Volcanoes & Nuclear Winter: From the previous topics on the potential for a “magnetic” pole shift, a “geographic” pole shift and the resulting shift in Earth’s crust, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to see that most volcanoes would likely become hyperactive during such a cataclysmic event. With either an abrupt acceleration or deceleration of the Earth’s crust, the buckling affect, and the crust being thrust up and down, there is potential that virtually every volcano on the planet could erupt simultaneously. This doesn’t mean only the active volcanoes. The magnitude of such an event could very well reactivate the dormant volcanoes as well.
All volcanoes are born when hot magma rises to the surface, infiltrates a weak spot in the Earth's outer crust, and breaks through. There are over 600 active volcanoes on Earth that are generally associated with the boundaries of the tectonic plates; the seven great plates that carry the oceans and continents. They are especially common in subduction zones, which occur when one tectonic plate dips beneath another. As the plate dives into the mantle, it’s gradually heated, producing blobs of molten rock that rise to the surface. The molten rock or magma collects in weak patches of crust, in structures called magma chambers. If the pressure in the magma chamber builds high enough, the magma will erupt and a volcano is born.
The majority of the damage in volcanic eruptions is not from lava flow but from a phenomenon known as pyroclastic flow. A pyroclastic flow is an avalanche of ground-hugging hot rock accompanied by a cloud of ash and gases that race down the slope of a volcano. The range of destructive force from a pyroclastic flow is directly proportional to the power of the volcanic explosion. This flow can reach speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, and temperatures of nearly 700 degrees centigrade. In other words, anything that can catch fire will be incinerated immediately.
Throughout recorded history, pyroclastic flows have caused more death and destruction than any other volcanic hazard. In 1902 on the Caribbean island of Martinique, a pyroclastic flow generated by the eruption of Mt. Pelée swept into the town of St. Pierre and incinerated 29,000 people. The devastating mudflow that killed 25,000 people in Armaro, Colombia, after the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz volcano was also triggered by a pyroclastic flow.
Pyroclastic flow and lava aren't the only hazards created by volcanic eruptions. Other dangers are floods containing a mixture of rock fragments and water (mudflows are one type), landslides, gas emissions, and ash clouds. Ash clouds are a particular problem for aircraft of any kind as they quickly clog the air filters making the aircraft inoperable. They can cause engine failure, damage electrical systems, scratch the outer surface of a plane, and contaminate its interior.
The effects of a volcanic eruption can also be felt over the long-term. Eruptions releasing high concentrations of sulfur-rich gas can alter global climate. The sulfur mixes with water vapor in the atmosphere to form clouds of sulfuric acid. The acid droplets both absorb incoming solar radiation and bounce it back into space. The result is lower temperatures. In the year after the eruption of Philippines' Mount Pinatubo, in 1991, global temperatures dipped by nearly one degree.
Volcanic activity and variations in solar irradiance are the two main natural processes producing changes in the Earth's radiative balance on timescales of years to decades. Strong volcanic eruptions can send particulates and sulphate gas (aerosol) high into the atmosphere, where it can spread out and remain suspended for 2-3 years. Volcanic eruptions tend to cause a large increase in aerosol concentrations that can have a significant influence on the earth's climate in the short term.
Aerosols in the stratosphere reflect incoming sunlight, producing a cooling effect on global temperatures. The cooling effect lasts until the aerosols are cycled out of the atmosphere by natural physical and chemical processes. In the case of large eruptions or a succession of eruptions such as in the early 1800s, the cooling effect can last several decades. A reduction in solar output is thought to be primarily responsible for the large-scale cooling experienced during the “little ice age” in the late 1600s, but strong volcanic activity at that time may have also contributed.
In recent decades, observations following the major volcanic eruptions of Mount Agung in 1963, El Chichón in 1982 and Mount Pinatubo in 1991 illustrate the cooling influence of these events.
Volcanic aerosols may also have indirect influences on the climate that are less well understood. For example, the presence of aerosols in parts of the stratosphere can produce temperature gradients both vertically and horizontally, which could alter the air circulation patterns in the stratosphere, and in turn affect tropospheric air circulation. Aerosols may also interact with chemical processes occurring in the stratosphere, which could affect distribution and concentration of ozone and other trace gases. There is evidence to suggest that volcanic aerosols in the stratosphere have contributed to the depletion of the ozone layer and changes in the dominant Arctic atmospheric circulation pattern.
