15 Explosive Facts About Volcanoes

U.S. Geological Survey via Getty Images
U.S. Geological Survey via Getty Images

On May 3, the Kilauea volcano erupted on Hawaii's Big Island. Since then, 18 fissures have opened in the earth, some hundreds of feet long. The USGS's Hawaii Volcano Observatory reports that some of these fissures are producing "lava fountaining, explosion of spatter bombs hundreds of feet into the air, and several advancing lava flow lobes." More than 2000 people have evacuated, and dozens of structures and vehicles have been destroyed. Five earthquakes have rattled the island as well.

Volcanoes are amazing portals to the hot, living interior of the Earth, but they're also dangerous. Even small-ish ones can have a global impact. Here are 15 explosive facts about volcanoes.

1. THE VOLCANIC EXPLOSIVITY INDEX MEASURES THE STRENGTH AND SIZE OF ERUPTIONS.

Created in 1982 by Chris Newhall of the United States Geological Survey and Stephen Self of the University of Hawaii, the VEI quantifies the strength of volcanic eruptions by measuring the volume of pyroclastic material spewed by a volcano, including volcanic ash, tephra (fragments of volcanic rock and lava), pyroclastic flows (fast-moving currents of gas and tephra), and other debris. The height and duration of the eruption are also factored in. The scale ranges from 1 to 8, and each step indicates a tenfold increase of ejecta. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a VEI-8 eruption in the past 10,000 years.

2. "WAH WAH SPRINGS" SOUNDS KIND OF FUN. IT WAS ACTUALLY DEVASTATING.

One of the biggest eruptions ever occurred about 30 million years ago in what is today eastern Nevada and western Utah, when a supervolcano exploded 3500 cubic kilometers of magma over an area of about 12,000 square miles. The eruption left behind deposits of debris 13,000 feet deep. Consider that the 1883 eruption of Krakatau, in Indonesia, was heard thousands of miles away—and yet it was a minor burp compared to Wah Wah Springs, a VEI-8 eruption.

3. LAVA IS THE LEAST OF YOUR WORRIES.

Garden of the Fugitives, PompeiiLancevortex, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Lava generally moves too slowly to be the biggest threat from an eruption—but that’s not the case with pyroclastic flows. These super-hot, fast-moving currents of gas and tephra did in history’s most famous volcano victims: the residents of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The flow that hit Herculaneum was as hot at 500 degrees—enough to boil brains and vaporize flesh—while the later, cooler wave that hit Pompeii “cooked” people’s flesh, as the BBC puts it, but left their bodies intact; they were preserved by the falling volcanic ash.

4. JUST FOR FUN, THERE ARE 10 WAYS AN ERUPTION CAN KILL YOU.

As Io9 recounts, flying shrapnel, scalding-hot seawater, falling into a lava tube, poisonous gases, and volcanic smog, or vog, can also do you in.

5. THERE ARE THREE TYPES OF VOLCANIC ERUPTIONS.

Magmatic eruptions involve the decompression of gas within magma that propels it forward. Phreatic eruptions are driven by the heat from magma creating superheated steam. Phreatomagmatic eruptions are caused by the interaction of water and magma.

6. VOLCANOLOGISTS ARE CONTINUOUSLY KEEPING TABS ON ACTIVITY ALL OVER THE WORLD.

One of the many initiatives tracking potentially dangerous activity is the Global Volcanism Program of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. It also puts out a weekly report in conjunction with the USGS that features a map. The International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior (IAVCEI) especially monitors the so-called Decade Volcanoes—16 volcanoes that are potentially hazardous due to their history of large, destructive eruptions and proximity to populated areas. Among them are Rainier, Sakurajima, Vesuvius, and Santorini.

