Last week, Mount Baker began venting steam from Sherman Crater, which is situated close to the mountain’s peak. In response, several people took to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, sharing photos and videos of the steam plume. This event prompted some to ask the question: Could Mount Baker be poised to erupt?
At openings on the volcano’s surface called vents, various gases can be released at any time, even continuously, and do not have to be connected to eruptions. A combination of good weather, light winds, and the position of Sherman crater near Mount Baker’s peak made for perfect conditions to observe this plume.
The US Geological Survey (USGS) categorizes Mount Baker’s eruption potential as “very high,” the agency’s highest category. To determine a volcano’s threat level, the USGS assesses exposure of people and property to potentially fatal volcanic hazards like pyroclastic flows and lahars. Volcanoes in the “very high” category “require the most robust monitoring coverage.”
Despite these deficits in monitoring, PNSN and CVO detected no increase in seismic activity occurring alongside the plume––in fact there has been no recent seismic activity recorded in the area at all. Considering this lack of seismic activity, Mount Baker’s steam plume is likely nothing short of business as usual.
Popocatépetl, or Smoking Mountain in the Aztec language, is an active stratovolcano, situated in central Mexico. Stratovolcanoes are steep, sloping volcanoes, characterized by their powerful eruptions and thick, slow-moving lava flow.
At 8:26 am on March 6, Mexican authorities reported an explosion on Popocatépetl, according to the Mexico Daily News, which created a colossal ash plume reaching almost 4,000 feet into the atmosphere. As the explosive activity continues, an ash advisory remains in effect.
Popocatépetl is located about 43 miles from Mexico City, which has a population of 21.2 million people. As a result of the eruption, residents south of Mexico City are advised to keep all windows closed, use damp cloths around their noses and mouths, and drive slow due to the magnitude of ash on the ground.
Research published in the Journal of Vegetation Science shows an increase in stress-tolerant, competitive vegetation due to lahar activity on Popocatépetl. Lahars are fast flowing, destructive mudflows, often caused by eruptions and very hot flows of ash, lava, and gas. Lahars may also occur due to heavy precipitation.
Glacier-covered volcanoes, such as Popocatépetl, are more susceptible to lahar activity due to glacial melting that occurs during eruptions. Reaching up to 2,200 °F, lava will melt everything in its path, including ice. As a result, glacial water can mix with dirt and debris to form dangerous lahars, which can destroy nearby ecosystems.
Research Findings on Popocatépetl
In the study, researchers affiliated with the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México analyze the leaf traits of 67 vegetation species on the Huilóac gorge. The gorge is located on the eastern slope of the volcano. The research project incorporates a total of 9 years of data.
Using CRS (Competitive, Stress-Tolerant, or Ruderal) cataloging, the collected species were assorted into one of three categories. Competitive species adapt to productive, undisturbed environments. Stress-Tolerant species adapt to disturbed, harsh environments. And ruderal species adapt to disturbed, nutrient-rich environments.
The results of the study show that short-living vegetation with effective seed dispersal thrives in this cruel ecosystem.
The researchers conclude that “the change from ruderal/competitive to stress-tolerant and competitive species with time suggests that the most recent lahar event played a major role in sorting species according to their tolerance for disturbances”.
Increase in stress-tolerant species, such as conifers and alpine grasses, show that lahar activities play a role in species sorting. As vegetation adapts to favor resilience, it will transform Popocatépetl’s landscape.
Stretching over 7,000 kilometers across seven countries, the Andes are the world’s longest mountain range. They make up the southeastern portion of the Ring of Fire and are well-known for their abundant volcanoes.
The Chilean Andes are home to 90 active volcanoes, all monitored by the Chilean National Geology and Mining Service (Sernageomin). The agency categorizes volcanic activity using four distinct alert levels: green (normal level of activity), yellow (increased level of activity), orange (probable development of an eruption in the short-term), and red (eruption is ongoing or imminent). Increased volcanic activity is associated with frequent earthquakes; plumes of gas, rocks, or ash; and lava flows.
Two areas monitored by Sernageomin are currently showing signs of increased activity: the Nevados de Chillán and Planchón-Peteroa volcanic complexes. The agency issued orange and yellow alert levels for them, respectively.
Nevados de Chillán Volcanoes: Orange Alert
The Nevados de Chillán volcano complex is comprised of several glacier-covered volcanic peaks. When these volcanoes erupt, the glacial ice sitting atop them melts and mixes with lava, which can result in dangerous lahars, or mudflows. Several small earthquakes and the formation of new gas vents led Sernageomin to issue a yellow alert on December 31, 2015. (To view a detailed map of the Nevados de Chillán complex, click here.)
