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Friday, July 27, 2012

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Volcano Cowboys: The Rocky Evolution of a Dangerous Science

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Volcano Cowboys: The Rocky Evolution of a Dangerous Science:


Volcanology consists primarily of observation. Description is not unusual in any science (astronomy is another example) but it is usually the first step in the scientific process. Following observations, hypotheses are then tested through repeated experiments. Volcanoes don’t lend themselves to such experimentation and they are usually located in remote, often inaccessible locations and the environment tends to be hostile to say the least.

Thomson, science writer for Time Magazine, has explored how the explosion at Mt. St. Helens affected the science of volcanology and vividly describes the assorted personalities that go into this dangerous field. Most volcanologists before St. Helens literally blew its top had studied the flows in Hawaii, but they were to discover that what they learned there bore little relationship to what they needed to know in order to predict when a mountain might explode. Snow-covered volcanoes like St. Helens contain water and as the water becomes heated its temperature rises beyond the boiling point to become steam. The rocks and structure of the mountain contain the steam, but eventually the pressure builds, occasionally cracking open a rock and spewing forth steam with a roar not unlike a jet engine’s. At St. Helens, instruments measured an extraordinary change in the landscape. A dome was actually increasing in size on top of the mountain; it was bulging as much as three inches per day. St. Helens had been quite thoroughly studied ,and believing that the past holds the key to the future, the volcanologists, trying to compress a process that normally would take place over years, i.e., testing ideas and theories, into a matter of days and short weeks, assumed that Helens, if, and when it blew, would follow previous patterns. Unfortunately, they were fooled, and the enormous debris avalanche caused the mountain to explode sideways instead of off the top. Of the fifty-seven deaths that occurred, only two were inside the predicted danger zone.

 The lessons learned at St. Helens were quite valuable for the future of volcanic eruption prediction. The difficulty in dealing with the social impact was another, less malleable, lesson. Geologists were forced into making decisions that could have enormously disruptive influences on people’s lives, not to mention causing huge financial losses. The imprecision of science and the fear of false alarms contrasted with the natural false security, and the “lack of will to act in the face of uncertainty” was illustrated in the eruption and terrible mudslides of Nevada del Ruiz in Columbia. (The potential for an immensely costly eruption in terms of both loss of life and property damage from Mt. Rainier near Seattle is frightening.)

Many of the lessons learned from explorations of volcanoes following St. Helens were applied successfully in the Philippines when geologists were able to warn of the impending eruption of Mt. Pinatubo quite accurately. Thompson’s narration of the events leading up to that explosive eruption – immensely more powerful than St. Helens – makes for riveting reading; it kept me up half the night. The eruption staggered the imagination. Air Force officers who had been evacuated from Clark Air Force Base watched in awe as the ash column from Pinatubo hit forty thousand feet in thirty seconds and was still climbing. By contrast, an F-15 at full power turns a pilot almost to stone as it rockets to six thousand feet in about sixty seconds. The column eventually reached twenty-two miles up and three hundred miles across. Because of the warning signals learned at St. Helens, the volcanologists were able to predict with some accuracy when the major eruption would occur, and many lives were saved by timely evacuations. By the way, you just don’t want to know what volcanic ash does to a 747 engine flying near it. Considering that most of Southeast Asia is sitting on live volcanoes and that Mt. Rainier is due for another eruption, this books makes timely reading. Be prepared to be riveted to your seat.


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