7. THERE ARE VOLCANOES ON OTHER PLANETS AND MOONS IN OUR SOLAR SYSTEM.

Plumes on Io captured by the Galileo spacecraft NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

That Jupiter’s moon Io is volcanically active has been known since 1979, when Voyager 1 imaging scientist Linda Morabito discovered the first evidence of active volcanism on a body other than Earth. But it’s far from alone. For instance, while Mars’s volcanoes appear to be either dormant or extinct, recent evidence from the Venus Express spacecraft suggests that many of Venus’s volcanoes are active.

8. SHARKS HANG OUT IN ONE VOLCANO.

Scientists recently recorded video of sharks happily swimming around in the acidic, hot, ash- and gas-filled waters near the Kavachi underwater volcano in the Solomon Islands, which is a mere 66 feet below the surface. This suggests extremophiles may be even more diverse than we thought.

9. THE USGS’s ALL-TIME BEST-SELLING MAP FEATURES VOLCANOES.

"This Dynamic Planet" is now in its third edition. This map [PDF] features more than 1500 volcanoes, 44,000 earthquakes, and 170 impact craters, as well as the major, minor, and micro tectonic plates whose movement creates these features. About 60 of Earth’s 550 historically active volcanoes blow every year.

10. AN EARLY 19TH-CENTURY ERUPTION IN THE PACIFIC WAS WORLD CHANGING.

Gillen D’Arcy Wood argues in his book Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World that the 1815 eruption of the volcano on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, which created a massive sulfate dust cloud that fundamentally altered the planet’s climate for three years, led to such diverse impacts as the first worldwide cholera pandemic, expanded opium markets in China, the U.S.’s first economic depression—and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

11. A VOLCANO STAMP SOLD CONGRESS ON THE PANAMA CANAL.

Before the Panama Canal opened in 1915, rival proposals for an Atlantic–Pacific link included a plan to carve a canal through Nicaragua, which had a lot more fresh water and much less deadly malaria than Panama. It also has significant volcanic activity, and in the early 20th century, one of its stamps featured an erupting volcano. In 1902, just before a U.S. congressional vote, a pro-Panama Canal French engineer sent this stamp to all 90 senators to hype the volcanic threat in Nicaragua. Panama got the vote by a slim margin. Today Nicaragua says it’s building the canal with help from a Chinese funder.

12. SPEAKING OF NICARAGUA’S VOLCANOES—YOU CAN SURF ONE.

Cerro Negro, a new and very active volcano that first erupted in 1850—and has blown 23 times since, most recently in 1999—has black pebble-covered slopes you can surf down on a metal-bottomed wood board, if you're adventurous and also kind of insane. Intrigued? Here’s our 7-point guide to surfing volcanoes.

13. THE MOST VOLATILE AREA ON EARTH IS THE RING OF FIRE.

Located at the rim of the Pacific Basin, the so-called Ring of Fire is a nearly continuous chain of oceanic trenches and hundreds of volcanoes spanning some 25,000 miles that’s home to 75 percent of the world’s volcanic activity, with some 452 volcanoes (active and dormant), 90 percent of the world's earthquakes, and 22 of the 25 biggest volcanic eruptions in the last 11,700 years.

14. THERE ARE MANY WARNING SIGNS OF VOLCANIC ACTIVITY.

According to the USGS’s Volcano Hazards Program, volcanologists keep an eye out for ground movements caused by magma forcing its way upward through solid rock, earthquakes resulting from this heaving, and changes in heat output and volcanic gases. Other indicators include cracks in the ground, small steam explosions, melting snow, and the appearance of new hot springs.

15. YOUR EUROPE FLIGHT WAS DELAYED IN 2010 BECAUSE OF AN ICELANDIC ERUPTION.

The Eyjafjallajökull volcano began erupting on April 14, 2010 and didn’t stop for six weeks, spewing magma, ash, and gas. Planes were grounded across Europe. Though the eruption was a small one, it had an outsized impact because it spread unusually far and stayed for an unexpectedly long time in the atmosphere thanks to the irregular shape of the tiny porous ash grains, as LiveScience reports.

BONUS: NASA IS TRAINING FOR LIFE ON MARS ON THE SLOPES OF AN ACTIVE VOLCANO.

