Volcanology

Volcanology is the field of geology dedicated to studying volcanoes. Pursuing a career as a volcanologist can mean global travel, an intimate understanding of lava, and being killed all in the name of science. Awesome.

These are just a few hazards in volcanology that can kill you, molten lava usually being the least hazardous. (Anything you can outpace at a leisurely stroll almost doesn't qualify as a hazard, and that's what most lava is like.)

Volcanologist, warning chopper pilot not to ditch him.

Just The Facts

  1. Volcanology is, well you know if you saw our graphic or read the intro, so we won't repeat it again.
  2. Vulcanology is the same thing. Despite sounding like the study of Spock and other Vulcans, it refers to the Roman god.
  3. If you want to know about earthquakes, a volcanologist might be able to answer your questions, but that could start another turf war with the seismologists,

Volcanology

Volcanology is a specific area of study in the broader field of geology which, as anyone who's ever seen The Shawshank Redemption knows, boils down to pressure and time. Geologists tend to have different meanings for words like "recent", "old", "fresh" and "ancient" among many others. A volcanologist might say something about the recent eruption of Vesuvius, in 1944 or mention the ancient eruption that gave us the Siberian Traps, 250 or so million years ago. Basically, stuff you think of as old would be called brand new. It's something we like to call Big Time.

Is that why volcanologists can lift heavy rocks with one arm?

No, the guy in the above photo is just using the force... of Photoshop. Kidding! This isn't a trick, it's pumice, which can best be described as soldified lava froth. It's really light and contains so much air, that pumice can float. Usually the bigger the pumice stone, the better it floats. However it won't remain bouyant forever, water seeps in to fill air spaces and eventually it will sink once enough water is absorbed. It's one of the nice things volcanoes give us.

So, why are there volcanoes on Earth?

That's exactly the kind of question volcanologists have been trying to answer since at least 79 AD. Well there weren't really any volcanologists back then either, but that's when the first good record of an eruption was recorded. That being the time Mt. Vesuvius buried Pompeii, Herculanium, and many rural villas in tephra.

Ok, but I want to know why they're here not when people started looking into it.

Well, in a word, heat. However we can't fully answer a question like that in one word. Suffice it to say that without enough heat way down deep in the Earth, volcanoes would cease erupting. Our hot core maintains most of the planet in a kind of gooey state that the crust actually floats on. The crust isn't one piece, rather it's many different chunks separated by cracks, called faults. Geologists call these "plates", as in plate tectonics, and where they border other plates, hot stuff from below is heading to the surface. This is what causes most, but not all, volcanoes.

Note: Active volcanoes, red dots, tend to show up near plate boundaries.

Hey, what's up with those dots in the middle of some plates, like Hawaii?

They're called hotspots and are also where you can find many of Earth's largest volcanoes. Largest in size and eruptive power. A hotspot is a place where especially hot material from the core, burns its way through the crust. Hawaii, the big island of the chain and also its namesake, is the largest volcano on Earth and is one of several this hotspot has made.

So, why should I give a shit about any of this?

We just think volcanoes and the people who study them are interesting, for different reasons. We really shouldn't have to point out why volcanoes are not boring, if non-nuclear megaton class explosions and molten lava fountains don't pique your curiosity, you're probably dead. Sorry.

Interesting

Interesting, for different reasons

That makes sense, so then how the hell does one spot make other volcanoes? Also I thought Mauna Kea was the biggest on Earth and one of several on the island, WTF?

Plate tectonics explains your question, the Pacific plate has been moving toward Japan for quite a while, in geologic time. Over millions of years a volcano is built until the crust moves away from the hotspot and becomes dormant. That's why there are many islands making up the entire Hawaiian chain, and why they get smaller the further they move from the hotspot. When eruptions stop, the ocean starts carrying away the dormant volcano bit by bit in a process called erosion. The whole island is one big volcano with several different vents. Mauna Kea is currently the tallest peak of the Hawaiian volcano.

So if the Earth's core cooled off, there would be no more volcanoes? Isn't that a good thing?

