So, you probably know where I’m going to start. Hawaii, of course. Condensing all the information that’s floating around at the moment as the situation on the island develops is akin to reducing War and Peace into flash fiction, so you’ll forgive me if I flit through, miss out a lot of it and end up pointing you towards key sources of information.
But there are other things going on this week, and we shouldn’t forget them — even if they don’t get more than a nod.
Kilauea: What’s Happening and Where to Look For More information
One thing’s for certain. By the time you read this article, the information in it will be out of date.
Things are happening fast in Hawaii. Last week I mentioned that the current eruption of Kilauea has been ongoing for 35 years, but as always there’s a little bit of flexibility in this statement. It’s probably more accurate to say that the volcano — which is huge, and makes up a large part of the south-western flank of the Big Island — has been active for this long. Within that period, volcanic activity ebbs and flows.
I mean ebbs and flows literally, by the way. Have a look at the wonderful time-lapse video of the crater at Pu’u O, in which you can actually see the magma draining from the crater as it floods into the eastern rift to reach the surface as lava flows.
But I digress. Rather than post outdated information I will direct you, first and foremost, to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (see resources section for link). They issue up-to-date notices on activity and the latest warnings. (As I write, there are 14 new cracks issuing lava in Kilauea’s eastern rift zone, but that will change.)
For explanations on what’s happening, I again recommend the USGS, but I’d also suggest that those with an interest pick up on social media. There are so many stunning images and useful information sources out there — far better than the news headlines and just as accessible — that it’s hard to know where to start, but I would recommend volcanologist Dr Janine Krippner, who links tirelessly to all sorts of resources. And for general information on Hawaii’s volcanoes, go to the Global Volcanism Program.
What I will add here is something that is so fundamental that it can get overlooked in the excitement — and the danger and loss — of nature’s fireworks. The Hawaiian islands are volcanic by definition. They are formed as the Pacific plate moves — very slowly — over a plume of magma (a hot spot) underlying the Pacific Ocean.
As the plate moves, the crust above the plume melts, rises, reaches the surface and erupts. Volcanic islands form; the crust moves; the volcanoes, cut off from their magma source, become inactive; and an island chain results. This is what is happening in Hawaii. At the north-western end of the chain, the islands are older and inactive. Kilauea is at the forefront — and as we see, it’s very active indeed.
And it’s worth noting that the cycle is continuing with the growth of the submarine volcano, Loihi, just to the south east of the Big Island — of which the GVP notes that: “Continued volcanism is expected to eventually build a new island; time estimates for the summit to reach the sea surface range from roughly 10,000 to 100,000 years”.
Meanwhile In California…
In any other week I might have got just a little excited about a magnitude 4.5 earthquake in California, and I’m sure the (estimated) nine million or so who felt it did just that. The earthquake occurred in the San Bernadino Mountains, on the San Andreas fault Zone.
On a map, the SAFZ looks pretty straightforward, and in some places it is. Not here. The USGS event page notes that: “The complexity of this region is characterized by a fault system that is bent nearly east-west, compared to the fault to the south and north. It is also complicated by multiple fault strands through the region, all part of the San Andreas Fault system at this location”.
Cutting through these complications, it’s clear that the mechanism for the earthquake was fairly straightforward — lateral movement along the fault.
And In Yellowstone…
All right, it’s not a big story, nor a significant piece of scientific research, but it caught my eye and it chimes with the other stories, for me at least. This week, NPR reported that Steamboat Geyser, Yellowstone’s largest, had just blown for the third time in a month, after having been quiet for three and a half years.
There probably isn’t any huge significance to this. Some geysers, like Old Faithful (the clue’s in the name) erupt regularly, others irregularly. The article quotes the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory’s Michael Poland on the subject, and you can almost hear him shrug. “This is what geysers do. They erupt…It’s nothing to be afraid about.”
I didn’t set out to write a piece about America, but that seems to be what’s happened. Three different-scale events, one which has profoundly affected thousands, one which caused a flutter on interest for millions and one which hasn’t attracted a huge amount of attention — not only demonstrate how geologically diverse America is, but how the mechanisms we understand only to a degree will continue to surprise us.