Mad About Science: Volcanoes

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

We’ve covered explosions and talked about the Big Bang, I think it’s fairly established that we’re infatuated by the spontaneous explosive release of energy. Logically, the next topic has to be volcanoes, duh.

What’s a volcano?

In short, it’s a place on the earth where molten rock and gas build up immense amounts of pressure until the solid rock above can’t take it anymore, and then you have an event. What’s an event?


Beneath the earth’s crust exists the mantle, a place where rock is subject to re-donk-ulous amounts of heat and pressure. This is where rock literally gets melted into a liquid, which in itself is pretty awesome. When pockets of magma beneath the crust start to get too big, they tend to burst onto the surface, where it cools over time and creates new landmass or destroys old ones.

The islands of Hawaii are a prime example of what a volcano does. Each island was formed by the same volcano at different points in the Earth’s recent history. That distinct curved shape they display shows how the tectonic plates beneath the ocean’s surface have moved.

Enough about what they are, let’s get to some examples of volcanoes!

Mount Saint Helens. This one struck close to home. On May 18, 1980, Mount Saint Helens in Skamania County, Washington, went Plinian (a term to describe one of the more violent eruptions). Trees for at least 19 miles away from the epicenter of the blast were ripped from the earth and carried several miles, many of which ended up in nearby lakes where they remain even today. Ash was thrown into 11 different states and five Canadian provinces. Those of you that lived here in Bonner County at that time probably remember a mid-May “snow” that covered everything and darkened the sky. Destructive and chaotic as Mount Saint Helens was, however, it was just a baby compared to a volcano that erupted almost a century earlier.

Krakatoa. You may have heard of it. It’s a volcano in Indonesia, and it produced the most powerful sound heard on earth in recorded history. It erupted several times, but the largest eruption, the one it is most famous for, happened over August 26-27, 1883.

This was an explosion so massive, so cataclysmically powerful that it altered the earth’s climate for years. You read that right: YEARS.

To try and put into perspective just how amazingly loud the eruption was, people 3,000 miles away heard it, and it sounded like a cannon being fired from 300 feet away. That’s like something happening in Florida, and we hear it as though something big exploded down the street. Sailors 40 miles away suffered from blown-out eardrums.

The shockwave of Krakatoa’s eruption encircled the earth three-and-a-half times. It caused tsunamis to strike as far away as South Africa.  The pyroclastic flows (the lava) turned the ocean beneath it into steam and proceeded to use the steam as a cushion to travel as far as 25 miles away (AWESOME). It created volcanic winters that lowered the Earth’s average temperature by 2.4 degrees Fahrenheit for five years. The ash that spewed into the stratosphere turned the sky red around the world.

You know the painting, “The Scream,” by Edvard Munch? It has the funny looking yelling guy and the orange-red sky. It turns out that may not be a sunset. That may be the normal sky shortly after the Krakatoa eruption, stained red by ash. Did I mention this was painted in Norway? That is 6,817 miles away from Krakatoa, or just over double the width of the United States.

The sheer, awesome force of nature never ceases to amaze me. Just when you think we’ve got it all figured out, the earth likes to throw us a molten curveball, and buddy, does he plan to put you on base.

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