth explosive blast from Redoubt’s summit. A video recap is available here. There continued to be small eruptive blasts after the first five major ones, and an overflight was conducted yesterday afternoon. There are AVO photos here, some of which show that the increased meltwater caused flooding at the margins of the Drift glacier and mudflows on the upper Drift River. Following the sixth explosive eruption there were more mudflows and also pyroclastic flows on the north flank of the volcano.

Photos of the flooding in Drift Valley and tephra deposits from the eruption of Redoubt Volcano, March 23, 2009 (McGimsey, Game, AVO/USGS)

Photos of the flooding in Drift Valley and tephra deposits from the eruption of Redoubt Volcano, March 23, 2009 (McGimsey, Game, AVO/USGS)

Massive flooding in Drift Valley from the eruption of Redoubt Volcano, March 23, 2009 (McGimsey, Game, AVO/USGS)

Massive flooding in Drift Valley from the eruption of Redoubt Volcano, March 23, 2009 (McGimsey, Game, AVO/USGS)

Eruption at Redoubt


NCT EHZ AV Seismic Station, Mt. Redoubt, March 23, 2009 04:24:35 (AKDT)

After months of elevated activity and waiting for a likely eruption, Redoubt has gone to Color Code RED and had four explosions recorded since last night. The Volcanism Blog has reported quite a few of the details during the night. Ashfall from the 50,000 foot plume should start this morning in affected towns (not expected to include Anchorage). The AVO doesn’t have photos of the eruption up yet, I assume because it’s dark, but there are some great seismics, and there is a good map of the plume on Weather Underground. Ash advisories for locals can be found at NOAA. The eruption appears to be ongoing with continuing strong tremors.

ETA: RSO, the closest seismometer to the summit, stopped transmitting at 4:15am local time. Exciting!

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai

Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, March 18, 2009

The Volcanism Blog is reporting on the eruption occurring at Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, complete with pictures and a link to a great BBC video. As described in the first link, this is pyroclastic activity interacting with seawater. It is spectacular!!

Back to Redoubt

Well, after all that, apparently Redoubt is not quite done.

Summary: Mt. Redoubt showed an increase in activity (new fumarolic and generally increased gas emissions, elevated seismicity) a few months ago, and kept it up for a while with no actual eruption. The activity suggested magma was on the move, so it was monitored closely. The media got very excited. The volcano stayed in something of a “holding pattern” for a few more weeks, and then last week it calmed back down – although the new degassing continued, the seismicity decreased.

But it was just tricking us, or maybe it liked the attention. Yesterday it had new tremors:

Volcanic tremors at Redoubt

Volcanic tremors at Redoubt; image from the Volcanism Blog!

…and put out a 15,000′ steam plume:

Redoubt plume - March 15, 2009

Redoubt plume - March 15, 2009

…with no ash ash that may be old, so technically not necessarily an eruption. The internet is suggesting a phreatic blast, which would make sense. But eruption or not, it’s a large burst in activity nonetheless, bumping it back up to aviation code Orange and alert level Watch. More details at Eruptions and the Volcanism Blog.


Mt. Redoubt

Mt. Redoubt

I’m glad to have finally learned that monitoring volcanoes is just a waste of taxpayer money. We can finally use those funds for something more useful! I don’t really know why anyone would want to pay attention to a volcano anyway. It’s not like people live on them, or like they kill anyone, or like they can cause massive property damage or anything like that. Whew!

(There is a more complete and less sarcastic response to this bullshit at Magma Cum Laude!)

Humans and hazards

Galeras (Jan. 18, 2009)

Galeras (Jan. 18, 2009)

Erik Klemetti has a great post up today about the age-old problem of balancing hazards mitigation with people’s real-life needs and attachments.

This is a problem I’ve thought about a lot, though I did not end up going into a career in hazards work as originally planned. I, like Erik, have not had to choose between keeping my property and livelihood on the one hand and ensuring my survival on the other.

