The most dangerous volcano of the world! Talk part I

Deep Space Live 26.9.2013 Ars Electronica Center

by Birgit Hartinger

The most dangerous volcanoes of the world, presented in the series  „In Touch with the Earth“ in the AEC.

While preparing for this speech I came to notice that people, especially younger folks do not really know what a volcano is and even less what destructive force it can hold within. Many younger people only think of some unpronounceable Icelandic volcano that spit some ash in 2010 which disrupted air travel and caused some inconvenience. So I thought it to be wise to give some information about some rather recent eruptions which made their way into the press during my life time.

This also gives me an excuse for not really providing spectacular images as would be fit for a screen 16 by 9 meters. Photography was just not as advanced when Mount Saint Helens and Pinatubo erupted.
Mount Saint Helens did the big thing on May 18th 1980. Before it had been an almost perfectly cone shaped volcano which lay dormant for centuries. Many people only saw it as pristine vacation area. An ideal site for fishing trout in Spirit Lake or summer camps for the youth. It also harboured the best timber of the world, as some woodcutters stated.

In early 1980 a series of earthquakes started and some cracks in the ice started to appear. Later a column of “smoke“ started rising into the air close to the top. It was clear to the volcanologists, Mount Saint Helens was waking up. New instruments were brought to the mountain. With seismometers ( there  had only been one up on the mountain) and with new laser technology scientists started measuring the volcano to see how much the bulge forming on the mountain top was rising day by day. When they found a rise of 5 feet ( approximately 1,5 m ) they sent the instruments back to have them checked because they believed the measurements must be faulty. It turned out they were accurate and the bulge really rose at a rate of 5 feet per day.

After the eruption! in 1982.

After the eruption! In 1982.

Then on early May 18th a call from scientist named David Johnston reached the center: Vancouver… Vancouver this is it! (Famous last words.) When an eruption started suddenly the northwest flank of Mount Saint Helens gave way and a major landslide occurred, the biggest one in the history of the United States. This left the throat of the volcano open and so the eruption happened on a far bigger scale than previously predicted. The material sliding down the side reached Spirit Lake and swept across a ridge causing a major lahar. (= a mudflow, one volcanic hazard explained later in the speech.)

To cut a long story short.  An area of 60 km2 was flattened, some casualties (57 to be exact) had to be recorded, mostly people who were either too stubborn to leave, or scientists who stayed too close to the mountain and some campers who were also too close, because the flank failure could not be predicted. The ash cloud sent upwards caused the climate to be one degree colder the next 2 years.

And then came Pinatubo in 1991.
This event might not have been as well recorded if there had not been an United States Air Base in the vicinity, Clark Air Base. But the potential threat to American citizens made the government send geologists into the area to try to find out what was going on. There had been many  earthquakes during a period of 2 years beforehand. One of them a rather impressive 5.4.

The scientists did not have an easy job because if they had called for an evacuation and nothing had happened, people would lose their trust in them and might not be motivated to leave when the next evacuation plan was ordered. But studying the area’s  older ash deposits and especially the thickness of the layers left behind from ancient lahars clearly showed that Pinatubo has the potential to be a monster.  So, again the short version. After months Pinatubo started with minor eruptions, but the scientists believed it was only clearing its throat. Finally  they called “red alert” and Clark Air Base was cleared.

Scientists had stated a major eruption was imminent within the next 2 days. Some hours after the deadline of 2 days, it really happened and Pinatubo blew an ash column over 30 km into the air. There were not as many victims of the eruption as there would have been without the call for an evacuation by the American scientists, but only those who left right after Clark Air Base was abandoned were saved. The lahars streaming towards the coast left hundreds if not thousands of people dead, as did the starvation which followed.

One thing that has to be mentioned: Unfortunately the eruption occurred during a typhoon; so the ash was distributed over a much larger surrounding area than it would have been without the storm. Pinatubo’s 1991 eruption is said to have caused a cooling of the earth’s climate by 2 degrees in the following 2 years. Meanwhile Pinatubo has calmed down and a beautiful lake has formed inside its crater.


Mount Saint Helens and Pinatubo had global volcanic effects. Eyjafjalla was a local event, if airplanes had not been invented, no one would have noticed anything different here in Middle Europe.

