Teresa Ubide, The University of QueenslandThe volcanoes we see on Earth’s surface are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, they are fed by a complex network of conduits and reservoirs that bring molten rock, called magma, to the surface.
When the magma erupts, it can generate lava flows that cool down to become volcanic rocks. These rocks hold key clues about volcanoes’ inner workings, and what triggered them to erupt in the past. But decoding these clues is a puzzling task.
Our new research, published in the journal Geology, reveals previously hidden information in the chemistry of erupted lavas. Intriguingly, we discovered that many volcanoes have an internal “filter” that prompts them to erupt.
If we can detect magma at this crucial tipping point inside the volcano, it might even help us detect when an eruption is imminent.
Most volcanoes, such as those in the Pacific Ring of Fire and the mid-Atlantic, are at the boundaries between tectonic plates. But some volcanoes, including the ones that created the Hawaiian islands, occur where hot plumes from deep inside Earth reach the surface. These are known as “hotspot” volcanoes.
Australia hosts the longest track of hotspot volcanoes in a continental setting. Over tens of millions of years, volcanoes such as The Glass House Mountains in Queensland, or Wollumbin (Mount Warning) in New South Wales, tracked the movement of the Australian continent over a stationary hotspot.
In the oceans, hotspots build chains of paradise islands such as Hawaii, the Galapagos or the Canary Islands. These ocean island volcanoes were previously thought to have been made of magma that welled up from tens of kilometres beneath the surface, deep in Earth’s mantle.
But our new research suggests ocean island volcanoes may erupt magma that has been filtered and modified at shallower depth.
Crystal-rich, not crystal clear
Volcanic lavas often contain crystals from inside the volcano, that were mixed in with the erupting magma. The crystals tell us a lot about the volcano’s insides, but they can also disguise the chemistry of the lava itself.
Think of it like rocky road chocolate. If we want to analyse the ingredients of the chocolate itself, we first need to disregard the marshmallows and nuts.
We can do this by analysing rocks made from crystal-free lavas. In our study, we compared crystal-free and crystal-rich magmas from El Hierro volcano in the Canary Islands, which last erupted in 2011.
It turns out that the crystal-free magma from these volcanoes is very similar across millions of years of volcanic activity, and across many ocean island volcanoes around the world, including the Canary Islands and Hawaii. This is how we realised the magma was not pristine and coming directly from great depth, but rather filtered at shallower depths.
And if the magma from hotspot island volcanoes is so similar, the chances are their eruptions are triggered by common mechanisms too.
The ‘secret volcano filter’
When crystals form inside the volcano, this “steals” chemical elements from the magma. In turn, this alters the composition of the leftover magma, almost as if it had been passed through a sieve.
This filtering process makes the magma less dense, and increases its gas content. This gas can then bubble up and propel the magma to the surface, just like the cork popping from a bottle of champagne.
In ocean island volcanoes, the magma can reach this “tipping point” at the base of the Earth’s crust, just a few kilometres beneath the surface, rather than at depth.
This means that if we detect magma at this depth with the help of earthquake monitoring equipment, an eruption might follow. This is exactly what happened when El Hierro erupted in 2011.
Does this make it easier to forecast eruptions?
If we could open a volcano like a doll’s house, we would be able to track the movement of magma towards the surface. It’s a pity we can’t, although we can try to “see” this journey indirectly, by monitoring earthquakes, deformation and gas emissions, all of which can indicate magma rising inside a volcano.
But to assess whether a volcano is likely to erupt, or whether a dormant volcano is reawakening, we also need to compare current observations with information about what triggered eruptions in the past.
This is where our new discovery could prove especially useful. If the eruption triggers happen at similar depths in ocean island volcanoes globally, warning signs from such depths may be particularly important to monitor and consider as the precursory signs of eruption.
Tourists visiting Whakaari/White Island on December 9 last year had no warning of its imminent violent eruption. The explosion of acidic steam and gases killed 21 people, and most survivors suffered critical injuries and severe burns.
The tragedy prompted us to develop an early alert system. Our research shows patterns of seismic activity before an eruption that make advance warning possible. Had our system been in place, it would have raised the alert 16 hours before the volcano’s deadly eruption.
New Zealand has a network of monitoring instruments that measure even the smallest earth movements continuously. This GeoNet network delivers high-rate data from volcanoes, including Whakaari, but it is not currently used as a real-time warning system for volcanic eruptions.
