Yesterday’s spectacular eruption of Volcán de Colima in Mexico

January 22, 2015 • 10:08 am

Reader Stephen Q. Muth (Butter‘s staff) sent me a link to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s video and report of a big eruption of the Colima volcano (Volcán de Colima) in southwest Mexico. It’s erupted several times in the last year, and the Spanish title of the video notes that this eruption happened yesterday. The ABC’s notes:

The active but isolated volcano is located approximately 500 kilometres west of the capital Mexico City and has erupted at least 30 times since 1585.

The vision was recorded on a permanent fixed webcam operated by Webcams De Mexico, which had placed a series of cameras in the area since the volcano’s last major eruptions in 2013 and 2014.

Colima experienced several significant eruptions in the late 1990s and scientific monitoring of the site began two decades ago.

Ash fell on towns up to 25 kilometres away from the volcano, but no lives or properties were under immediate threat.

Note what appears to be a pyroclastic flow moving down the volcano’s flanks. Nothing could survive that avalanche of hot gas and debris.

I’d dearly love to see something like this. I’ve watched the red molten lava from the volcano on Hawaii’s Big Island flow into the sea, making a huge cloud of steam and building up the island, but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as the video above.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

January 22, 2015 • 7:15 am

Posts will likely be thin on the ground today, as just this minute I’ve received the final galleys of The Albatross and must work on them pronto.  Like Maru, I’ll do my best.

Here are some photos by reader Ken Phelps, which include not just organisms but water in all its forms (except steam).  Identifications are welcome for all of the species; Ken’s comments are indented.

Some very small wildflowers I have not been able to identify. Shot on Quadra Island, B.C.. They were in an exposed mossy area, hugging the ground.


 Some very fine dew on a rose:





North America on the left, Europe on the right. The divide in Iceland.

According to this site, Iceland is the only place in the world where one can see the meeting of tectonic plates above sea level.


I didn’t realize that one could see the meeting of the European and North American tectonic plates in Iceland. You can find a bunch of cool pictures of their junction here.

Arthropod and mollusk (you do know that barnacles are arthropods [crustaceans], right?):



Ken likes to photograph ice and water, especially waves:






One of my favorite waves.  A bit of pareidolia in there too. The real thing was about 6″ high, more of a wavelet. Either Fraser or Capilano River water in English Bay, Vancouver, giving it its color.


A rare video of an exploding volcano

September 7, 2014 • 1:43 pm

Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait has posted a stunning video of a volcano exploding, and gives some background. The eruption was of Mount Tavurvur on the island of New Britain in Papua, New Guinea, and it occurred on August 29th. It was captured on video by Phil McNamara, and is now on YouTube.

Phil’s take:

Holy yikes! The video was taken by Phil McNamara, and posted on his wife Linda’s Facebook page. The volcano has been pretty active historically and has caused a lot of damage; it’s killed many people, and buried the nearby town of Rabaul in ash in 1994. Rabual used to be the provincial capital of the island of New Britain, but after that eruption the capital was moved to another location.

This eruption was smaller in comparison, but holy cow. It was still amazing. In the video you can see lava blasting upward hundreds of meters, falling apparently slowly due to distance. Given the timing delay of the shock wave — 13 seconds or so — so the folks on the boat were just over 4 km away (2.5 miles).

You can see the shock wave traveling down the volcano slope at 00:13, and then ramming the air above the volcano a few seconds later. The sudden compression condensed the water vapor in the air, so you can see ephemeral clouds forming in a rough circle above the explosion. I looked carefully but saw no sign of it traveling across the water.

When you watch the video, enlarge it to full screen for maximum effect.

This video was posted two days ago, and already has more than 3 million views. No surprise!

Here are before and after photos from NASA’s Earth Observatory website: notice all the green that has disappeared. The site also gives a lot more information about the eruption.





h/t: Marcel

The oldest known bit of Earth

February 25, 2014 • 2:09 pm

The Earth is 4.54 billion years old. We know that not from radiometric dating of rocks on our planet, as the oldest rocks haven’t yet been found, but from dating meteorites that fall on earth from the solar system, which formed around the time Earth did.

But of course that’s not fodder for creationist, for we also have old homegrown rocks, clearly showing that the earth is far older than, say, 10,000 years.

And now we’ve found the oldest bit of Earth yet. As ZME Science and a new paper reported yesterday, it’s a zircon crystal from Australia dated at 4.37 billion years.  The paper with the original report is in Nature Geoscience (reference and link below; free download [I think]).

Here it is.

Photo: University of Wisconsin

And it’s not big:

The geological relic indicates, for one, that Earth’s crust formed shortly after the planet stabilized and formed. John Valley, a University of Wisconsin geoscience professor who led the research, said the findings suggest that the early Earth was not as harsh a place as many scientists have thought.

