EARTH is a dynamic planet even without the interference of humans, but one could be forgiven for thinking it is trying to tell us something with the apparently unusual level of activity it has exhibited in the past few weeks:
– The Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, which began its latest significant eruption on December 20, is still at it. The continuous flow of lava has filled one of its summit craters to a depth of about 800 feet as of a couple of days ago.
– The Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala began erupting on February 14, and has been having what volcanologists call “paroxysms” every few days since, creating at least kilometer-long lava flows and dumping large amounts of ash on nearby towns.
– Mount Etna in Sicily, the most active volcano in Europe, began erupting again on February 16, and doing so with unusual vigor. There have been seven major eruptions since then, with continuous lower-intensity activity in between. In a news report by Italian network RAI earlier this week, viewers were treated to scenes of gravel raining on one nearby town, and interviews with local residents in which they expressed their intense annoyance with the situation, using many hand gestures and much dramatic language.
– On February 26, an iceberg unimaginatively designated A-74 broke loose from the Brunt Ice Shelf in West Antarctica and is now drifting in the Weddell Sea. Icebergs break off the Antarctic ice shelves all the time as the glaciers behind them slowly push toward the coast, but this one has a surface area of about 1,270 square kilometers — for comparison, a little more than double the land area of the entire National Capital Region. The iceberg will eventually melt, adding about 190 billion cubic meters of fresh water to the ocean.
– Mount Sinabung in North Sumatra, Indonesia, erupted on March 2, the biggest eruption that volcano has had in 10 years, sending an ash column seven kilometers into the sky.
Fun fact: Sinabung is the active remnant of the Lake Toba volcano field. Seventh-five thousand years ago, the eruption where the lake is now located, about 40 kilometers south of Sinabung, almost rendered us extinct. Scientists estimate the human population at that time was reduced to about 10,000 people as a result of the years-long volcanic winter that followed the eruption.
– The Keilir volcano in Iceland is expected to erupt at any moment (if it isn’t already by the time this reaches newsstands) after more than 17,000 earthquakes were recorded in the area in the past week. Although the volcano is not expected to be particularly dangerous — at least not by the Icelanders, who have different standards for these kind of things than people who live in less hostile parts of the world — it does pose a threat to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, which is about 20 kilometers away, and the country’s main airport at Keflavik, which is half that distance from the volcano.
– On Wednesday, March 3, a strong 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck north-central Greece, causing a considerable amount of damage and some casualties in Greece and neighboring Macedonia.
– On Thursday, March 4, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) issued a bulletin raising the alert level for Mount Pinatubo from 0 to 1, signifying an increase in volcanic activity. Pinatubo last exhibited any life about 25 years ago, as it was settling down from its catastrophic June 1991 eruption. Phivolcs stressed that the alert is not meant to imply anything serious is expected to happen, but on the other hand, if they were completely certain of that, they wouldn’t have issued an alert in the first place.
– On the same day, New Zealand was affected by a series of strong earthquakes, including three over magnitude 7.0 (M7.4, M7.5, and M8.1) in a span of about five hours. The last and largest of the three quakes caused tsunami alerts to be raised as far away as Hawaii and the west coast of South America, and actually did cause some small tsunami waves that hit the coasts of New Zealand and Australia.
Such a series of spectacular natural phenomena over a short period understandably leads people to believe there is some message in all this. In reality, there is not; statistically, there is actually nothing unusual about the recent activity. According to data from the US National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC), on any given day there are, on average, anywhere from 10 to 20 volcanoes around the world erupting, and about 50 earthquakes strong enough to be recorded.
However, entertaining our superstitions and choosing to read signs that aren’t really there is not entirely bad. Multiple volcanoes and earthquakes and province-sized icebergs drifting loose in the sea may not be warnings from God or Mother Earth to mend our destructive ways, but if telling ourselves they are help to remind us to be aware of and prepare contingencies against natural hazards and find ways to lessen our impact on the environment, then they are worthwhile.