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Random Thoughts About Water

What can I say about water? For one thing, it’s everywhere on and in Earth. That right, in the Earth. Scientists recently discovered a massive underground store of water. Though it is mostly housed within rocks, it is there. Some scientists even describe it as a virtual ocean.

Water plays a major role in volcanology.


When I was a kid, my parents were geology majors and I learned a lot about plate tectonics. I saw all those drawings of oceanic plates subducting under continental plates and oceanic plates subducting under other oceanic plates. A lot of kids were amazed that this process would lead to volcanoes and eruptions on Earth. My thought was different.


“Where does the water go?” I asked.


It turns out to be a good question. In reality, the water goes down with the subducting plate. One of the things that makes volcanoes along subduction zones so explosive is the amount of water in their magma. It rises right along with the magma from the subduction zone, and it comes out in rather impressive eruptions at volcanoes such as Mount Saint Helens.


Don’t get me started on Mount Saint Helens, though. I don’t have fond memories of that damn volcano. You could even say I hate said volcano. There are much more interesting volcanoes on the planet than this one, whose only claims to fame are exploding and building domes. In fact, the only reason it is so interesting to most people is that it erupted on the continental United States in recent time.


There are much better volcanoes just in the Cascades. Mount Mazama, for instance. This volcano, also sometimes referred to as Crater Lake, the caldera that has replaced its peak, was once as large as Mount Adams, a 12,000 foot monster in Washington state. Mount Mazama released a massive VEI 7 eruption, one of the largest ever produced in the Cascades, and reduced itself to a hole in the ground in a matter of hours. Not only that, it produced a massive ash deposit all over Cascadia, completely changing the climate and permanently altering regional ecosystems. The forest around Mount Mazama transformed from primarily ponderosa pine to lodgepole pine like the flip of a switch.


It's not that Saint Helens hasn’t tried. About 4,000 years ago the volcano produced an impressive eruption that changed the local climate and devastated the native tribes of the area. They were forced to migrate elsewhere for a time or face famine. Back in the 1400s, it also produced two rather large eruptions within only a few years of each other, one of which actually put out a big wildfire at Mount Rainier.


How do I know that? Well, I used to work for a paleoecologist in Washington state who was working on wildfire studies at Mount Rainier. She generously donated a lake core to me for a study I was conducting but never finished. It, like several other lakes in the area, showed the signature of a significant wildfire around Mount Rainier. Sitting right on top of that wildfire signature was the Wn tephra, the remnants of one of those large eruptions from Mount Saint Helens.


No, I’m not certain that it actually put out the wildfire. However, it’s obvious that it was a miserable time to be living at Mount Rainier. If it was not occurring at the time of the Wn eruption, it was certainly within years or even months of the eruption. There was no transition between the two. The lake core simply showed charcoal and then suddenly ash.


I spent a whole college quarter counting through that damn ash, and it showed me some interesting things. For one thing, the ash contained a lot of olivine. I mean, a massive amount of olivine! It mingled heavily with black biotite crystals and showed that Mount Saint Helens was not happy with a massive influx of basalt she received.


The second interesting thing about the eruption deposit was the number of gas bubbles that adhered to the crystals. These remarkable glass spheres were adhered to both the biotite and the basalt. They were everywhere. It just goes to show how many volatiles (i.e. blowy-uppy gases) were in that magma.


So I guess in some ways Mount Saint Helens can be interesting, she’s just not my favorite volcano. I much prefer calderas, such as Long Valley, Krakatau, or Taal. Saint Helens does her best to try to make herself a caldera, and tried very hard in 1980, but she’s just not up to the task.


You could say that water is a volcano’s worst enemy. It takes what could be a gentle, mountain building eruption, and turns it into a destructive storm of ash and pumice. Just ask Vesuvius, the volcano that erupts through a marine aquifer and occasionally destroys himself. Or there’s Hunga-Tonga, that exploded like dynamite due to an intrusion of ocean water into its magma and sent a shockwave roaring across the planet four times.


Then there’s what the water does to them when they’re not erupting. Mount Rainier is a good example of what can happen here. Water infiltrates the mountain from its rather impressive glacial ice cap and circulates down inside, mixing with volcanic gases and created acids that slowly eat the volcano alive. You can see this in the volcano’s ash layers, which all contain precipitated metals after a certain time.


About 5600 years ago, the rotten peak of Mount Rainier stood roughly 16,000 feet high. The eruption that spelled its demise wasn’t very big, but the aftermath was huge. The mountain collapsed and sent a massive lahar rocketing down its river systems, where it reached all the way to the Puget Sound. The event was known as the Osceola Mudflow, and was the defining moment in this volcano’s life.


