Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Talking Volcanoes and Hazards

Volcanoes in Hawaii, Guatemala: Faculty Q&A

More than 100 people were killed and nearly 200 remain missing after the violent eruption of Guatemala’s Fuego volcano June 3. Meanwhile, lava has destroyed more than 600 homes on Hawaii’s Big Island since early May in the latest eruption of the Kilauea volcano.

University of Michigan geologist Ben van der Pluijm, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and editor-in-chief of the journal Earth’s Future, examines the impacts of natural hazards on human society. He discussed the two recent volcanic eruptions.

What are the main differences between the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii and the Guatemala’s Fuego volcano?

Hawaii’s volcanoes, like Kilauea, are caused by heat in the Earth’s mantle rising to the surface in a column called a plume. Hawaiian volcanoes mostly produce slow-moving, gooey lava, creating a broad, low-topography structure called a shield volcano. The biggest hazard from these volcanoes is unstoppable magma flow, and the latest Kilauea eruption has already destroyed many hundreds of houses. But because the lava moves slowly and can be outpaced, these events typically cause no loss of life or major injuries.

Explosive volcanoes like Guatemala’s Fuego have a very different origin from Hawaii’s. They are related to plate-boundary tectonic processes that produce a stickier magma in the outer layers of Earth. Greater magma stickiness resists buildup pressure from below until it releases in a sudden, explosive manner. These eruptions are quick and large, and they often produce deadly clouds of hot ash, lava, rock and gas that roll downslope at great speed: a hot pyroclastic flow. This is the primary source of the great loss of life in Guatemala, much like Pompeii from the Vesuvius eruption in the first century.

What can we expect from these two volcanoes in the coming weeks and months?

Kilauea has been erupting for more than a month and may be reaching the end of its current cycle. Another eruption cycle will eventually follow, however, because the driver for magma generation persists, and the volcano has been regularly erupting for decades.

Fuego released most of its energy in the early eruption, so it may become quiet. As elsewhere, however, the volcanism won’t stop. It simply takes a hiatus. Other volcanoes in the region may similarly erupt at some point, since the underlying magma-generating process—melting from convergent plate tectonics—continues unabated.

The voluminous ash and rock deposits that are left behind after a Fuego-style explosion are often unstable on steep mountain slopes, especially when rain wets the material. These deposits can wash downslope as dense, debris-rich, destructive flows known as cold mudflows. These flows can destroy houses and agricultural land, covering the area with mud and rocks.

How common are volcanic eruptions globally?

Worldwide, several dozen volcanoes are erupting at any given time. Several hundred volcanoes around the globe, including more than 160 in the United States, are considered active, meaning that they have erupted in historic time. The Kilauea and Fuego eruptions are therefore not at all unusual or unexpected, except they have greater impacts on nearby human settlements than other active volcanoes around the world.

What technologies are used to forecast volcanic eruptions?

Many volcanoes show seismic activity as pressure builds and magma starts to move around. We measure this seismic signal with local seismometers stationed near and on the volcano. Another gauge of possible eruptive activity is the use of surface tilt meters that measure ground deformation from inflation of the volcano in response to moving magma. Also, remote sensing and satellites are increasingly employed to monitor changes around active volcanoes.

Thus, volcanoes can offer some precursor activity, but uncertainty toward full eruption remains too large for reliable societal prediction, and the warning period before an eruption can be short. Instead, people living near active volcanoes need to be informed and prepared because those volcanoes will, eventually, become active again.

What is the connection between the Kilauea eruption and the earthquakes that have been occurring there for more than a month now?

The generation and movement of magma beneath Kilauea creates pressure changes in the subsurface that generate earthquakes from rock fracturing. And inside Kilauea’s volcanic depression, which is called a caldera, earthquakes occur when magma pressure is released by rock collapse and fracturing, and by venting at the surface.

