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The Dark and Light Sides of America’s Volcanos

Living with the possibility of geologic disaster takes its toll, but people all over the U.S. have adapted to living in uncertainty. For years, Americans have prepared for large magnitude earthquakes and wildfires, but there is a lesser-known peril that is just as likely to occur as other more well-documented dangers.

There are volcanoes all over the U.S. that are causing deep concern for scientists. For the first time in over a decade, three of California’s volcanoes have topped the list of the federal government’s volcano threat assessment. Mount Shasta in the north, the nearby Lassen Volcanic Center and the Long Valley Caldera by Yosemite have all been ranked as very high-threat volcanoes in the highest risk category, as defined by the U.S. Geological Survey. Also in this very high threat category are Hawaii’s two most unpredictable volcanoes: Kilauea, which erupted in the summer of 2017 and destroyed nearby towns, and Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano.

Volcanologists predict possible future volcanic activity using a history of previous volcanic activity, recent earthquakes, slope incline, and gas emissions. Moving magma under the earth actually causes earthquakes, so the prevalence of earthquakes increases before a seismic eruption. Seismographs can record the strength of the earthquake and determine if an eruption is imminent. Ground swelling produced from magma and gas can change the shape and slope of the volcano which can increase the likelihood of eruption. For example, ground swelling around the base of Mount St. Helens created a bulge on its side from which magma erupted in 1980. 57 people lost their lives.

Volcanic eruptions are deeply unsettling and have caused countless thousands to abandon their homes in search of shelter over the years. Volcanic ash can cover the sky in a thick fog, making it impossible to see and likely stop all flights in and out of the nearby regions. Wet volcanic ash is conductive and can disrupt high-voltage power lines, ruining electricity in thousands of homes, and also affects travel along interstates. Eruptions can last months or even years, like Hawaii’s Kilauea explosion, which lasted for more than three months. Moreover, the damage wrought by volcanoes destroys economies and releases toxic compounds into the air that affect the respiratory system.

Though volcanoes are a source of fear for many, they’re also a source of wonder, nutrients, and life. Millions of years of eruptions have shaped the land, creating many of the landforms we are familiar with today. In fact, Hawaii wouldn’t exist without volcanoes—it is itself a bed of hardened magma sitting in the middle of the ocean! Volcanic material mixes with soil to provide much-needed fertility and replenishes habitats necessary for life. These massive beds of geothermal energy have also been harnessed to provide energy and warmth in colder climates and generate power.

While volcanoes have become a source of fun for some—nowadays there are volcano helicopter tours for thrill seekers—many still struggle to come to terms with living near such volatile structures. Volcanos are both awe-inspiring and terrifying, but it’s important that we’re aware of the threat they can pose, and respect the world they’ve created.

Written by Logan Voss

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