2012 Volcanic Year in Review
The submarine eruption at El Hierro continued into 2011. Image: INVOLCAN
2012, for all the hype about apocalypse, was a volcanically-quiet year. No Eyjafjallajökulls, no Puyehue-Cordon Caulles, no Pinatubos. Sure, we had some notable eruptions, but most were small-to-moderate events that, many times, won’t even end up getting preserved in the geologic record. However, that didn’t stop me from posting way too much! No, really, it was still a great year for Eruptions, with decidedly more posts about the science of volcanoes when the actual volcanic events were low. Here is the 2012 Volcanic Year in Review!
The start of the year got us starting to wonder about potential eruptions that might follow — including heightened alert at Lascar (that didn’t lead anywhere) and increasing activity at Popocatépetl (that sort of led somewhere). We also saw some of the last gasps of the submarine eruption at El Hierro in the Canary Islands, but as you’ll see, it hasn’t stopped the island from rumbling.
However, the media was caldera crazy to start 2012. Maybe it was just the tip of the Maya iceberg, but the Daily Mail opened January with a terrible article about the supposed immediate threat that Laacher See posed to Europe. The newspaper had to rescind the article come February. I dissected some of the conspiracy theories surrounding Yellowstone and we had some rumblings of two active caldera systems: Santorini and Long Valley.
I also tackled your questions about my 2011 post on falling into lava, I put together a gallery of images related to some of the many volcano observatories around the world and looked that the supposed danger (and younger age) of Ubehebe Crater in California.
Probably the biggest show in February was the fire fountains and lava flows from Etna during one of its many paroxysms of 2012. Not only are Etna’s eruptions spectacular, but they occur in a highly populated area – unlike the periodic dome growth and explosions that occur at Alaska’s remote Cleveland volcano or Pagan in the Mariana Islands. These volcanoes require satellites to watch them carefully to see activity when there is no one on the ground to notice it happening. Two volcanoes had small eruptions that looked like they could be leading to larger events, but neither Kanaga nor Rincón de la Vieja had much to show for 2012 when all was said and done.
After feeling a little jaded about all the “bad journalism” posts I had to tackle, I decided instead to look at why I love volcanoes (much more satisfying). February also brought some great vistas from above, including a shot of the island of Java and a multitude of volcanoes from space. I tried to explain how bubbles in magma lead to explosive eruptions and Dr. Shan de Silva answered your questions about Andean calderas.
I also tackled a topic that came up repeatedly during the year – the missing eruptions in the ice cap record. Namely, the ice cores suggest a large eruption in 1258 AD, but no source has been definitively identified (although inroads have been made). Another mysterious caldera eruption, the Kuwae caldera eruption in the 1450s, was also examined about whether it actually occurred.
Etna kept up its pace with another paroxysm to start the month, but for me, the real news was the unrest at Colombia’s Nevado del Ruiz. By the end of March, INGEOMINAS was expecting an eruption of the volcano near my mother’s hometown in “days to weeks.” Iliamna in Alaska also began to show unrest, with elevated seismicity that has persisted throughout the year.
One of the perks of my job at Denison is the field trips — and 2012 was no exception as I got to take students through some of the volcanic landforms of the Owens Valley in California, including Coso and the Long Valley caldera. I also looked at how hurricanes might influence volcanic eruptions after some research on Pinatubo and other subtropical/tropical volcanoes. March also saw the 30th anniversary of the eruption of El Chichón in Mexico – I looked back on the event and what might be in store at the volcano.
A March 23 image of Askja in Iceland, whose crater lake melted earlier than expected. Image: NASA.
Another month, another paroxysm at Etna. What we didn’t know then is that after April, activity at Etna would drop significantly. We had a little mystery in Iceland, where the crater lake at Askja was unexpectedly ice free months ahead of usual. Meanwhile, Nevado del Ruiz continued to rumble in Colombia. However, the most eyes were trained on Mexico’s Popocatépetl, where continued small explosions and seismicity prompted increased worry that a major eruption was brewing. However, as much as the volcano rumbled, nothing big came during 2012.
I tried to answer a question I get frequently: can humans trigger a volcanic eruption (short answer: maybe, but it would be hard and pointless). I also took on the quacks who try to sell bogus earthquake/eruption predictions (with some amusing backlash in the comments). I offered up a challenge to the earthquake prediction crowd, include the quackiest of the bunch, Piers Corbyn, but no one took me up on it.
Fuego in Guatemala was the headliner for May, producing its largest eruption in years. We also had ash from Nevado del Ruiz fall on cities close to the volcano like Manizales and Pereira. Other eruptions were so remote that only satellites caught the action, like the plume from Curry in the South Sandwich Islands.
Without a lot of other volcanic news during May, I looked at a pile of volcanic research, including the timing of caldera-forming eruptions at Yellowstone, volcanic lightning, the fate of all that volcanic ash, what to expect from the Baekdu Caldera in China/North Korea and how crystals can unravel the subvolcanic magmatism at active volcanoes.
Both Popocatépetl and Nevado del Ruiz kept on producing small eruptions as we headed into June, while Cleveland in Alaska had a explosive eruption, likely due to collapse of the dome that had been growing in the crater since earlier in the spring. We also saw the alert status raised at El Hierro in the Canary Islands for the first time in months after an intense seismic swarm occurred — but this swarm didn’t lead to any new eruption.
June marked the 100th anniversary of the largest explosive eruption of the 20th century – the famed Novarupta/Katmai eruption that produced the Valley of 10,000 Smokes. It was also the 1st anniversary of another significant eruption, the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle eruption in Chile/Argentina. Speaking of volcanically-active area, I decided to take a look at volcanism on Io and just how hot the surface of Jupiter’s inner moon might be.
