Friday, 28 March 2014

Mini series on volcano hazards - part II: From blows to flows...

So last time we talked about the ash the comes out of the volcano when it blows its top. We said that volcanic bombs can be unpleasant when they hit you - to put it mildly. We also discovered that the ash goes up in the air and eventually (slowly) falls back down and creates some serious problems.
Now unfortunately the ash doesn't always slowly come back down to the ground. An ash cloud is a mixture of broken up pieces of magma of different sizes (remember? Ash, lapilli, and bombs), and a bunch of hot gases. The volcano spits out that mixture, and when there is a lot of the hot gases and not quite as much ash the mixture rises up into the air. It can go quite high, and then get transported with the wind and create a big mess for air travel (which we saw happening all the way from Iceland to Europe 4 years ago). Why does the ash cloud rise up so high? In very simple terms it's the same principle as a hot air balloon: The mixture of hot gases and ash is less dense than the surrounding air, so it rises. Sometimes, the amount of ash in the ash cloud is too much though - so the mixture can't rise. Instead it does what every heavy object does when you throw it up into the air: It comes back down, sometimes really really quickly. When this happens we call it a "pyroclastic flow" (from the Greek words for fire and broken in pieces). Check out the video from Earth Uncut TV below to see what a pyroclastic flow looks like.

As you can see in the video, these pyroclastic flows can get quite fast. With speeds of several 100 km/h, they're too fast to drive away from in a car. They're also quite hot: The mixture is almost as hot as the lava that comes of the volcano, something like 600-800˚ C. That's over 3 times hotter than the temperature in your oven when you make pizza. So imagine something that hot hits you at speeds faster than a race car. You can imagine what the outcome would be... In 1991, the Japanese volcano Unzen erupted and created a pyroclastic flow that (in)famously killed over 40 people, including Katia and Maurice Krafft, a couple of volcanologists. 
Has anybody seen the movie Pompeii that came out a few weeks ago (at least in North America, some places in Europe etc might have to wait a bit longer...)? It's based on a true story of a volcanic eruption and a pyroclastic flow of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The pyroclastic flow from that eruption covered the city of Pompeii and everybody in there in several meters of ash. People's bodies were preserved in that ash, and at the historic site in Italy we can still see their casts in the positions they took in the last seconds of their lives that ended so abruptly almost 2000 years ago - a stark reminder of the power of volcanic eruptions.
Below another video (timelapse, by Photovolcanica) of a pyroclastic flow from Sinabung in Indonesia earlier this year. This particular one had a different trigger mechanism - the collapse of part of the volcanic edifice during the eruption. The outcome, however, can be as devastating as the pyroclastic flows generated by ash clouds. In fact, e.g. the Japanese example above was a pyroclastic flow created by a collapse of a part of the volcano.

As we will see next time, pyroclastic flows aren't the only flowing hazards on volcanoes. Water, ash, dirt, and bigger particles can create lahars, and of course lava itself can flow down the slopes of a volcano. But we'll save these topics for another time.

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