I always knew that volcanoes could bring our civilization to its knees, if not destroy it completely. There are a few global challenges for humanity, and the ancient Roman god of fire is undoubtedly one of them. I said volcano, and you have probably imagined a cone-shaped mountain, erupting fire and ash, right? And most of them obey that description – old, solid, grumpy and, on occasion, making some trouble for local settlements. You might even witness one during your travels across seas and continents. Of course, a selfie with an erupting volcano is something special! You can’t hold it. As well as those overheated gases, that were relieved from inside pressure to spread at a near-sonic speed cremating every living creature on their way. Hope you’ve been streaming to your cloud!
But let’s take a minute for a serious discussion. Is it something worth worrying about? Frankly, most of us have only seen a live volcano on a screen. And look, the majority of them are located on the edges of tectonic plates and will only be a problem for island and coastal people, right?
Well, no. Even if you’re living thousands of miles away from the shore, you will still be affected. All that chunk of GDP being raised on the coastal shelf will shrink dramatically, and people will need places to go. For our awareness, United States Geological Service has just listed these 18 North American volcanoes as “very high” risk:
Credit to USGS, once again
That’s quite a lot of red. But all of those have been behaving considerably quiet lately, so why should anything change? Fortunately, global natural disasters did not occur long enough and memories of their terrors faded. Unfortunately, natural processes are cyclic, and new massive cataclysms are inevitable. Remember the funnily named volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, shaking Iceland in 2010? Back then it could even have a positive effect on the environment, considering it only produced about 40% of CO2, compared to the part of European air traffic that had to be halted. It was a big deal for the affected countries, not used to much transport delays. These local troubles were just a TV report for the rest of the world.
The game changes radically if an eruption is big and long enough to cause global effects. A persistent dust cloud over a continent or two will create a massive climate change, followed by acid rains and unprecedented refugee waves. Food shortages will become an immediate threat as well as diseases spreading throughout the affected population of humans and animals alike. If we consider the worst case scenario, we might look back to the great Permian Extinction, which was caused by massive eruptions in Siberia about 250 million years ago and led to unparalleled extinction. Few animals bigger than cats survived it. Many millions of years later some other civilization may rise on our bones if we can’t find a way to prevent the great dying of our own. To do so, let’s take a closer look at the tectonic dragon and its heads.
Danger factors of volcanic activity:
Lava. Maybe the most feared and recognized, but quite easily avoidable factor. I mean, you can see it coming, bursting from the top and some side channels, usually predicted by the upcoming smoke. Though a liquid enough lava stream on a steep enough hill can become a racing challenge. Especially with a bonus of melting icecap rushing down. If you see those molten springs, you have probably come too close. Back up a little.
From a definition of lava, being a magmatic substance, which has lost most of the dissolved gases to a much thinner atmospheric pressure, we get our second and much more insidious danger factor – pyroclastic waves, – extremely heated gases, which can boil running water on contact. Spoiler: you mostly consist of water and will boil too. Respect the fire god. Keep your distance.
Ash, ash, ash, IT’S EVERYWHERE!
Well, it’s not ash at all, in spite of being called that way. Forget the soft, dissolving fire or cigarette ash. This one mainly consists of tiny pieces of molten rock, solidified in the atmosphere. Small and light particles, but solid and very abrasive. Cover your breathing hole, take your belongings and leave.
Dust and ash, nasty enough on their own, with a prolonged eruption, become the ultimate villain, stealing our most precious resource – sunlight. Exhausting darkness killing off plants, ocean plankton, food, and eventually oxygen is not a glorious end for humanity. We’re all feeding on the sun. Indoor farms with lights and air filters may go a long way, considering you’ve got enough fuel. Enough canned sunlight. Most persistent might survive.
Tephra. Sometimes the cork is just too tight, and it’s easier to break the bottle. Incoming pressure may not find a quick enough way through the main entrance and burst a mountain open. During the process, rock sizes from shrapnel to twice as big as your car get enough kinetic energy to shame any modern weapon launchers. Again, the best protection is distance. Also, thankfully light is way faster than sound when you see something explode you usually have a second to fall to the ground and open your mouth as wide as you can. Meeting a shockwave while laying down is incommensurably better than otherwise. Also, those jaw bones covering your ear channels might save your hearing for the future evacuation routine.
Earth rumble. Infrasound is low-frequency sonic waves, indistinguishable by the human ear. Some animals seem to be more aware, becoming uneasy and trying to escape the place shortly before an eruption or an earthquake. Subjective reactions include stress, panic, and psychosis, all of which are debatably helpful in case of an emergency.
A discerning reader will notice, that most of the evading danger advice sums up to running away.
