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Preparing for a volcanic eruption

Yesterday, while I was cleaning my flat (you asking for a medal, Ed?), I had the TV on in the background and it was running a series of programmes via the Horizon team at the BBC about various natural disasters, such as earthquakes, killer giant waves and tsunamis. In the latter case, the programme speculated that if there was a volcanic eruption in one of the islands in the group known as the Canaries, off the African coast, that it would trigger a huge slide of rock into the ocean, therby causing a massive wave, which would then run left across to the Eastern seaboard of North America, probably parts of the Caribbean also, annihilating all in its path. New York, Balimore, Miami, etc would be obliterated.

This guy is not terribly convinced by the thesis. But suppose for a second that the direst predictions are accurate. Part of the theory is that the eruption will be so violent because of the enormous pressure that is building up inside the active volcano. So a question that occured to me was why doesn’t a team of geologists and engineers try to bore several large holes in the side of the volcano and let some of the pent-up magma come out, in a fairly controlled way?

I am not a scientist so feel free to mock this idea, but it occurs to me that given all the facts presented, this sort of idea might be a goer. I’d be interested to know what people think. There might be other techical “fixes” that spring to mind.

23 comments to Preparing for a volcanic eruption

  • Jim

    But the boreholes might cause an earth tremor, which might start the rock slipping into the sea. Best to leave nature to its own thing. If you want a real scare check out super volcanos, especially Lake Toba and Yellowstone. The yellowstone one is moving the lake above it, la la laaaa. If it goes you’ll wish you had some tins of tuna.

  • tomWright

    “…bore several large holes in the side of the volcano and let some of the pent-up magma come out, in a fairly controlled way? ”

    Please don’t.

    The hope of a giant tsunami sweeping the East Coast of the U.S. like the hand of Poseidon, wiping clean the nests of the fascist aristocracy ruling us from their enclaves in New York City, Washington D.C., and the bacchanalia of corruption that is Baltimore, is all that some of us have to keep us going.

    Take that away, and we will have nothing left.

  • Daveon

    The problem isn’t really volcanic but that almost half the island of La Palma is essentially “dangling” of the other half. A volcano or small earthquake could drop this half into the atlantic resulting in the mega tsunami. The tricky part is a safe way of detaching this piece of island.

    Answers on a postcard. If I remember correctly they think we have a couple of more Canarian seismic cycles.

  • The reason there is no expensive and complex engineering solution being proposed to deal with this ‘imminent’ threat is because it is not as likely as you might think. I seem to remember a few years ago Horizon went through a phase of prediciting huge disasters which could befall the human race. One of the programs was about the whole Canary Islands/Tsunami thing. Personally I think these programs were simply an excuse for the media bods at the beeb to play with their new computer graphics showing giant waves, asteroid strikes and simulated earthquakes. The programs were typically disaster movies without the benefit of characters and plot painted with a thin veneer of science to make them look like documentaries. I stopped watching Horizon at about the same time. There are more pressing problems to deal with which we can actually do something about before we start buying into these pipe dreams.

  • DDA3

    TomWright: “wiping clean the nests of the fascist aristocracy ruling us from their enclaves in New York City, Washington D.C., and the bacchanalia of corruption that is Baltimore, is all that some of us have to keep us going.”

    That’s what I thought Madoff had done?

  • Kevin B

    In the endless speculation on what really causes climate change, Solar cycles regularly come up. One of the less accepted branches of speculation involve the interaction of the Solar/Terran magnetic fields, and the possible links to volcanic activity.

    The basics of the theory involve the effect of magnetic fields on the Earth’s magma and whether changes are responsible for earthquakes.

    Using the wonderful mathematical and statistical packages that come with such languages as Matlab and R, (or even lowly Excel), various scientists have tied Solar cycles, climate cycles and volcanic cycles together, (and some have even linked them to planetary alignments).

    To get to the point, the current solar minimum is supposedly connected to high volcanic and tectonic activity, so tomWright may soon get his wish.

  • Gengee

    Kevin B,
    I thought the current minimum was over and we were on the upswing toward a maximum around 2011 ? I am open to correction. I am just recalling some space weather stuff we were sent as Solar maximums can play havoc with the DGPS positioning system that helps keep the place I work over a particular piece of real estate a kilometer below the sea surface.
    I must admit I do fancy the idea though, magnetic interaction, magma, it would make a brilliant Clive Cussler book 🙂 Dirk Pitt could save the day by doing Jonathons Canaries saving and simultaneously correcting a magma stream unduly rich in iron from its ruinous course.
    Pity Dirk could not do the same for the Government.