So volcanoes can have local and global effects. The explosiveness of volcanic eruption is calculated in VEI Volcanic Eruption Index.
We on Volcanocafé seem to agree that this is not the most perfect tool to determine the real danger of a volcano because it only shows the amount of emitted material in cubic tons but does not take the time in which this happened into consideration. Everything above VEI4 is a major event, but Grimsvotn spat out more material in 3 days than Eyjafjalla did in months and hardly anyone in Europe even noticed (besides us volcanoholics of course).


Next I´ll be trying to explain the different hazards volcanoes can bring.
Please take into account, that this is a talk for people who have near to no knowledge about volcanoes and I want to get them fascinated with my hobby.



Here is the announcement for the lecture on the museums Homepage (in German):

It includes a link to VC.

Continued in

100 thoughts on “The most dangerous volcano of the world! Talk part I

  1. Etna:
    Gradualy Etna has moved on to Strombolian action reaching 150 meters height from the New South East Crater, and as a first in a long time Bocca Nuova has started to erupt in the form of ash explosions.
    I do not remember offhand when Etna last had two active vents.

    I hope that we will have a comment from Boris on this soon. It is very interesting.

    • BN collapsed earlier this September. Earlier this month, the New southeast crater was the site of very diffuse strombolian eruptions. I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but I guess it began building up.

      The strombolian eruptions are happening ever more frequently and getting more powerful. When they began, they were throwing incandescent material to a height of 40 meters. Activity started on the third, and thus in 22 days that number of 40 has more than tripled to 150. Frequency has gone from a few explosions a week to a few per day.

      So I was wrong. This activity is going up, not down. I expect more severe activity to occur.

    • We did a long discussion on it on the previous post. I think last someone saw Islander was when he left for Baluchistan with a portable oil rig. Jokes aside, it was good discussion.

  2. Probably the best documentary I’ve seen on a volcano. If this doesn’t pique your interests further in volcanoes (generally speaking), then not much else likely will.

    Part 1 starts here, the other parts are also on youtube.

  3. I would just like to remind everyone that the next installment will be tomorrow at 16.00 Blog Time (same as today), and the last part will be on friday same time.

  4. Great post Spica! I’m looking forward to the next. 🙂

    Incidentally, Hekla had a bit of a turn last night – small drop HEK followed by a small drop on BUR. I couldn’t post about this in the day as we have a really old computer system at work and the new Volcanocafe is too much for it! I can read everything – just not post! These were very tiny drops – but show that she’s still twitchy. 🙂

    • Too bad your computer doesn´t cope so well with the new layout. Obviously you couldn´t complain about it until now. That raises the question how many others are affected and “silenced”.

      • I think very few… If I remember it was touch and go for Talla before the change. Ontop of that I know of people who mainly used phones who had problems before and now get full access.
        Even though it may sound harsh, we have to kind of follow with the stream a bit, and in the end we can’t keep the site for old computers indefinitely.
        This is the drawback with new technology. I though tried it on a an old single core processor today with 1gb of memory, and it worked, but slooooow.

      • It’s great, but on the iPhone it’s a disaster. Part of the comments slide into a dark grey bar on the side, and scrolling rips of one’s finger. But I’d say finish all the installments and let’s see what comes out in the end.

    • “Old computer.” {snicker}

      I have a “new” laptop on the way here right now. It’s CPU is an 8088. It’s certified to be able to handle DOS 3.2.

      (No, I’m not lying. I plan on gifting it to one of the grandkids who has been a bit of an ass lately)

      • I cut my teeth on an apple2 !!! My dad was an early adopter… I was popular with the other kids in the neighbourhood; you had to type-in and de-bug yr own games in those days; which was a team effort….

      • Ya want evil? This was totally unintentional.

        I had to go do a server for a State agency. Evidently, the staff there is wound a bit tight, not everyone utilizing their particular services are the prim and proper type. My point of contact was not readily available, so one of her coworkers who knew of my reason for being there, let me in and took me to the server room. It had been a long drive so I put down my tools and parts, and went to the rest room. When I came back, the point of contact was standing in the server room looking at my stuff. She was muttering to herself “Well, I see his tools but I don’t see him.” She turned around and I said “Hi.”

        She nearly went through the ceiling.

        The wild part is that I intentionally stand back from someone in such a scenario. I was an easy 8 feet away from her when I said “Hi.” So it wasn’t a proximity thing.

      • Hm, for me they are lightning fast this night… Yesterday I had slow ones. Hm… I blame The Gargoyle of Mysterious Malfunctions that WordPress has installed when they rolled out a new version of WP this monday.