No, it would be an incredibly bad catastrophe. It would cause our planetary shield to collapse like a wet taco, expose our precious atmosphere to the solar wind, among other things.

Planetary shield? Solar wind? You can't have wind in space, there's no air!

Look we didn't name it, but the solar wind is made up of charged particles the Sun sends out in all directions. The spinning molten core of Earth generates a huge magnetic field, you know, the one a compass uses to point at north? This magnetic field is what keeps the solar wind from messing with our air.

Not Noth, North! North, Miss Teschmacher...

Shields up! And they always will be, until the core cools enough to solidify.

What makes the core so hot?

A combination of leftover heat from when the Earth formed and thermal energy from the decay of radioactive elements.

So, wait, does that mean lava is radioactive?

Not enough to worry about, lava can contain potassium which is slightly radioactive. Yes you read that correctly, the same shit you might eat bananas for is also measurably radioactive. Potassium samples contain a teeny-tiny bit of potassium-40 (40K). You actually can't live without potassium, so if you want to call lava radioactive then remember you are too. Radioactive lava isn't a concern, unless we're talking about corium, which we're not because volcanologists don't go where it can be found. Lava is much more dangerous for the intense heat and gases involved

Modern Volcanoes Studied by Volcanology

Parícutin

February 20, 1943 started like most days for a farmer in central Mexico named Dionisio Pulido. That was, until he noticed a strange fissure in his cornfield which had never happened before. It's hard for urbanites like ourselves to imagine what Pulido, a simple farmer, might have been thinking at this point. Seriously, what would you think if your yard suddenly sported a crack fifteen feet long, five feet deep and was just a little wider than your foot? Granted some of you don't have yards or alreadfy know about things like sinkholes. Perhaps Pulido thought the ground shrunk or someone was playing a joke on him, because he kept on working. Why let a crack stop your workday? It's not like he was getting an hourly rate, he had corn to grow.

Nothing out of the ordinary here.

When the crack started growing before his eyes, Pulido watched as a mound of dirt pushed itself up in front of him and split open. Associated with this was a hissing sound, itself accompanied by a distinct odor. More specifically, the kind a professional might emit from their ass several hours after a deviled egg eating contest, only on a planetary scale. It's not difficult to imagine two words suddenly popping into his mind: ¡El Diablo!

Pulido's farm was about to be repossesed, by the Earth and that crack he noticed was its way of saying "heads up!". At this point Pulido and his family were probably sure this was Satan coming up for a visit. but they were actually witnessing the birth of a volcano. They did the logical thing and ran to the nearest town, Parícutin. (Pronounced kinda like pah-rah-coo-teen, and we do stress the kinda.)

Within a week the crack had became a hill over 400 feet tall:

Pictured: The most dangerous one week old you'll ever see.

By the time five months had passed it was a full on mountain that looked like this:

Parícutin was the name of a village, until it was buried and had its name stolen by this volcano.

Essentially these people saw a volcano grow up in their back yard, faster than most trees. It was like nature said "Hey volcanology assholes! You've been blabbing about volcanoes since I buried Pompeii, wanna see one from start to finish? Come on down to Mexico, bitches!"

We should mention that Parícutin is a special kind of one hit wonder volcano called a cinder cone. They show up suddenly in a very attention getting manner and then erupt for a while before going dormant forever. Not unlike a drunken stranger, appearing at the library only to puke in the return bin before passing out for the last* time. For Parícutin that was sometime in 1952.

Mt. St. Helens

Do you think of yourself as observant? Hard for anyone to sneak anything past your keen sense of sight? You'd notice it if a local landmark started moving, or more specifically, began bulging like a pimple? Don't be so sure, people who'd lived decades around what was a picture of your stereotypical volcano didn't seem to find it odd that it went from this in 1979:

Note: Pointy top

It was called the "Fujiyama of America" because it was just as pointy looking as Mt. Fuji until it started bulging in March 1980. Eventually it looked like this on May 17, the day before it blew up:

Note: Not so pointy anymore

Though, to be fair, it was doing a lot of this kind of thing:

This is called a phreatic eruption which is mostly steam, every eruption prior to May 18 was one of these. They can be distracting.

