MadSci Network: Earth Sciences

Re: Do you think scientists will be able to prevent volcanic eruptions?

Date: Tue Dec 5 22:55:58 2000
Posted By: Matthew Buynoski, Senior Member Technical Staff,Advanced Micro Devices
Area of science: Earth Sciences
ID: 975863649.Es

Hello, Mike. 

Can scientists prevent volcanic eruptions?  In a word, no.  The forces 
involved are quite enormous. For example, the Mt. St. Helens blast was 
estimated at something like the power of a 5 megaton hydrogen bomb, and
Mt. St. Helens is not especially large for a volcanic event. Stopping such
a release of energy is akin to trying to contain the explosion of a hydrogen 
bomb, which hopeless with present technology or any that 
this Mad Scientist can forsee.  It may be possible in the distant future 
(the technology for this does not now exist) to lessen the worst violence of 
eruptions, but the methods may be almost as bad as the original result. One 
can think of using nuclear devices to perhaps "defuse" the biggest events by 
starting them before their full fury builds up. But this is hardly stopping 
it, just spreading it out somewhat. The energy is down there, and it will 
come out one way or another.

That said, scientists can and do ameliorate the loss of life from an 
eruption by predictive methods.  Sensitive measurements of earthquake 
swarms, gravitational anomalies (helps to tell the magma is moving), 
physical swelling of the volcano, and so forth, have done a lot to
be able to predict roughly when an eruption is coming. Thus they can with
reasonable confidence predict that there is a high likelihood of an eruption 
coming within a few days.  This can give enough time to carry out 
evacuations of potentially affected areas and save quite a number of lives
and some personal property. 

As to the formation of volcanos, this is a subject of such size that I can
not even begin to really address it here in a short note. You must read a 
book or two, as there are many kinds of volcanoes and igneous formations in 
general. This covers everything from steaming fumaroles to mantle hot spots 
to subduction zones to mid-ocean ridges to...the list is nearly endless. 
There are a number of books solely on volcanoes. Here are two that I happen
to own:

		"Volcanoes", by Gordon A. MacDonald
		"Volcanoes", by Cliff Ollier

(I note in passing that earth scientists might perhaps use a little more 
creativity in their quest for book titles :-)

Both will serve as a reasonable introduction to volcanoes. As will many 
other books on the subject.

There is a quite interesting and very informative episode of the television
program "Nova" on volcanoes, and it had a good deal about the methods of
prediction of eruptions. There is a lot in it about the Mt. Pinatubo 
eruption in the Phillipines that I found especially fascinating (not the 
least being some of the footage of the eruption itself).

The Web has zillions of sites on volcanoes, so many that you could probably 
spend your whole life trying to read them all.  Try starting at the web site 
of the US Geological Survey (; they alone have 987 
references to volcanoes (using the search engine on their home page).

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