For several years, NASA has been simulating life on Mars through a simulation on the slopes of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano, one of the Decade Volcanoes. Each year, a small team of adventurers who meet the basic qualifications for the NASA astronaut program live in a solar-powered geodesic dome. If they want to go outside, they have to put on space suits. Still beats trying to escape poisonous gases and pyroclastic flows.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

12 Fascinating Facts About Crows

Mick Thompson, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Mick Thompson, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Crows often get a bad rap. In many Western cultures, they've historically been associated with death, disease, and bad omens; reviled as crop-stealers by farmers, and condemned as nuisances by city dwellers. But the birds are fascinating creatures, adaptable and brainy to an extent that's almost scary. Here are a few facts about these crafty corvids that might surprise you.

1. All crows and ravens belong to the same genus.

Members of the genus Corvus can be found on every continent except Antarctica and South America (although other close relatives live there). To date, scientists have named 40 species. Colloquially, some of them are referred to as ravens while others are called crows, rooks, or jackdaws.

Historically, the name raven has been given to several of the big-bodied Corvus birds with shaggy feathers on their necks. Mid-sized members of the genus are usually called crows, while the very smallest species go by the name jackdaws. There's also a large-beaked outlier known as the rook, which was named after the unusual sound it makes. But pervasive as these labels may be, they're not scientific and do not reflect the latest research. Despite its informal name, the so-called Australian raven is more closely akin to the Torresian crow than it is to the common raven.

In the U.S., when people talk about crows and ravens, they're usually referring to the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and the common raven (Corvus corax). Telling them apart can be tough, but it is possible for eagle-eyed birders. One big indicator is size: The common raven is much larger, about the size of a red-tailed hawk. It also has a more wedge-shaped tail. As Kevin J. McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology writes on his crow FAQ page, ravens soar longer than crows, and you can see through their wing feathers as they fly (among other differences). And the birds' calls are substantially different. "American crows make the familiar caw-caw, but also have a large repertoire of rattles, clicks, and even clear bell-like notes," McGowan writes, whereas common ravens have "a deep, reverberating croaking or gronk-gronk. Only occasionally will a raven make a call similar to a crow's caw, but even then it is so deep as to be fairly easily distinguished from a real crow."

You can hear crow vocalizations here and raven vocalizations here.

2. Older crow siblings can help their parents raise newborn chicks.

Like a lot of intelligent animals, most crows are quite social. For instance, American crows spend most of the year living in pairs (they usually mate for life) or small family groups. During the winter months, they'll congregate with hundreds or even thousands of their peers to sleep together at night in a sprawling communal unit called a roost.

Come nesting season, a mated pair of crows might be lucky enough to receive chick-rearing help. Juvenile birds are frequently seen defending their parents' nest from predators. Other services they can provide include bringing food to mom and dad, or feeding their younger siblings directly. One study found that 80 percent of American crow nests surveyed had a helping hand. And some birds become regular nest assistants, providing aid to their parents for over half a decade.

3. When a crow dies, its neighbors may have a funeral.

The sight of a dead crow tends to attract a mob of a hundred or more live ones. During this ritual, the live crows almost never touch the dead one, which rules scavenging out as a motive. Why do they do this? Some studies suggest that the mass gathering is part of a survival strategy: The birds are learning about threats and seem hesitant to revisit any spot where they've encountered a dead crow, even if food is plentiful there.

4. Crows have caused blackouts in Japan.

Since the 1990s, crows have experienced a population boom in Japan, where—not coincidentally—delicious garbage is more plentiful than ever before. This is bad news for power companies. Urban crows like to nest on electric transformers and will often use wire hangers or fiber-optic cables as building materials for their nests. The result was an epidemic of crow-caused blackouts in major cities around Japan: Between 2006 and 2008, the corvids stole almost 1400 fiber-optic cables from Tokyo power providers, and according to the Chubu electric company, crows are responsible for around 100 power failures per year in their facilities alone.