Although aligned with international best practice, GeoNet’s current Volcano Alert Level (VAL) system is updated too slowly, because it relies mainly on expert judgement and consensus. Nor does it estimate the probability of a future eruption — instead, it gives a backward view of the state of the volcano. All past eruptions at Whakaari occurred at alert levels 1 or 2 (unrest), and the level was then raised only after the event.
Our study uses machine learning algorithms and the past decade of continuous monitoring data. During this time there were five recorded eruptions at Whakaari, many similar to the 2019 event. Since 1826, there have been more than 30 eruptions at Whakaari. Not all were as violent as 2019, but because there is hot water and steam trapped in a hydrothermal area above a shallow layer of magma, we can expect destructive explosions every one to three years.
Last year’s eruption was preceded by 17 hours of seismic warning. This began with a strong four-hour burst of seismic activity, which we think was fresh magmatic fluid rising up to add pressure to the gas and water trapped in the rock above.
This led to its eventual bursting, like a pressure cooker lid being blasted off. A similar signal was recorded 30 hours before an eruption in August 2013, and it was present (although less obvious) in two other eruptions in 2012.
Building an early warning system
We used sophisticated machine-learning algorithms to analyse the seismic data for undiscovered patterns in the lead-up to eruptions. The four-hour energy burst proved a signal that often heralded an imminent eruption.
We then used these pre-eruption patterns to teach a computer model to raise an alert and tested whether it could anticipate other eruptions it had not learned from. This model will continue to “learn by experience”. Each successive event we use to teach it improves its ability to forecast the future.
We have also studied how best to optimise when alerts are issued to make the most effective warning system. The main trade-off is between a system that is highly sensitive and raises lots of alerts versus one that sets the bar quite high, but also misses some eruptions.
We settled on a threshold that generates an alert each time the likelihood of an eruption exceeds 8.5%. This means that when an alert is raised – each lasting about five days – there is about a 1-in-12 chance an eruption will happen.
This system would have raised an alert for four of the last five major eruptions at Whakaari. It would have provided a 16-hour warning for the 2019 eruption. But these evaluations have been made with the benefit of hindsight: forecasting systems can only prove their worth on future data.
We think there is a good chance eruptions like the 2019 event or larger will be detected. The trade-off is that the alerts, if acted upon, would keep the island off-limits to visitors for about one month each year.
We have been operating the system for five months now, on a 24/7 basis, and are working with GNS Science on how best to integrate this to strengthen their existing protocols and provide more timely warnings at New Zealand volcanoes.
We plan to develop the system for New Zealand’s other active volcanoes, including Mt Tongariro and Mt Ruapehu, which receive tens of thousands of visitors each year. Eventually, this could be valuable for other volcanoes around the world, such as Mt Ontake in Japan, where a 2014 eruption killed 63 people.
Because of the immense public value of these kinds of early warning systems, we have made all our data and software available open-source.
Although most eruptions at Whakaari appear to be predictable, there are likely to be future events that defy warning. In 2016 there was an eruption that had no obvious seismic precursor and this would not have been anticipated by our warning system.
Eruptions at other volcanoes may be predictable using similar methods if there is enough data to train models. In any case, human operators, whether assisted or not by early warning systems, will continue to play an important role in safeguarding those living near or visiting volcanoes.
Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.
If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to email@example.com
Everyone is going on about reducing our carbon footprint, zero emissions, planting sustainable crops for biodiesel etc. Is it true what the internet posts say that a volcano eruption for a few weeks will make all our efforts null and void?
The pretext to this question is understandable. The forces of nature are so powerful and operate at such a magnitude that human efforts to influence our planet may seem pointless.
If one volcanic eruption could alter our climate to such a degree that our world rapidly becomes an “icehouse” or a “hothouse”, then perhaps our efforts to mitigate anthropogenic climate change are a waste of time?
To answer this question we need to examine how our atmosphere formed and what geological evidence there is for volcanically induced climate change. We also need to look at recent data comparing volcanic and human greenhouse gas emissions.
There is evidence for catastrophic climate change from very large, protracted volcanic eruptions in the geological record. But in more recent times we have learned that volcanic emissions can lead to shorter-term cooling and longer-term warming. And the killer-punch evidence is that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions far exceed those of volcanic activity, particularly since 1950.