  5. Great article Birgit, it’s a shame you’ve only got an hour for your talk, I’m very glad we’ve been treated to the extended version here.
    Good Luck tomorrow 🙂

      • Activity has been almost continuous for weeks. Never seen this before. I wouldn’t feel at ease if I were living in Kagoshima right now, no matter what authorities would say,,,

          • Safety note. Do not leave the dogs leash tied to the bumper. Even if it’s for just a moment.

            When all hell breaks loose, you tend to forget minor details. The dog will thank you.

        • I would not do anything special yet. It just seems humongous due to Sakurajima having been so cuddly before. It looks worse than it is so far.
          In the future the bets are off. But I would not be to worried for the next few days.

          • Well, maybe not a life-threatening kind of feeling, but can you imagine waking up every other night with a sudden rumbling, and get caught when your jogging around the bay by an ash fall? Doesn’t sound a neat experience to me…

            • Re: Jogging.

              While driving through Mary Ester today, I noticed that as usual, the school had it’s PE class out running down the sidewalk. Today, I noticed that all of the girls were in the lead. I do not think that it is indicative of the relative physical ability of the students, the boys were lagging behind the pack. Considering that these are 15 to 17 year olds, I think the lag is not due females having less mass… it’s how that mass is distributed. A 15 to 17 year old male’s disposition is to trail the pack given that scenario.

              My only issue is that they are running along the side a four lane roadway in heavy afternoon traffic. This contributes to people not keeping an eye on the road. The dump trucks darting from lane to lane are hard enough to keep track of.

              Oh, and the spandex doesn’t help the issue at all.

            • Doesn’t sound a neat experience to me…

              Back during “A” school, one thing that the pilot trainees from NAS liked to do, was to sit it on it’s arse directly over our chow hall and go full throttle. (unlimited climb) Silverware dancing across the table is a bit un-nerving.

  6. Public Service Anouncement!

    As you perhaps have noticed that if there are two pages of comments clicking on a link to a comment on the other page does not work any longer. So, to solve this problem we now have 75 Base-comments per page instead of the 50 we have had up untill now (A base-comment is the first comment in a comment thread).

    This should cut down on the problem significantly. The drawback is that we will have 50 percent more comments per page and that might slow down loading when the page is starting to get full. I do not think it will make a big difference, but if it becomes an issue we will go back to the lower setting.


    • Hmm…. freind of mine in New York noted that much of his area was on lockdown with roving bands of armed police moving about.

      Turned out a 63 year old Asian man had shot the hell out of something. Dunno what, but since it was near a mall, they went freakazoid. Last I heard is that he was a disgruntled vendor. My freind now thinks it would probably be a good idea to keep all vendors gruntled, so that they don’t become disgruntled.

      [redacted to keep from offending those who wish to be offended]

      • I think that would be a multiple personality issue.

        If that were the case, then you would have to have a quorum before making any decisions.

        Could the absent personality then sue for redress if a decision is made despite the lack of a quorum? What if the decision kept the collective organization of personalities from failing due to damage of the host?

  7. It amazes me how younger people who go to school don’t even know what a volcano is. The “dumbing down effect” as another family member of mine puts it, I guess it is showing.

    I’m not a geologist but I find myself appreciating earth even more by the day.

    Hekla news! I can’t wait to read that article ..

    • Hello Michael!

      Columbo Reef is one of those really coolish places. There is still a nice temperature gradient ontop of it if you sail there. And according to the local fisherman I talked to sometimes it changes colour, especially during the frequent earthquake swarms out there.
      Columbo was very close to erupting in 2011.

        • Because 15 years back everyone thought that Columbo was just a side vent of the Thira volcano on Santorini. Later research have shown that the volcano is an independent entity. Most of the stuff on GVP was written 10 to 15 years ago, and after that they have more or less just added the weekly reports. GVP is out of date, and after their “Upgrade” highly inaccesible and riddled with technical glitches.

  8. It’s 2330 local and I’m hungry. The humidity here has dropped due to the beginnings of heading into winter and a front has pushed a bit of dry(er) air into the region.

    So, grab a few smoked sausages and throw them on the grill. The only way this could be better is if it were Friday and I had large quantities of beer to go through.

    Of course, I do have the two rat dogs that are now following me around the house when I come inside. They know that I’m up to something. They can smell it in the air.

