15 Explosive Facts About Volcanoes

U.S. Geological Survey via Getty Images
U.S. Geological Survey via Getty Images

On May 3, the Kilauea volcano erupted on Hawaii's Big Island. Since then, 18 fissures have opened in the earth, some hundreds of feet long. The USGS's Hawaii Volcano Observatory reports that some of these fissures are producing "lava fountaining, explosion of spatter bombs hundreds of feet into the air, and several advancing lava flow lobes." More than 2000 people have evacuated, and dozens of structures and vehicles have been destroyed. Five earthquakes have rattled the island as well.

Volcanoes are amazing portals to the hot, living interior of the Earth, but they're also dangerous. Even small-ish ones can have a global impact. Here are 15 explosive facts about volcanoes.

1. THE VOLCANIC EXPLOSIVITY INDEX MEASURES THE STRENGTH AND SIZE OF ERUPTIONS.

Created in 1982 by Chris Newhall of the United States Geological Survey and Stephen Self of the University of Hawaii, the VEI quantifies the strength of volcanic eruptions by measuring the volume of pyroclastic material spewed by a volcano, including volcanic ash, tephra (fragments of volcanic rock and lava), pyroclastic flows (fast-moving currents of gas and tephra), and other debris. The height and duration of the eruption are also factored in. The scale ranges from 1 to 8, and each step indicates a tenfold increase of ejecta. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a VEI-8 eruption in the past 10,000 years.

2. "WAH WAH SPRINGS" SOUNDS KIND OF FUN. IT WAS ACTUALLY DEVASTATING.

One of the biggest eruptions ever occurred about 30 million years ago in what is today eastern Nevada and western Utah, when a supervolcano exploded 3500 cubic kilometers of magma over an area of about 12,000 square miles. The eruption left behind deposits of debris 13,000 feet deep. Consider that the 1883 eruption of Krakatau, in Indonesia, was heard thousands of miles away—and yet it was a minor burp compared to Wah Wah Springs, a VEI-8 eruption.

3. LAVA IS THE LEAST OF YOUR WORRIES.

Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii
Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii

Lava generally moves too slowly to be the biggest threat from an eruption—but that’s not the case with pyroclastic flows. These super-hot, fast-moving currents of gas and tephra did in history’s most famous volcano victims: the residents of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The flow that hit Herculaneum was as hot at 500 degrees—enough to boil brains and vaporize flesh—while the later, cooler wave that hit Pompeii “cooked” people’s flesh, as the BBC puts it, but left their bodies intact; they were preserved by the falling volcanic ash.

4. JUST FOR FUN, THERE ARE 10 WAYS AN ERUPTION CAN KILL YOU.

As Io9 recounts, flying shrapnel, scalding-hot seawater, falling into a lava tube, poisonous gases, and volcanic smog, or vog, can also do you in.

5. THERE ARE THREE TYPES OF VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS.

Magmatic eruptions involve the decompression of gas within magma that propels it forward. Phreatic eruptions are driven by the heat from magma creating superheated steam. Phreatomagmatic eruptions are caused by the interaction of water and magma.

6. VOLCANOLOGISTS ARE CONTINUOUSLY KEEPING TABS ON ACTIVITY ALL OVER THE WORLD.

One of the many initiatives tracking potentially dangerous activity is the Global Volcanism Program of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It also puts out a weekly report in conjunction with the USGS that features a map. The International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior (IAVCEI) especially monitors the so-called Decade Volcanoes—16 volcanoes that are potentially hazardous due to their history of large, destructive eruptions and proximity to populated areas. Among them are Rainier, Sakurajima, Vesuvius, and Santorini.

7. THERE ARE VOLCANOES ON OTHER PLANETS AND MOONS IN OUR SOLAR SYSTEM.

Plumes on Io captured by the Galileo spacecraft
Plumes on Io captured by the Galileo spacecraft
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

That Jupiter’s moon Io is volcanically active has been known since 1979, when Voyager 1 imaging scientist Linda Morabito discovered the first evidence of active volcanism on a body other than Earth. But it’s far from alone. For instance, while Mars’s volcanoes appear to be either dormant or extinct, recent evidence from the Venus Express spacecraft suggests that many of Venus’s volcanoes are active.

8. SHARKS HANG OUT IN ONE VOLCANO.

Scientists recently recorded video of sharks happily swimming around in the acidic, hot, ash- and gas-filled waters near the Kavachi underwater volcano in the Solomon Islands, which is a mere 66 feet below the surface. This suggests extremophiles may be even more diverse than we thought.

9. THE USGS’s ALL-TIME BEST-SELLING MAP FEATURES VOLCANOES.

"This Dynamic Planet" is now in its third edition. This map [PDF] features more than 1500 volcanoes, 44,000 earthquakes, and 170 impact craters, as well as the major, minor, and micro tectonic plates whose movement creates these features. About 60 of Earth’s 550 historically active volcanoes blow every year.

