Science: A Case of Earthly Indigestion

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Two volcanoes are blowing their tops

Incandescent lava will cover our swamps, our reeking cities, our fields, our flowering hills; it will destroy the contours of that soil we persist in calling "ours."

Absurdist Playwright Eugène Ionesco is known for his use of logic taken to farcical extremes. But even without 20-20 apocalyptic vision, it is possible to imagine the world ending in an enormous eruption. Of all the demonstrations of nature's awesome power, few are as dramatic as active volcanoes.

Thera, which erupted in 1500 B.C., blew the top off the Greek isle of that name and destroyed a civilization. Vesuvius, which came to life in A.D. 79, buried the town of Pompeii and its inhabitants under tons of lava and ash in hours. When Indonesia's Krakatoa exploded in 1883, it killed 35,000 people and released with a single blast the energy equivalent of 20,000 Hiroshima bombs.

A fresh season of volcanic activity has begun. On Japan's northern island of Hokkaido last week, thousands of acres around Mount Usu lay under a cover of gray ash, and Usu continued to steam and rumble ominously. Italy's Mount Etna has erupted for the third time in a month, sending a stream of lava three kilometers (two miles) down the mountainside and shooting a pillar of flame and smoke 450 meters (1,500 ft.) into the air. Both provided evidence that, regardless of progress in other areas, man is still powerless to control the fires beneath his feet.

Mount Usu had last erupted in 1945. Since then, magma, or semimolten rock from the mantle surrounding the earth's core, had been slowly and quietly rising through cracks under the peak of the mountain, building up tremendous pressures and triggering repeated earth tremors that rocked Hokkaido. Finally, on Aug. 7, the 725-meter (2,400-ft.) Usu awakened with a roar like that of a bomb. A huge black cloud soared to a height of 12,000 meters (39,000 ft.). A dense shower of gray ash and chunks of porous, rock-like pumice poured out of the cloud.

The damage was devastating. An All Nippon Airways jumbo jet flying 23,000 ft. above the volcano with 317 passengers aboard had to turn back to Chitose Airport, 50 miles away. Two of its cockpit windows had been cracked by volcanic shrapnel. Though no casualties were reported on the ground, everything within a two-mile radius of Usu was covered with more than a foot of debris, and even Asahikawa, a city 100 miles away, was dusted with a fine coating of ash. Rice, maize and potato crops in the area were destroyed. Tourist hotels shut down as residents of the island began digging out. Before Usu rests again, it could throw out much more debris. Japanese volcanologists report that columns of smoke mixed with steam and smelling heavily of sulfur are still rising from four new craters created by the recent explosion. They warn that the volcano, which has already caused some $80 million in damages, could erupt again at any moment.

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