Would an eruption in Melbourne really match Hawaii’s volcanoes? Here’s the evidence

Heather Handley, Macquarie University; Jozua van Otterloo, Monash University, and Ray Cas, Monash University

Spectacular images of recent volcanic eruptions in Hawaii are a little disheartening – especially given news reports suggesting there is a sleeping volcano under Melbourne that could awaken and erupt at any moment.

Understanding the geological differences between Melbourne and Hawaii is really helpful in working out how we can keep an eye on future risks in Australia.

Read more:
Australia’s volcanic history is a lot more recent than you think

The Newer Volcanics Province

Victoria and South Australia do host an active volcanic field, called the Newer Volcanics Province (NVP). This is not a single volcano with a large single chamber of molten rock (magma) — the common image of a volcano — but a widespread field of multiple small volcanoes, each with a small volume of magma.

Location of the Newer Volcanics Province in southeast Australia showing the extent of lava flows and the different types of volcanoes.
Julie Boyce 2013

Melbourne lies at the eastern end of the NVP, and the most recent eruptions in this area occurred over a million years ago.

Mt Gambier in southeastern South Australia represents the western margin of the volcanic field and the most recent eruption — only 5,000 years ago.

Between Melbourne and Mt Gambier there are more than 400 small volcanoes that erupted over a period of 6 million years.

Read more:
When the Bullin shrieked: Aboriginal memories of volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago

The NVP was most active between 4.5 million to 5,000 years ago and volcanologists consider the field to still be “active” with the potential for future eruptions.

We do not know when the next eruption will take place.

Volcanoes of the Newer Volcanics Province (a) Mt Napier, SE of Hamilton (b) The Noorat complex (c) The Mt Gambier Volcanic Complex, near Mt Gambier (d) The Mt Schank Volcanic Complex, near Mt Gambier (e) Purrumbete volcano, near Camperdown (f ) Tower Hill volcano, near Warrnambool (g) The Red Rock Volcanic Complex, near Colac.
Ray Cas and co authors

The NVP is located within a tectonic plate – and not along a plate edge like the Ring of Fire volcanoes (for example, Mt Agung on Bali).

Tectonic plates are large slabs of rock made up of the Earth’s crust and uppermost part of the mantle (the lithosphere) which form the outer shell of the Earth, and move around slowly relative to each other.

Read more:
Curious Kids: Why do volcanoes erupt?

Volcanoes act in different ways

While Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is also located within a tectonic plate, it has several key differences with the NVP in Southeastern Australia.

Magma source and volume

While Hawaii sources large volumes of magma from deep within the Earth, the NVP only receives small amounts of magma from just below the Earth’s crust.

It’s worth noting here that the makeup of the magma is similar in both locations, with both erupting runny basalt – a type of rock low in silica, and high in iron and magnesium.

We suspect that in Australia’s NVP, magma can move very fast from its source to the surface (on a time scale of days). This can bring rock fragments of the mantle (xenoliths) to the surface as the magma moves too fast for them to melt.

Fragments of the mantle (xenoliths) in a volcanic bomb erupted at Mt Noorat, brought to the surface by ascending magma.
Ray Cas

Eruption frequency

Hawaiian volcanoes can erupt numerous times, but NVP volcanoes are largely monogenetic — that is, each only erupt once or over a restricted period of time.

Crust thickness

Hawaii is located on the oceanic crust of the Pacific Tectonic Plate, which is a thin (around 7 km) layer of material that is dense and rich in iron. The magma can rise through this crust quite easily.

In contrast, the NVP is located on continental crust which is much thicker (about 30km), richer in silica and much less dense. Magma finds it much harder to travel through this kind of material.

Read more:
Is there a new volcano on Hawaii?

Water adds danger

The explosivity of a volcanic eruption can depend on availability of water.

“Dry” eruptions – where magma has little-to-no interaction with ground water or water on the Earth’s surface – typically produces mildly explosive eruptions such as lava fire fountains, showers of lava fragments and lava flows.

The most explosive, hazardous eruptions form where rising magma interacts with ground water, surface water or sea water. These “wet”, (phreatomagmatic) eruptions can produce deadly, fast moving, ground-hugging currents of gas and volcanic material – called pyroclastic surges, and send abundant fine volcanic ash into the atmosphere.