Forging Earth’s atmosphere
Let’s go back to first principles and look at where our atmosphere came from. Earth is 4.56 billion years old. The common consensus is that Earth’s atmosphere results from three main processes:
1. remnants of primordial solar nebula gases from the time of earliest planet formation
2. outgassing of the Earth’s interior from volcanic and related events
3. the production of oxygen from photosynthesis.
There have also been contributions over time from comets and asteroid collisions. Of these processes, internal planetary degassing is the most important atmosphere-generating process, particularly during the first of four aeons of Earth’s history, the hot Hadean.
Volcanic eruptions have contributed to this process ever since and provided the bulk of our atmosphere and, therefore, the climate within our atmosphere.
Next is the question of volcanic eruptions and their influence on climate. Earth’s climate has changed over geological time. There have been periods of an ice-free “hothouse Earth”. Some argue that sea levels were 200 to 400 metres higher than today and a significant proportion of Earth’s continents were submerged beneath sea level.
At other times, during a “snowball Earth”, our planet was covered in ice even at the equator.
What contribution have volcanic eruptions made to this variation in climate? As an example of a major influence, some scientists link mass extinctions to major volcanic eruption events.
The most famous such association is that of the eruption of volcanoes that produced the Siberian Traps. This is a large region of thick volcanic rock sequences, some 2.5 to 4 million square kilometres, in an area in Russia’s eastern provinces. Rapid and voluminous volcanic eruptions around 252 million years ago released sufficient quantities of sulphate aerosols and carbon dioxide to trigger short-duration volcanic winters, and long-duration climate warming, over a period of 10s of thousands of years.
Natural climate change over past 100 million years
Geological evidence indicates that natural processes can indeed radically change Earth’s climate. Most recently (in geological terms), over the past 100 million years ocean bottom waters have cooled, sea levels fallen and ice has advanced. Within this period there have also been spells of a hotter Earth, most likely caused by (natural) rapid releases in greenhouse gases.
Homo sapiens has evolved during the past few million years largely during an ice age when up to two-kilometre-thick ice sheets covered large areas of the northern continents and sea levels were over 100 metres lower than today. This period ended 10,000 years ago when our modern interglacial warmer period began.
Astronomical cycles that lead to climate variations are well understood – for example, the Milankovitch cycles, which explain variations in Earth’s orbit around the sun, and the periodic nodding/swaying of our Earth’s axis. All of the geological and tectonic causes for this general longer-term Earth cooling are less well understood. Hypotheses include contributions from volcanoes and processes linked to the rise of the Himalayas and Tibet (from 55 million years ago).
These larger eruptions reduce solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface, lower temperatures in the lower troposphere, and change atmospheric circulation patterns. In the case of Pinatubo, global tropospheric temperatures fell by up to 4°C, but northern hemisphere winters warmed.
Volcanoes erupt a mix of gases, including greenhouse gases, aerosols and gases that can react with other atmospheric constituents. Atmospheric reactions with volcanic gases can rapidly produce substances such as sulphuric acid (and related sulphates) that act as aerosols, cooling the atmosphere.
Longer-term additions of carbon dioxide have warming impacts. Larger-scale volcanic eruptions, whose ash clouds reach stratospheric levels, have the biggest climatic impacts: the larger and more prolonged the eruption period, the larger the impacts.
These types of eruptions are thought to have been a partial cause for the Little Ice Age period, a global cooling event of about 0.5°C that lasted from the 15th to the late 19th century. Super volcanoes such as Yellowstone (USA), Toba (Indonesia) and Taupo (New Zealand) can, theoretically, produce very large-volume eruptions that have significant climate impacts, but there is uncertainty over how long these eruptions influence climate.
Perhaps the strongest evidence for answering whether our (human) emissions or volcanoes have a stronger influence on climate lies in the scale of greenhouse gas production. Since 2015, global anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions have been around 35 to 37 billion tonnes per year. Annual volcanic CO₂ emissions are around 200 million tonnes.
In 2018, anthropogenic CO₂ emissions were 185 times higher than volcanic emissions. This is an astounding statistic and one of the factors persuading some geologists and natural scientists to propose a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene in recognition that humans are exceeding the impacts of many natural global processes, particularly since the 1950s.
There is evidence that volcanoes have strongly influenced climate on geological time scales, but, since 1950 in particular, it is Homo sapiens who has had by far the largest impact on climate. Let us not give up our CO₂ emission-reduction aspirations. Volcanoes may not save the day.
