The Sciences

When it Comes to Volcanic Hazards, It is all About Location

Rocky Planet iconRocky PlanetBy Erik KlemettiApr 19, 2012 2:36 PM


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This week a lot of the volcanic focus has been on Mexico's Popocatepétl and its rumbling - and rightly so. When it comes to volcanic hazards, many times it is all about location, location, location. Popocatepétl is situated within 70 km of a major metropolitan center with a population of over 20 million, so even small-to-moderate eruptions can have wide-ranging effects. The same can be said for why we hear about fairly small eruptions in Indonesia and Japan, where their island location and high population density means humans and volcanoes are in direct contact. This juxtaposition of people and volcanoes is also why it seems like there is more volcanic activity now than 200 years ago - there are more people, more places to see it happen and feel the effects! Combine that with remote sensing and instant communication and suddenly an eruption that would have been unnoticed in 1875 is on the front page of news websites around the globe within minutes in 2012. This phenomenon partially explains why the volcanoes on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula can have, what in other places might have been considering significant eruptions, but they barely get noticed. This week one of the most active volcanoes on the peninsula, Shiveluch, erupted and produced an ash plume that reached 9.5 km / 31,000 feet (along with smaller plumes that were reaching ~6.5 km / 21,000 feet). That is quite the ash plume and appears to be the largest eruptions of the year so far for Shiveluch. KVERT, the organization that monitors the volcanoes of Kamchatka, have placed Shiveluch on Orange Alert status (it has been on this level of alert for quite some time) warning "Ash explosions up to 32,800 ft (10 km) ASL could occur at any time". Read over the latest activity update from KVERT and you can see just how volcanically active the Kamchatka Peninsula is. However, the largest city on the Kamchatka Peninsula is Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky (population ~180,000), located over 430 km to the south of Shiveluch, so there aren't a lot of people near the volcano in the sparsely population eastern region of Russia. This activity isn't even abnormal for the volcano, as the dome grows and collapses, producing these explosive events. The real hazard, as we've seen before, from Kamchatkan volcanoes is to air traffic over/near the peninsula, traveling from Europe and North America to Asia. So, as we wait and watch Popocatepétl produce small puffs of ash, remember that if we shipped the volcano to the remotest parts of Russia, we likely wouldn't even know the volcano was active right now. Conversely, drop Shiveluch outside of a major population center (say, Seattle) and think of the news coverage. When it comes to volcanic hazards, it is all about the neighborhood. N.B., Shiveluch might be remote, but it isn't remote enough to lack webcams - you can check out the activity when the conditions are right.

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