The Australian Mt Gambier eruption 5,000 years ago was a “wet” eruption, and had a volcanic explosivity index of 4 on a scale of 0-8 (where 0 represents a lava eruption, 1 a spectacular lava “fire” fountain as recently witnessed in Hawaii, and 8 represents a catastrophic explosive super-eruption).

The accompanying ash column is estimated to have reached 5km to 10km into the atmosphere.

On Hawaii explosive eruptions are rarer because the magma has a low gas content and groundwater aquifers are not as large as in the NVP. However, when lava flows into the sea there are often phreatic or steam explosions which can be hazardous to nearby spectators.

Read more:
From Kilauea to Fuego: three things you should know about volcano risk

Mt Gambier’s Blue Lake was created by a huge volcanic eruption.
from www.shutterstock.com

There’s a lot we don’t know

Another important factor relates to how we keep an eye on volcano risk at the two sites. Kilauea on Hawaii is extremely well monitored, and tracking magma moving underground has helped predict eruptions.

In contrast, the NVP is less well monitored, likely because there is no present volcanic activity, and it’s a huge region.

However, warning signs of an eruption are likely to be similar in the NVP to those on Hawaii – small earthquakes, minor uplift and/or subsidence of the ground, changes in ground temperature and gas or steam rising out of the ground.

Read more:
I’ve Always Wondered: Why are the volcanoes on Earth active, but the ones on Mars are not?

Also, based on present knowledge of the NVP, there is no clear eruption pattern we can use to try to predict when or where the next eruption will be.

If the NVP were to erupt, significant impacts on our lives would likely occur. These may include:

  • the closure of surrounding roads by lava flows and ash fallout
  • volcanic ash and rocks loading roofs of local buildings
  • contamination of water reservoirs by ash
  • damage to machinery and electricity infrastructure by infiltrating ash
  • respiratory problems for people prone to asthma, and
  • disruption to air traffic across southeastern Australia due to drifting ash clouds driven by prevailing south-westerly winds.

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The Conversation

Further scientific research is required on active volcanic fields such as the NVP to know how fast magma travels from its source to the surface, how much warning we might have before an eruption, and how long an eruption and its impacts might last.

Heather Handley, Associate Professor in Volcanology and Geochemistry, Macquarie University; Jozua van Otterloo, Assistant Lecturer in Volcanology, Monash University, and Ray Cas, Professor emeritus, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Eruptions and lava flows on Kilauea: but what’s going on beneath Hawai’i’s volcano?

Chris Firth, Macquarie University

Over the past few weeks we’ve seen increasingly spectacular images reported in the news of the ongoing eruption at Kilauea volcano, on the Pacific island of Hawai’i.

These have been tempered by reports of growing destruction, with houses and infrastructure bulldozed, buried or burned by lava flows.

Read more:
Trouble in paradise: eruptions from Kīlauea volcano place the Hawaiian island on red alert

Yet Kilauea is one of the world’s most active volcanoes, and has been erupting continually since 1983. So what has triggered this sudden change in activity, threatening homes and livelihoods? The answer relates to what is happening beneath the volcano.

Kilauea volcano

Activity at Kilauea is driven by the buoyant upwelling of a plume of hot mantle, which provides the heat to generate magma beneath the volcano. This magma has the potential to erupt from several different locations, or vents, on the volcano.

Click on the three blue markers to reveal more.
Google Maps/The Conversation

Typically, the crater at the summit of the volcano is where eruptions are expected to occur, but the geology of Kilauea is complex and a rift on the eastern side of the volcano also allows magma to erupt from its flanks.

Over the past decade both the summit crater and a vent on the eastern rift, called Pu’u O’o, have been continually active. The summit crater has hosted a lava lake since March 2008.

Lava lakes are relatively rare features seen at only a handful of volcanoes around the world. The fact that they do not cool and solidify tells us that lava lakes are regularly replenished by fresh magma from below.

In contrast, Pu’u O’o, 18km east of the summit crater, has been pouring out lava flows since 1983. In the first 20 years of this eruption, 2.1km³ of lava flows were produced, equivalent in volume to 840,000 Olympic swimming pools. All of this tells us that Kilauea volcano regularly receives lots of magma to erupt.

Current eruptions

Over the past three weeks activity at Pu’u O’o has stopped, while a series of fissures has opened roughly 20km further east in a subdivision known as Leilani Estates.

This area was previously affected by lava flows in 1955.

