Since I was talking about eruption forecasting in the last post I think it's time to talk a bit about why we even care. Ok, we all know that volcanic eruptions can be dangerous, and that people like me are trying to understand them better, but what specifically can be a hazard during or after an eruption?
This is going to be a mini series - each post will cover a new hazard. So let's start with a very obvious one: Volcanic ash, lapilli, and bombs. What do these terms mean?
Explosive eruptions usually send pieces of rock into the air. All of the pieces smaller than 2 mm diameter are called ash. Everything between 2 mm and 6.4 cm is called lapilli, and everything larger than that is called volcanic bombs. Look at the photo below to see an explosion with a bunch of ash and some really large bombs.
The smaller the piece the further it can get away from the volcano - either because of the explosive power of the eruption, or because it gets carried away by wind in the atmosphere. Bombs are really dangerous when you're close to volcanic eruptions - it's probably not very healthy to get hit in the head with a 10 cm or so potentially hot rock that comes flying through the air.
Ash is obviously also a problem close to the volcano: Imagine a huge sandstorm, but in addition particles in the ash are often also hot, and covered with acids from the gases in the eruption. Getting that in your eyes is inconvenient at best, and once you get the fine particles in your nose or lungs it only goes downhill. If you're exposed to ash from volcanic eruptions for a long time (e.g. many years living close to an erupting volcano) it can cause significant health issues. One way to make it at least a little bit better is to wear a mask that covers your face.
Unfortunately that's not the end of it. Even small layers of fine ash on e.g. air conditioning or air plane turbines cause the parts to corrode really fast - that's why airspace usually gets closed off around volcanic eruptions. Remember the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010? Very fine ash particles got blown towards Europe and a lot of people were stranded in airports for days.
Now imagine ash fall onto the roof of your house: Even a small layer, say 5 cm, can be really dangerous. Why? Well, ash - just like sand - is just tiny pieces of rock. If your roof is 10 m x10 m and has a 5 cm layer of ash on it that's a total volume of 5 cubic meters. Rock has a density of approximately 2600 kg per 1 cubic meter, so 2600 times 5 is? That's right, really really heavy! Even if the ash isn't as dense (and thus heavy) as solid rock, thin layers of ash add up to a heavy weight quite quickly. That makes building collapse a big danger.
Last but not least, there can be impacts on the economy. Ash fall covering crops can cause entire seasons to be without harvest, and animals don't find plants to feed from. Below is a photo of flowers covered in ash at Sakurajima Volcano, Japan, to give you an idea of what the ash can do. Now imagine thicker layers of ash from a bigger eruption!
|Flowers covered in ash after a small explosive eruption at Sakurajima Volcano, Japan, Jul 2013. This was only a small eruption, so imagine what it must be like after a large explosive eruption! Photo: K.Unglert|
Now we've learned about the main dangers of ash, lapilli, and bombs being thrown out of volcanic vents during an eruption. When the ash is a bit too heavy too rise, or when the ash and the bigger pieces build up over time, they can cause more hazards (pyroclastic flows and lahars), but we're gonna hear about those another time!