Just like a teenager wanting to be older, volcanoes can lie about their age, or at least about their activities. For kids, it might be little white lies, but volcanoes can tell big lies with big consequences.
Our research, published today in Nature Communications, uncovers one such volcanic lie.
Lake Taupo, in the North Island of New Zealand, is a globally significant caldera supervolcano. The caldera formed after the collapse of a magma chamber roof following a massive eruption more than 20,000 years ago.
Now it seems that the Taupo eruption that occurred in the early part of the first millennium has been lying about its age. But like many lies, it was eventually found out, and it reveals exciting processes we hadn’t understood before.
The eruption of Taupo in the first millennium has been dated many times with radiocarbon, yielding a surprisingly large spread of ages between 36CE and 538CE.
Radiocarbon dating of organic material is based on the concentrations of radioactive carbon-14 in a sample remaining after the organisms’ death. Over the past two decades, the method has been refined greatly by combining it with dendrochronology, the study of the environmental effects on the width of tree rings through time.
Radiocarbon dating of tree ring records has allowed scientists to construct a reliable record of the concentration of carbon-14 in the atmosphere through time.
In principle, this composite record allows eruptions to be dated by matching the wiggly trace of carbon-14 in a tree killed by an eruption to the wiggly trace of atmospheric carbon-14 from the reference curve (“wiggle-match” dating).
Scientists presently use wiggle-match dating as the method of choice for eruption dating, but the technique is not valid if carbon dioxide gas from the volcano is affecting a tree’s version of the wiggle.
Our study re-analysed the large series of radiocarbon dates for the Taupo eruption and found that the oldest dates were closest to the volcano vent. The dates were progressively younger the farther away they were.
This unusual geographic pattern has been documented very close (i.e. less than a kilometre) to volcanic vents before, but never on the scale of tens of kilometres. Two wiggle match ages, taken from the same forest, located about 30km from the caldera lake, were among the oldest dates from the series of dates.
This enlarged influence of the volcano can be explained by the influence of groundwater beneath the lake and its surroundings. The Taupo wiggle-match tree grew in a dense forest in a swampy valley where volcanic carbon dioxide was seeping out of the ground and was incorporated in the trees.
The ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 (the two stable isotopes of carbon) in the modern water of Lake Taupo and the Waikato River tells us that volcanic carbon dioxide is getting into the groundwater from an underlying magma body.
Can large eruptions be forecast over decades?
Our study shows that a large and increasing volume of carbon dioxide gas containing these stable isotopes was emitted from deep below the prehistoric Taupo volcano. It was then redistributed by the region’s huge groundwater system, ultimately becoming incorporated into the wood of the dated trees.
The increase was sufficiently large over several decades to dramatically alter the ratios of different carbon isotopes in the tree wood. The forest was subsequently killed by the last part of the Taupo eruption series. But the dilution of atmospheric carbon-14 by volcanic carbon made the radiocarbon dates for tree material from the Taupo eruption appear somewhere between 40 and 300 years too old.
The precursory change in carbon ratios gives us a way to gain insight into the forecasting of future eruptions, a central goal in volcanology. We found that the radiocarbon dates and isotope data that underpin the presently accepted “wiggle match” age reached a plateau (that is, stopped evolving normally). This meant that for several decades before the eruption, the outer growth rings of trees had ‘weird’ carbon ratios, forecasting the impending eruption.
We re-analysed data from other major eruptions, including at Rabaul in Papua New Guinea and Baitoushan on the North Korean border with China and found similar patterns. The anomalous chemistry mimics but exceeds the Suess effect, which reversed the carbon isotopic evolution of post-industrial wood. This implies that measurements of carbon isotopes in 200-300 annual rings can track changes in the carbon source used by trees growing near a volcano, providing a potential method of forecasting future large eruptions.
This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky! You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.
Why do volcanoes erupt? – Nicholas, age 3 years and 11 months, Northmead, NSW.
The rock inside the planet we live on can melt to form molten rock called magma. This magma is lighter than the rocks around it and so it rises upwards. Where the magma eventually reaches the surface we get an eruption and volcanoes form.
The top part of the Earth is made up of a number of hard pieces called tectonic plates. Magma and volcanoes often form where the plates are pulled apart or pushed together but we also find some volcanoes in the middle of tectonic plates.