To date, 23 fissures have opened, starting off simply as cracks in the ground, with some developing into highly active vents from which significant lava flows are forming.

At the moment, the longest flows are about 6km long, having reached the ocean. This is a further cause for concern, as the lava reacts with seawater to form a corrosive mist.

Meanwhile, at the summit of the volcano, the lava lake has drained from the crater, sparking fears of more explosive eruptions, as draining magma interacts with groundwater.

Satellite instruments and high-resolution GPS are being used to monitor changes in the shape of the volcano and have found that the summit region is deflating, while the lower east rift zone, where new fissures have opened in recent days, is inflating.


The magma reservoirs that feed eruptions on Kilauea can be imagined as balloons, which grow when they are filled and shrink when they are emptied. Deflation at the summit, combined with observations that the lava lake has drained (at a rate of up to 100m over two days!), suggest that the magma reservoir feeding the summit is emptying.

Where is the magma going? Observations of ground inflation around the newly opened fissures to the east indicate that the magma is being diverted down the east rift and accumulating and erupting there instead.

Exactly what has caused this rerouting of the magma is still not clear. A magnitude 6.9 earthquake occurred in the area on May 4 and this may have opened a new pathway for magma to erupt, influencing the geometry of the lower east rift zone.

A Landsat8 image (top) of Kilauea volcano taken on March 15, 2018. The relative location of the various vents are marked, and a red, glowing lava flow can just be seen in the north-east of the image. The graphic (bottom) shows an inferred magma pathway below the volcano.
NASA/Chris Firth, Author provided

Lessons for the future

By combining measurements from Kilauea of ground deformation, earthquake patterns and gas emissions during the current eruption, with observations of the lava that is erupted, volcanologists will be able to piece together a much clearer picture of what triggered this significant change in eruption over the past few weeks.

This knowledge will be crucial in planning for future eruptions, both at Kilauea and at other volcanoes.

Read more:
Lava in Hawai’i is reaching the ocean, creating new land but also corrosive acid mist

Eruptions from the flanks of a volcano can pose a much more significant hazard for the local population than those from a volcano’s summit, as many more people live in the areas that are directly affected.

This has been amply displayed over the past few weeks on Kilauea by the fissures opening in people’s gardens and lava flows destroying homes and infrastructure.

But Kilauea is not the only volcano to have flank eruptions. For example, lava flows famously emerged from the lower slopes of Mt Etna in 1669, destroying villages and partially surrounding the regional centre of Catania, on the east coast of Sicily, Italy.

The ConversationLessons learned from the current eruption of Kilauea can equally be applied to other volcanoes, like Etna, where more densely populated surroundings mean that the hazards posed by such an eruption would be even greater.

Lava fountains form fissure 22 on the lower east rift zone of Kīlauea volcano, in Hawai’i.

Chris Firth, Lecturer in Geology, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

I’ve always wondered: do nuclear tests affect tectonic plates and cause earthquakes or volcanic eruptions?

File 20171106 1061 16ni4lh.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A detection station for seismic activity at Bilibion, a remote corner of Russia.
The Official CTBTO Photostream (Copyright CTBTO Preparatory Commission) , CC BY

Jane Cunneen, Curtin University

This is an article from I’ve Always Wondered, a new series where readers send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. Send your question to alwayswondered@theconversation.edu.au

Do underground nuclear tests affect Earth’s tectonic plates, and cause earthquakes or volcanic eruptions? – Anne Carroll, Victoria

Apart from escalating global fears about conflict, North Korea’s recent nuclear tests have raised questions about geological events caused by underground explosions.

Some media reports suggest the tests triggered earthquakes in South Korea. Others report the explosions may trigger a volcanic eruption at Paektu Mountain, about 100km from the test site.

So can an underground test cause an earthquake? The short answer is yes: a nuclear explosion can cause small earthquakes. But it is unlikely to affect the earth’s tectonic plates or cause a volcanic eruption.

Although a nuclear explosion releases a lot of energy in the immediate region, the amount of energy is small compared to other stresses on tectonic plates.

Read more: What earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test

What are tectonic plates?

Tectonic plates are slabs of the earth’s crust which move very slowly over the surface of the earth. Mountain ranges form at the edges of the plates when they collide, and ocean basins form when they move apart.

Tectonic plates are slabs of the earth’s crust.

Volcanoes occur mostly where plates are colliding. One plate overrides another, pushing it down to where it may partly melt. The partially melted rock – also known as lava – then rises to the surface, causing a volcano.