Volcanologists noticed, they knew phreatic eruptions were like the opening act at a concert. While everyone enjoyed what they thought was the event, volcanologists worried so much that they put up reflectors to point various cameras and boxes at. This way they could tell how much the mountain was bulging in different locations. They watched as explosions and bulging continued into early May.

We give you a photo montage of volcanology in the field, circa March - May 1980:

Sure these guys are on an active volcano, but they got there in that chopper. Excellent!

Technical box on tri-pod, covered aluminum clipboard, saftey orange vest with yellow stripes and a cup of coffee. Volcanology ho!

Honcho 1:"Ok, we need a sample of that puddle inside the crater," Honcho 2: "The crater? Where it's been exploding recently? Nobody'll go for that." Honcho 1: "Send Johnston. He's the only one we have that does crazy shit like this. Make sure he wears a hardhat."

Honcho 1's brain: Wow, it looked so much smaller in the previous picture. At least he's got the hardhat I told him to take.

Here's the guy from those last two photos, David Johnston, volcanologist.

Earlier we mentioned that there was an actual chance of death involved with volcanology, that's because active volcanoes will usually give warning that an eruption is coming but not exactly when. Dave up there was absolutly sure Mt. St. Helens was gonna blow and he was pretty sure it was going to be a lateral blast kind of like what happened when Mont Pelée let go in 1902. He also knew the blast would most likely be heading in the direction which it had been bulging, which was pretty much in his general direction.

He didn't know that was going to be happening around 8:30 the next morning, otherwise he probably wouldn't have taken over for the guy who was supposed to be there. Then again, maybe Dave did know and just wanted to save Harry Glicken's life. Probably not, he would've had the entire area evacuated if he really did know what was gonna happen that morning.

So it was that David Johnston was on duty when the eruption kicked off with an earthquake. What caused it? Could've be any number of things, most likely magma moving underneath, but regardless it was enough to cause a huge landslide. Here's where we tell you what was causing the bulge, a cryptodome. Essentially a cryptodome is a ball of magma, underground. As the mountain crumbled the cryptodome was suddenly exposed to the atmosphere. You see this is a big deal because magma is just swimming in pressurized gas which is held in by millions of tons of rock. Take away the rock and it's like opening a soda you've spent a few minutes vigorously shaking, an explosion. Eight miles north of the volcano, Dave probably knew right away he was about to find out if anything happens after death, but kept it together enough to get a message out to the local volcanology headquarters in Vancouver:

"Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it..." are the last words we have to remember him by.

Not the "it" he meant...

He's now remembered as something of a hero among volcanologists, and indeed we have the pictures to prove volcanoes didn't scare him. What about the guy he saved, Glicken? Well, he took the last picture of Dave Johnston as well as the second photo in the comparison above. He went on to his own volcanology career and was killed by a pyroclastic flow from Mt. Unzen with two famous French volcanologists in 1991. We don't know what his last words were, we'd of said something like "Well we're fucked, how do you say that in French?"

And Mt. St. Helens? Oh it's still there, not nearly as pretty, but still ready to become active again anytime. The May 18 event was actually part of an eruption that went until like 1986, most of it was the extrusion of a new lava dome. Then in 2004, St. Helens began stirring again and another major eruption was feared. In 2009 it settled down again, but volcanologists are pretty sure St. Helens will be back.

Vesuvius

Earlier we mentioned Vesuvius a couple of times. so you probably knew we'd be detailing it here. As far as humanity goes, we've been watching this one for a very long time. If you've heard of this volcano, you most likely know all about Pompeii but probably don't know it wasn't the first town claimed by Vesuvius. We don't have the kind of records about eruptions before 79 AD, so we're not gonna be going into detail about the early victims, but it's important to know Pompeii eruption was a sequel.Of course the Pliny boys didn't know that, so when dark clouds started coming out of Vesuvius they were as stumped as our friend Pulido later would be when El Diablo went down to Mexico.

