Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Mini series on volcano hazards - part III: More on flows

As we learned last time, if an ash cloud becomes to heavy it can collapse and generate a pyroclastic flow. Those flows are not the only ones that happen during or after volcanic eruptions.
An obvious one are lava flows. Depending on the type of volcano, lava can be sticky or runny. The sticky lava tends to be able to store more pressure, and erupt more violently when it finally does. That's what happened e.g. when Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. More runny lava tends to erupt less explosively, instead we say the eruptions are "effusive". Of course, as always, there are exceptions to those rules, but it's a good big picture way to think about different styles of eruptions. During effusive eruptions, runny lava either just trickles out of a vent, or sometimes fountains out of fissures. That looks just like a fountain in the park, but with lava instead of water. Here's a video from Kilauea on Hawai`i, you can see lava fountaining out of a fissure, and then - curiously - disappearing into a crack in the ground.
Lava flows are a hazard, mainly because there's not that much that you can do when one shows up in your backyard, like in the photo below. Luckily, at least they're usually quite slow, so you should be able to run (or even walk) away and save yourself.
Lava flow in Kalapana, a now mostly abandoned village on the Big Island of Hawai`i (photo:USGS/Wikimedia Commons)
So that's lava flows. But did I mention mudflows, so-called lahars? Those guys can be quite dangerous too. But what are they? Imagine an explosive eruption with a pyroclastic flow. That kind of eruption often happens on steep, high volcanoes which in turn have snow and ice covering them, sometimes all year round. We learned that pyroclastic flows are really hot, right? What happens to some (or all) of the snow and ice when it gets hit by a pyroclastic flow? It melts. Sometimes a lot. So now we have a lahar - a hot mix of ash, lapilli, bombs, and meltwater rushing down the mountain, sometimes as fast as a car. During that process, lahars often take out trees and other "obstacles", and the more material they carry the more obstacles they can take out, like a tsunami on land. That's exactly what happened in 1985 at Nevado del Ruiz, Colombia. The lahar that was caused by a relatively small explosive eruption was so powerful rushing down into the country surrounding the volcano that it killed over 23,000 people, and left another 10,000 injured and/or homeless.

The same thing can happen long after an eruption has stopped. After the famous eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, not snow and ice but heavy rain started to generate mudflows by mixing with ash on the slopes of the mountain. 
Below an image of a house buried by a lahar. Imagine how powerful the flow must have been!
House buried during lahar, Chaiten, Chile, Dec 2009 (photo: Photovolcanica/Richard Roscoe)
Let's keep in mind that these flows can happen a long time after a volcano has stopped erupting, as long as there is enough loose material on its slopes. Now we need to monitor not only the volcano, but also keep an eye on the weather to make sure we're covering all our bases. Luckily, some smart engineering can help us against this hazard. In some places, e.g. at Sakurajima in Japan, they constructed large, concrete flow channels and dams (sabos) to direct lahars away from villages. Even though sabos can't provide a guarantee that a lahar won't sweep away your house, they're a good start at reducing the risk linked to this particular type of volcanic hazard.