In recent times, we regularly hear of previously dormant volcanoes that spontaneously awake and become active again. In some cases, like the Chaiten Volcano in Chile, which became active on May 2, 2008, these volcanoes have been dormant for nearly 10,000 years. This information gives greater credibility to the archeological and geological proof that approximately 11,500 years ago, most mountain ranges across the planet either rose or fell 3,000 to 8,000 meters in a single event. Is it a coincidence that Chaiten was last active at approximately the same time as the last known cataclysmic event on Earth?
There are more volcanoes encircling our planet than most people can even imagine with over 600 of these volcanoes currently active. Over 75 percent of the world’s volcanoes fall within the so-called “Ring of Fire,” circling from South America, to Alaska, to Japan, and on to New Zealand. The Chaiten volcano of southern Chile is one of 200 to 300 volcanoes in the "Andean Arc" region of Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia considered “active” by volcanologists. This region has many more dormant volcanoes and is one of the more active regions for volcanic activity in the world. These figures begin to provide a perspective on the pure number of volcanoes that could easily get thrust into a hyperactive state under extreme circumstances.
The following graph displays the annual earthquake activity in the area of the Yellowstone volcano. As you can see from this graph, there has been a measurable increase, but not a significant enough increase for geologists to conclude that a large eruption is approaching.
According to some volcanologists, Yellowstone volcano, located in the central US, may be on the verge of a large scale eruption. Some researches even suggest that it’s past due for such an eruption. The changes around Yellowstone don't seem to get much media coverage for obvious reasons, but the effects are getting more extreme every year with the water tables becoming highly acidic, deforestation, and increased tremors. The caldera of Yellowstone lies under a lake, and it’s rising. It also happens to rest on a bed of Uranium, so when it does erupt, the result will be very radioactive.
The image below displays the area of the United States that was affected by previous eruptions of Yellowstone. Geological findings indicate that the affected areas from three such eruptions extend some 1,600km to 2,000km in diameter. To give some perspective, the image also displays the affected area from the 1980 Mount St. Helen's eruption.
The image above represents the estimated range of destruction from a large scale eruption of the Yellowstone volcano. From this image, you can see that such an eruption will virtually wipe out a large portion of the Mid-Western United States.
In fact, the pyroclastic flow from Yellowstone will completely destroy everything for hundreds of kilometers in every direction. It’s further hypothesized that when Yellowstone does experience its next full eruption, that such an eruption will be large enough to plunge the entire planet into a cooling cycle and a mini ice age.
For more information on volcanoes and past volcanic eruptions in the United States, you may want to look into books, maps, or even visit your local USGS (United States Geological Survey) office. The local USGS office will know of most or all volcanoes in your area. Other resources include videos from such sources as the History Channel and specifically a series entitled “Mega Disasters”. If there are no such resources in your area of the world, you may want to start your own research into local volcanoes that might be near any location where you live or are considering for a community. In this day and age, you can often search the internet using the terms “volcano” and “city name”. This may give you a quick overall picture of risk assessment.
Now imagine what might occur during a cataclysmic event that hyper-activates the hundreds of already “active” volcanoes, as well as most of the currently dormant volcanoes across the entire planet.
Imagine volcanic ash covering the skies and blocking out the Sun in minutes or hours. Imagine the pyroclstic flows, toxic gases, ash, and hot rocks that would permeate the air and cover the landscape so quickly that it becomes difficult or impossible to see or breathe within hours. Imagine the sky filling with sulfuric acid within and contaminating every river, lake, stream, reservoir, and even underground springs making fresh water unavailable within hours.
Imagine lava, mudflows, flash floods, and torrential rains blocking roads and making mobility virtually impossible. And then imagine 3, 6, or even 15 meters of volcanic ash covering all buildings, underground shelters, and vegetation, making survival virtually impossible. Imagine how quickly animal and human life would be exterminated.
The consequences from such events on human life have been recorded throughout recent history, with a pyroclastic flow incinerating 29,000 people in the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pelée and 25,000 people from a mudflow in the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz. But the true images of suffering and helplessness from such an event can sometimes best be experienced by going further into the past. Into past cultures that may have had little understanding, warning, preparation, or emergency planning for such events.