During its latest eruption, Kilauea has displayed a remarkable pattern of repeated earthquakes of magnitude 5 or greater, equivalent to the explosion of 500 tons of TNT. These events are often associated with ash eruption, following a one- to two-day pressure buildup. This seismic activity will eventually subside.

Ben van der Pluijm posts about geohazards and societal impacts on Twitter as @vdpluijm. A selection of Kilauea Twitter posts are archived at

June 2018; from Michigan News,

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Kilauea 2018 eruption

UM News&Information

May 4
Hundreds of small and a few larger earthquakes have occurred in the past week—including a magnitude-5 on May 3—indicating that magma in the Kilauea volcano is on the move. Several surface fissures with magma fountains have already formed, and evacuation planning is under way for thousands of residents.

This type of eruption is less dangerous to human life than stratovolcanoes like Mount St. Helens and Mount Pinatubo, which are characterized by explosive volcanism and large ash clouds that reach into the stratosphere,” van der Pluijm said. “Hawaiian volcanoes are characterized by red-hot magma that bubbles and flows, and minor explosive activity. However, flowing hot lava destroys everything in its path. The Big Island is the most recent expression of millions of years of volcanism along the Hawaiian chain.

May 9
Kilauea has been continuously erupting for more than 35 years. Though this recent activity is a more active episode, it is not otherwise unusual. With about 100 acres covered by new lava flows, this latest Kilauea flare-up produced less than 1 cubic kilometer (about 0.2 cubic mile) of eruptive volume so far, which is a modest amount in the volcano's history. 

More than 1,000 shallow earthquakes reflect recent deep magma movement, fissures and subsurface displacements, including two larger quakes that rocked the area in the past week. These displacements have resulted in about 2 feet of seaward, southeast-directed movement of the volcano's south flank. Potential instability of Kilauea's south flank adds a Pacific tsunami hazard risk if land collapses into the sea.

May 17
Any danger is limited to the easternmost part of the Big Island. These types of eruptions are not that violent, except the potential of occasional steam-driven explosions that throw ash and rocks around in a small area. Better to keep some distance, and evacuate, regardless,” he said.

Fissure eruptions and slowly flowing lava are characteristic for the Big Island geology, with explosivity less common but recorded in prior eruptive events in the area as well. The origin of explosions is not the magma type, but heated water, somewhat analogous to a Yellowstone geyser.

Twitter (@vdpluijm)

May 1
Collapse of crater floor on #Kilauea Volcano’s East Rift Zone prompts increase in #seismic activity.  More lava coming? #Hawaii #volcano #geology

May 4

M6.9 was 7000 km away and my home shook 11 min later (well, my basement seismometer felt it). @raspishake #earthquake

May 9
The other source of explosive volcanism, driven by magma submersion below groundwater table, not (silicic) composition of the magma.  Dangerous as well. 
This diagram shows how explosive eruptions occur at Kilauea: 1) lava column drops below the water table; 2) groundwater comes in contact with magma or hot rocks, 3) the flash boiling of water causes violent steam explosions.
This diagram shows how explosive eruptions occur at Kilauea: 1) lava column drops below the water table; 2) groundwater comes in contact with magma or hot rocks, 3) the flash boiling of water causes violent steam explosions.

May 12
Nicely illustrated summary of 2018 #Kilauea eruption event thus far, and its impact. More lava (and ash?) may be ahead.  #Resilience #geohazard  -- ‘Shell-Shocked’ in #Hawaii: How Lava Overran a Neighborhood

May 14
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center created an animation of recent earthquake and volcano activity at Hawaii's KÄ«lauea Volcano, from April 21 to May 13, 2018. Thousands of small (<M3) and a few larger earthquakes, in addition to multiple fissure eruptions. Kilauea is not likely done, with more honey-like lava (effusive eruption) ahead and perhaps some steam-powered explosivity (phreatic eruption). #hawaii #geohazards --

May 17
May 14 Landsat image of Kilauea eruption region (+ some clouds).  Red marks active vents; recent flows gray; forest green; houses white.  Notice formally bubbling Pu’u ’O’o vent is now drained and a steady plume at Kilauea.