July wasn’t too eventful on the volcanic front — but it definitely kept me on my toes after the 2012 Derecho knocked power out in Granville for 10 days. However, in volcano news, we began to get signs that Tongariro in New Zealand might be up to something — seismic activity began to rise and volcanic gas emissions followed suit. Sakurajima, a fan favorite, also produced some of its larger explosions in the past few years.
I spent a lot of July on the road, mostly out in California doing labwork with my research student — but I did get to check out the Clear Lake area and saw some of California’s volcanic features from 30,000 feet. I also tackled why the volcanic rumblings in Colombia likely reflect more monitoring rather than more activity and how artificial volcanoes aren’t the cure-all for global warming.
A weather satellite image of the eruption plume from Tongariro in New Zealand. Image: NASA/NOAA/CIMSS
By the time August rolled in, it was becoming clear that 2012 was lining up to be a volcanically-quiet year (no matter what conspiracy fans tried to deny it). However, if you were in New Zealand in August, you wouldn’t have thought it was that quiet. Mere hours after I posted about the potential dangers of visiting White Island as a tourist, Tongariro had its first eruption on its main edifice in over 110 years. It turned out to be a minor, mostly steam-driven eruption. White Island also had a small explosive event to go with Tongariro’s … but that’s not all! A pumice raft was discovered in the Kermadec Islands north of New Zealand and eventually tracked back to a mid-July submarine eruption at the hitherto unrecognized seamount Havre. Sonar surveys later in the fall confirmed it as the source of the pumice raft as a new cone was imaged and all the pumice is still floating out in the western Pacific.
In other parts of the world, the Grozny Group in the Kuril Islands had a small explosive eruption while a small tephra cone was seen growing in the Buoco Nuovo crater at Etna.
Over the course of the fall, Nicaragua’s San Cristobal experienced eruptions large enough to prompt evacuations of people living near the volcano. Little Sitkin joined the parade of Alaskan volcanoes that showed signs of unrest, as a seismic swarm was noted at the remote volcano. We also saw ash from Anak Krakatau spread as far as 80 km from the island volcano — and I looked at how many people are displaced by volcanic activity in Indonesia. The future of Yellowstone caldera was the subject of a special paper in GSA Today (and guess what? It isn’t “end times”.)
In guest post at Lookout Landing, a blog about the Seattle Mariners, I discussed the potential volcanic threat Rainier poses to the Seattle/Tacoma area. I also took on the DOOOOOM that permeates media reports on volcano research — and lead me to write “A Media Guide to Volcanoes“.
I started October with one of my favorite satellite images of 2012 — a look down at the Three Sisters region in Oregon. In active volcanic events, the lava lake at the Halema’uma’u Crater on Kilauea reached a new high, while a new lava lake might have been spotted at the remote Indian Ocean volcano, Heard Island. We also saw a phreatic explosion at Poás in Costa Rica.
I talked about the great GSA Field Forum in the Sierra Nevada that I attended over at the GSA Speaking of Geoscience blog. My experiments with R produced a list of the most active volcanoes (in terms of >VEI 5 eruptions) during the last 10,000 years. I also looked at how to discuss models versus observations in science research and some fearmongering in the media over Salton Buttes and Newberry caldera. We also saw the unfortunate verdict of the l’Aquila trial in Italy, a verdict that could have ramifications in hazard monitoring for years.
The fissure vents from the late November eruption of Tolbachik. Image: KVERT.
November was the host to a number of eruptions, most prominently the second explosion of 2012 at New Zealand’s Tongariro. This came very soon after an alert from GNS Science about elevated temperatures at Ruapehu, Tongariro’s neighbor (and in all likelihood, a complete coincident). Volcanoes in Indonesia were as busy as ever while Santa Maria in Guatemala had some of its most vigorous activity in a while. A small plume was also spotted at Chirpoi in the Kuril Islands. However, the big action of November was just to the north of Chirpoi, on the Kamchatka Peninsula. In late November, Tolbachik, part of a complex of volcanoes that includes Bezymianny and Kliuchevskoi, had its first eruption in 36 years. It was an impressive fissure eruption that had produced lava flows that travels 10s of kilometers down the slopes of the volcano.
With all the excitement of the US Presidential election in early November, I looked at the perception of probability versus prognostication when it comes to volcanic mitigation. If you’re looking for a volcano movie to watch, I finally wrote up my guide to volcanic cinema and I described what a SHRIMP-RG is and how I use it in my research.
As 2012 drew to a close, we were greeted by the media frenzy about the supposed December 21 “Maya Apocalypse” and considering that you’re reading this, it is safe to say that the end of the world was not 12/21/12. The Tolbachik eruption went strong for much of the month, with some gorgeous lava flows that showed off all the textbook features we look for in these volcanic events. New Zealand’s White Island produced something that hasn’t been in any textbook: an odd looking spiky spine/dome in the central crater. We also got an impressive eruption from Ecuador’s Tungurahua and some evidence that active volcanism might be occurring on Venus. However, just as the year was coming to a close, Copahue on the Chile/Argentina surprised us with an unexpected eruption, sending a plume across southern South America. I closed out the year talking about why rocks melt on Earth — a useful thing to know if you’re into volcanoes!
So, there you have it. The Volcanic Year in Review … and hopefully 2013 will bring us more volcanic excitement.
Erik Klemetti is an assistant professor of Geosciences at Denison University. His passion in geology is volcanoes, and he has studied them all over the world. You can follow Erik on Twitter, where you’ll get volcano news and the occasional baseball comment.