Consider the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Pompeii, Italy in 79 A.D. which covered the landscape with 9 to 20 feet of hot ash and pumice. There are thousands of artifacts excavated from this event, but it only takes a few to represent the devastating affects on human life. The following photographs are a snapshot into the past and give us a glimpse of the human suffering that occurred at the hands of this ancient volcanic eruption as people were literally mummified into solid stone.
In more recent volcanic activity, we've seen volcanoes spontaneously erupting and emerging from the Pacific Ocean along the Ring of Fire, creating the beginnings of entirely new land masses. Geologists have recently discovery a bulge in the mountainous landscape of Oregon, in the northwest region of the United States. It has been determined that this bulge is being caused by a new volcano pushing upward towards the surface. Volcanic activity appears to be increasing across the planet at the present moment. We are now seeing activity in volcanoes that are considered past due for an eruption, new volcanoes pushing to the surface, and volcanoes becoming active again after nearly 10,000 years of dormancy. All in all, we are already living in a very volatile geological time.
In previous material, it was mentioned that our oceans may present the greatest threat of natural disaster to all forms of life. After reading the potential affect from simultaneous world-wide volcanic eruptions, you may beg to differ. One method to distinguish between the natural disaster impact caused by tsunami and tidal waves versus volcanic eruptions would be to classify the destructive impact of tsunami and tidal waves as short-term and volcanic eruptions as long-term.
Tsunami and tidal waves will wash inland very quickly causing immediate destruction and loss of life, but after this initial inundation, the water will eventually recede back into the oceans. Of course, it's important to realize that two-thirds of the world population lives within a short distance of ocean coastlines. This means that two-thirds of the entire world population is the direct path of a tsunami or tidal wave.
Volcanic eruptions have an immediate destructive impact on the local region as a result of pyroclastic flows, lava, mudflows, landslides, and toxic gas emissions. On the other hand, there is also a long-term impact that can result as the hyperactive volcanic activity could last for months, years, or even decades.
The buckling of Earth’s crust during a pole shift would likely cause most active and dormant volcanoes to become extremely hyperactive. Imagine, if you can, every volcano on the Earth erupting simultaneously and for an indeterminate duration. Consider that the eruption of a single large volcano, Mount Pinatubo in 1991, lowered Earth’s overall temperature by nearly one degree centigrade. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize the potential global impact from possibly one hundred volcanoes erupting simultaneously in a cataclysmic event.
These eruptions would release high concentrations of sulfur-rich gas into the atmosphere. The sulfur then mixes with water vapor in the atmosphere to form clouds of sulfuric acid. The acid droplets both absorb incoming solar radiation and bounce it back into space. The result is lower global temperatures.
Such an event would certainly send so much volcanic ash into the atmosphere that the sun could be blocked out for months or possibly longer. Add to this that up to three, 6, or even 15 meters of ash could fall from the sky and completely cover the grass, bushes, and other low lying vegetation. Leaves and branches of trees would be weighed down by this ash, making it difficult for them to absorb any light or nutrients. In other words, some plants may survive for weeks, but most plants would be dead within a month.
The plants would be followed by the herbivores which would probably die a week later and then the carnivores a few weeks after that. Without food reserves or special growing facilities, famine would set in quickly and humans wouldn’t be very far behind the animals. Under these circumstances, it’s possible that a majority of people would parish within about two months.
As you can imagine, without adequate sunlight, plants would be difficult to grow at best, if not impossible, unless certain circumstances arise. These circumstances include: being far enough up wind from any erupting volcano, being in a location where the winds are strong enough to clear the air and allow sunlight to hit Earth, or creating an environment that can support the production of vegetation without natural sunlight.
Over time, nature would eventually clean the atmosphere with rain and wind that carry the ash to the ground, a majority of which would be absorbed by the earth and the oceans. However, during this process of cleansing and renewal, the ash would block out the Sun and the planet would cool very rapidly. This process could result in a form of a nuclear winter. With lower temperatures and increased dust particles in the air, the resulting precipitation could turn from rain to snow in only a few weeks.
If enough volcanoes erupt, the entire planet could be covered with a thick cloud of ash. It’s widely accepted that the eruption of even one or two large volcanoes could create the affect of a global nuclear winter. If the result is a nuclear winter, it could also explain why core sample data from Antarctica shows Earth moving into a new ice age at any moment. The real problem will become survival after such an event as food becomes more difficult to grow and the weather in some regions becomes uninhabitable.