Could it happen again? Yes, absolutely. Developments in towns such as Orting, Washington, are built on old Osceola deposits. Local officials hold regular lahar drills and have set up mudflow detecting systems along the rivers in an effort to prevent the next Armero.


Could the next event at Mount Rainier be as bad as the Osceola Mudflow? Scientists say probably not that big, but they could be as big as a smaller event that occurred about five centuries ago known as the Electron Mudflow. There is a large, rotten wall on Mount Rainer that is so decayed that scientists can break rocks with their bare hands. If it comes down, it’ll be an unwelcome visitor to the towns built along the rivers of Rainier. Worse, it could collapse on its own, without the aid of an eruption.


So what’s Armero? I’m sure you wondered if you’ve been paying attention to this article. Well, it’s another example of how volcanoes and water don’t mix. There is a volcano in Colombia known as Nevado del Ruiz, one of the few places close to the Equator that has glaciers. This Andean volcano was often ignored in the 1980s, sometimes referred to in jokes as “the sleeping lion.” However, this lion had a disturbing history.


In the 1600s, it sent a lahar down its river canyons that killed hundreds of Native Americans living along the banks. Another lahar in the 1800s killed over 1,000 people, but still no one took the warning for what it was. By 1985, a massive ice cap sat on top of Ruiz. The volcano had gone active the year before and scientists were trying to sound the alarm about this one, but no one in authority was listening.


On the night of November 13th, 1985, disaster struck. A large eruption with ample pyroclastic flows melted the ice cap on Ruiz, sending a torrent of mud down the mountain’s river system. The town of Armero was directly in its path. It wasn’t a few hundred this time, nor a thousand or so. Over 23,000 drowned that night, or died a slow, painful death within the next three days.


Could Armero repeat itself at Mount Rainier? Yes, it could. If proper measures don’t remain in place or funding is cut to vital programs, it could absolutely be the next Armero. Or worse. There are a lot of people living in those river valleys.


There seems to be an Armero in every disaster scenario, whether it has to do with volcanoes or not. Take hurricanes, for example. People have known about the danger of hurricanes for a long time. The devastating Galveston hurricane wiped out the Texas town and killed thousands of people. It is considered the deadliest natural disaster in United States history. However, I don’t consider it the Armero of hurricanes, it was simply a warning of what hurricanes can do.


There were several warnings to the United States over the years since the 1900 event. Take Hurricane Camille, for instance. This category five storm wiped out the Mississippi coast, including taking down a hurricane party in a coastal apartment building. Still, people did not take hurricanes all that seriously unless they lived through the disaster.


Armero became New Orleans, and the Ruiz of the hurricanes was Katrina. In 2005, this storm strengthened dramatically over the Gulf of Mexico and slammed into the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi. Both were devastated, but the real impact was in New Orleans, a city that had been warned of trouble for decades now. Almost 2,000 people perished as the city drowned. It wasn’t until after this happened that people started to take the threat of hurricanes seriously.


The same thing happened with California wildfires, and it followed the same three-disaster pattern. It started with the fires in Butte County, which killed a few people. The next year was the big blow-up in Sonoma County, which killed 45 people and devastated the city of Santa Rosa. Both fire disasters were caused by decaying electrical infrastructure, and those in charge spent their time after the fires trying to pass on the blame and shirk responsibility.


Armero struck on the morning of November 8th, 2018 (only five days shy of the dreaded Armero date), when a century-old power pole failed in the midst of a windstorm. The massive wildfire that started came roaring down the mountainside into several California towns, including Paradise. This town was almost completely destroyed in the wake of the wildfire, which killed 85 people, mostly senior citizens who were unable to flee the blaze.


It took a while for the full death toll of the fire to be tallied. This was because people had huddled together so closely in burning structures that it took forensic anthropologists to sort out the bones. Like Armero, bodies are still discovered from time to time.


It was not until Paradise that serious moves were made to repair the failing electrical infrastructure in California. Both PG&E and Southern California Edison got off their asses and started to assess their electrical lines. But did it really have to take the Paradise fire to get them started?


I find it disgusting how often this disaster story is repeated. It seems that human beings are unable to do anything when it comes to hazards, natural or otherwise, without it being a retroactive effort. I’m afraid this will be what happens with the approaching climate change hazard. No one in power is going to take it seriously until something big happens.


So where is our next Armero going to be? We’ll see, I suppose. Stay tuned.

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