As the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland continues to bellow ash into the skies across Europe there is a growing interest in the cause and the impact of volcano eruptions on both the environment and society. Now volcano experts Professor John P. Lockwood and Professor Richard W. Hazlett seek to answer these questions in their new book Volcanoes: A Global Perspective.
"Volcanoes are essential elements in the delicate global balance of elemental forces that govern both the dynamic evolution of the Earth and the nature of life itself," said Lockwood. "Without volcanic activity, life as we know it would not exist on our planet. Although beautiful to behold, volcanoes are also potentially destructive, and understanding their nature is critical to prevent major loss of life in the future."
The book, written in an informal manner, with minimum use of jargon, relies heavily on first-person, eye-witness accounts of eruptive activity at both "red" (effusive) and "grey" (explosive) volcanoes to illustrate the full spectrum of volcanic processes and their products.
Decades of teaching in university classrooms and fieldwork on active volcanoes throughout the world have provided the authors with unique experiences that they have distilled into a highly readable and comprehensive title, split into three sections:
- Global perspectives explores the mechanics and styles of volcanic eruptions, and the development of volcanic landforms and their distribution worldwide.
- Environmental perspectives introduces readers to the surprisingly important role of volcanism as regards agriculture, weather, climate, the origin of life, and the maintenance of a life-friendly atmosphere.
- Humanitarian perspectives discusses the major influences of volcanoes on human societies. This latter is especially important as resource scarcities and environmental issues loom over our world, and as increasing numbers of people are threatened by volcanic hazards.
"For me volcanology was initially a "fun career" and I regarded eruptions as "beautiful" and "entertaining" phenomenon, said Lockwood. "Although eruptions may indeed be "beautiful" they can also be "deadly". Real people live on and near volcano and their lives may depend on the work we do as volcanologists."
Author Interview: John P. Lockwood and Richard W. Hazlett
Q) How frequent are eruptions on the scale we have seen in Iceland?
Richard Hazlett: "On a global scale I'd say "every few years" roughly, but the current eruption is not over yet, so it is not really possible to judge the scale of it. Eruptions like the one we are seeing at Eyjafjallajökull usually do not prove to be so disruptive given their remoteness, at least as regards Western Europe."
Q) Judging from your own experiences in the field, are their historical precedents for this eruption and the subsequent chaos?
Richard Hazlett: "Many! John Lockwood speaks of one such instance, the 1982 Galunggung eruption, in Chapter 1 of the book, and in Europe there have been brief aviation disruptions caused by past Icelandic ash plumes too, though the last deeply serious impact of an Icelandic volcano on Europe was in 1783-1784, known as the Laki fissure event, which is also described in the book. There was no aviation industry then, but the agricultural issues that resulted were severe."
Q) What are the chances of the Katla Volcano erupting and what might the effects of this be?
John Lockwood: "Eyjafjallajökull is a really small volcano, its mama chamber is only a couple kilometres across and it has no potential to directly create global havoc. The concern is rightly focused on Katla, whose caldera is at least 12 km across! However the supposed temporal connection between Eyjafjallajökull activity and Katla are only "suggestive" and not backed by good statistics - certainly there have been major Katla eruptions with no Eyjafjalla activity."
Q) Are there other parts of the world where flight lanes are or have been closed due to ash producing volcanoes? Has one volcano ever caused a 'no-fly-zone' of this size?
Richard Hazlett: "Flight lanes have been closed in Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, Alaska, in much of Latin America, and throughout the northern conterminous United States from past eruptions of ash. The Aleutian arc, in Alaska, is a particular concern due to the huge amount of aviation between Europe, the US and East Asia crosses or flies adjacent to the Aleutians. This has compelled cooperation between volcano observatories in Japan, Russia, and the US to monitor volcanism in the region closely for early warning and response purposes."
Q) How long do you feel this eruption is likely to continue for?
Richard Hazlett: "Hekla, a much more active Icelandic volcano with 20 historical eruptions reported, has erupted for as long as a year, though ash falls spreading to Europe were intermittent. The 1947 eruption, which was quite violent, lasted for almost a month. I don't think the airlines can or should breathe easy quite yet because of "eased flight restrictions".
Q) Is it possible for scientists to accurately predict the extent of eruptions?
Richard Hazlett: "In my view, the answer to this question without fine-tuning the particulars, is "no," especially when it comes to volcanoes such as this in remote areas. On the other hand, there are patterns of past volcanic activity that can act as a guide to probable future development. I don't view the current eruption as anything really exceptional, except in terms of the disruption caused by its ash fall. Nor, apparently, do most Icelanders find it a terrible problem, at this stage at least."
Q) What advice would you give to communities and governments to prevent this sort of chaos happening again? Are there measures that can be taken or can we only accept and live with this sort of disruption?
Richard Hazlett:" As far as air disruption in Europe goes fortunately, this is not an "every-day" occurrence. I just feel sorry for the many people who are stranded and may well lose their jobs because of lost revenues. Maybe it would help if there were some sort of EU disaster relief package to keep airlines and other stressed organizations from going under."