Volcanoes have many different shapes and sizes, some look like steep mountains (stratovolcanoes), others look like bumps (shield volcanoes) and some are flat with a hole (a crater or caldera) in the centre that is often filled with water.
The shape of the volcano and how explosively it erupts depend largely on how “sticky” and how “fizzy” (how much gas) the magma is that is erupted.
For example, if you try to blow bubbles in cooking oil though a straw, the bubbles can escape quite easily because the cooking oil is runny.
If you try to blow bubbles in jam or peanut butter you would find it very difficult because the jam and peanut butter are very sticky, they wouldn’t move much at all if you tried to pour them out of the jar.
It is the same with volcanoes. When magma rises towards the surface gas bubbles start to form. Whether or not they can escape as the magma is rising affects how explosive the eruption will be.
Where the magma is runny like cooking oil and doesn’t have much bubbly gas mixed in it, such as places like Hawaii, then we see lots of slow-moving lava flows and shield volcanoes. Lava is what we call magma when it reaches the surface.
Here are some pictures of a recent Hawaiian eruption:
However, where the magma is very sticky, like jam or peanut butter, and if it contains a lot of bubbly gas then the gas can get stuck and eruptions can be very powerful and explosive, like the recent eruptions at Fuego volcano in Guatemala.
Damage caused by eruptions
In explosive eruptions the frothy, bubbly magma can be ripped apart into tiny bits called volcanic ash. This is not ash like you get after a barbecue or fire, it does not crumble away in your fingers. It is very sharp and is dangerous to breathe in.
Some explosive volcanoes can send ash high up into the sky and it can travel around the world over different countries. If aeroplanes travel through an ash cloud from a volcano it can cause a lot of damage to the engine.
Other explosive eruptions create fast-moving, hot clouds of volcanic ash, gas and rocks that travel down the sides of the volcanoes and destroy pretty much everything in their path.
The benefits of volcanoes
Despite the great damage they can cause, volcanoes also help us to live. Volcanic ash provides food for the soil around volcanoes which helps us grow plants to eat. The heat from some volcanoes is used to make energy to power lights, fridges, televisions and computers in people’s houses.
You can find some more information about different types of volcanoes here and here.
Please tell us your name, age, and which city you live in. You can send an audio recording of your question too, if you want. Send as many questions as you like! We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.
In Indonesia, more than 197 million people live within 100km of a volcano, including more than 8.6 million inside a 10km radius.
The country has a record of some of the most deadly volcanic eruptions in history, and right now there are ongoing eruptions at the Agung, Sinabung and Dukono volcanoes. But other volcanoes in the region are active too, including Kadovar in Papua New Guinea, Mayon in the Philippines, and Kusatsu-Shiranesan in Japan.
Although it all seems to be happening at once, it’s normal for the Asia-Pacific region to have frequent earthquake and volcanic activity.
But we still need to keep a close eye on things, and local volcanic authorities are monitoring activity to manage risks and evacuations adequately.
These volcanoes are part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, a horseshoe-shaped belt of earthquakes and volcanoes that runs for some 40,000km, roughly around the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The Ring stretches from South America, up to North America and across the Bering straight, and down through Japan, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and New Zealand. It generates around 90% of the world’s earthquakes and contains 75% of its active volcanoes.
Here are the volcanoes on my Asia-Pacific watch list this week.
Agung, Bali, Indonesia
Mount Agung in Bali has been highly scrutinised for the past few months, largely because of Bali’s popularity as a tourist destination.
After a series of volcanic earthquakes (more than 1,000 per day at its peak), eruptions began on November 21, 2017.
In the evening of January 19 an explosion of fire (known as a “strombolian” eruption) ejected glowing rocks up to 1km from the crater. The alert level remains at the highest level, with an exclusion zone in place.
There have been very few issues for tourists visiting Bali so far, apart from a temporary closure of Denpasar airport in late November 2017. However, thousands of Agung’s local residents are still displaced from their homes, with many still stationed in evacuation centres. It remains uncertain when those living closest will be able to return home.
Sinabung volcano awoke in 2010 after a 400-year sleep, and is currently one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia. It has been pretty much in constant eruption since September 2013, and there are still frequent volcanic earthquakes.
Eruptions have produced ash plumes reaching as high as 11km into the atmosphere, as well as ash fall and lava flows. There have also been volcanic mudflows (“lahars”) and fast-moving, hot flows of gas, ash and rock fragments (“pyroclastic flows”), which have killed 25 people.
