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Part of the Nature's Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters exhibition.
Volcanoes are one of Earth’s most terrifying—and exhilarating—spectacles. These vents in the ground issue lava, ash, and noxious gases at temperatures as high as 2,100°F (1,150°C) and are the closest we’ve ever gotten to the churning engine that keeps our planet running. What causes them to erupt?
Magma, or molten rock, collects in chambers beneath Earth’s surface. As magma accumulates, pressure in the magma chamber increases. If the pressure gets high enough, overlying rocks break, allowing the magma to escape as lava.
August 26, 1883
When this volcanic island exploded and collapsed into the sea, the world felt the effects for years.
Krakatoa and other large, explosive volcanoes can temporarily alter global climate by injecting sulfurous gases into the high atmosphere. There, the gases react with water vapor to produce droplets of sulfuric acid. The droplets shade, and thus cool, the planet before settling out within two or three years.
August 24, AD 79
When Mount Vesuvius roared to life, the doomed residents of nearby Pompeii had no idea they were living in the shadow of a volcano.
Vesuvius had erupted before. Just not within the memory of those going about their business in Pompeii’s bustling streets when the volcano awoke.
Today, more than 3 million people live in Vesuvius’ shadow and could be at risk when Vesuvius springs to life again.
May 8, 1902
St. Pierre, a city on the island of Martinique that was known as the Paris of the Caribbean, was completely destroyed by the nearby volcano, Mt. Pelée.
News of the disaster horrified the world. Geologists, anxious to understand the science behind the tragedy, were drawn to Martinique.
The American Museum of Natural History sent Curator Edmund Hovey, a geologist, who collected haunting artifacts, many of which are on display in Nature’s Fury: The Science of Natural Disasters.
Many explosive volcanoes are located far from major population centers, but worldwide, several hundred million people make their homes near volcanoes that have previously erupted—and could do so again. Fortunately, volcanoes generally show signs of activity weeks to days before erupting, and continuous monitoring of active volcanoes has substantially reduced risks. Fewer than 1,600 people have died in volcanic eruptions in the last 25 years.
Yet mega-eruptions, which can spew thick layers of ash over thousands of square miles, may occur only once in several tens of thousands of years. Because they are so infrequent, the risks associated with such events are poorly understood.
Lead image: Pahoehoe lava. © Martin Rietze/AGE Fotostock