Right away we should point out that the Pliny boys weren't brothers, but an uncle and nephew known respectively as the elder and younger. Pliny the Elder (PE) commanded the Roman fleet at Misenum and was also a scholar of nature. He wrote an encyclopedia, which is a tad inaccurate by our standards today, but pretty good for a guy without the internet who also happened to live about 2000 years ago.

You know those law firm commercials about mesothelioma being caused by asbestos? Pliny the Younger (PY) pointed out that slaves used to mine the stuff tended to die much sooner than other slaves doing the same amount of work. He too was a scholar, but unlike Uncle Badass, was too much of a pussy to run toward an erupting volcano. This could actually be a good thing, since he wrote the account of what happened next.

Being the curious, brave guy he was, PE wanted to check this shit out. While everyone wanted to get away, he was ordering a boat to be readied for some straight up Captain Kirk exploration action, Roman style. Before he could, one of his neighbors showed up and asked PE to save his wife, who was at their other home at the base of Vesuvius. P to the ELD agreed, he'd explore and save his neighbor's wife by sailing toward, then walking to, an exploding mountain. PY was a tad more eloquent: He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone.

Besides being incredibly perceptive about what was happening and a wuss, PY also knew a danger zone when he saw one.

The wind certainly seemed to be cooperative, if not Vesuvius, because he had no problem getting to the area but couldn't find a place to dock his boat. Eventually he ended up at a place called Stabiae, where he found his friend Pomponianus waiting for the wind to blow out to sea so he could leave. Pomponianus is a long name to type, so from here on out he's gonna be called Anus, had packed his stuff on his boat and was ready to evacuate. PE, always being one to chill by example, asked to be carried to Anus' bathroom, so he could have a bath. Sounds like a good idea, once the volcano stops dusting you with ash, otherwise you'll need another one as soon as you leave the bathroom.

PE had his bath, then dinner with Anus before retiring to one of the guest rooms for the night. We know what you're thinking, a boat ride really isn't hard labor when it's your boat and you have slaves. That's not all he did that day though, PY said... "He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books." Naturally you can see how these activities could wear a guy out, everything else be damned.

Oh right, the volcano.

While PE was sawing logs, Vesuvius continued to rain down ash and pumice on poor Anus' house while he and everyone else sat up all night hoping they wouldn't die. We're not sure how we'd handle the surreal experience of being trapped in our house as it is slowly buried in volcanic debris, simply because some asshole friend of ours is crashed out in the guest room. Eventually PE woke up, perhaps stirred in his bed by the earthquakes or maybe roused by the smell of fresh pumice and ash. Regardless, Anus and PE's slaves were keen on getting the hell out of there, but PE himself knew that the rain of pumice outside was cause for concern. They tied pillows to their heads as a way to ward of errant stones and made for the beach.

Once there, PE decided it was time to lie down again. Kidding, he did lie down, but it was most likely because he was having a heart attack or something. He kept asking for cold water, but by this point we're guessing Anus and company had probably had enough of his "Ignore the volcano" bullshit. Indeed they left him there, on the beach, fear of a fiery death having driven them away. PY writes that they eventually found him on the beach where he fell, looking more asleep than dead, which he totally was. PY thought he'd been overcome by fumes from Vesuvius, but since he had time to bug Anus for water and none of the others were also killed, PE probably had his ticket punched by an internal malfunction.

So, now that we know Vesuvius has destroyed human settelments around it for more than two thousand years, you'd think we'd of learned not to build there.

Wrong!

Okay, so its now surrounded by millions of people and can be seen from almost anywhere in Naples, maybe it's extinct?

Wrong again. Note the date: 1944. In geologic time, that was like two months ago.

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*We didn't say whether this person became as extinct as Parícutin or not on purpose, it's kind of a personality test. If you assumed he died, you're a glass is half empty type of person and also sexist. A women can be a lush too ya know! A final alcohol induced blackout doesn't always mean death; Sometimes it means waking up to a nasty hangover, an angry librarian, and an empty wallet. Combined with an, at best, vague recollection of anything is enough to stop many from binge drinking to the point of blackout. Back?