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.}

Repairing after eruption: the Waimangu Valley and Mt. Tarawera

tarawera-2009
One of the more impressive areas I visited while in New Zealand was the Waimangu Valley near Mt. Tarawera (above). The valley itself was created by blast explosions (phreatic explosions) during the 1886 eruption of Mt. Tarawera. These eruptions cut right down the axis of the rhyolite domes (most of which erupted ~1305 A.D.) and extended off the volcanic edifice to form the valley to the west of the volcano. In the valley, no juvenile lava was erupted, instead explosions carved out large pits that formed the Waimangu Valley and today the valley is filled with lakes and thermal features (below).
waimangu-steam
The 1886 eruption at Tarawera was not large by any means, erupting only ~0.7 cubic kilometers of basalt (compare that with the 1305 Kaharoa Rhyolite from Tarawera that erupted 5 cubic kilometers). However, hundreds of Maori villagers died during the eruption and basaltic tephra can be found all over the area north of Tarawera into the Bay of Plenty. Yet, only about a century later, most of the destruction caused by the eruption has been erased by vegetation. Compare the photo of the valley just after the eruption (top) to the one I took in January of 2009 (bottom) to see how things have recovered.
whaimangu-valley-1886
Waimangu Valley, 1886
whaimangu-valley-2009
Waimangu Valley, 2009
Volcanoes are truly destructive, but still just a flash in the pan for most earth processes.

Current Cerro Azul eruption over

Cerro Azul
The latest reports from Cerro Azul in the Galapagos indicate that the current eruption that started last week is over. The volcano erupted from Thursday to Sunday and produced lava flows that travelled 10 km from the vent, but little damage was reported. It is hard to tell from the report if this is the believed to represent all the activity to be expected at Cerro Azul, but more likely than not we’ll see more eruptions if this is a new stage of activity at the volcano (in spanish).

Tortoises vs. the volcano

Cerro Azul, Galapagos
I always find it interesting how and why news of a volcanic eruption makes it into the press. Sometimes it is just to report the eruption itself, however, a lot of the time it is more to report the “human interest” side of the story, or in this case, the wildlife side of the story. Cerro Azul, one of the volcanoes in the Galapagos islands, apparently erupted on Thursday (5/29). Lavas flows on the northeast side of the volcano are threatening the Giant Galapagos Tortoises and their status (the tortoises and the lava flows) will be monitored.
On the volcanic side of things, Cerro Azul last erupted in 1998, so it has been 10 years since the last one. The volcano is a shield volcano and makes up part of the Galapagos Islands – all volcanoes related to the Galapagos hot spot (similar to Hawai’i). The last eruptive period produced basaltic lava flows from rift vents and from the central vent, but was relatively mild (VEI 1) in nature. Authorities did, in fact, evacuate endangered tortoises during the last eruption, so we might see the tortoises get moved again if the current eruption continues.