  9. Way the hell out there on the southern end of it.

    M5.4 – Reykjanes Ridge 2013-09-26 01:18:54 UTC
    M4.8 – Reykjanes Ridge 2013-09-26 02:32:11 UTC

    Though no beach ball was available, both occurred in an area that typically sees normal faulting. Together, they make for 12.7 cm of displacement. Nothing fancy, just an extra bit of strain on the rest of the MAR.

    • Yupp, hrdly Iceland related. If one draws line from southern tip of Greenland to Ireland. Thats how close it gets here. However (I am back from Balukistan) as there is Tjörnes-brotabelti quakes waking up. At current time swarm is “mild”. And Hekla is stable. If it becomes unstable…

        • No. Probably harm only me, me thinks 😉
          Probably get Nobel´s priser if that does NOT happen!
          But, no, not licenced handle that.

          But will this do? The next best thing I can provide.
          A forecast of someone on Face book, that some terrible, horrible Earthquake thing thing “… will happen here at 13:00 hrs or 23:15 hrs tomorrow” (not exact, sorry). It probably will however, some day, week, month, or in ten years time.
          *needs translator, Icelandic text, website not to be taken too seriously on any count*
          (Seriously: I was called on my mobile due this “”news”” today)

          • Is it the Völva that is up and running again?
            I loved it when she predicted that the Shopping Center* in my hometown would crash down horribly 14 years in a row… The Shopping Center? Still standing.

            *The Shopping Center in Luleå Sweden was designed by the famous architect Ralph Erskine. It is a decidedly odd building, and back in the fifties when it was built it was both considered seriously radical, and was also the first Shopping Center in Europe. It was based on a combination of an Atlantic Cruise Ship, an American Mall, and an Arabic Soukh. It is still a rather odd building. And there are stuff in that house, and under it, that people would not believe. But… It is still standing almost 60 years after it was built.
            How odd you say? Well, there is a complete Movie Theater in the basement that is Concreted completely sealed shut, and there is a sub-basement with a fifites subway station with a subway train with no where to go since the subway was never built. Just so you can understand the level of how complete it is. The Candy Machine in the Subway has candy in it, vintage fifties candy.
            Oh, it is The Shopping Center for which all others are named after, and the name is actually Shopping Center. By todays standards it is considered very small, but still…. It is damned odd building.

    • Servus, Birgit! Ich bin stolz auf dich!
      Hope you can have an “extra lecture” in January, special for friends. And I hope I’ll be available this time around… How about an arrangement with our VC colleagues living nearby? We could all go pay a visit to Ars Electronica… 😉 😉 😉

      • Thanks Renato. I cannot promise if i can hold the lecture again for you, it is not a normal DS Programm but i could do it in private.
        Yes a meeting of VC people would be cool. And you and your company now get an invitation from me for a guided tour trough the Ars Electronica Center
        AND a dinner at my place. ( I used to be a chef long ago) so cooking is one of my other hobbies. You wont regret eating here, i can promise this much.

      • Thanks
        I am getting a tiny little bit nervous now, right afterwards is another show, about HR Giger the man who is reponsible for the design of Alien. ( the movie)

          • The images will stay in the Museum and we may present them in Deep Space whenever we like. So if you would come by… i could show them to you. HR Giger was the featured artist at this years festival beginning of Septmeber

        • You’re gonna be great.

          I live quite near where Giger lives and has his museum. He’s in Gruyère, a small middle-age town with a splendid castle. Don’t miss that if you travel to Switzerland. And take a few hours to go up the Moléson, our home-peak. The view is just incredible. Google pictures of Gruyère and the Moléson. It will make you want to visit that region. If one of you comes to that museum, tell me, I’ll be there.
          And hell try our cheeses. Gruyère and Vacherin, and the fondue made of 1:1 of them. Then double-cream and meringue as dessert. And take one of our nut-tarts home to serve with your coffee. That’ll teach you a lot about what we’re made of…

  10. Announcment!
    We dragons would like to update a few of the neglected corners of VC. We will (hopefully) share the work and make a list who does what in our dragons den. ( A testblog)
    But we need your help!
    Webcamlinks change and it takes a lot of time to check them all. Could you, dear readers please help us check the links and point out links to webicorders/ seismogramms, and if you find a new cam or a broken link… lets hear about it. Please leave comments regarding this issue directly below the page you checked and not in the normal flow of comments under a post. This would make it easier for us to sort them in. Thank you in advance.

  11. Pingback: The most dangerous volcanoes of the world! Talk part II | VolcanoCafé

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