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, Pompeii
Garden of the Fugitives, Pompeii

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
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.

Sorry, Plant Parents: Study Shows Houseplants Don’t Improve Air Quality

sagarmanis/iStock via Getty Images
sagarmanis/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes accepted wisdom needs a more thorough vetting process. Case in point: If you’ve ever heard that owning plants can improve indoor air quality in your home or office and act as a kind of organic air purifier or cleaner, you may be disappointed to learn that there’s not a whole lot of science to back that theory up. In fact, plants will do virtually nothing for you in that respect.

This botanic bummer comes from Drexel University researchers, who just published a study in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. Examining 30 years of previous findings, Michael Waring, an associate professor of architectural and environmental engineering, found only scant evidence that plants do anything to filter contaminants from indoor air.

Many of these studies were limited, the study says, by unrealistic conditions. Plants would often be placed in a sealed chamber, with a single volatile organic compound (VOC) introduced to contaminate the air inside. While the VOCs decreased over a period of hours or days, Waring found that the studies placed little emphasis on measuring the clean air delivery rate (CADR), or how effectively an air purifier can “clean” the space. When Waring converted the studies' results to CADR, the plants's ability to filter contaminants was much weaker than simply introducing fresh air to disperse VOCs. (Additionally, no one is likely to live in a sealed chamber.)

The notion of plants as natural air filters likely stemmed from a NASA experiment in 1989 which argued that plants could remove certain compounds from the air. As with the other studies, it took place in a sealed environment, which made the results difficult to translate to a real-world environment.

Plants can clean air, but their efficiency is so minimal that Waring believes it would take between 10 and 1000 of them per square meter of floor space to have the same effect as simply opening a window or turning on the HVAC system to create an air exchange. Enjoy all the plants you like for their beauty, but it’s probably unrealistic to expect them to help you breathe any easier.

10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie

Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. Marie Curie's parents were teachers.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted that all their children—including their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. Marie Curie had to seek out alternative education for women.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 Maria moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. Marie Curie is the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two separate sciences.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic: With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person to win the award twice. And she remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. Marie Curie added two elements to the Periodic Table.

The second Nobel Prize Marie Curie received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for ray and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. Nobel Prize-winning ran in Marie Curie's family.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. Marie Curie did her most important work in a shed.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. Marie Curie's notebooks are still radioactive.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie Curie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea of the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products […] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. Marie Curie offered to donate her medals to the war effort.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. Marie Curie developed a portable X-ray to treat soldiers.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Marie's desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. Marie Curie founded centers for medical research.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

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