On April 5, 2018, Sernageomin upgraded the Nevados de Chillán’s yellow alert to an orange alert, following thousands of tremors and a thick, white column of smoke rising from the area. This signaled the likelihood of an eruption in the near future.
Throwback: 1.4 km high ash column from Nevados de Chillan volcano’s eruption on 14 July 2018, Chile’s large composite stratovolcanic complex composed of 3 overlapping #stratovolcanoes(Volcan Nevado, Volcan Chillan & Volcan Nuevo) on a NNW-SSE- trending line – P.S. Miranda’s photo pic.twitter.com/teNFiFIQL4
Sernageomin’s most recent volcanic activity report for Nevados de Chillán, issued on February 11, 2019, cited persistent seismic activity, which is directly related to increased frequency of explosions, along with the growth and/or destruction of the lava dome that lies in the crater. The expected eruption is most likely to have moderate to low explosive power, but sporadic observations over the last year have shown higher than average energy levels.
On February 15, 2019, the Volcanic Ash Advisory Center in Buenos Aires documented a volcanic-ash plume reaching 3,700 meters high at Nevados de Chillán, an example of the above mentioned “higher than average energy levels.”
Nevados de Chillan, Chile’s composite stratovolcanic complex of 3 overlapping stratovolcanoes (Nevado, Chillan & Nuevo) was monitored #erupting on 31 Jan 2019. Seismograph recorded LP quake, tremor & volcano-tectonic quake during the past observation period- Source: Sernageomin pic.twitter.com/ApWcJv5UFR
Mount Veniaminof is a glacier-topped volcano located in southern Alaska. On September 3, 2018, the Alaska Volcano Observatory raised its Volcano Alert Level and Aviation Color Code at Veniaminiof from green, designating normal, to yellow, an “advisory,” due to seismic activity. The next day, the agency raised its alert level to orange, a “watch” level, because of low-level ash emissions observed on webcams. The color-code level has since been reduced to yellow.
Miller et al. (1998) provide a description of the mountain: “Mount Veniaminof is a broad central mountain, 35 [kilometers] wide at the base, truncated by a spectacular steep-walled summit caldera 8 by 11 km in diameter. The caldera is filled by an ice field that ranges in elevation from approximately 1750 to 2000 [meters]; ice obscures the south rim of the caldera and covers 220 square km of the south flank of the volcano. Alpine glaciers descend from the caldera through gaps on the west and north sides of the rim and other alpine glaciers occupy valleys on the north, east, and west-facing slopes of the mountain. In the western part of the caldera, an active intracaldera cone with a small summit crater has an elevation of 2156 m, approximately 330 m above the surrounding ice field. The rim of a larger but more subdued intracaldera cone protrudes just above the ice surface in the northern part of the caldera; based on limited exposure and physiographic features, it may have a summit crater as much as 2.5 km in diameter.”
Fire and ice have consistently shaped Iceland’s history, so much so that red and white, the colors symbolizing these elements, make up two of the three colors on the island nation’s flag. In a new twist to the relationship between fire and ice in Iceland, a recent paper in Geology details the link between climate-driven changes in glacier volume and volcanic activity.
At the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago, large scale glacial retreat across Iceland led to increased volcanism due to reductions in surface pressure. This impact of glacier retreat on volcanic activity has been supported by a number of previous research according to Charles B. Conner, an author of the study who spoke to GlacierHub. However, the link between smaller changes in glacial ice masses and their effects on volcanic eruptions is a less established phenomena, fueling the motivation for this latest research.
While climate-driven fluctuations in glacier size might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one imagines volcanoes, ice does impact fire. Throughout time, as glaciers retreat and advance, they exert varying pressure loads on the Earth’s crust and mantle, according to Conner. When a glacier retreats, magma production in the mantle and the crust’s magma storage capacity increase, the latter due to a reduction in surface pressure. Conversely, when a glacier advances, magma production in the mantle is suppressed and the crust’s magma storage capacity decreases, as a result of added surface pressure.
Iceland has many volcanoes due to its location atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a massive crack in the Earth’s crust where magma from the mantle makes its way to the surface; 130 volcanoes to be exact. Thanks to Iceland’s northern latitude, many of these volcanoes are covered by glaciers, making the country an ideal place to examine possible links between the two. To study these linkages over a relatively short time scale, the authors of the study focused on the mid-Holocene period, a time period from roughly 7,000 to 5,000 years ago.