To fight back, Chubu started installing artificial "love nests" in 2004. Made with non-conductive resin, the nests are placed on company towers high above the power lines, where the birds are unlikely to cause any trouble. The strategy seems to be working: 67 percent of the faux nests are currently in use, making life a lot easier for Chubu employees.

5. Proportionally, some crows' brains are bigger than yours. 

According to McGowan, crows are "smarter than many undergraduates, but probably not as smart as ravens."

Crows are so smart and so good at improvising that some zoologists admiringly call them "feathered apes." And yet, from a primate's perspective, crow brains might look puny. The New Caledonian crow, for example, has a brain that weighs just 0.26 ounces. But relative to its body size, that brain is huge, accounting for 2.7 percent of the bird's overall weight. By comparison, an adult human's three-pound brain represents 1.9 percent of their body weight.

Of all the living birds, crows, ravens, and parrots have the biggest brain-to-body size ratios. And in lab experiments, these avians show a degree of cognition that puts them on par with the great apes. In fact, research has shown that they have a much higher density of neurons in their forebrains than primates do. The amount of neurons in this region is thought to correlate with a given animal's intelligence. Theoretically, having more neurons translates to better cognitive reasoning.

A 2020 study looked at whether crows, like humans and great apes, can demonstrate consciousness. Crow brains lack a cerebral cortex, where most of the primate brain's conscious perception happens. Researchers tracked the brain activity in two crows as they performed different tasks, and discovered that they could perceive sensory input—suggesting that there is much more to understand about the evolution of consciousness.

6. Crows have regional dialects.

Apart from the famous caw, caw noise, crows emit a number of other sounds. Each one sends out a different message; for example, cawing can be used as a territorial warning or a way for crows to signal their location to relatives.

This avian language isn't homogeneous; two different populations of crows may have slight differences. As ornithologist John M. Marzluff and author Tony Angell noted in their 2005 book In the Company of Crows and Ravens, the calls these birds use "vary regionally, like human dialects that can vary from valley to valley." If a crow changes its social group, the bird will try to fit in by talking like the popular guys. "When crows join a new flock," Marzluff and Angell wrote, "they learn the flock's dialect by mimicking the calls of dominant flock members."

7. Some crows can read traffic lights.

In Japan, carrion crows (Corvus corone) use cars like oversized nutcrackers. The birds have learned to take walnuts—a favorite treat—over to road intersections, where they put the hard-shelled snacks down onto the pavement. The crow then waits for a passing vehicle to smash the nut, after which it will swoop down and eat the delicious interior.

It's a risky trick, but the crows aren't usually run over because (unlike some people) they've figured out what traffic lights mean. Carrion crows wait until the light turns red before flying down to place the un-cracked nut on the road. The second the light goes green, the crow takes off to watch the nut get run over from afar; it will even wait for the next red to scoop up the nut's insides.

This behavior isn't limited to just one corvid species: American crows have been observed doing the same thing in California.

8. Crows can recognize your face—and hold a grudge.

You don't want a crow for an enemy. In 2011, a team from the University of Washington published a remarkable study about the brainpower of local crows. The researchers' goal was to figure out how well the birds could identify human faces. So—in the name of science—they went out and bought two Halloween masks: One resembled a caveman, the other looked like Dick Cheney. It was decided that the caveman getup would be used to threaten the birds, while the Cheney mask was relegated to control status.

At the five sites, a scientist donned the caveman mask before catching and banding some wild crows. Getting trapped is never a fun experience, and upon their release, the ex-captives loudly "scolded" their assailant with a threatening caw. Seeing this, other birds who had been sitting nearby joined in the fray, swooping down to harass the neanderthalic visitor. Over a period of several years, both masks were regularly worn by team members on strolls through all five test spots. Without fail, the caveman mask was greeted by angry scolds and dive-bomb attacks from crows—including many who'd never been captured or banded—while the birds largely ignored the Dick Cheney mask.

