Volcanoes Are Awesome

On the road… again!
Afghanistan to Zambia
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek


Mist in the Volcanoes

Anyone wanting to adventure and drink in the wonders of nature at the same time might consider visiting a few volcanoes. The fearsome earthquakes and tsunamis of the last two decades are reminders of the power and destructive forces originating along the Ring of Fire, that worldwide band of seismic dynamism from which earth-shattering destruction has been recorded, and is like a huge zipper along which virtually all of the world’s volcanoes are located. The volcanoes reside above the cracks in the earth’s mantle; and below them are the edges of enormous tectonic plates that bump and grind against one another to cause earthquakes. Smoke and mist from active volcanoes help identify the edges of these tectonic plates from outer space. The Ring of Fire extends from Antarctica; passes from New Zealand; traces its way up through the western fringes of the Pacific Ocean; through Japan to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska; then makes its way down the West Coast of the United States; and along the western edges of Central America and South America.


Planet Earth is alive with activity and there is no better place to see what is happening than from the mouth of a volcano that pinpoints the exact spot where heat is being expelled from the center of the earth, itself. Perhaps the most convincing example of the process can be seen at the Kilauea Crater in Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii. It has been sending out a continuous river of molten lava for more than a decade. Volcanologists monitor the activity of active volcanoes so there is little risk associated with visiting. The Footloose Forester stood at the rim of Kilauea at a time when it was possible to look directly down into the fire pit, but conditions are changed now.


Perhaps there was more danger when he went below the upper rim of the caldera at Volcán Poas in Costa Rica. The sheer vertical walls of Poas are composed of compacted but unstable grey ash, formed from previous eruptions. A circular lake of molten lava in the main pit itself, however; also has a similar grey color and looks deceptively passive. It is not--it is so hot that when the wind blows, steam escapes from the edges of the molten lake as the lava smashes against the vertical walls. That is why the mist above Poas is so virtually constant. Satellite photos usually don’t show the lake surface, because the steam at the surface turns into mist above it. Thus, Mist in the Volcanoes as the title of this memoir is not merely intended as a play on words with respect to the movie about mountain gorillas, entitled Volcanoes in the Mist. Steam above Kilauea Crater in Hawaii also obscures the view of the crater, itself, in satellite views.


In fact, many of the active volcanoes around the world can be isolated by the presence of a cloud above them, when one looks at earth’s surface from above, in the increasingly popular images of Google Earth. During the past year or so, the Smithsonian Institution has undertaken the Global Volcanism Program which includes an overlay within Google Earth to highlight some 1200 volcanoes that have shown significant activity within the past 10,000 years. With the overlay in place, it is easier to see the Ring of Fire as part of an interactive search procedure.



Fogo Volcano in Cape Verde


Not all volcanoes that emit smoke and steam in minor amounts are characterized as active, thus there is no category of activity that links the visual situation with their geological descriptions of volcanoes. Volcán Santa Ana, the highest and among the most active volcanos in El Salvador, last erupted in 2005 and emits smoke and steam above its caldera.  But the sky above is clear enough much of the time to allow for a multitude of satellite photos showing its caldera contours and lava lake. Nearby Volcán de Izalco, recognized as the most recent in the geologic history of El Salvador (dated from 1770); on the other hand, is highly active and last erupted in 1966. Yet one can detect only minor amounts of smoke from up close. When the Footloose Forester descended to the floor of the caldera of Izalco in 1995, there was no sign of activity, except where occasional wisps of sulfurous smoke were emitted from cracks or fumaroles along the walls of the upper rim. Its rim is so narrow, however; that hikers scrambling up its steep slopes find only a single footpath of level ground at the top. Volcán Santa Ana, on the other hand, has a wider band of relatively level ground around the rim of the caldera. The Government of El Salvador generously provided a helicopter so that the Footloose Forester could better assess how the flat area around the rim of Santa Ana might be used as a staging area for supplies to suppress a forest fire then licking at its flanks. Poorly, as it turned out. The fire smoldered and flared for two more weeks and the site was never used as a staging area.

Smoke and mist above volcanoes are easy enough to see in other volcanoes, as well. Stromboli in the Harbor of Napoli, Italy has long been known as the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean; and it can readily be seen in the satellite photos of Google Earth. Prior to 1966 when it last erupted, Izalco in El Salvador was so noticeable from the ocean that it also earned a similar name: the Lighthouse of the Pacific. And when he was doing research off the western tip of Java, the Footloose Forester often saw (on sunnier days), the smoke and steam being emitted from Krakatau. It is particularly spectacular at sunset.

Only rarely, however; did he get to see the smoke coming from Fogo in the Cape Verde Archipelago. He once lived on the next island from where the top of the Fogo volcano was clearly visible, but most of the time the haze from suspended sands coming off the Sahara Desert obscured our visibility. Only after an occasional cleansing monsoon rain was visibility improved to the extent that Fogo could be seen clearly. But it was a spectacular sight. The good news was that if one visited the Island of Fogo, you could go by taxi right onto the floor of the main caldera and through a breach in one of the volcano’s shoulders when ancient lava flows had spewed out. Fogo is one of those volcanoes, much like Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington and the present-day Krakatau, which has an inner, symmetrical cone arising from within the older caldera floor. In the case of Fogo, the cinder cone has its own name—Pico, from which the steam and mist emerges.  An active and violent eruption of Pico last took place in April 1995. 

UPDATE:  Pico erupted again in November 2014.  Go to MRIETZE.COM for a spectacular 10-minute video of the sound and the fury of the eruption and see the lava flows, up close.

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Comments 2

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Dick Pellek (website) on Tuesday, 15 May 2012 19:02

Without a photo of Pico inside the volcano named Fogo, this story loses a bit of its mystery.

Without a photo of Pico inside the volcano named Fogo, this story loses a bit of its mystery.
John H. (website) on Friday, 25 May 2012 03:42

What a nice photo which did come through! Do you suppose you could drive by taxi onto the floor of the caldera now? Makes me think of the instructions for my snowblower stating that it is not to be used while on a roof!

What a nice photo which did come through! Do you suppose you could drive by taxi onto the floor of the caldera now? Makes me think of the instructions for my snowblower stating that it is not to be used while on a roof!