May 24
Lighter touch: The importance of Hawaii lava flows.
June 3
Whereas media coverage of #KilaueaEruption has waned, volcanism has not.  Several M5+ quakes and many smaller mark recent magmatic activity in crater region ("poolball").  

See @NOAA #earthquake animation through May 31: 

June 7&8
Just like significant tectonic plate boundary earthquakes have recurrence intervals (decades to centuries), so seemingly do volcanic earthquakes.  Kilauea's are 1-2 days leading to M5+. M5 is equivalent to ~500 ton #TNT explosion.
... June's fifth M5+ #earthquake in #Kilauea caldera, like clockwork.  Growing foreshock pattern is distinct from tectonic quakes that are characterized by aftershocks. Depth-magnitude-time plot (from VolcanoDiscovery):

June 11
Is Kilauea the new and bigger "Old Faithful"? No exactly, but steady daily recurrence of M5+ earthquakes and venting continues.  Persistent absence of M4-5 quakes in caldera is a head scratcher (see plot), but may represent different processes in the volcano. 

Thursday, February 01, 2018

A Meteor in Michigan: Some Seismicity and Some Geometry

On January 16, a little after 8:08pm local time, a bright flash lighted the sky, and by some, even a bang was heard.  An object, a meteor, that earlier had entered our atmosphere became so heated by air friction that it exploded.  Some have reported surface recovery of small fragments of the object near the explosion.

Have a look at videos of the object and its explosion flash here: (from MLive).

The explosion was recorded by several seismic stations in the region, with the AAM station of Ann Arbor showing a remarkably clean signal (below). The USGS calculated the magnitude as M2 based on groundshaking, but the source is very different from earthquake-generating fault motion in the solid Earth. Let’s use some basic geometry to learn a bit more about the event.

Observations place the flash about 30km north from the Ann Arbor-AAM seismic station.  The energy of the flash reached the AAM station at 8:10:15pm local time, meaning that ~100 seconds had passed since the reported 8:08:33pm time of the flash [best time estimate from posted videos].   This allows us to test whether the energy passed through the atmosphere or the solid Earth, or a combination.  Compressive (P) waves travel about 340m/sec in the lower atmosphere, while P ground waves travel ~5000m/sec in the rocks of Michigan.

Air waves
If the energy source is an explosion in air, than 100sec x 340m/sec gives a distance to the explosion of 34km.  With a horizontal distance of 30km, trigonometry gives an elevation for the explosion of ~16km above the surface.  The slow speed of the object indicates that it was already deep into our atmosphere, so this elevation seems reasonable.

Ground waves
If the energy is from impact of the object, then ~50km distance of the projected impact point to the AAM station at solid Earth wave speeds, means that the energy would have reached the station in ~10 seconds.  This short time neither matches the timing of events, nor observation of scattered meteorite pieces before the projected impact point.

Air and ground waves
If the energy was transferred by waves traveling from the surface location to the AAM station, the travel time would have been 30,000m ÷ 5000m/s, is 6 seconds.  Thus the soundwave in the atmosphere would have traveled ~95 seconds from explosion to surface, meaning an elevation of 95sec x 340m/sec, is 32 km.  Twice that of the sound waves through air only scenario above, and a little high.

Looking at the lower WNW trajectory of the meteor, the angle was estimated at 30o from the projected surface intersection of its path, which is about 30 km from the explosion.  Using trigonometry, this means that the explosion occurred at an elevation of ~17km.  This estimate matches the first, air-only calculation of elevation very well, but not the calculation involving solid Earth groundwaves.

We learn from the Ann Arbor seismic record and reported timing of events that regional shaking associated with the exploding MI meteor is from the pressure of sound waves passing through air.  This pressure was enough to shake buildings and be heard locally, and move the ground surface over several 10s of km.  The exploding object did not significantly pass groundwaves through solid Earth, nor was physical impact of the object a source of energy.  Given the USGS M2 equivalence of groundshaking, we also can try to estimate the surface expression of the explosion at ~16km elevation.  Whereas an M2 earthquake is equivalent to exploding several tens of kg of TNT in solid material, a real calculation of the explosive power at elevation in the atmosphere is beyond my abilities.

