Science fiction could become real-life

Volcanic Mt Ruapehu in New Zealand – E. Jurus

Sci-fi and fantasy writers get to use our imaginations and inflict strange scenarios on the inhabitants of the worlds we create. After all, what’s an interesting story without some chaos or conflict? We might imagine distant planets that are constantly storm-tossed, or vast deserts strewn with enormous skeletons of unidentified beasts (like Tatooine in the Star Wars series of movies). Readers and viewers get the thrill of watching what happens without the real danger of living through such tempests.

But here on Earth we’re not immune at all. Even a decade ago, who’d have imagined that we’d now be in the fourth year of an ongoing pandemic? I remember going to a big local arena for our first vaccination – it felt so surreal, with staff in full protective gear and row upon row of chairs waiting for occupants, as if we were in some bizarre dystopian movie of the future.

Massive natural disasters have occurred in our planet’s past, like the Ice Age, the great Flood event that enshrined itself in almost every global culture’s religious lore, and volcanic eruptions like Krakatoa and Mount Tambora.

You may not be as familiar with Mount Tambora. No Hollywood movies were ever made about its mammoth eruption. But you’re certainly familiar with a horror novel that was written during the eruption’s aftermath, called the ‘year without a summer’.

Volcanoes are difficult to classify in terms of magnitude. Earthquake magnitude is determined from the amount of energy released, as measured by a seismograph. But volcanic eruptions express themselves in so many different ways that there’s no single instrument to use, and it’s taken scientists a while to come up with a reasonably representative scale, called the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI).

VEI and ejecta volume correlation – By chris 論 – Originally from http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/Products/Pglossary/vei.htmlAccessed September 29, 2005, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3935253

The criteria include the size of the explosion, from non-explosive to very large; the volume of material ejected; the height that the column of ejecta reaches; a rating of how severe the eruption was (i.e. “cataclysmic, paroxysmal and colossal” rank at the extreme end); the duration of the blast; and how much of the blast material reaches either the troposphere, the level where our clouds float around, or the stratosphere, where jet airliners cruise in the lower levels.

The VEI index goes as high as 8. Like the earthquake scale, each level of the volcanic scale is 10 times more powerful than the lower one. No one in recorded history has ever experienced a Category 8. Most of us alive today can remember the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Its eruption column rose 80,000 feet (well up into the stratosphere), and its superheated pyroclastic flow (a searing mix of gas, ash and pumice) reached 670 mph. Anyone within about 23 miles of the front of the blast had no chance of escape. The Mount St. Helens eruption was VEI category 5, as was the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD that destroyed Pompeii.

What’s the strongest eruption in recorded history? Well, that was Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 – a category 7. You can imagine how like the end of the world that must have seemed like. But it started off softly, surreptitiously.

In this screenshot from Google Maps, the red dot shows the location of Mt Tambora within the Indonesian archipelago, only 1180 km from the mouth of the Malacca Strait

Tambora had been dormant for centuries – at least on the surface. Underneath, though, fluid magma under pressure had been cooling, and when that happens, it becomes unstable, separating into its different components. Pressure began to build.

In 1812, the volcano began to rumble, and sent out a dark cloud. That was it for three years, until suddenly on April 5th in 1815 a giant eruption occurred. The sound was heard over 800 miles away. The next day, volcanic ash began to fall for 3 days, and detonations were heard in Sumatra, over 1,200 miles away. That would be like hearing an explosion in Regina 2 provinces away in Toronto.

Tambora wasn’t done yet. On April 10th three plumes rose up and merged, and the entire mountain was described as ‘turning into a flowing mass of liquid fire’. Pumice stones the size of bowling balls were flung out the mountain, and pyroclastic flows wiped out surrounding villages all the way to the sea. The eruption lifted almost 5,000 ft off the top of the mountain, and left a caldera up to 4.5 miles across and over 2,000 feet deep. Its energy release was believed to be equivalent to 33 gigatons of TNT. By comparison, the Hiroshima atomic bomb released 16 megatons, or .016 gigatons.

Panorama of the caldera of Mount Tambora, July 2017
By Tisquesusa – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69724625

The eruption of Tambora had a profound effect on civilization for several years. The thick ash in the fallout zone destroyed all vegetation, including crops, and poisoned the water, which affected people and their livestock. The ash that reached the stratosphere released huge quantities of sulfur dioxide, which changed the world’s climate dramatically.

Even parts of Canada and the United States experienced a Year without a Summer, with snow falling in the eastern states and provinces into June, which meant that crops didn’t have time to ripen. Famine was widespread throughout Europe. Strange red fogs blanketed the northeaster U.S., and neither rain nor wind could break the fog up. Lurid sunsets were seen in Europe, tsunamis crashed into various islands in the Indonesian archipelago, and the eruption caused the greatest loss of life of all volcanoes in recorded history (between sickness, starvation, and direct impact).

And so, in the ‘summerless’ summer of 1816, conditions were universally cold, wet and dreary. As was the custom during the time period, a group of friends were having a vacation, such as it was, at a villa overlooking Lake Geneva in Switzerland.

