Experts believe a significant explosion is likely at the Mount Agung Volcano in Indonesia and beyond being a local catastrophe, such an explosion could have global consequences to everything from aviation to climate. And worse, the same is also possible in Italy as the Campi Flegrei super-volcano is showing signs of life.
Mount Agung is a composite volcano referred to as a stratovolcano. Stratovolcanoes are characterized by a steep profile and their periodic explosive eruptions. Lava flowing from stratovolcanoes typically cools and hardens before spreading far due to high viscosity, leading to the construction of your typical triangularly shaped volcano compared to the more rounded, sloped volcanoes seen elsewhere in the world such as Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Volvcano. Some of the most popular stratovolcanoes include Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD, and Mount Pinatubo in the Phillipines which helped cool the Earth’s temperaturess after its 1991 eruption. According to the USGS, nearly 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide were injected into the stratosphere in Pinatubo’s 1991 eruptions, and dispersal of this gas cloud around the world caused global temperatures to drop temporarily (1991 through 1993) by about 1°F (0.5°C). Destructive Mount Saint Helens is another example of a stratovolcano in the United States; its 1980 eruption killed 57 people while destroying 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, and 185 miles of roads.
Another famous stratovolcano in Indonesia is Krakatoa which had a massive blast in 1883; in addition to killing tens of thousands of people, that blast is known for having huge impacts to weather and climate. Following the huge eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, enough reflective volcanic aerosols were ejected into the atmosphere to make weather unusually cool or cold around the globe for years. Known as a “volcanic winter”, Krakatoa released an estimated 20 million tons of sulfur into the atmosphere which helped reduce worldwide temperatures by an average of age of 2.2 °F (1.2 °C) for five years. A study published in 2006 in Nature, “Volcanoes and Climate: Krakatoa’s Signature Persists in the Ocean”, also showed that the volcanic explosion lead to a significant, long-lasting cooling of the Pacific Ocean for decades. The eruption and its side effects, such a massive tsunamis and earthquakes, killed an estimated 120,000 people.
In recent days, a swarm of earthquakes has intensified prompting authorities in Indonesia to take immediate action to protect life. According to MAGMA Indonesia, “The earthquakes were felt increasingly perceived by the residents as well as in the Great Volcano Observation Post in Rendang. This may indicate that the pressure due to magma movements accumulated beneath the surface becomes larger.” Authorities say they still cannot predict precisely when the mountain will erupt but with the quake activity prompting the highest threat level possible, an emergency response period has been declared. The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) head, Willem Rampangilei, said all people in the region 5.5-7.5 miles from the mountain must evacuate. “We have prepared 500,000 masks to anticipate volcanic ash which is very important, because the ash is very dangerous,” Rampangilei said. “This is a very complex work. We should work hard to minimize victims. We keep hoping that the eruption will not happen. However, we should be ready for the best scenario if the eruption does happen,” he said. “We have declared that we are in emergency response period for next one month. I hope, the eruption will not happen.”
Beyond the massive evacuation effort, authorities are also bracing for the potential closure of the large airport in the region. Bali’s Ngurah Rai airport (Denpasar International Airport) is preparing an emergency operations center in the event of an eruption closing the busy airport. “We are preparing our emergency operation center (EOC). In the EOC, we will coordinate with the BMKG, Air Navigation, and all related parties. When the eruption happens and the airport must be closed, we have prepared alternative airports, such as Lombok airport and Juanda airport. I hope the two airport will not be affected by the eruption,” Misranedi said.
Volcanic ash can create significant harm to jet engines that fly through them or boat and automobile engines that ingest air-filled air. Volcanic ash is hard and abrasive, and can quickly cause significant wear to various airplane parts such as propellers, turbo-compressor blades, and even cockpit windows. Because volcanic ash particles have a low melting point, it can melt in the combustion chamber of a jet engine, creating a ceramic or glass-like glaze that then sticks to turbine blades, fuel nozzles, and combustors. A jet engine that ingests just a small amount of ash could suffer from total engine failure. Overheating and engine failure is also possible in cars and trucks since volcanic ash can infiltrate nearly every opening in a vehicle. Ash is also very abrasive; ash caught between windshields and wiper blades will scratch and permanently mark the windshield glass, and windows are susceptible to scratching each time they are raised, lowered, and cleaned.
A small volcanic explosion had a nearly catastrophic impact on a flight in Alaska in 1989. On December 15, 1989, KLM Flight 867 traveling from Amsterdam to Tokyo’s Narita Airport, with a scheduled fueling stop in Anchorage. During the time of the scheduled fueling stop, Mount Redoubt, located about 100 miles to the southwest, entered a period of numerous volcanic eruptions. The flight crew was briefed on the eruption and ash cloud movement to the north and northeast. As they began to descend through 25,000 ft , the aircraft entered a thick ash cloud and ash and volcanic gas entered the cockpit and cabin. The crew increased power to the engines to climb above the cloud, but the ingested ash quickly reduced the power output of all four engines to less than idle. As the plane descended, the crew frantically attempted to restart the engines. The crew was successful in starting first two and then all four engines around 12,000 ft and the plane continued to Anchorage for a safe landing. While a safe landing occurred, the total cost to repair the aircraft from the ash damage was $80 million.
To prevent aviation disasters such as KLM867 from happening, authorities could close airspace to a very large area around and down-wind of Agung. Such a closure could have significant impacts to travel in and around Asia as well as trans-pacific flights between Asia and Australia and Asia and North America.
And with activity heating up in Europe, new volcanic dangers and impacts to life, aviation, and climate can also occur there. A super-volcano in southern Italy is nearing eruption conditions, researchers say, after finding direct evidence of a so-called “hot zone.” A hot zone is an area of intense volcanic activity. Campi Flegrei is a huge volcanic caldera, an expansive crater-shaped area that formed after the volcano collapsed into itself in a past eruption. Situated near Naples, Italy in a region populated by roughly 1.5 million people, a volcanic eruption could have a huge impact on life. “One question that has puzzled scientists is where magma is located beneath the caldera, and our study provides the first evidence of a hot zone under the city of Pozzuoli that extends into the sea at a depth of 4 km,” said Dr Luca De Siena, who led the study at the University of Aberdeen. “What this means in terms of the scale of any future eruption we cannot say, but there is no doubt that the volcano is becoming more dangerous,” Dr De Siena said. “During the last 30 years the behavior of the volcano has changed, with everything becoming hotter due to fluids permeating the entire caldera,” added Dr. De Siena . “Whatever produced the activity under Pozzuoli in the 1980s has migrated somewhere else, so the danger doesn’t just lie in the same spot, it could now be much nearer to Naples which is more densely populated.” While this is the most probable location of a small batch of magma, it could also be the heated fluid-filled top of a wider magma chamber, located even deeper.”
Since showing some signs of life in the spring, scientists have become very concerned about Campi Flegrei; not only for a catastrophe for residents around Naples, but on the global implications of a significant volcanic winter formed by a major eruption there. Past major eruptive events around the world have had significant impacts to weather far away from the volcano itself. After a violent eruption in Indonesia in 1815, winter-like conditions were experienced in the summer in the northeastern United States in 1816. Known as the “year without a summer”, some of the most unusual climatic reports were five consecutive late June nights with frost in Cape May, New Jersey; snow falling on June 7th and 8th in Massachusetts and lake and river ice found in July and August as far south as northwestern Pennsylvania. A major volcanic eruption at Campi Flegrei could have huge consequences to weather and climate in Europe and elsewhere in the world.