In the Mediterranean sea off the coast of Sicily, there lies a small island that bears the name Vulcano. It is from this island that the word volcano originates. The ancient people who lived on or nearby the island viewed the great mountain on the island like a chimney. They saw this cone shaped structure which opened to the heavens and regularly puffed out “smoke”. A chimney of this size must come from a great fire, and so they concluded the chimney came from the forge of Vulcan, blacksmith of the gods. In his forge, Vulcan created lightning bolts for Zeus and great weapons of war for Mars, the god of war. As he worked, smoke would puff out from his chimney, to be seen by all who were nearby.
Fast forward to the modern day and give such a description of a mountain to someone, and you would expect them to say that such a mountain must be a volcano, but this knowledge did not exist for most ancient civilisations. Most peoples viewed volcanoes as agents of gods, and indeed, if a volcano were to erupt and wreck havoc on those living in the surrounding areas, then this was the wrath of the gods.
Throughout history, catastrophic volcanic eruptions have occurred erasing millions of lives. The winner of the volcano award for killing the most people goes to the 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia which saw the deaths of 92,000 people. Some lost their lives as a direct result of the eruption, whilst others died during the following year dubbed “the year without a summer” as a result of the climate change caused by the volcanic eruption.
When volcanoes erupt they emit a gaseous mixture of water vapour, CO2 and SO2. It is the SO2 that is responsible for the subsequent climate change as very small amounts of CO2 are released. Within the stratosphere, SO2 combines with water particles making sulfuric acid aerosols. This sulfuric acid reflects sunlight, decreasing the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth, causing cooler climates.
In 1973, the Pinatubo eruption released the largest SO2 cloud recorded in the atmosphere and it cooled the surface of the planet for three years, by as much as 1.3 degrees Celsius. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (try saying that five times as fast as you can) in Iceland in 2010 sparked fears of similar climate cooling. Eyjafjallajökull erupted below glacial ice and large amounts of volcanic ash were thrown into the upper atmosphere. The glacial ice caused the hot lava to cool down extremely quickly, becoming fragmented into silica and ash which the eruption carried up and threw into the atmosphere.
The eruption did not cause the climate change feared, but it did heavily impact air traffic. When the ash entered European airspace, large numbers of flights had to be cancelled, leaving tourists and travellers stranded all over Europe and the world. Not only does ash decrease visibility, it is of particular danger to jet aircraft. The small particles can melt inside jet engines and become stuck to the turbines, leaving the engines at risk of failure and making the aircraft liable to crash.
“The middle of January 2016 has been shaking with seismic activity along the Pacific Ring of Fire, causing Mount Egon in eastern Flores Island in Indonesia to rumble, spewing ash and gas into the air.”
Volcanic ash has impacts on land as well in the air. Ash fall is harmful to living things and heavy falls can kill off growing plant-life. Ash can contaminate waterways, harming dependent animals and destroying habitats for aquatic life.
On the east coast of Italy, a town lies perfectly preserved thanks to volcanic ash from Mt. Vesuvius. In 79 AD, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, spewing gas, rocks and ash 33 kilometres into the air and burying the town of Pompeii. Fine ash fell onto bodies and hardened to encase the bodies within a shell. The hardened ash preserved the body’s postures even as the soft tissues decayed, and thus the town’s fallen inhabitants were preserved in the positions of their death.
The middle of January 2016 has been shaking with seismic activity along the Pacific Ring of Fire, causing Mount Egon in eastern Flores Island, Indonesia to rumble, spewing ash and gas into the air. Mount Egon has the potential to be one of the top ten deadliest volcanoes in the event of a major eruption. 25 other volcanoes are to be found within a 600 kilometre radius of Mount Egon, and five have been erupting at the same time as Mount Egon.
Over 1200 people have been evacuated from their homes within a three kilometre radius of the volcano and gas marks have been issued to thousands more living on eastern Flores Island to protect them from the toxic gases coming from the volcano.
Volcanoes are a destructive force of nature, each with the potential to wipe out thousands of lives. Governments have emergency procedures in place in case of eruptions, and geologists are able to monitor seismic and volcanic activity to predict when volcanoes may be at risk of erupting. Better informed than peoples of the past, it’s nice to think that in modern times we can rely on science, rather than leaving our fate in the hands of the gods.