Extremophiles, Volcanoes and You


Folks have been suggesting that life on Earth started near volcanic vents for a long time now (and of course, some people don’t buy it). Whether or not life sprung forth near hydrothermal vents, undersea black smokers or from the head of Zeus, it doesn’t really change the fact that we find organisms living in these places today, expanding what we might consider “habitable” by leaps and bounds. Case and point, researchers from CU-Boulder have recently found a community of micro-organisms happily living near the summit of Volcán Socompa (above) in Chile in the hydrothermal vents. Now, having done field work in the high Andes of Chile (at Volcán Aucanquilcha – say that three times fast), I can attest to the fact that it is as close to working on Mars as you might be able to get on Earth – dry, desolution, mostly lifeless, extreme day/night temperature variations, thin air, the whole nine yards. So, to find these communities shows just how hardy life can be when presented with challenges.
One interesting question not brought up in the article is how quickly might these communities develop. Socompa was last known to have erupted in 5250 B.C. (most likely). This might limit the amount of time for these micro-organisms to take a foothold at the summit of the volcano to at most ~7,000 years. This seems like a pretty reasonable time for life to reemerge after an eruption – the question would be from where did it arrive in a place as desolate as the high Andes of Chile after the eruption. Of course, this also begs the question of whether life like this could exist of Mars, but that is question best left untouched by me. To me, this is just another example of how no matter how destruction we think volcanoes are, life just keeps on coming back for more.
{Hat tip to reader Thomas Donlon for pointing this out to me.}

Concern lingers, angers flare at Chaiten


The people who remain in Chaiten face the potential for a devasting pyroclastic flow, so says Jorge Muñoz of the SERNAGEOMIN in Chile. The volcano is still producing large ash columns on Tuesday and a flyover of the dome forming inside the caldera has lead to the concern that a collapse on a larger scale than those seen last week could wipe out the town for good.
The government hopes news like this from volcanologists might convince the last remaining residents of Chaiten to leave, but no indication of this has come to pass. In fact, things sound like they’re getting heated in the fight over the town of Chaiten. The Minister of Government Affairs had this to say to the lawyers for the remaining residents:

“I think that up until now, we have been quite convincing, but to say that the problem is to unblock the river (…) Why don’t we back up a bit? Why is the river overflowing? Because the volcano is exploding, that’s why!”

It gets even uglier here from the Undersecretary of the Interior. It seems that both sides are digging in the heels, so to speak.

More activity at Galeras


Galeras, in Colombia, appears to have entered a new cycle of activity as it has erupted for the second time in a week. A large explosion occurred this morning that was accompanied by falling ash and rocks (ballistic bombs) from the event. It is unclear how far the volcanic products travelled from the vent, but Colombian officials did raise the alert level back to red and ordered new evacuations.

Chaiten Redux


UPDATE 2/19/2009 9:45 AM: Well, it seems that my hunch was at least partially right. Reuters (and Paula Narvaez, special envoy to the Chilean president) is calling the eruption as result of “what appeared to be a partial collapse of its cone.” So, we might have seen the oversteepening of the dome growing in the Chaiten caldera that lead to a collapse, producing (likely) a pyroclastic flow and either an accompanying plinian eruption as the pressure was released or an ash column associated with the pyroclastic flow itself. Now, I might not take Reuters word for it, but it makes sense considering the suddenness of the event.
10:00 AM: More details for Reuters, including the ominous “Our security team have observed an increase in the size of a column of ash and smoke, with a deformation to one side” from the Deputy Interior Minister. My guess is he is referring to deformation on the ash column, not the volcano.
4:00 PM: From a Newsday article, just some more details on the ash dispersal: “On Thursday, increased seismic activity was reported and ash fell 100 miles (160 kilometers) away in Futaleufu.”

Eruptions reader Brian Owens has pointed out that fellow volcano follower, the Volcanism Blog, is reporting that Chaiten is experience a major rejuvenation today.
Sure enough, the Associated Press also reporting that an explosion has occurred in the main dome of Chaiten that has been built since last May and that material is moving downslope from the explosion. There is no clear word what type of volcanigenic material this might be – pyroclastic flow, lahars, avalanche – but there is a major fear that it could block the river and cause flooding in the town of Chaiten. The few citizens left in the area are being evacuated. The Patagonia Times adds that the eruption started around 11 A.M. (local time) and ash has spread across much of the region.
From what I can gather, this seems like it might have been either a dome collapse that was quickly followed by an explosion (possibly caused by the release of pressure from the collapse) or some “burp” of gas-rich magma erupting. The reports of “a massive column of ash” are interesting as this could suggest a true new flux of magma, but it is hard to tell at this point how widespread is the ash and how tall the column might be. At this point, it is all conjecture, but it sounds like Chaiten might be making a comeback. The questions woulds be how big and for how long.
I’ll update as we find out more …

