Don’t blow your stack: read about volcanoes instead

  • An erupting volcano. Courtesy photo

Published: 1/21/2022 10:38:10 AM
Modified: 1/21/2022 10:37:06 AM

I collect rocks. It started out as a sixth-grade science project and just kept on going. There have been a few glitches along the way, notably when my mother caught me running part of my collection through her dishwasher (they get super clean with the pot-scrubber function), and later on when I moved back home to attend graduate school and brought my expanded collection with me – again to mom’s dismay. However, in all, the rocks and I have done quite well.

I joined the Nashua Rock Club, to be with like-minded collectors, and I met a woman whose daughter was a volcanologist in Hawaii – a new interest was born. Learning about volcanoes has been tremendous fun and when a new book “SuperVolcanoes: What They Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond” by Robin George Andrews came out I was over the moon. Actually, the moon is littered with extinct volcanoes – so being over it and on my way to Mars and other planets was part of this entertaining read.

As I write this column, an undersea volcano has erupted in the Pacific. In years past, these often went undetected. Now, with satellite photographs we can witness these events as well, and Andrews gives his readers some excellent history regarding these undersea events as well.

Andrews begins with my all-time favorite, and the largest volcano in the world – Mauna Loa. This beauty, a shield volcano, began under the ocean and erupted so many times, it not only surfaced – it created our 50th state. He continues on with the specter of Yellowstone. Fortunately, as a well-respected science writer, Andrews dispels the popular press’ specious claims regarding Yellowstone being ready to blow. Not happening. Instead, experts have made it very clear that the magma beneath that part of the country is not hot enough to pop through the earth’s crust, let alone explode half the country into kingdom come as has been reported.

That does not mean we are totally off the hook with respect to erupting volcanoes, however. Mount St. Helens’ cataclysmic, high-speed blast managed to obliterate millions of trees, send severe ash-filled winds hundreds of miles away, and create lahars (volcanic mudflows) that destroyed roads, bridges, and buildings, as well as killing 57 people. Although it was 40 years ago, this was an up-close encounter with an eruption that allowed scientists to investigate volcanoes using modern equipment. They learned a lot, and this has led to an even stronger ability to detect possible eruptions of other volcanoes around the world – potentially saving many lives.

“Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens” by Steve Olson is really an expansion of the chapter Andrews devoted to this disaster. Just one chapter does not give sufficient space for the back stories or people associated with any disaster and that is why, to really get into a subject, there is always a need to read further. Olsen interviewed survivors, including chronicling stories of people who were camping near the volcano and survived. He also went into great detail about ownership of the land by Weyerhaeuser and the history of that part of Washington State. Very interesting stuff.

While this stratovolcano’s rumblings and grumblings were going on for several months, no one really thought much about it. Rather, it was presumed to be just like a little pyrotechnic indigestion and not a big deal. How wrong they were! The volcano blew the top off the mountain, changing the course of volcanic science, while reminding us just how powerful planet Earth really is.

Olsen’s writing expanded my understanding of this cataclysmic event, the survivability of the forests, and what a life-long impact it has on the people involved. As I read more about volcanoes in the near-past as well as the present, I began to think about how volcanoes impacted our earth in the early days after its formation – 4.5 billion years ago. Certainly, Mount St. Helens, Mauna Loa, and the current explosions spread across the internet show the power of volcanoes. But, were they all isolated in different parts of the world with little impact on the rest of the planet?

Peter Brannen answered my question. “The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans, and our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions” is the ultimate reference for all of Earth’s lost worlds spread across the eons of time, some due to mega volcanoes. Mass extinctions are not new to our planet. We have had five mass extinctions, and each time life has returned, evolved, often survived millions of years, only to be wiped out again. There was poison gas from volcanoes, ice from glaciers, broiling from sunlight plowing straight to an earth unprotected by ozone, pounding by asteroids, and smothering by carbon dioxide. It is the carbon dioxide clue that has led paleontologists, geologists, climatologists, and just about every other science researcher to the judgment that our current climate situation closely parallels those other times of global disaster. Taking the new and amazing research, Brennan traveled the globe, talked to scientists, searched for fossil layers, and dived deep – all the way back in time to arrive at this conclusion.

Billions of years’ worth of fossil fuels, buried deep and sequestering carbondioxide, are being burned like crazy. This massive release has triggered acidifying oceans, melting glaciers, and increasing temperatures around the world. Will governments listen? Will people mend their ways? Will science find a way? Read it and find out. But I caution you: this book, replete with scientific references, is not for the faint-hearted reader. While life on Earth has clawed its way back from five devastating events in the past, our own future is not assured. Yet, I was not depressed when I finished this book. Rather, I felt a sense of renewed purpose: to be part of the solution – no matter how small my contribution is. Because in our lifetime the problem is not so much mass extinction. Instead, it is the loss of civilization as we know it; when the oceans can no longer provide fish, when the temperatures in even temperate zones increase beyond what humans can endure, and when the oceans rise to cover much of the land.

Yes, in 800 million years, give or take an eon or two, the potential habitability of our planet will end. A couple of billion years beyond that the sun will burn out, and in 100,000 billion years the last star in our galaxy will extinguish. But in the meantime, in our lifetime and those of our children, we still have to fight the good fight to keep our civilization as safe as we can.

All three of these authors have taken their readers with them on their road trips. Brennan’s searches into the earliest history of the planet, Olsen’s explorations of just one volcano, and Andrew’s encounters with the world’s most eminent volcanologists, in attempts to put all the times and lives of the planet into perspective. It is an astonishing and amazing trip!


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