The movement of tectonic plates also causes earthquakes, which is why 90% of them occur at the plate boundaries. All but the deepest earthquakes occur along faults, which are breaks in the crust where rocks can move past each other in response to stress. This stress can be from both natural events and human activities.

Human induced earthquakes

Induced seismicity” is the term used to describe earthquakes caused by human activities.

Human induced earthquakes can be caused by anything that changes the stresses on rocks beneath the surface. These include processes that add or remove great loads from the surface, such as mining, building dams or tall buildings.

Other processes that change the amount of pressure on rocks can include fluid injection from drilling, or extraction of water from aquifers.

Human-induced earthquakes have been reported from every continent except Antarctica. Induced earthquakes only occur where there is already some stress on the rocks. The human activity adds enough stress to the rocks to reach the “tipping point” and trigger the earthquake.

Nuclear explosions can induce small earthquakes along existing faults near a test site. Some underground nuclear tests have fractured the ground surface above the explosions, causing movement on faults adjacent to explosion sites.

Earthquakes from nuclear testing

The 3 September 2017 North Korean nuclear test generated shock waves equivalent to a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. Eight minutes later, a magnitude 4.1 event was detected at the same site. This may have been linked to a collapse of a tunnel related to the blast.

Several small earthquakes measured since the event may have been induced by the nuclear test, but the largest is only a magnitude 3.6. An earthquake of this size would not be felt outside of the immediate area.

Read more: North Korea tests not just a bomb but the global nuclear monitoring system

The largest induced earthquake ever measured from nuclear testing was a magnitude 4.9 in the Soviet Union. An earthquake of this size can cause damage locally but does not affect the full thickness of the earth’s crust. This means it would not have any effect on the movement of tectonic plates.

Historical data from nuclear testing (mostly in the USA) shows that earthquakes associated with nuclear testing typically occur when the explosion itself measures greater than magnitude 5, 10–70 days after the tests, at depths of less than 5km, and closer than around 15km to the explosion site. More recent studies have concluded that nuclear tests are unlikely to induce earthquakes more than about 50km from the test site.

Volcanic eruptions

Concerns have also been raised about the risk of volcanic eruptions induced by the nuclear tests in North Korea. Paektu Mountain is about 100km from the test site and last erupted in 1903.

Mount Paektu is an active volcano on the border between North Korea and China.
Google Maps

In the 1970s, the USA conducted a number of nuclear tests in the Aleutian Islands, a volcanic island arc chain containing 62 active volcanoes.

One of the blasts, named Cannikin, was the largest underground nuclear test ever conducted by the USA. There were fears that the blast would cause a huge earthquake and tsunami. The blast did result in some induced earthquakes, but the largest was a magnitude 4.0 and there was no increase in volcanic activity.

Based on this evidence, it seems unlikely a nuclear test by North Korea will trigger an eruption of Paektu Mountain. If the volcano was on the verge of erupting, then an induced earthquake from a nuclear blast could influence the timing of the eruption. However, given the distance from the test site then even this is not likely.

Monitoring nuclear tests

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO) has a global monitoring system to detect nuclear tests, including seismometers to measure the shock waves from the blast and other technologies.

Global network of seismic monitoring stations.
CTBTO / The Conversation, CC BY-NC-ND

Seismologists can analyse the seismic data to determine if the shock waves were from a naturally occurring earthquake or a nuclear blast. Shock waves from nuclear blasts have different properties to those from naturally occurring earthquakes.

Testing was much more common before the CTBTO was formed: between 1945 and 1996 more than 2,000 nuclear tests were conducted worldwide, including 1,032 by the USA and 715 by the Soviet Union.

The ConversationSince 1996 only three countries have tested nuclear devices: India, Pakistan and North Korea. North Korea has conducted six underground nuclear tests at the same site between 2006 and 2017.

Jane Cunneen, Research Fellow, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mount Agung continues to rumble with warnings the volcano could still erupt

Heather Handley, Macquarie University

It’s more than three weeks since the alert level on Bali’s Mount Agung was raised to its highest level. An eruption was expected imminently and thousands of people were evacuated, but the volcano has still not erupted.

I keep getting emails from people asking me whether they should travel to Bali. I tell them to check the Australian’s government’s Smartraveller website, or contact their airline or tour operator.

