Science

The Earth Is On Fire—But We Have Bigger Problems

8 August 2018

If you’ve caught the last ten minutes of the news any time in the past six weeks, you may have noticed that Hawai’i is on fire. The culprit is Kilauea, one of the tropical island’s five volcanoes: a diminutive creature huddled on the east flank of the mighty Mauna Loa, and a remorseless slayer of volcanologists.

Kilauea’s recent turn on the world stage is a timely reminder that we are all bound to a seething ball of fire whose underlying mechanisms are fundamentally unknown to us and whose temperaments have proven to be wholly unresponsive to our prayers.

Well, technically speaking, we’re bound to two such roiling death spheres, but we can talk about the sun another time.

While watching your house being incinerated by a river of flame may not be quite the thing to put you in an appreciative frame of mind, Kilauea’s exuberance is actually good news for Hawai’i: it means the island is still growing, and will not soon be swallowed up by the Pacific. The youngest (and consequently the biggest) in a long chain of volcanic islands, Hawaii owes its continued existence to a huge mantle plume—a column of particularly hot rocks—that stretches from the deep, deep Earth all the way to the surface.

This fire hose of magma has been active in roughly the same spot for over 85 million years: as far back as T-Rex and the Flintstones. In that time, the ocean floor above it
has drifted with the Earth’s tectonic plates, at first in a north-ish direction before rather abruptly jetting off toward the west. The result is a chain of volcanoes almost 6,000 km long, stretching from Siberia to the modern heart of the Pacific.

Most of those volcanoes have long since eroded or subsided beneath the waves. Those which still jut above the water are now idyllic tropical paradises, perfect for cheap resorts, military airstrips, Indigenous cultures of incalculable worth, and atom bomb testing.

As Kilauea’s rivers of lava surge into the sea, they cool and solidify almost instantly, adding dozens of square miles to Hawai’i’s east coast every couple of years. This new land, for those already speculating, belongs to the State of Hawai’i, at least until it is reclaimed by a process we humans actually can control—rising sea levels caused by climate change.

Hawaiians for the most part have a sanguine relationship with their volcanoes and fatalities are rare. Locals tend to be much more animated about housing shortages, traffic gridlock, and the depredations of billionaire property moguls snuffing up beachfront “real-estate” like it was Wizz-Fizz; not to mention the wholesale annihilation of the island’s first peoples and the enslavement and immiseration of their descendants. For all their awesome terrors, at least volcanoes give back—in new land, spiritual inspiration, and incomparable beauty, not to mention their invaluable role in recycling Earth’s atmosphere into the deep interior and keeping this fragile little spaceship alive.

One more thing on the topic of volcanoes. Next time you catch your heel on one of Melbourne’s many exquisite bluestone curbs, reflect on where all that volcanic rock came from. Victoria’s volcanoes were still erupting mere millennia ago—within the ancestral memory of our own First Nations. They were formed by another hotspot, carving down the east coast from Brisbane to Warrnambool as Australia rushes north to meets its Asian destiny. The very pretty results are well worth a daytrip. Just drive west—you can’t miss them.

I grew up on one of those volcanoes—Mount Bellarine. Its beauty is exquisite. But it’s all covered in suburbs these days.


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