10. AN EARLY 19TH-CENTURY ERUPTION IN THE PACIFIC WAS WORLD CHANGING.

Gillen D’Arcy Wood argues in his book Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World that the 1815 eruption of the volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, which created a massive sulfate dust cloud that fundamentally altered the planet’s climate for three years, led to such diverse impacts as the first worldwide cholera pandemic, expanded opium markets in China, the U.S.’s first economic depression—and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

11. A VOLCANO STAMP SOLD CONGRESS ON THE PANAMA CANAL.

Before the Panama Canal opened in 1915, rival proposals for an Atlantic–Pacific link included a plan to carve a canal through Nicaragua, which had a lot more fresh water and much less deadly malaria than Panama. It also has significant volcanic activity, and in the early 20th century, one of its stamps featured an erupting volcano. In 1902, just before a U.S. congressional vote, a pro-Panama Canal French engineer sent this stamp to all 90 senators to hype the volcanic threat in Nicaragua. Panama got the vote by a slim margin. Today Nicaragua says it’s building the canal with help from a Chinese funder.

12. SPEAKING OF NICARAGUA’S VOLCANOES—YOU CAN SURF ONE.

Cerro Negro, a new and very active volcano that first erupted in 1850—and has blown 23 times since, most recently in 1999—has black pebble-covered slopes you can surf down on a metal-bottomed wood board, if you're adventurous and also kind of insane. Intrigued? Here’s our 7-point guide to surfing volcanoes.

13. THE MOST VOLATILE AREA ON EARTH IS THE RING OF FIRE.

Located at the rim of the Pacific Basin, the so-called Ring of Fire is a nearly continuous chain of oceanic trenches and hundreds of volcanoes spanning some 25,000 miles that’s home to 75 percent of the world’s volcanic activity, with some 452 volcanoes (active and dormant), 90 percent of the world's earthquakes, and 22 of the 25 biggest volcanic eruptions in the last 11,700 years.

14. THERE ARE MANY WARNING SIGNS OF VOLCANIC ACTIVITY.

According to the USGS’s Volcano Hazards Program, volcanologists keep an eye out for ground movements caused by magma forcing its way upward through solid rock, earthquakes resulting from this heaving, and changes in heat output and volcanic gases. Other indicators include cracks in the ground, small steam explosions, melting snow, and the appearance of new hot springs.

15. YOUR EUROPE FLIGHT WAS DELAYED IN 2010 BECAUSE OF AN ICELANDIC ERUPTION.

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano began erupting on April 14, 2010 and didn’t stop for six weeks, spewing magma, ash, and gas. Planes were grounded across Europe. Though the eruption was a small one, it had an outsized impact because it spread unusually far and stayed for an unexpectedly long time in the atmosphere thanks to the irregular shape of the tiny porous ash grains, as LiveScience reports.

BONUS: NASA IS TRAINING FOR LIFE ON MARS ON THE SLOPES OF AN ACTIVE VOLCANO.

For several years, NASA has been simulating life on Mars through a simulation on the slopes of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano, one of the Decade Volcanoes. Each year, a small team of adventurers who meet the basic qualifications for the NASA astronaut program live in a solar-powered geodesic dome. If they want to go outside, they have to put on space suits. Still beats trying to escape poisonous gases and pyroclastic flows.

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

iStock
iStock

It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2012.

One Good Reason Not to Hold in a Fart: It Could Leak Out of Your Mouth

iStock/grinvalds
iStock/grinvalds

The next time you hold in a fart for fear of being heard by polite company, just remember this: It could leak out of your mouth instead of your butt. Writing on The Conversation, University of Newcastle nutrition and dietetics professor Clare Collins explains that pent-up gas can pass through your gut wall and get reabsorbed into your circulation. It's then released when you exhale, whether you like it or not.

“Holding on too long means the build up of intestinal gas will eventually escape via an uncontrollable fart,” Collins writes. In this case, the fart comes out of the wrong end. Talk about potty mouth.

A few brave scientists have investigated the phenomenon of flatulence. In one study, 10 healthy volunteers were fed half a can of baked beans in addition to their regular diets and given a rectal catheter to measure their farts over a 24-hour period. Although it was a small sample, the results were still telling. Men and women let loose the same amount of gas, and the average number of “flatus episodes” (a single fart, or series of farts) during that period was eight. Another study of 10 people found that high-fiber diets led to fewer but bigger farts, and a third study found that gases containing sulphur are the culprit of the world’s stinkiest farts. Two judges were tapped to rate the odor intensity of each toot, and we can only hope that they made it out alive.

Scientific literature also seems to support Collins’s advice to “let it go.” A 2010 paper on “Methane and the gastrointestinal tract” says methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other gases that are produced in the intestinal tract are mostly eliminated from the body via the anus or “expelled from the lungs.” Holding it in can lead to belching, flatulence, bloating, and pain. And in some severe cases, pouches can form along the wall of the colon and get infected, causing diverticulitis.

So go ahead and let it rip, just like nature intended—but maybe try to find an empty room first.

[h/t CBS Philadelphia]

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