They should also keep an eye on the media and any updates from the Indonesian Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation.

Read more: Bali’s Mount Agung threatens to erupt for the first time in more than 50 years

Reports this week from the Indonesian National Disaster Management Authority show a decline in seismic energy recorded near the volcano.


But does that mean the threat of any eruption is over?

A few false starts

The last major eruption of Mount Agung was in 1963. Since then, there have been two known periods of activity at the volcano site without an ensuing eruption.

In 1989, a few volcanic earthquakes occurred and hot, sulphur-rich gas emissions were observed with no eruption.

Between 2007 to 2009, satellite data showed inflation (swelling) of the volcano at a rate of about 8cm per year, probably caused by the inflow of new magma (molten rock) into the shallow plumbing system. This was followed by deflation for the next two years, again without an eruption.

The current volcanic activity – mainly the number of earthquakes – has not subsided since the alert level was raised to level 4. It continues to fluctuate at high levels, with more than 600 earthquakes a day. This indicates that the threat of an eruption is still high, despite a general decline in overall seismic energy.

This past weekend saw the highest number of daily earthquakes, with more than 1,100 recorded on Saturday October 14.

Graph showing the number of recorded earthquakes per day at Mount Agung volcano. The orange shows shallow volcanic earthquakes, light green is deep volcanic earthquakes and the blue is local tectonic earthquakes.
Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation

The latest statement from the Indonesian Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation was released on October 5. It said earthquake data indicates that pressure is continuing to build up under the volcano due to the increasing magma volume and as magma moves towards the surface.

It’s all about the gas

Magma contains dissolved gases (volatiles) such as water, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide. As magma moves towards the surface, the pressure becomes less and so gas bubbles form, akin to taking the top off a fizzy drink bottle. These gas bubbles take up additional space in the magma and increase the overall pressure of the system.

The amount of gas, and whether or not gas is able to escape from the magma prior to eruption, are major factors that determine how explosive (or not) any volcanic eruption will be.

If the gas bubbles forming in the magma stay within as it ascends beneath Mount Agung, then it could lead to a more explosive eruption. If the gas formed is able to escape, it might depressurise the system enough to erupt less violently or not at all.

White gas plumes, composed mainly of water vapour, have been observed. They have typically reached 50-200m above the crater rim at Mont Agung, and up to 1,500m on October 7. This water vapour is likely due to the hydrologic system heating up in response to the intruding magma at depth.

During the 1963 eruption, Mount Agung produced a significant amount of sulphur-rich gas that caused an estimated global cooling of 0.1-0.4℃. In this current phase of activity, we are yet to see any significant release of sulphur dioxide from the intruding magma.

How big would an eruption be?

It’s not easy to predict how big any eruption at Mount Agung would be. Analysis of volcanic material deposited during previous eruptions over the past 5,000 years suggests that about 25% of them have been of similar or larger size than the 1963 eruption.

On the neighbouring island of Java, the explosive 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi saw more than 400,000 people evacuated and 367 killed. This was preceded by increased earthquake activity over a period of about two months. It was the volcano’s largest eruption since 1872.

The monitoring data and studies of the volcanic rocks produced by the Merapi eruption suggest the relatively fast movement of a large volume of gas-rich magma was the reason for the unusually large eruption.

Read more: Ambae volcano’s crater lakes make it a serious threat to Vanuatu

In 2010, the Indonesian Center of Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation issued timely forecasts of the size of the eruption phases at Merapi, saving an estimated 10,000–20,000 lives.

The waiting game

The Indonesians are keeping a close eye on seismic activity at Mount Agung and the public can watch a live seismogram.

Screenshot of the Mount Agung seismogram showing the large number of earthquakes recorded on October 13 and 14, 2017.
Indonesian Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation

The last two eruptions of Mount Agung in 1843 and 1963 had a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 5, on a scale of 0-8. A 0 would be something like a lava flow on Hawaii that you could generally walk or run from, and 8 would be a supervolcanic eruption like Yellowstone (640,000 years ago and 2.1 million years ago) in the United States or Toba (74,000 years ago) in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

Based on a history of explosive activity at the volcano, the Indonesian authorities are maintaining the current hazard zone of up to 12km from the summit of Mount Agung.

The ConversationIt’s still considered more likely than not that it will erupt, but the question remains: when?

Heather Handley, Associate Professor in Volcanology and Geochemistry, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.