What’s Been Erupting? Volcanic Activity in 2014

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Bárðarbunga, Iceland.

This is Bárðarbunga, Decoded’s favourite volcanic eruption of 2014. Image by Martin Hensch.

Who’d have thought it? The Earth’s volcanoes even have their own annual awards. The winner of the 2014 Pliny for the most notable eruption (organised by the Wired science blog) hasn’t yet been announced (and there’s still time to nominate your favourite) but Decoded Science is full of admiration for anyone who can attempt to make sense of a year in volcanic eruptions.

The Pliny Contenders

The Plinys are named for the early volcanologist Pliny the Elder (or possibly his nephew, Pliny the Younger). Both witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD but the elder Pliny took too close a look and died, while the younger survived to write about it.

Past winners include a couple of near-unpronounceables — Iceland’s notorious Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 and Chile’s less well-known but almost as joyously jaw-breaking Puyehue-Cordón Caulle the following year. The current holder of the Pliny is Mount Etna.

This year, too, has produced a good crop of eruptions, as any trawl through the news media will show. Some of them are spectacular, some of them inexorable and some of them downright deadly. Just a couple of days before nominations for this year’s Pliny close, the Volcano Discovery website’s list of currently active volcanoes shows a huge breadth of activity: 41 volcanoes currently erupting; 30 showing minor activity or under and eruption warning; and a further 76 exhibiting signs of unrest.

Notable Volcanic Activity in 2014

The volcanic island of Nishonishima

The new island of Nishino-shima just keeps on growing. Image by NASA.

Without pre-empting the outcome of the Plinys, Decoded Science has its own favourites this year. Chief among them is Iceland’s Bárðarbunga. This fissure eruption, produced by the rifting of the crust between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, has been going since August and continues to bubble away, producing some extraordinary photographs along the way.

Another favourite, one which has been bubbling away for some time, is Nishino-shima. South of Japan, this volcano broke the surface of the western Pacific Ocean at the end of 2013 and continues to grow, adding new land surface to our ever-dynamic planet.

Unlike Bárðarbunga, this is a subduction zone volcano, resulting from the melting of descending crust as the Pacific plate is forced beneath the Philippine Sea plate. Volcanic hotspots also produce extensive lava flows, and both Kilauea, in Hawaii, and Fogo, in the Cape Verde Islands, have produced ongoing lava flows which, while they’ve cost no lives, have consumed property — the latter having destroyed two villages.

Both are still ongoing and Kilauea, at least, is unlikely to stop any time soon (it’s been erupting for over 30 years).

Most Active Volcano: Indonesia

Kilauea eruption.

Lava at Kilauea threatens a settlement. Image by USGS.

If there was a national Pliny award, rather than an individual one, it would probably go to Indonesia (in fact, Indonesia would probably get to win it every year) because of the sheer number of active volcanoes. Ten are currently erupting and a further seventeen showing signs of minor activity or unrest.

The latter list includes two very big names indeed; Tambora, in 1815, produced an eruption of VEI 7 which the Global Volcanism Program describes as “history’s largest explosive eruption,” while that of Krakatua in 1883 killed an estimated 36,000 people.

Volcanoes are Killers

Most volcanic eruptions don’t occur without warning and civil authorities have plans in place for evacuation where necessary. It isn’t always the case, however.

In September, the sudden eruption of Japan’s Mount Ontake, with no warning beyond seismic activity just 11 minutes prior to violent explosive activity, killed 37 people and injured dozens more. As the photos from Decoded’s choice for volcano of the year, Bárðarbunga, show, eruptions can be among the most beautiful events on the planet. But they can be dangerous, as well.

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