The Villa Diodati; By Robertgrassi – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4463463

They were Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, Claire Clairmont and Dr. John William Polidori. With their supposedly idyllic setting shrouded in gloom, one day Lord Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story to tell each other. Mary Godwin, who’d go on to marry Percy Shelley, had what she called a “waking dream”, which became the story of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Mary Shelley’s manuscript draft of Frankenstein begun at the Villa Diodati, with marginal notes by Percy Bysshe Shelley
By Mary Shelley (1797-1851) – http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/dept/scwmss/frank2.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3235272

Since that time, the population of Indonesia has increased well into the millions, and Tambora isn’t the only active volcano in the area. Mt Merapi on the island of Java has been a busy little beaver for the past few decades. My hubby and I could see the volcano from our hotel room, staying at the Ambarrukmo Palace hotel in Jogjakarta in 1994 (now called the Royal Ambarrukmo). The hotel had given us a large suite with wide sliding windows overlooking the plains below Merapi. The sight was lovely, and we both noticed the clouds that seemed to float around the top of the mountain every day. Well, they weren’t clouds at all, and just a month after we returned home Merapi had a temper tantrum, sending a pyroclastic flow almost to the edge of where our hotel sat, and killing 27 people.

As most of us know, Indonesia sits in the famous Ring of Fire, which stretches from roughly New Zealand, curving around Australia to encompass Indonesia and all the coastal zones of southeast Asia, across the Aleutian Trench to run down the western coasts of North and South America.

By Gringer (talk) 23:52, 10 February 2009 (UTC) – vector data from [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5919729

The South Island of New Zealand is prone to earthquakes, while the North Island is a bubbling and steaming powder keg where thermal vents continually shoot puffs of steam up from under the surface. The photo below, which I took just outside Rotorua, gives you some idea of the activity. We were told that residents have to keep a sharp eye on their children and pets, as a vent could shoot through their floor without warning.

Very active geothermal landscape around Rotorua, New Zealand – E. Jurus

There are several active volcanoes on the North Island, including Ruapehu (the almost perfect cone used to represent Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies), and Tongariro, not far from the Chateau Tongariro Hotel, where we had a very genteel afternoon tea accompanied by constant rumblings from the volcano. It was a unique experience, to say the least.

So you can understand why an article titled Malacca Strait: How one volcano could trigger world chaos caught my eye this week in the BBC News.

The Malacca Strait runs between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It’s the main shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Around 90,000 ships pass through it annually, transporting around 40% of all global trade. Flying over them is one of the busiest air routes in the world, and along the bottom of the Strait runs an array of internet cables that transmits trillions of dollars of data daily. And it sits right in the middle of the Ring of Fire.  

The business world is concerned. The impact of another strong volcanic event could collapse our global economy. The level 4 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, in Iceland in 2010, caused an estimated $5 billion dollar loss, massively disrupting air travel and air freight. I was leading a trip to Botswana at that time, and formed a contingency plan in case we couldn’t fly through Heathrow in London as originally scheduled (we would have flown a different airline non-stop from New York to Johannesburg while everyone’s insurance claims went through for the original flight). As it happened, we were able to keep our original route, but while we were in Botswana Eyjafjallajökull erupted again and it looked like we might not be able to get out of South Africa for a few days to fly home. We did make that flight, while the volcanic clouded drifted east of our flight path, but from Heathrow back to Canada our pilot had to swing farther north than usual across the Atlantic, adding an hour to our flying time.

Projections show that a level 6 eruption from somewhere in Indonesia would have a $2.5 trillion dollar impact on the economy. So scientists and governments are looking very closely at the geological data of the volatile landscape surrounding the Malacca strait and making their own contingency plans.

What would a Category 8 explosion be like, you might now be wondering? One happened most recently 26,500 years ago at Lake Taupo on the North Island of New Zealand, which wasn’t formerly a lake at all. It’s believed that around 40 Level 8 eruptions have happened in the last 132 million years. One of those may have been the enormous volcanic system at Yellowstone. The area continues to have ongoing geothermal activity, and lots of speculation has arisen about how prone we might be to another such catastrophe.

Hydrothermal explosion at Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park. These types of events are the most likely explosive hazard from the Yellowstone Volcano. (Public domain.) Visit Media to see details.

Well, the folks at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) are prepared to set your mind at ease. According to their monitoring project, here’s why a super-eruption isn’t in our future:

  • The most likely type of eruption at Yellowstone will by hydrothermal or a lava flow, which would have minimal impact outside the Park itself. According to their studies, previous Yellowstone super-eruptions didn’t cause any extinctions, and there’s not enough historical data pointing to it being ‘overdue’ for a super-eruption.
  • No evidence has been found that the magma chamber at Yellowstone is growing, or uplifting the surface. There are tremors regularly, and over years of study no-one has found evidence of moving magma.

As writers, our rampant imaginations play what-if scenarios with danger in various forms. Geological events like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes give us lots of visuals to roll around in our heads. My hubby and I have been in the middle of or on the fringe of enough crazy things on our travels to have an eloquent taste of the power of nature (to date, six hurricanes, two tropical storms, an earthquake, two tornadoes, two volcanic eruptions, several blizzards, a bush fire, chased by an angry hippo, riding on a runaway camel, and much more). That’s enough material for me to work with for a long time, frankly 😉

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