  • Kevin B


    The place I get my space weather from is Watts Up With That.

    Just look into any of the Solar threads and the subject of Sun – Volcano links is likely to come up.

    As it happens the current top post is remarking on the fact that there han’t been a cycle 24 sunspot for 30 days, only a couple of weak 23 specks, so the forecast for the next maximum, both timing and intensity, is pretty moot at the moment.

    There’s a Solar physicist, Leif Svalgard, who regularly contributes in the comments. He gives pretty short shrift to some of the ‘cyclists’ who comment, but he can also be scathing to the NASA types who have been forecasting the next Solar cycle.

  • Brian of Darlington

    I’m not terribly convinced by the thesis either. But the question is not ‘is it right’ but ‘is there a lot of taxpayer’s money to be had out of this particular scare’?

  • Laird

    Nice thought, tomWright, but only partially correct. The program I watched on this theoretical mega-tsumani (Discovery Channel?) indicated that the 500-meter high wave would destroy everything within 5 miles of the coast. While that would nicely clean out NYC, Miami, and maybe even Baltimore (if it somehow came up the Delaware Bay), it would miss the epicenter of all evil, Washington DC. So I guess we can’t rely on Gaia to do our work for us.

  • The project sounds like attempting to deflate an over-inflated balloon by carefully puncturing it with a pin.
    The trick works, but only if you puncture the right places, nearest the stem or sometimes at the tip. Other locations result in s rather violent version of deflation.

    So where’s the stem, where it would be relatively safe to do this trick?

    Of course, the worst tsunami imaginable wouldn’t wet my toes here in Denver, and, as TomWright says, would probably provide the best economic recovery package yet.

  • Jim C.

    Re the possible collapse itself, the wiki artcle is pretty good, with a link to the 2001 paper by Ward and Day, available on the web as a PDF.

    Better yet: there was a bit of discussion on the web some time ago as to whether terrorists could trigger the collapse by detonating an A-bomb there. The consensus seemed to be that the forces needed were so great that they couldn’t do it unless it were about to happen anyway.

  • In some kinds of geothermal systems, underground water can become superheated because it’s under high pressure. If the pressure is slightly reduced, you get steam flashover, where a lot of the water transitions to steam instantaneously — and then the pressure goes way up. (Which doesn’t cause the steam to switch back to liquid water.)

    That’s what happens in geysers, for example. The reason for periodic geysers is that underground super-heated water eventually reaches the point where some of it switches to steam anyway, which causes some of the overlying water to be pushed out of the geyser tunnel, which in turn reduces pressure on other superheated water and allows it to flashover, and so on. It’s a cascading reaction, kind of a “tipping point”.

    It happens in volcanos too. It happened in the Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980. Rising pressure inside the volcano caused the famous north face bulge, and eventually the rock broke loose and we got the largest land slide in recorded history.

    And without the rock in place, the pressure deeper inside the volcano was reduced, and huge amounts of subterranean super-heated water flashed over into steam. That was what caused the detonation. There’s a famous sequence of images captured of that landslide and you can see when the explosion begins because of the release of the pressure.

    As to your proposal, I think that’s the danger. If engineers did something to release magma from inside that volcano, they could trigger a steam flashover and cause the mountain to explode, and set off exactly the catastrophe you’re hoping to prevent.

  • Kim du Toit

    I am reminded of the comment of a friend’s mother, during a discussion of the Hab Theory (that the Earth periodically tilts on its axis and causes whole continents to disappear). We pointed out that in such a disaster, none of us would survive, to which she replied: “Yes, but at least the world would be rid of Central Africa.”

    So will you guys all shuddup with the well-crafted warnings (I’m looking at you, Steven Den Beste) and let someone go ahead and cause this cataclysm?

    Just the thought of NYFC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington D.C. disappearing under a tsunami makes me want to light up a post-orgasmic cigarette — and I don’t even smoke.

  • Spend the stimulus money to hire the unemployed and buy shovels and buckets. Send the workers and the shovels and buckets to Las Palma and have them gently excavate the island from the top down, slowly tumbling the excavated material into the sea one bucketful at a time. Eventually you will have a much lower and flatter island with much more beach to develop, and the danger of a massive slide will be gone.

  • Drilling holes would not release anywhere near enough pressure to do the job. A vast pressure vessel with a small hole drilled in it will retain its pressure provided it is big enough and the hole small emough.