The initial activity in 2010 saw around 30,000 people evacuated. In August last year the Indonesian National Disaster Management Authority (BNPB) reported that there were 7,214 people displaced, and a further 2,863 living in refugee camps. For the locals, life seemingly goes on in the midst of eruptions.
The alert level currently remains at 4 (on a scale of 1-4), with exclusion zones of 3-7km around the volcano.
Mayon, around 330km southeast of Manila, is a picture-perfect volcano with its steep-sided conical cone, typical of stratovolcanoes. It is one of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, with 24 confirmed eruptive periods in the past 100 years. Mayon’s most violent eruption in 1814 killed more than 1,200 people and destroyed several towns.
The recent eruption began on January 13, 2018, and is continuing, with several episodes of dramatic lava fountaining, one lasting 74 minutes.
Eruptions during January 23-29 generated 3-5km-high ash plumes and multiple pyroclastic flows, which travelled more than 5km down drainage channels. The alert is at level 4 (on a scale of 1 to 5) and an 8km danger zone is in place.
Lava flows have currently made their way up to 4.5km down river valleys from the summit crater.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) estimated on January 27 that the total volume of material deposited from ash fall and pyroclastic flows amounted to 10.5 million cubic metres. Remobilisation of this loose volcanic material by rainfall to form volcanic mudflows is a major concern.
According to news articles, more than 75,000 people have been evacuated, along with the temporary closure of Legazpi airport around 15km away.
Kadovar, Papua New Guinea
Until January 2018, when it began erupting, I hadn’t heard of Kadovar. It’s a 2km-wide, 365m-high emergent summit of a stratovolcano off the coast of Papua New Guinea.
The volcano had no confirmed historic eruptions before 2018. However, it is possible that William Dampier, a 17th-century pirate and later maritime adventurer, witnessed an eruption at Kadovar during a voyage in search of Terra Australis.
Activity began on January 5, 2018, with rising plumes of ash and steam from the volcano. The island’s inhabitants, some literally living on the crater rim, began evacuating at that time. People were initially taken by boat to neighbouring Blup Blup island but then to the mainland along with other nearby islanders, due to the close proximity of the eruption and logistics of providing people with supplies.
The Rabaul Volcano Observatory reported that activity significantly escalated on January 12, with a large explosive eruption and volcanic rocks ejected to the south. Large amounts of sulfur dioxide have been detected since January 8, and continue to be released along with ash and steam plumes. A lava “dome” has been observed glowing at night.
The impact from the eruption is not just confined to those on Kadovar and nearby islands, with satellite imagery tracking an ash plume from Kadovar travelling over tens of kilometres.
On January 23, 2018, an eruption occurred at Kusatsu-Shirane volcano without any prior warning, catching Japan’s Meteorological Agency and volcanic experts, not to mention the skiers on the volcano, by surprise.
The ejected volcanic rocks, which landed up to 1km away from the vent, injured several people. A member of the Ground Self-Defence Force who was skiing in a training exercise was killed.
The Japan Meteorological Agency has since analysed the deposits of the eruption and state that there was no new magma erupted on January 23.
Japan has more than 100 active volcanoes, with many monitored 24/7 by Japan’s Meteorological Agency.
Living near volcanoes
Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan have the greatest numbers of people living within 100km of their volcanoes. The populations of small volcanic island nations, such as Tonga and Samoa, almost all live within 100km.
Indonesia has the greatest total population located within 10km (more than 8.6 million), 30km (more than 68 million) and 100km (more than 179 million), and a record of some of the most deadly volcanic eruptions in history.
The eruption of Tambora in 1812-15, was the largest eruption in the last 10,000 years and killed around 100,000 Indonesians (due to the eruption and the ensuing famine). The infamous eruption of Krakatau (Krakatoa) killed an estimated 35,000 people, almost all due to volcanic-generated tsunamis. Volcanic mudflows (lahars) generated by the eruptions of 1586 and 1919 at Kelut (Kelud) in Java took the lives of 10,000 and 5,000 people, respectively.
Keeping watch on the world’s volcanoes is a big job for the local volcanic agencies. This is particularly true when volcanoes erupt for the first time in history (Kadovar is a good example) or there were no warning signals before eruption, as at Kusatsu-Shirane.
