Learned #11: Volcanic

Lava, Magma, and Pyroclastic Flows, Oh My!


Welcome to Learned, a resource for all of us who are trying to understand what makes volcanoes do what volcanoes do when volcanoes do what volcanoes do. In this issue:

  • What We’re Learning: What’s up with Mt. Kilauea’s ongoing eruption?

  • What We’re Reading: The Wave by Susan Casey

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Nine Things You Didn’t Know About Volcanoes!

Let’s get to it.

Photo by guille pozzi on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

This week, we're learning about volcanoes.

In recent weeks, my newsfeeds have been filled with news about the eruption of Mt. Kilealua in Hawaii (and Guatemala), which begs the question - why this eruption? In other words, volcanoes erupt every day. You can (or could, until recently) take tours to watch eruptions and magma flows at many volcanoes around the world. In fact, the Smithsonian Institute, which monitors volcanoes among its other projects, estimates that there are 45 active volcanoes erupting right now.

Volcanoes are always news. Here in Japan, recent eruptions have claimed lives, grounded flights, and destroyed property, which, without making light of the loss, is what volcanoes do.

(Since I began compiling the research for this post, Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala has also erupted, causing a large loss of life and property damage far beyond that of Mt. Kilealua’s. CNN.com has a list of ways you can help in the recovery.)

But the Mt. Kilealua eruption seems to have captured the zeitgeist beyond the usual. Why*?

Let's recap:

On May 4th, a new fissure opened on Hawaii's Mt. Kilealua causing a slow, but steady flow of magma to creep towards established housing divisions. Over the past month, the fissure has grown in size and several other fissures have opened nearby. The volcano has claimed at least 75 houses causing evacuations (some forcible), but, fortunately, no one has been killed (although one unfortunate man was hit by ejecta and had his leg shattered.) At present, the volcano is still erupting and has completely filled Kapoho Bay.

The eruption has renewed interest and worry and fear; as with all recent disasters, new technology is allowing us more and better access than ever before. Drone footage, cell phone footage, and satellite imagery give us an immediacy that is both incredibly useful for scientists and paranoia and anxiety inducing for the rest of us.

That said, here is a quick list of some of the best imagery from Hawaii:

But why is this volcano so special? Primarily it seems to be because of the implications for the future of Hawaii and its citizens. Not only have many homes have been destroyed, there is a fear that they may never be able to reclaim their homes, leaving them permanently displaced; the volcano does not seem to be slowing and some scientists fear that this could be an ongoing, more-or-less permanent eruption. Add in a smattering of the aforementioned general paranoia about natural forces we don't fully understand and can't control and now you have the zeitgeist's attention.

As always, there are far more think-pieces and interesting tidbits than I could stuff into a short article like this one, so here are a few of my favorites:

Any thoughts on this, or other, volcanoes? Let me know! @joeldneff

*The real answer, of course, is that I’m American and most of my news feed is in English, which means that there is a bias in the media served to me. In fact, researching this essay put me in mind of recent received wisdom - restore your RSS feeds and get your news directly from a variety of sources rather than rely on Google or Facebook’s algorithms to serve you. Time to take a serious look at that, I think.

What We’re Reading:

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

By Susan Casey

I knew the book was about surfing going into it; I came out with a much better appreciation for the sport, especially big wave riding, than I ever could have imagined.

Author Casey tries to get to the heart of whether rogue waves exist (they do), if they could be documented (yes), and if there is anyone dumb enough to try to ride them (again, yes). And don’t think any of my snark is a spoiler, she lays this all out in the first chapter and then spends the rest of the book making you understand why this is a big deal and why you ought to be paying more attention.

Honestly, this is one of my favorite pop-science / sports books and it really is worth a few hours of your time.


joeldavidneff.net | joeldavidneff at gmail | @smileytoad | @joeldneff | coffee

Down the Rabbit Hole:

Today, we're taking a bit of a different dive down the rabbit hole - there are so many odd facets of volcano lore and pop culture oddities that it seemed like the best way in was to retreat back to the good old, clickbaity-as-hell, top ten list. So, here we go:

Nine Things You Never Knew About Volcanoes:

  1. You might know Pele and Vulcan, but there are lots and lots of volcanic deities. Here in Japan, we’re partial to Fuji.

  2. Volcanoes have been the featured disaster in many, many films.

  3. There is a lot terminology in the science of volcanology. Like a really lot.

  4. Krakatoa. Refresh your memory on one of the most impactful and important volcanic eruptions in human memory.

  5. Volcanoes are not only an Earth phenomenon. They can be found all over the solar system.

  6. Next level your baking soda volcano.

  7. Volcanoes are a potent metaphor for sex! Who knew?

  8. Volcanoes are also a good excuse for Calypso!

  9. Finally, as a gentle PSA, let me remind you that there is no such thing as a "brain cloud."

Advice we're following:

Thanks, Chef.

That’s it. Stay strong. Stay healthy. Learn something.