Bonus Factismal: Pop Goes Popocatépetl

If you’ve been waiting to see the biggest thing since Mt. St. Helens, this may be your year. The Popocatépetl volcano, located in central Mexico, has begun an explosive eruption phase. Translated from the geophysicics, that means that there is a stronger than usual chance that Popocatépetl will put on an even bigger show than Mt. St. Helens did in 1980; it may even be as large as the eruption of Pinatubo in 1991.

A time lapse of the past 24 hours at Popocatépetl (Courtesy Mexico web-cams)

What is Popocatépetl?
Popocatépetl is a large volcano located about 43 miles from Mexico City. This massive cone of ash and hardened lava rises some 17,802 ft, making it the second-highest peak in Mexico (and nearly twice as tall as Mt. St Helens!). The volcano has been very active, with the last massive eruption happening in 800 CE. Though that may seem to be quit a while back, the volcano has been continuously spewing out ash and lava since 2000; the heat from the lava has risen high enough that all of the glaciers on the mountain have melted (this is a good thing).

Locations of the major volcanoes in Mexico (Map courtesy USGS)

Why should I care?
Other than just the usual “Wow! An erupting volcano! Cool!”, there are several very good reasons to care about an eruption at Popocatépetl. First and foremost, volcanic eruptions include lots of seismic events (read: earthquakes); given how close Popocatépetl is to Mexico City, there is a strong possibility that those earthquakes may cause damage in Mexico City.

Popocatépetl erupting at dusk (Image courtesy

Popocatépetl erupting at dusk
(Image courtesy

Second, the ash and smoke from the volcano could easily blanket the city, causing trouble for the inhabitants. In addition, because Popocatépetl is so tall, a lot of that ash and smoke goes right up into the path of jets that fly over Mexico. As of today, 47 different flights have been cancelled due to the increase in activity. This could get much worse, as the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in 2010 showed; that eruption closed air traffic in 20 countries and stranded more than 100,000 travelers.

Third, that smoke from the volcano contains a lot of sulfuric acid and other “atmospheric particulates”. If those get injected into the stratosphere in large quantities, as happened during the eruption of Pinatubo, then there could be global effects lasting several years.

Whoa – what do you mean “global effects”?
When Pinatubo erupted, it lowered the global temperatures by about 0.9°F for about four years. When Tambora erupted in 1815, it lowered the global temperatures so much that it was called “the year without a summer“. Volcanic eruptions can also affect rainfall on a global scale, along with temporarily shifting jet streams. In short, the weather would be a mess for the next few years.

What can we do?
Do you remember the scene in the original Star Wars movie where Darth Vader said “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of The Force”? That’s pretty much what’s going on here. About all we can do when a volcano erupts is get out of the way and clean up afterward. Though Iceland did famously manage to divert a lava flow, that was a nice, quiet eruption. This one won’t be.

No, what science can we do?
Oh! I forgot that this was a citizen science blog for a moment. (What can I say – I love volcanoes!). If you happen to live near Popocatépetl, then please report any earthquakes you feel on the USGS’ Did You Feel It? website; this will help the scientists monitoring the volcano track the activity and impove their forecast of eruptions. And if you live anywhere in the zone where ash might fall (all of Mexico, most of the southern USA), then if the volcano erupts, consider collecting ash samples and sending them to the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

3 thoughts on “Bonus Factismal: Pop Goes Popocatépetl

  1. Pingback: August 1 – Clear As Mud – Little facts about science

  2. Pingback: Little facts about science

  3. Pingback: August 1 – Clear As Mud | Little facts about science

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