Antarctica is a vast icy wasteland covered by the world’s largest ice sheet. This ice sheet contains about 90% of fresh water on the planet. It acts as a massive heat sink and its meltwater drives the world’s oceanic circulation. Its existence is therefore a fundamental part of Earth’s climate.
Less well known is that Antarctica is also host to several active volcanoes, part of a huge “volcanic province” which extends for thousands of kilometres along the western edge of the continent. Although the volcanic province has been known and studied for decades, about 100 “new” volcanoes were recently discovered beneath the ice by scientists who used satellite data and ice-penetrating radar to search for hidden peaks.
These sub-ice volcanoes may be dormant. But what would happen if Antarctica’s volcanoes awoke?
We can get some idea by looking to the past. One of Antarctica’s volcanoes, Mount Takahe, is found close to the remote centre of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. In a new study, scientists implicate Takahe in a series of eruptions rich in ozone-consuming halogens that occurred about 18,000 years ago. These eruptions, they claim, triggered an ancient ozone hole, warmed the southern hemisphere which caused glaciers to melt, and helped bring the last ice age to a close.
This sort of environmental impact is unusual. For it to happen again would require a series of eruptions, similarly enriched in halogens, from one or more volcanoes that are currently exposed above the ice. Such a scenario is unlikely although, as the Takahe study shows, not impossible. More likely is that one or more of the many subglacial volcanoes, some of which are known to be active, will erupt at some unknown time in the future.
Eruptions below the ice
Because of the enormous thickness of overlying ice, it is unlikely that volcanic gases would make it into the atmosphere. So an eruption wouldn’t have an impact like that postulated for Takahe. However, the volcanoes would melt huge caverns in the base of the ice and create enormous quantities of meltwater. Because the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is wet rather than frozen to its bed – imagine an ice cube on a kitchen work top – the meltwater would act as a lubricant and could cause the overlying ice to slip and move more rapidly. These volcanoes can also stabilise the ice, however, as they give it something to grip onto – imagine that same ice cube snagging onto a lump-shaped object.
In any case, the volume of water that would be generated by even a large volcano is a pinprick compared with the volume of overlying ice. So a single eruption won’t have much effect on the ice flow. What would make a big difference, is if several volcanoes erupt close to or beneath any of West Antarctica’s prominent “ice streams”.
Ice streams are rivers of ice that flow much faster than their surroundings. They are the zones along which most of the ice in Antarctica is delivered to the ocean, and therefore fluctuations in their speed can affect the sea level. If the additional “lubricant” provided by multiple volcanic eruptions was channelled beneath ice streams, the subsequent rapid flow may dump unusual amounts of West Antarctica’s thick interior ice into the ocean, causing sea levels to rise.
Under-ice volcanoes are probably what triggered rapid flow of ancient ice streams into the vast Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica’s largest ice shelf. Something similar might have occurred about 2,000 years ago with a small volcano in the Hudson Mountains that lie underneath the West Antarctica Ice Sheet – if it erupted again today it could cause the nearby Pine Island Glacier to speed up.
The volcano–ice melt feedback loop
Most dramatically of all, a large series of eruptions could destabilise many more subglacial volcanoes. As volcanoes cool and crystallise, their magma chambers become pressurised and all that prevents the volcanic gases from escaping violently in an eruption is the weight of overlying rock or, in this case, several kilometres of ice. As that ice becomes much thinner, the pressure reduction may trigger eruptions. More eruptions and ice melting would mean even more meltwater being channelled under the ice streams.
Potentially a runaway effect may take place, with the thinning ice triggering more and more eruptions. Something similar occurred in Iceland, which saw an increase in volcanic eruptions when glaciers began to recede at the end of the last ice age.
So it seems the greatest threat from Antarctica’s many volcanoes will be if several erupt within a few decades of each other. If those volcanoes have already grown above the ice and their gases were rich in halogens then enhanced warming and rapid deglaciation may result. But eruptions probably need to take place repeatedly over many tens to hundreds of years to have a climatic impact.
More likely is the generation of large quantities of meltwater during subglacial eruptions that might lubricate West Antarctica’s ice streams. The eruption of even a single volcano situated strategically close to any of Antarctica’s ice streams can cause significant amounts of ice to be swept into the sea. However, the resulting thinning of the inland ice is also likely to trigger further subglacial eruptions generating meltwater over a wider area and potentially causing a runaway effect on ice flow.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Since 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.