To determine changes in volcanic activity over time, they relied on two data sources: Icelandic volcano records and northern European volcanic ash deposits. One might think that when examining geological records, adjacent sources such as those taken near the study area would provide more insights than those taken thousands of miles away in Europe. However, local volcanic record analysis is often confounded by the burial or reworking of evidence by subsequent eruptions. By using European ash deposits as a proxy for direct evidence, they were able to circumvent possible complications. Examining both of these data sources, the study’s results point to a marked decline in the frequency of eruptions over a 1,000-year period, from 5,500 to 4,500 years ago.
Nonetheless, the drivers behind volcanic activity in Iceland are numerous and complex. One possible explanation for the decline could be a decrease in the rate of magma supplied to the Earth’s mantle, leading to the subsequent decrease in eruptions. However, the authors contend that a change in magma supplied is unlikely to be the cause of this particular decrease, as it occurred across multiple volcanic systems within the country. Rather, the authors point to an external factor, such as a change in glacial ice volume, as a more likely driver due to the simultaneous decline in volcanism.
But was there evidence to support a climatic change that would drive glacial advance during the mid-Holocene? As it turned out, yes. Paleoclimate records reviewed for the study showed conditions ripe for glacial advances across Iceland, lower temperatures and increased precipitation. Core samples taken from the Icelandic Shelf and the North Atlantic indicated oceanic cooling, while reduced productivity in records taken from lakes in Iceland show evidence of cooling over land. Concurrently, ice cores taken from Greenland suggest a deepening of the Icelandic low pressure system, usually associated with above normal precipitation and lower than normal temperatures in the North Atlantic.
Next, to assess the impacts of this glacial advance on volcanic activity, the authors assayed the correlation between the Greenland ice core data, representing climate conditions, and the European ash deposits, representing eruptions. The correlation revealed a 600-year time lag between the climatic event and the successive decrease in volcanic activity. This lag incorporates both the varying response times across Icelandic glaciers to climate changes and the uncertainties that exist for new magma to reach the surface.
While this study focused on past climate changes and their influences on glaciers and volcanoes, it has relevant implications for the changing climate of the present. As the Earth warms due to increased greenhouse gas emissions, glaciers around the world are melting. In Iceland, glaciers have lost an estimated 10 km3 per year since 1995. Given that deglaciation leads to increased volcanic activity, humans seem to be doing the job nature once did in regulating eruptions in Iceland.
Nobody alive today is likely to see increased volcanism in Iceland because of climate change given the time lag of 600 years between a climate event and a change in volcanic activity identified by this study. When asked about the possibility that human activity might impact this lag, Conner told GlacierHub that at this time it is not known if rapid climate change will lead to changes in the timing of resultant volcanic eruptions. Although, he said it is possible “that the rate of volcanic activity changes much more rapidly than it did during natural deglaciation in the past, but this is speculative.”
From KVERT: “The Kamchatka Volcanic Eruption Response Team (KVERT) monitors 30 active volcanoes of Kamchatka and six active volcanoes of Northern Kuriles [both in Russia]. Not all of these volcanoes had eruptions in historical time; however, they are potentially active and therefore are of concern to aviation... In Russia, KVERT, on behalf of the Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (IVS), is responsible for providing information on volcanic activity to international air navigation services for the airspace users.” Many of these volcanoes are glacier-covered, and the interactions between lava and ice can create dramatic ice plumes. Sheveluch Volcano currently has an orange aviation alert, with possible “ash explosions up to 26,200-32,800 ft (8-10 km) above sea level… Ongoing activity could affect international and low-flying aircraft.”
Read more about the volcanic warnings here, or check out GlacierHub’s collection of photos from the eruption of Klyuchevskoy.
New Insights Into Seismic Activity Caused by Glaciers
In Reviews of Geophysics: “New insights into basal motion, iceberg calving, glacier, iceberg, and sea ice dynamics, and precursory signs of unstable glaciers and ice structural changes are being discovered with seismological techniques. These observations offer an invaluable foundation for understanding ongoing environmental changes and for future monitoring of ice bodies worldwide… In this review we discuss seismic sources in the cryosphere as well as research challenges for the near future.”
From TheThirdPole.net: An interview with Chhewang Rinzin, the managing director of Bhutan’s Druk Green Power Corporation, reveals the multifaceted challenges involved in hydropower projects in Bhutan. These challenges include the effect of climate change on glaciers: “The glaciers are melting and the snowfall is much less than it was in the 1960s and 70s. That battery that you have in a form of snow and glaciers up there – which melts in the spring months and brings in additional water – will slowly go away…But the good news is that with climate change, many say that the monsoons will be wetter and there will be more discharge,” said Rinzin.
Check out the full interview with Chhewang Rinzin here. For more about hydropower in Bhutan, see GlacierHub’s earlier story.