Well, these are basic rules that work for many hazards – minimize your exposure, maximize your distance (if possible evacuating perpendicular to the vector of danger factor), and use any screening (filters, walls, landscape) available. Most of your pets will instinctively try to do the same (maybe not the filter part), because evolution gave them legs and limbs, unlike those doomed plants. Retreat or adaptation, fight or flee – those were always the ultimate choices. But adapting to extreme heat and toxic gases might be a little hard if you’re not a bacterium. Thus, fleeing is usually the best option. And if it is not a civilization-ending event, your id, a smartphone and a toughly packed backpack for immediate needs are all you need. But what if it is? What if we run out of places to run to?
We’re living on a tiny solid layer of outer, crystallized rock!
The earth’s core drives inner convection, sending swirls of hotter matter up to the surface, where they cool down and become more viscous. Falling back towards the center, those whirls drag and pull on the solid crust, which breaks and trembles, causing tectonics and volcanic activity. Lithospheric plates crumble or dominate one another, producing so-called subduction.
Cracks and holes in the crust (called volcanoes) work as relief vents, letting some energy out. But that is not enough to ease up all the tension accumulating from traction and radiation decay inside, so once in a while, a huge eruption occurs. And that could be just overwhelmingly violent. In slower scenarios, there is a hot spot that melts crust in only one place and as a tectonic plate moves over it, and millions of years later you get Hawaii. That’s the fickle nature of our planet. We have to be fair. We are fortunate to be here at all. Look at Mars! Its most significant volcano remnant, Olympus, is a real monument of former tectonics. It is far more massive than any Earth volcano can grow, bounded by much less gravity.
You could imagine eruptions of cosmic scales, happening there in the past, probably strong enough to spit some material into space, towards other planets. And if there were any life on the red planet back then, it would be heavily compromised by that natural catastrophe. Now all of that violent past is long forgotten. For Mars, losing volcanic activity meant losing it all. Fading magnetism could not resist solar wind, which blew most of the atmosphere away, disrupting any possible ecosystems. That said, volcanoes indicate our planet is alive. Human life is too short on a geological scale, and more pressing needs are always there to occupy our attention.
But wouldn’t it be too ignorant to postpone global projects, when the scientific method provided us with a gift of awareness about dangers, lurking around? Volcanoes and asteroids are real, and we’re smarter than dinosaurs. We don’t have to be afraid, but we should be prepared. And pushing forward. In the future, we might use volcanoes to extract precious minerals from within and enjoy provided free heat, releasing enough to control eruptions and earthquakes. There is a big sun above us, and a little one beneath us. Both offer free “green” energy. Shouldn’t we try our best to use them both, for our practical needs? Especially, considering the bonus of building up a scientific base to shield us from their occasional activity pikes.
Preparation. Protection. Evacuation.
A natural disaster occurred, breaking your normal way of life. As trivial as it sounds, the first priority is to cease panic and get information. Emergency info will be hard to get, shouting from every toaster, thanks for long waves of radio and tv signals, unbothered by ash. But digital help might be all you’re getting.
Police, medics, firefighters, national guard, and other emergency response teams are overwhelmed, trying to save critical infrastructure and industries. From now on, at least for some time, you’re on your own. You will have to procure water and food sources while securing the most essential resources – breathing air and social parity. Now, when you’ve got all your closest ones around you and have notified your neighbors, there is a choice to be made. A choice between two basic strategies – the ultimate “fight or flee” dilemma.
Organized evacuation means that government function’s sustained and best minds are working to solve the problem. They will try to help you, but they can’t be aware of your local conditions and as much as you should trust local authorities and try to cooperate, nobody will make a better decision in your situation than yourself.
If you decide to go, remember the following:
Your vehicle consumes a lot of air and its filters will get clogged fast. Actually, it only makes sense to use a car with an internal combustion engine if you’re not hit by an ash cloud yet and have a head start to rush for safety. In that case, having extra air/ac filters might be a good idea, even if you don’t know how to change it by yourself. On the other hand, if your evacuation routes are already compromised by ash, using a vehicle is not an option – it will fail fast, and you will get stuck on the road or at some other place, far less hospitable than your home. Even if your car will endure, there will be many others that won’t, blocking all transport arteries. Thus, if there is no immediate threat to your household, making it more protected and securing inside could be optimal.
A family or a small group can distribute roles for better organization. Having distinct duties helps save time and nerves and makes younger members less likely to panic. A kid with a smartphone (or a smart kid with a regular phone) can become a valuable scout, monitoring traffic through street web cams, checking with weather radar and latest news updates. Or look for the closest airport schedule, to reassure that all air traffic is canceled. Even if the internet is down, offline maps and GPS navigation should still be available. Other duties may include being in charge of medical supplies, tools, fuels, provision, etc.
Your food supply must include all three basic nutrients – protein, fats, and hydrocarbons. Generally, canned meat and fish, a bag of rice and some oil is a good start. Take a pack of baking soda, just to have something to deal with raising the acidity of water sources due to acid rains. And yes, don’t forget your hat for the same reason.
Author Bio: Tagir Kabirov is a professor at The University of Ufa in Russia. He teaches science and disaster preparedness.