So, a seismic station, citizen observations and basic trigonometry illuminate some details of a January 16 exploding meteor over Michigan that mesmerized local scientists and the public alike.

Thanks to my office colleagues Eric Hetland, Yihe Huang and Jeroen Ritsema for fun conversations.

Follow Ben van der Pluijm on Twitter: @vdpluijm

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Weather or Not

We just learned that the year 2017 is the 3rd warmest year since modern recordkeeping of global temperatures.  It is not a “winner” year, so not really considered newsworthy after 2016’s record breaking.  However, 2017’s bronze medal finish masks the important observation that the four warmest years so far have all occurred in the decade that started in 2010 (see figure).  The decade before, 2000-2009 is the current record holder, which will undoubtedly be eclipsed by 2010-2019.  Such decadal trends are much better indicators of climate change than yearly or seasonal records  and, especially, weather.  

Annual temperature anomalies through 2017 relative to 20th Century temperatures. 
Credit: NOAA,

Cataloguing 2017 as the 3rd warmest year for the US seems to contrast with personal weather experiences.  Since December the US northeast has been battling bitter winter conditions, with very low temperatures and considerable snowfall.  Where is the warming, as President Trump tweeted at the end of the year?  Weather is the expression of short term, local condition of the atmosphere, or the “here-and-now”.  While weather is ultimately linked to climate, it only does so over long time period, not the current conditions, or the “now”.  Also, weather patterns are local, so one person’s cold snap experience is matched by another’s unusual heat, the “here” of weather. 

Confusing weather and climate also arose during 2017’s late summer hurricanes that battered the southern US and the Caribbean (notably Harvey, Irma and Maria).  Researchers, media and tastemakers alike were eager to blame global warming for the unusual and costly occurrence of several major storms in 2017.  But the evidence is again more complicated, as we also have had low storm cycles in recent, otherwise warm years.  Maybe next year we have another lull in storm activity, which no more characterizes climate warming, as high storm activity in 2017.  We know that, as the atmosphere and the ocean warm, more energy is available for the build-up of major storms.  But warming is a gradual and slow process.  Only as the 21st Century progresses do we expect to see more and/or stronger storms, but sequential years have little change on average.  A year without major storms, just like a cold period, is no more evidence for climate stabilization or cooling, than a year with great storm activity is evidence for climate warming.  This eagerness to conflate weather with climate in support of one’s favored argument feeds today’s contentious discussion, while clouding the urgency to address the impacts of a changing climate on regional and global scales.

Whether 2017 is a cooler year than 2016 and 2015, whether it is characterized by a cold spell, or by major storm activity must not affect the need to address the slow atmospheric, ocean and land warming that is taking place around the world.  The impacts of warming will be significant, if not calamitous for the unprepared, especially the less-developed equatorial nations and the poor of the world.  Reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as proposed by the 2016 Paris Accord, provide an admirable step in the right direction, but is not enough to stop or even slow gradual warming.  To achieve that, more aggressive emission reductions are needed, as a recent UN report showed (the 2017 Emissions Gap Report,, or through climate intervention.  The latter, more ominously called geo-engineering, aims to address the symptoms and roots of warming through solar radiation management of GHG removal, respectively.  Given that human society has been engineering climate through GHG addition since the mid-19th Century industrial revolution, perhaps climate retro-engineering is a more appropriate descriptor.  While weather is good watercooler conversation, it is not a good proxy for the climate change debate.  Whether or not the bronze medal for 2017 warming will become a gold medal for 2018, warming is underway, and we should aggressively deal with it, better sooner than later.

[Follow Ben van der Pluijm on Twitter: @vdpluijm]