  • stephan

    Hey Jonathan, the guy whose article you link to as a counter argument to the doom and gloom hypotheses has what I think is a flaw in his reasoning… Basically most of his logic rests on the idea that if a large mass is broken into pieces the shocke effect of its impact on water is much reduced. He uses a brick tossed into a bathtub as an example, stating that if the brick is broken into bits then the wave motion will be far more minor due to disperesed impact force. The problem with what he says is that, although these supposed mega landslides will indeed consist of loose chunks of material, these chunks will move in a slide form as a single dense mass. Much like the movement of most heavy avalanches that one sees on tv. His brick analogy only works because the brick doesnt have enough broken material to make it dense, and also because the brick would be falling like a shattered meteor, not in the dense sliding motion that would occur if a chunk of island claved away and slid down a hill to the shore. If you were to pulverise a whole stack of bricks, and then slide it out of a raised wheel barrow into a bathtub, you would get a damn good wave; thats more like what the canary avalanches would be.

  • The scientists who cooked this up were sponsored by an American firm which sells tsunami insurance.

    And they didn’t publish it by the usual route, which involves getting other scientists to give their opinions first – they went straight to the TV documentary. To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a single other geologist who agrees with them. True the south western flank of La Palma is so steep it can’t last for another 10,000 years, but you only get a tsunami if it goes all at once. It might go one boulder and one little splash at a time.

    More about this at http://lapalmaisland.sheilacrosby.com/articles/tsunami.php(Link)

    By the way, I’ve seen quite a few people suggest doing drastic things to La Palma, up to and including demolishing the entire island. Not one has suggested consulting the people who live there first. How do you suppose they feel about that?

    The whole BBC Horizon program is full of lies (yes things which are just not true) and ridiculous theories.
    Check out http://www.lapalma-tsunami.com for details.
    McGuire is no longer a scientist, he works for a Hazard Industry research company who are desparate for new work and have been trying to get funding to look at La Palma. No-one, but no-one believes their bullshit. The Spanish govt., the UK govt, the US govt. know that it is false and therefore will not give them ANY money to do research.
    @stephen. The Brick guys do not say that the brick will break up when hitting the water. They say, quite correctly. that there is no brick at all. Just a stable pile of rocks which last mover about a half millioen years ago.
    McGuire calls himself Disasterman and writes semi-scientific books about how the world is going to end.
    His 2 tame scientists wrote a speculative article in 1999 and they, McGuire and Horizon produced a non-scientific program which gullible idiots around the world believe!!!!!!
    McGuire insists that La Palma dropped 4 meters in 1949 .. it didn’t, he is lying.
    Day says that La Palma slips 1cm every year. It is not. Constant monitoring shows no (zero) movement sinds 1949. He is lying.
    There is not a single scientist who agrees with these so-called scientists. Many very reputable scientists say that their theory is incorrect and unsubstantiated (that is a polite way of them saying that it is bullshit)

  • Terry Saulsbury

    My personal theory (and hope) is the Marianna Trench, the Yellowstone Caldera, and La Palma will all go together. Imagine what a disaster scenario The Discovery Channel in corporation with the BBC could do with that.

  • rateoforange

    The possibility of a flank collapse at the Canary islands was discussed in one of my geology textbooks, so it’s probably not a controversial idea. Flank collapses have happened before.

  • Stephan

    Lituya Bay, 1958: 90 million tons of rock dropped nearly verticaly from a height of about 1000 meters into the bay. The initial crest which hit the opposing mountain ridge was 524 meters high, and spreading from there decreased down to somehwere between 100 and 30 meters in height before dispersing into the open ocean. This was caused by a mere 90 million tons dropping into relatively shallow water. The la palma slide would release an estimated 170 TRILLION tons of rock and debris into the ocean; 1.9 million times more the Lituya Bay. If such an amount were to slide off all at once, it would stand a damn fine chance of totally shit fucking the eastern coast of North America. Furthermore, events such as these are not at all impossible or even geologically rare. Much of Hawaii experienced such slides in its earlier volcanic days.

  • Lituya Bay is a fjiord. The tsunami there was massive because it was confined. As soon as the wave reached the open sea it dissipated rapidly – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lituya_Bay. The west of La Palma is wide open to the Atlantic. Any tsunami will dissipate faster than you can say “over-hyped garbage”.

    Yes, after 2,000 miles of ocean it would still cause quite a problem IF it went all at once. There’s nothing to stop it going a pebble at a time for 10,000 years. On the other hand, it never moved for the last two eruptions here ( in 1949 and 1971). I don’t see why another would be any different.