Amazingly, the caveman disguise continued to provoke a hostile response five years into the experiment—even though the team had stopped trapping crows after those first few site visits. And some of the birds who antagonized the mask-wearer weren't even alive back when the whole thing started. The younger crows couldn't possibly have seen the imitation caveman grab an acquaintance of theirs—but they scolded it anyway. Clearly, the grudge had been passed on; birds were still attacking the mask as recently as 2013.

The moral of this story? Mind your manners around crows. Because if you mistreat them, they won't forget you and neither will their friends—or the next generation.

9. New Caledonian crows make and use tools.

Lots of non-human animals, including chimpanzees and orangutans, create useful implements which help them survive in the wild. The New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides) is one of only two species on the planet that can craft its own hooks in the wild. The other is called Homo sapiens. The South Pacific avian uses the hooks—which are made from pliable twigs that the crows bend using their beaks and feet into a J-shape—to extract insects from tight crevices.

Another surprising attribute is this species' bill. Unlike virtually all other birds, the New Caledonian crow has a bill that does not curve downwards. For years, the quirk went unexplained, but scientists now think that the avian's unique beak evolved to help it grasp tools more easily, as well as to better see what the tool is doing.

The New Caledonian crow isn't the only implement expert in the corvid family. In 2016, scientists at the University of St. Andrews demonstrated that the ultra-rare Hawaiian crow, or ‘Alalā (Corvus hawaiiensis), is similarly adept at using and modifying tools.

10. Crows fight off predators by ganging up on them.

Crows have to deal with a menagerie of predators, such as hawks, owls, coyotes, and raccoons. To ward them off, the corvids exploit the fact that there can be strength in numbers. Upon seeing a would-be attacker, crows are known to gather, with some groups consisting of a dozen birds or more. Individual crows then swoop down to deliver passing blows with their beaks, often inflicting serious bodily injury in the process. If all goes well, the target will back off—though it may kill a few of the dive-bombers before they retreat. Corvids are by no means the only avians that mob would-be attackers. Swallows, chickadees, and even hummingbirds have all been documented doing this. In fact, crows are sometimes at the receiving end of mob violence as smaller songbirds often feel threatened by them and lash out collectively.

11. Crows understand a thing or two about impulse control.

A 2014 study shows that at least some corvids can resist the urge for instant gratification—if you make it worth their while. The research was led by University of Göttingen graduate student Friederike Hillemann, whose team assembled five common ravens and seven carrion crows. Through careful note-taking, the scientists figured out what the favorite meal items of all 12 animals were. Then the experiment began.

With an outstretched hand, one of the researchers gave each of their birds a morsel of food. Then, the animals were shown a different piece of grub. The corvids were made to understand that if they liked the second option better, they could swap snacks—but only if they were willing to sit patiently for a certain period of time first. If a bird ate the original treat during that stretch, it forfeited the chance to trade it for a new one.

Hillemann's results showed that the crows and ravens didn't mind waiting around for an improved snack option. As such, a bird with a piece of bread was content to sit quietly if it knew that some fried pork fat would eventually be gained in the trade-off. However, if that same bird's second choice was another piece of bread, sitting tight would be pointless. So understandably, corvids who were put in this kind of situation tended to go ahead and eat whatever they'd been given. Why wait for more of the same?

12. YOU CAN CALL A GROUP OF CROWS A MURDER, BUT SOME SCIENTISTS WOULD RATHER YOU DIDN'T.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the correct term for a group of crows is a murder, an expression bird-watchers and poets have been using since at least the 15th century, which the OED speculates may allude "to the crow's traditional association with violent death, or … to its harsh and raucous cry." But maybe it's time to come up with a replacement. McGowan hates the phrase "murder of crows." To him, it only feeds the public's negative outlook on the animals. "These birds aren't a gang of nasty villains," he wrote in the book Birdology. "These birds are just birds." McGowan would also have you know that American crows rank among "the most family-oriented birds in the world."