No doubt, this is an extraordinary find, however, the untrained eye would have surely missed it. Measuring about  200 by 400 microns, or roughly two times the width of a human hair, the tiny gem was luckily retrieved by geologists in 2001 from a rock outcrop in Australia’s Jack Hills region.

The researchers used two ways to check the date: radiometric uranium-lead dating and atom-probe tomography, which uses the actual position of individual atoms in the crystal to check the accuracy of the U/Pb method. I’ll let the readers enlighten us about how this method works, as I don’t fully understand it myself; but the upshot is that the APT dates comport with the uranium lead dates, making hash of the creationist objection that dating methods are unreliable, even in the hands of experts.

The APT was used because of worries that U-Pb dating might be off because lead might have moved within the crystal.  This shows that scientists do know the ways that dating could be off, and have checks for them. And APT showed no evidence of such movement. I’ll show that by simply posting part of the paper’s abstract:

Here we use atom-probe tomography to identify and map individual atoms in the oldest concordant grain from Earth, a 4.4-Gyr-old Hadean zircon with a high-temperature overgrowth that formed about 1 Gyr after the mineral’s core. Isolated nanoclusters, measuring about 10 nm and spaced 10–50 nm apart, are enriched in incompatible elements including radiogenic Pb with unusually high 207Pb/206Pb ratios. We demonstrate that the length scales of these clusters make U–Pb age biasing impossible, and that they formed during the later reheating event. Our tomography data thereby confirm that any mixing event of the silicate Earth must have occurred before 4.4 Gyr ago, consistent with magma ocean formation by an early moon-forming impact about 4.5 Gyr ago

h/t: Ant


Valley, J. W. et al. 2014. Hadean age for a post-magma-ocean confirmed by atom-probe tomography. Nature Geoscience. doi:10.1038/ngeo2075

Volcanic eruption in Ecuador

February 2, 2014 • 6:43 am

Reader Lou Jost, a biologist who works and lives in Ecuador, sent me a note with some pictures of a huge volcanic eruption that’s occurred near his home. The eruption of Tungurahua is reported at Wired, but Lou sent pictures he took himself, a brief report, and the link to a YouTube video (below). Lou’s comments are indented:

A terrifying sunset yesterday due to a huge earth-shaking eruption of my volcano, Tungurahua. It filled the sky above me. I never saw an eruption this big before. From here in my yard, at 2100m on the volcano itself, it was hard to grasp the size of the ash cloud; it went up 47000 ft! Sulfur dioxide gas made parts of the cloud turn yellow-orange, coupled with pinks from the sunset and gray-black from the dense ash. It looked like a Hollywood movie. I kept expecting Charlton Heston to walk down from the mountain in front of me. I’m so glad I got back from Wisconsin yesterday, just in time to see this. The attached night picture is taken from inside my house near my desk, through a skylight I designed so that I could see the volcano above me.





A shaky video made by a kid in a city maybe 50km from the volcano, with cute narration:

I don’t speak Spanish, so perhaps a reader can produce a brief translation.

When you see stuff like this, you realize that although humans can do a lot of bad things to this planet, the planet can also do things over which we have no control.

Global warming in action: World’s largest observed glacial calving

February 8, 2013 • 3:39 pm

A “glacial calving” event occurs when a large hunk of a glacier breaks off into the sea. This is normal when glaciers near the ocean move into the warmer waters, but it’s increased dramatically with anthropogenic global warming. Greenland is one of the places that is shrinking rapidly as the glaciers retreat.

Here is a five-minute video showing the largest calving event even seen by humans, and it’s both stunning and saddening. As Slate reports:

Scientists know that Greenland is melting as the earth warms. Studies show that the island has been shedding ice at an incredible pace of 142 billion tons per year—five times faster than the rate as recently as the 1990s. But big numbers in scientific studies about far-off lands don’t always resonate in the public mind, and somehow a substantial portion of the U.S. population still doesn’t believe that the earth is getting hotter.

Over the years, the award-winning nature photographer James Balog grew so frustrated by that disconnect that he decided to dedicate his life to visually documenting the impact of climate change on the world’s glaciers. The documentary Chasing Ice, released in the United States last month, follows his relentless and at-times harrowing quest, which began in 2007 and continues today. The results are breathtaking. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is an enormous record of time-lapse images from multiple continents, which allow you to witness glaciers that are hundreds of thousands of years old disappearing from the earth before your eyes.

You can see more about the film “Chasing Ice” here, including a trailer, but have a look at this calving event. The scale of the event isn’t evident until the end, when they impose an image of Manhattan on the ice at about 3:30. But do watch the entire video.

