Science can be defined as the means by which future events are correctly predicted. But as powerful as is the logic required to understand the workings of such a hyper-complicated machine as nature, another primal facet of the universe — chaos — makes definite knowledge often unattainable. Earth scientists, for example, while issuing tornado warnings in the Midwest and broadcasting probabilistic tracks for hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, have no such surety yet concerning seismic and/or volcanic eruptions.
The near-future will doubtlessly see that change. Even now volcanologists utilize tilt meters, strainmeters, VLF (very long frequency) surveying receivers and other sensitive equipment to measure deformations and lava pressure, very often alerting the public as colossal energies build under volcanoes just prior to erupting.
Here are seven such dangerous volcanoes, capable of first-rate eruptions and threatening sizeable human habitation, ecosystems, and/or human heritage sites, and being carefully monitored by earth scientists.
Mt. Rainier, USA
Seattle/Tacoma’s postcards often feature the metropolitan skyline against the backdrop of Mt. Rainier. However, roughly every five hundred years Mt. Rainier unleashes something no sightseer would ever care to take in: unstoppable mudflows cascading down the slopes of Washington’s tallest mountain. Lahars are volcanic slurries of pyroclastic material, moving as fast as 25 mph; many dozens have rolled down the slopes of Mt. Rainier in the last 10,000 years — the last one, the Electron Mudflow — occurring 500 years ago. The next one could very well bury great portions of Auburn, Puyallup, and Tacoma.
Cumbre Vieja, Canary Islands
There is a spirited scientific debate being waged regarding a zone of fracturing along the west coast of La Palma Island, home to Cumbre Vieja, a volcano that lacks a central vent and instead follows a ridge along the summit. Should the next eruption cause the western flank of the island to drop catastrophically into the Atlantic Ocean — half of the island has been removed in just this way already over the last million years — some envision a chunk of rock measuring perhaps hundreds of cubic kilometers splashing into the sea. Such an event would create tsunamis inundating the East Coast of the United States. The overall threat, however, is disputed.
Ol Doinyo Lengai, Tanzania
Sensors around the “Mountain of God” in Africa since 2016 have been indicating that this volcano is probably going to erupt, and soon. The lava extruded from Ol Doinyo Langai is rich in carbonatite, making it fluid and fast-moving; a human would be unable to outrun the flow. Fortunately, the nearest sizeable city, Arusha, is seventy miles away. However, there are Maasai villages surrounding the mountain, as well as paleoanthropological sites nearby with age-old hominid and Homo sapiens footprints preserved in the hardened volcanic ash of previous eruptions.
Yellowstone Caldera, USA
The Yellowstone Caldera erupts every 600,000 to 800,000 years. The last event was some 640,000 years ago, so the supervolcano could explode tomorrow or perhaps not for more than another 100,000 years or more. It’s called a “supervolcano” for good reason, however. The last time it erupted some 240 cubic miles of material was ejected into the sky, the ash and debris burying much of North America. The threat Yellowstone poses is obviously epoch-changing.
Mt. Vesuvius, Italy
The 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius is without doubt one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in human history. It buried Pompey and Herculaneum. The suburbs of Naples now envelope Vesuvius, pushing up its very slopes. Volcanologists believe that the recent spate of eruptions — beginning in 1631 and concluding in 1944 (as Allied and Axis troops were battling for control of the Italian peninsula) — have brought the current cycle to a gratifying pause. With three million people surrounding Vesuvius’ base Italian civil and scientific authorities certainly hope as much.
Popocatépetl is one of the most active volcanoes on Earth — the site of fifteen major eruptions between 1519 and the present. Smoke has been billowing nonstop from its crater for the last quarter of a century. In the last twenty years tens of thousands have been evacuated from around its base and flights cancelled into Mexico City’s and Toluca’s airports due to the volcano’s violent disturbances. Popocatépetl’s location — equidistant between Mexico City and Puebla — its state of activity, and the large volumes of viscous and therefore explosive dacite lava it spews, make it one of the most dangerous volcanoes on the planet.
Mt. Merapi, Indonesia
Just months ago, June 1, 2018, Mt. Merapi erupted — twice — sending an ash plume up four miles high, closing airports, and causing authorities to create a “no entry” zone ringing the volcano. A quarter of a million people live within a radius of ten kilometers of Merapi; the last major eruption in 2010 killed 347 of them.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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