Please Don’t Blame Mars for This Week’s Explosive Volcanic Eruptions
The past week has been a busy one for volcanoes. Quite a few eruptions have made the headlines—and when that happens, there are the inevitable statements on the interwebs that “the number of volcanic eruptions is increasing!” or “the conditions are right for lots of eruptions—just look at the alignment of the planets!” To put both of these to bed: false and false.
First off: In no way are there more volcanic eruptions today than in the past. Why does it seem like there is? I mean, I hear about another eruption somewhere in the world almost every day! Without knowing it, you just figured out why it seems like there are more eruptions: modern communication. You have the ability, here in 2016, to get information as it happens from almost anywhere on the planet. Yes, you, the one in your living room in Toledo. You are more connected to the world than almost anyone in the history of humanity. So, when a small eruption happens in Vanuatu or Ecuador or the remote Aleutians, you hear about it almost the moment it happens. Even 35 years ago, that was almost science fiction—there was no video/film taken of the start of the 1980 eruption at Mount St. Helens. None! Today, we have multiple webcams watching St. Helens 24/7 in HD*! You wonder why it seems like there are more eruptions: We just know about them … and fast.
Second: There is no evidence that any events off the Earth can cause lots of volcanoes to erupt worldwide. Sorry, but there isn’t (and no one is predicting them). Sure, there is very minor evidence that volcanoes already erupting or close to erupting might see slight increases in activity based on a lunar cycle—but that is the exception. The Sun, the planets, passing comets, a magnificent David Ortiz home run: none of these have been shown to play any role in increasing volcanic activity. So, our busy week is due to clustering that can happen during a random distribution (eruptions across the globe are more-or-less distributed randomly over time). We can have periods where very little is happening along with times like this moment when it seems busy. Humans like to find pattens even if nature isn’t bothering with one.
A corollary to this: When one volcanic eruption catches the media’s attention, some of the smaller ones that occur right afterward get more coverage than they might usually get. I call this the “OMG Volcanoes!!!” effect, where suddenly the media remembers volcanoes exist, so they all become newsworthy again. Until things settle down. Then it takes a big eruption (or one at a well-known volcano) to get everyone’s attention again.
So, no need to worry that Mars being in opposition (and closer to Earth than it has been in a few years) has any impact on eruptions. And no, we are not living in unique volcanic times.
Here are some quick bits on the activity that caught everyone’s attention.
Etna: Since the beginning of last week, Etna has experienced its largest paroxysm of 2016—check out the video. The Northeast Crater had strombolian eruptions starting May 17, throwing volcanic bombs down the slopes at the summit area of the volcano. The Voragine crater then followed this up with lava fountains on May 18. Interestingly, as the Voragine crater started its big show, the Northeast Crater quieted down, suggesting connections between the vents at the summit of Etna. The activity has waxed and waned since then, with lava flows and more fountaining. The New Southeast Crater joined the fun on May 23 as well, producing a small ash plume.
Turrialba: Down in Costa Rica, Turrialba unleashed some impressive ash-rich explosions. The volcano has been rumbling for over a year now. However, over the weekend the volcano went from low-level plumes to some that reached 3 kilometers (almost 10,000 feet) over the volcano. This caused evacuations, health alerts and air travel delays around the volcano due to the ash fall. These explosions could be a harbinger of more frequent or larger eruptions from Turrialba.
Fuego/Santiaguito: In Guatemala, Fuego and Santiaguito also took turns at producing some explosive eruptions. The plume from Fuego last week reached 5 kilometers (~18,000 feet) and prompted some evacuations. Meanwhile, Santiaguito created ash plumes over the weekend that reached 2.5-3 kilometers (8,000-10,000 feet).
Sinabung: In sad volcano news, multiple people died during an eruption last week at Sinabung in Indonesia. This is especially saddening because there have been eruptions occurring at Sinabung for years now. This makes for a challenging humanitarian situation, where people have not been allowed to return to their homes, even as the activity rises and falls. A spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency said “no one should have stayed, but there were some who remained to tend to their farms.” This is a common refrain when it comes to getting people to stay away from these dangerous volcanoes. These latest explosions were especially intense, with ash coating towns a dozen kilometers from the volcano.
Nevado del Ruiz: In Colombia, Nevado del Ruiz had one of its strongest explosive eruptions, causing a number of airports in the region to close briefly. The plumes reached 1-2 kilometers (4,000-7,500 feet) over the volcano—the Observatorio Vulcanológico y Sismológico de Manizales posted a video showing the brief explosive eruption. The SGC is watching Ruiz closely as tremor has continued at the volcano, suggesting magma is still on the move beneath Ruiz.
Pavlof: Not all volcano news was about bigger or new eruptions. Pavlof in Alaska saw its threat level lowered after the signs of unrest diminished. The Alaska Volcano Observatory has the volcano at Yellow alert status as Pavlof has the tendency to return to eruption quickly.
* Remember, I have a list of all the volcano webcams out there (minus a few new ones), so you can check out a lot of this action live.