The excerpt above shows the largest glacier-calving ever caught on film. Two young members of Balog’s team camped out for weeks in hopes of catching sight of exactly this. To climate scientists, the colossal event shown above is less persuasive evidence of global warming than the ever-mounting reams of data from ice cores, satellite altimetry, and so forth. After all, icebergs calving from glaciers is a natural process that would happen even if the earth’s temperature were holding steady.

But Balog recognizes that, for most people, believing requires seeing. And here his team succeeded in capturing the awesome effects of climate change in a way that papers published in Science just can’t.

Yep, we’re in huge trouble, and my only consolation is that I won’t be alive to see the real horrors beginning. But the next generation will.

h/t: S.

Italian scientists sentenced to jail for failing to predict earthquake

October 23, 2012 • 5:00 am

This is unbelievable. According to yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor, an Italian court sentenced six scientists and a bureaucrat to six years in jail for failing to predict a 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, a small city in the center of the country. That quake toppled ancient buildings and killed 309 people.

They were sentenced not for scientific inaccuracy, but for manslaughter.

Today, a court in the central Italian city of L’Aquila, 380 years after that miscarriage of justice, sentenced six scientists and a government bureaucrat to six years in jail on manslaughter charges for their failure to predict a 2009 earthquake that left more than 300 people dead.

. . . The seven convicted men stood accused of “inexact, incomplete, and contradictory” information about the risks posed by tremors in the weeks ahead of the April 6, 2009, earthquake that caused so much destruction.

The seven, all members of the “National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks,” were convicted after an apparently emotional trial in which the testimony of people who had lost loved ones was allowed, as if it was relevant to the question of whether current science can predict earthquakes. No grief, no matter how great, can answer that question (which is a resounding “no,” by the way).

As we all know, especially Americans who live in California, there is no way to predict when an earthquake will take place, even with advanced technology involving sensors placed along fault lines. Residents of San Francisco, for instance, all know that The Big One is Coming, but you don’t see people scrambling from of the city. It could happen today, or in a century. (Wikipedia has a decent article on the methods and success of earthquake prediction.)

The CSM continues:

The scientific consensus has been clear on this for some time. As much as the world would like the ability to predict earthquakes, it’s eluded the best efforts of scientists for decades. The plate-tectonic revolution in geology held out some hope for greater predictive abilities as it gathered steam in the 1950s and 1960s. But while scientists have a much better understanding of why earthquakes happen and where they’re likely to occur than at any point in human history, their predictive powers are so vague as to be practically useless – beyond recommending people shouldn’t live in quake zones like L’Aquila. People are generally resistant to such advice though. The city was rebuilt after major earthquakes in the 15th and 18th centuries, just as it has been rebuilt now.

Exactly what did they do to deserve six years in stir? Joel Cohen, a professor at Rockefeller University (and one of my old professors at Harvard) explains what the miscreants did:

Italy’s National Commission for Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks, which comprised the seven men now on trial, met in L’Aquila for one hour on March 31, 2009, to assess the earthquake swarms. According to the minutes, Enzo Boschi, President of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, was asked if they were precursors to an earthquake resembling the one in 1703. He replied: “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded (emphasis added).”

In fact, other seismologists agree that that statement was the most informed one possible at the time.

That’s science, folks.  We can make statements about likelihood of tectonic events, but can never have complete certainty.  In fact, we can’t totally exclude the possibility that evolution didn’t occur either, though, given the mountain of evidence supporting it, that possibility is extremely unlikely.

PuffHo has more information, including a BBC video of the quake, the trial, and statements by residents. (The video continues after the first pass-through).

The convicted are appealing (I hope the scientists haven’t been jailed yet), and I trust the Italian courts will come to their senses.  If they don’t, the upshot is this: Italian scientists will no longer make informed predictions about anything of social import lest they languish in jail for making a mistake.  The court needs to learn a lesson that scientists have long absorbed: we don’t know anything with absolute certainty (though we know some things with near-certainty).

h/t: Linda

The National Trust excises creationism at the Giant’s Causeway exhibit

October 3, 2012 • 9:35 am

A few months ago there was a mini-kerfuffle over the wording of the exhibit at the Visitor’s Centre at the Giant’s Causeway lava formation in Northern Ireland, an exhibit run by the National Trust (see here, here, here, and here for my reports).  Geologists date the formation as 50-60 million years old, but the exhibit at the Visitor’s Centre caved in to creationist pressure, saying this:

Creationists believe the stones, which emerged from the sea-bed following intense volcanic and geological activity 60 million years ago, were in fact formed around 4,500 years ago as a result of Noah’s Flood.

Many UK residents, and many of my readers, objected to this nod to creationism, though the creationist Caleb Foundation, which promoted that language, was pleased.  Tons of people wrote in to the National Trust, which promised last July to review of the creationist language. I and many of us were among these writers, and I think the strength of the opposition surprised the National Trust. They had to do something or they were going to look as if they were making concessions to opponents of science.

