If you have kept up with the news in recent months, you are likely to have seen some striking images and videos of volcanic eruptions around the globe.
No one can deny that volcanic eruptions are an astonishing, yet terrifying, sight.
Despite a global effort from universities and research centres to monitor volcanoes, it can be an expensive task. There are around 1500 active volcanoes across the globe, but only around 100 volcano observatories. As seen in the recent eruptions in Iceland, near the town of Grindavik, monitoring efforts can mean the difference between life and death. Iceland’s sophisticated technology and preparedness for volcanic activity allowed them to ensure safe evacuation of the town weeks in advance of the first eruption event.
In comparison, the 2019 eruption of Whakaari (White Island, in New Zealand) left 22 people (many tourists) dead after poor management of monitoring data which indicated an eruption could have been imminent.
The volcanic island Nisyros, in Greece, offers another example of monitoring which leaves much to be desired. Though classed as an active volcano (a volcano or volcanic field that has erupted within the current geological epoch), the latest research and monitoring conducted on the island concluded in 2010. Though research did not state outright that the volcano posed an imminent threat to the islanders and surrounding populations on neighbouring Aegean islands, the authors highlighted that measures should be taken to ready the island in case an eruption did occur. This is encouraged in the conclusion of their publication, though seemingly monitoring has not taken place since their research concluded.
Why should I care about volcanoes if I don’t live near one?
Precious minerals and materials
The volcanic material that is brought to the surface by eruptions includes some of the most fertile soils on earth, with high rates of magnesium and potassium making them perfect for food production.
Metallic minerals such as copper, gold, silver, lead, and zinc are often created through volcanic processes. Once formed and cooled, some of these minerals can be found in the magma of extinct volcanoes. Other minerals (even diamonds!) are brought up to the earth’s surface through volcanic eruptions.
In other words, volcanoes bring many inaccessible and valuable materials from deep within the earth up to the surface. 1 point to volcanoes!
Not far beneath active volcanoes, there is often magma (molten rock that is found within the Earth) close to the earths’ surface. This can produce geothermal energy which large communities can rely on as a renewable energy source. For example, 85% of the total primary energy supply in Iceland is derived from renewable energy of which over 50% is from geothermal energy. There are approximately 372 500 (2021 population) people who live in Iceland, which is similar to the population of Newham, London.
Needless to say, these processes could provide an alternative renewable energy to wind, hydro, wave, and solar which all require specific climatic, environmental, or geographic conditions which communities may not be able to rely on. In some circumstances, geothermal energy has been determined to be a more promising way forward than putting more funding into other renewable developments. This has been recently discussed in Hungary where they are considering increasing their geothermal capacities to decrease their reliance on Russian energy.
Regardless of your proximity to volcanoes, many will agree that visiting them is a sight to behold. Though terrifying, volcano tourism is alive and well. “Lava chasers” have been on the rise over the past decade.
Most recently, tourists tried to flock to Iceland after the Sundhnukur eruptions in the Reykjanes Peninsula near Grindavik, Iceland.
If you paid attention to the news in 2010, you likely remember the dramatic impacts of the Eyjafjallajökull eruptions in Iceland. The eruption led to the closure of over 300 airports and a large area of airspace between 15 – 21 April 2010. Over 100 000 flights were cancelled which impacted around 7 million passengers. It also cost the industry around $1.7 billion USD.
Needless to say, being far away from these landmarks does not always remove you from their impacts and consequences.
Potential consequences of the climate crisis
Not so great news! Among the many problems the climate change will create, a potential increase in volcanic eruptions is another to add to the list.
Global temperature rise has not been determined to directly affect volcanic activity BUT it is attributable to changes in conditions which influence volcanic eruptions, such as shifts in rainfall patterns and glacial melt.
Climate change is often associated with shifts in rainfall patterns around the world and in geographic areas with chains of volcanoes. Changes in extreme rainfall events may lead to more regular volcanic activity as this has been discovered to be a trigger for volcanic eruptions. For example, extreme rainfall was observed before the 2018 rift eruption at Kilauea Volcano in Hawai’i. Rainfall could be influencing eruptions due to its ability to change pressures under the earth.
Another potential driver of increased volcanic activity is erosion and melting of ice caps which sit on top of volcanoes. Researchers at the University of Cambridge found that these two changes played a key role in the increase of volcanic activity at the end of the last ice age. Other research found that approximately 5, 500 – 4, 500 years ago, when the Earth’s climate cooled and glaciers expanded, there was a noticeable decrease in volcanic activity in Iceland. On shorter time scales, it has been observed that the Grímsvötn and Katla volcanoes in Iceland generally erupt during the summer period when their glaciers retreat.
Whilst volcanoes and their dramatic eruptions have been a mainstay of the media for the last few decades, there has been little discussion of how the climate crisis could impact them. But good news, there are some things you can do to bring more attention to this discussion!
- Read, support, and share the research outputs that academics have produced on this topic! Despite this area of study being important, funding and the reach of the work can always be improved upon.
- Check out the IVESPA database that is being endorsed by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI) Commission on Tephra Hazard Modelling and the Global Volcano Model.
- Be mesmerised by images published in the “2023: The Year in Volcanic Activity” article by The Atlantic.
- Check out the University of Bristol’s work to monitor volcanic activity using satellites
Featured image by Izabela Kraus via Unplash
*This article represents the ideas and thoughts of the author and is not representative of their other affiliations.