On its face, objectively, the choice should be a no-brainer, especially with some scientific understanding of both probability and the impacts natural hazards can have. If there is a significant chance of death if I stay, and if my property is almost certainly going to be wiped out anyway, I want to think I would choose to survive and leave my house behind without looking back. But I know reality is a lot messier than that. What if I had to abandon my pets to do that? What if I had built that house, or my parents or grandparents had built it? What if my entire livelihood was tied up in that property and those possessions, and I would be left broke and with no prospects if I left? What if I already had nothing left except the one piece of land I had slavishly worked for a decade just to scrape by? To make it even more complicated, what if I even had spiritual or religious convictions tied to that place, and felt I could not leave without losing part of myself or my roots or my place in the universe? Because that happens, too.

And what if, on top of it, I had left once before, and it was a false alarm, and I had returned only to find my house ransacked, heirlooms taken, things precious to me broken or stolen? Because anyone in hazards forecasting knows that forecasting is not a sure thing. Hell, people complain about weather forecasting almost every day, and that’s looking at a system we can largely observe and document with massive amounts of data collection. Those forecasts are developed using extremely sophisticated models on supercomputers. Volcano monitoring is hindered by a basic lack of access to the system. It’s almost all remote sensing of something we cannot see and can usually only poorly image (though our techniques improve all the time), in individual volcanic systems that are drastically different from one another so there are no hard and fast rules; behavior that is normal and day-to-day at one volcano can indicate an eruption is coming in 60 seconds or less at another. Obvious example: there has been a notable increase and change in the types of activity seen at Mt. Redoubt in the past couple months, but the news media is losing interest because the volcano seems stuck in a holding pattern of elevated seismic and fumarolic activity without actually erupting (yet). But it can still erupt any day now.

Anyone who works in disaster management knows that despite the huge uncertainties in forecasting, the price of being wrong is incredibly high. If you call for evacuations because of immediate risk, and that magma gets halfway up the conduit and then changes its mind and goes back to its happy magma chamber, those evacuated people will be angry. Usually there is looting and property loss in the wake of any evacuation (ahem, governments, please take note of that some more). People evacuated during a false alarm will be far, far less likely to take any future warnings seriously. On the other hand, if you don’t call it when you see it, and the thing erupts, those are dead people on your hands. The odds of being wrong one way or the other are pretty damn high.

This isn’t even considering the complications that come up when local government (and occasionally military) has its own agenda that is not necessarily the same as the scientists’ (which is usually to save people, get everyone out of harm’s way… and then maybe backtrack a little bit to watch the spectacular show when the thing really goes. They don’t call them volcano cowboys for nothing). Look at Pinatubo, the acclaimed “success story” of volcanic forecasting. Up until the end, the U.S. military resisted removing personnel from the military base, despite the scientists’ warnings, and meanwhile the local government was reluctant to evacuate people because of that risk that it might not be necessary. So the scientists, the government, and the military were operating at three different hazard alert levels, simultaneously. In the end evacuations were successful, and the eruption was enormous. But the lesson I take from Pinatubo is that hazards mitigation is messy, and the human element is unpredictable and complicated.

Chaiten with lightning

Chaiten with lightning

So what to do about Chaiten? I think, ultimately, the government is right. I really sympathize with the people from Chaiten in that they want to go back, and their voices deserve to be heard more than they have been, but in the end I want them to survive. I think I lean towards being conservative when it comes to saving human lives in the face of disasters, even as I feel a lot of compassion and sympathy for the losses they face by leaving their homes. In fact, I struggle with the reluctance to leave, maybe because I have a real appreciation for the danger. I mean, I have a hard time understanding why people are and should be moving back to the parts of New Orleans that are significantly below sea level.

I suppose this comes very much from a place of privilege, because my family and career roots are not and never have been located somewhere threatened by immediate natural disaster. So I welcome other viewpoints on this subject. I think it’s a very tough question that deserves discussion. Have you ever been evacuated for a natural disaster risk? Have you been in communities that experienced hazards, or false alarms? Would you have a hard time leaving your home in an evacuation?