According to the BBC News, the National Trust’s decision has now come down, and it’s not going to make creationists happy:

A new piece of audio, approximately 20 seconds long, now replaces the previous recording.

. . . Previously the audio which accompanied the exhibit said that questions had been raised about the formation of the rocks.

“Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth was created some 6000 years ago,” it said. “This is based on a specific interpretation of the bible and, in particular, the account of creation in the book of Genesis,” it said.

“Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.”

The new audio now says there is a “clear understanding among scientists that the heat of the earth was the driving force behind the formation of the Giant’s Causeway”.

It adds that the earth is “far older than had previously been thought”.

“All the scientific evidence points to a volcanic origin for the columns of the Giant’s Causeway, around 60m years ago.

But they still couldn’t resist a tiny sop to creationists, for this language remains:

“However, not everyone agrees with the scientific view. There are some people who believe – often for religious reasons – that the earth was formed more recently: thousands of years ago rather than billions.”

Well, I suppose 99/100 of a cake is better than half a cake.  The “often for religious reasons” is, of course, a weasel phrase. Nobody believes in a young earth except for religious reasons!

The religious Caleb Foundation, who pretty much lost, nevertheless pronounces itself “broadly content with the Causeway review”:

“When the new Visitor Centre at the Giant’s Causeway was opened in July 2012, Caleb congratulated the National Trust on the inclusion of an audio exhibit which acknowledged both the legitimacy of the creationist position on the origins of the unique Causeway stones and the ongoing debate around this.

We were disappointed when the Trust decided to review the previously agreed wording in that exhibit as a result of pressure. We are also disappointed that the outcome of the review has led to a revision of the wording, but we are very pleased that the exhibit has not been removed, as demanded by some. Although we do not accept that all the scientific evidence points to a 60 million year time span, we note that the revised exhibit still retains an acknowledgement of the existence of an alternative viewpoint. The National Trust has therefore set a precedent for others to follow”.

Yes, but the precedent is the other way round: it says that science wins, and that opposition to a 5000-year-old Causeway is based purely on religion.

One can actually make a case that leaving in mention of the “alternative” view is not too bad, for that view is characterized as based not on science but on faith.  After all, one of the reasons I wrote WEIT was to dispel the creationist “alternative” view of life, and to do so I had to acknowledge its existence.

h/t: Adrian, Kieran, and Chris

Creationists infiltrate geology meeting

October 28, 2011 • 4:46 am

Shoot me: I wasn’t aware of the Skepticblog, which is run by six people who include Steve Novella, paleobiologist Don Prothero, and Michael Shermer, but I’ll be paying attention to it from now on.

Two days ago, Don Prothero filed a report on how creationists had invaded the 2010 annual meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA), including running an entire field trip in Colorado on which young-earth creationists, while identifying various formations as the results of “sudden deposition,” never identified their real agenda.  There were also some talks by creationists, including a bizarre presentation by Marcus Ross of Liberty University (a tipoff) on Cretaceous mosasaurs, here described by Prothero’s colleage Steve Newton:

Because most of the audience probably did not know Ross’ background, it must have been puzzling to them when the first question following Ross’ talk challenged him on how he could “harmonize this work with [his] belief in a 6,000-year-old Earth.” (This question came from University of Florida geology professor Joe Meert, who bloggedabout the exchange.)

Ross answered the question by saying that for a scientific meeting such as GSA, he thought in a “framework” of standard science; but for a creationist audience, he said, he used a creationist framework. Judging from the reaction of the audience, this answer caused more confusion than enlightenment. Ross pointed out that nothing in his presentation involved Young-Earth Creationism. But he then volunteered that he was indeed a Young-Earth Creationist.

It was a strange moment for the audience. It was the last talk of the session, and as everyone migrated into the hallway, several people asked me what had just happened, as if they had misheard the exchange.

The problem is that although these folks should be given the right to talk at meetings so long as they adhere to conventional scientific standards (and they do, although it’s a lie), they can then boast about how their “science” has been presented at important meetings.  As Prothero notes:

Sadly, the real problem here is that YEC “geologists” come back from this meeting falsely bragging that their “research” was enthusiastically received, and that they “converted” a lot of people to their unscientific views. As Newton pointed out, they will crow in their publicity that they are attending regular professional meetings and presenting their research successfully. For those who don’t know any better, it sounds to the YEC audience like they are conventional geologists doing real research and that they deserve to be taken seriously as geologists—even though every aspect of their geology is patently false (see Chapter 3 in my 2007 Evolution book). And so, once more the dishonesty of the YEC takes advantage of the openness and freedom of the scientific community to exploit it to their own ends, and abuse the privilege of open communication to push anti-scientific nonsense on the general population that doesn’t know the difference.

The good news is that the latest meetings don’t appear to have included stealth creationists—or at least they didn’t run any field trips.