Galeras erupts


UPDATE 2/15/2009 20:30 PM: Marta Calvache of INGEOMINAS says that seismicity has all but stopped at Galeras after the eruption Saturday night, however the area will be kept on alert for more potential activity. However, even with the eruption, apparently there are very few people in the evacuation centers – never a good sign if something really big were to happen at the restless Colombian volcano.  
Last night, Galeras, near Pasto in Colombia, erupted, prompting an evacuation of nearly 7,000 people living near the volcano. The first CNN article linked above, for some reason, says that Galeras is not in a “heavily populated” area, however over 500,000 people live in or around Pasto, which is quite close to the volcano itself (see the CCTV video footage or the picture above for evidence). The current eruption has blanketed Pasto in “abundant ash” (according to the mayor of Pasto), where there have no been reported injuries or death, however, they did have to close down two water treatment plants. Beyond this, not too much is known about this eruption as it is cloudy and rainy near the volcano. That being said, with this much ash being deposited, there is likely a plinian component to the eruption, making it likely to have been a larger eruption than many of the recent events at Galeras, the last ending in January 2008 (VEI ~2). 
{Hat tip to Jesse for pointing this out to me last night.}

Eruption soon at Huila?


Bored with waiting for Redoubt to erupt? Well, Nevado del Huila in Colombia looks like it is also on the eruption watch list. A fly-over of Huila performed by Colombian officials (unclear from the article if it was done by National Emergency Management or INGEOMINAS) revealed a large lava dome growing in the crater, suggesting that an eruption might follow considering all the lava being extruded. This eruption might come in the form of an explosion caused by the collapse of this lava done – the collapse itself could generate a pyroclastic flow and the release of pressure on the underlying magma from the collapse of the dome could prompt a plinian eruption as well (but this is all speculation on my part based on the short article). This type of activity would produce a larger eruption than we’ve seen so far during the rejuvenation of Huila that started in the fall of 2007. Evacuations are being recommended for all people living near the volcano.

Evacuations continue at Huila


The Colombian government has extended the evacuations near Nevado del Huila, taking 800 families out of the danger zone near the rumbling volcano. Huila has been making a lot of noise as of late, and Colombian officials in Ingeominas and the National System for Emergencies are worried that the volcano will erupt soon, sending avalanches and lahars down the valleys of the Paez and Simbola Rivers as happened in November of 2008 (see above or the link to the Volcanism Blog). They also note that Ingeominas is installing microphones on the volcano to detect explosions in the crater to better predict potential lahars.
However, this report is almost dangerously erroneous. The report notes:

The volcano’s crater holds 52 million cubic meters (1.8 billion cubic feet) of lava, said Colombia’s Caracol Radio. That’s the equivalent of 13.8 billion gallons.

Now, this might be the case that the crater might be able to hold a volume of 52 million cubic meters of something – lava, water, Jell-O, caviar – but by no means is the crater at Huila currently holding 52 million cubic meters of liquid, bubbling lava. Maybe that volume of solidified lava in dome material, but clearly not molten lava. It is this kind of incorrect information that can cause undue panic and hysteria in the public and press.

Chaiten update for 2009


It is hard to believe that the eruption at seem to come out of nowhere at Chaiten started over 8 months ago now, and apparently is still not showing many signs of abating. I did get a chance to see some great talks and posters at AGU last month about the Chaiten eruption, with the key points I took away being that Chaiten is erupting a very crystal poor rhyolite (<1% crystals) and that it seems that the source of the magma is relatively deep in the Andean crust. Also, there are some indications that the eruption at Chaiten may have been tectonically instigated – i.e., that earthquakes in the area might have helped the magma to erupt – at least that is what Luis Lara of the SERNAGEOMIN believes (hat tip to Thomas Donlon for the link). The eruption at Chaiten also wreaked more havoc on aviation in South America than we thought, effecting airports 1000s of kilometers away and almost bringing down a number of aircraft. Most everyone I talked to seems to think what we are seeing is very similar to what happened at Little Glass Mountain in California about 1,000 years ago.
Moreover, the eruption hasn’t really stopped since it began in May of 2008. In fact, just last week we saw a collapse of part of the new dome that have produced some pyroclastic flows within and outside the caldera (see above and the Volcanism Blog) and fed more ash into the choked rivers near the volcano. It is anyone’s guess (well, at least at AGU) how long this eruption might go on – weeks? months? years? – but the consensus is that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime eruption (but we already knew that, didn’t we?)

New evacuations near Huila


Nevado del Huila continues to cause problems in Colombia. Over 4,000 people had to be evacuated today from the Belalcazar area after the volcano showed new signs of eruption. No description is given to exactly what those signs were/are, however after the lahars in November (2008), it sounds like the Colombian government is not taking chances. Huila has been rumbling for almost two years now after almost 450 years on silence (that we know of) at the volcano.

Another tidbit from AGU…

I was chatting with a fellow from AVO and he called the simultaneous eruptions of Kasatochi, Cleveland and Okmok a “once in a millennia” event. So, enjoy it!
He also mentioned that the Kasatochi eruption released the most sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere since the 1991 Pinatubo eruption … but we had an idea of that already.
And who knew that there has been uplift at Uturuncu in Bolivia? I sure didn’t, but Steve Sparks does.
 
More to come later this week when I can go to all the Chaiten posters.