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2009: The Volcanic Year in Review

All the volcano eruptions, news, gossips, controversies of 2009 … it was quite a year for the study of volcanoes!

Here it is, my attempt to recap a year’s worth of volcanic events. By no means is this supposed to capture every event, but rather the highlight/lowlights and what most captivated me during 2009. I’ll be announcing the winner of the 2009 Pliny for Volcanic Event of the Year tomorrow.

Waimangu Geothermal Valley in New Zealand, taken in January 2009 by Erik Klemetti.


The year started out with a trip to New Zealand (well, for me at least) and vistas of the Waimangu Valley, formed in the 1886 eruption of Tarawera on the North Island. We were also still thinking about the late 2008 earthquake swarm at Yellowstone, which didn’t lead to anything in 2009. British scientists suggested that Antarctica has been experiencing subglacial eruption, which might account for some of the melting of the ice on the southern continent. However, what really got our attention in January was the Mt. Redoubt in Alaska, with the volcano being put on alert by AVO on January 26th – leading to months of speculation about what might happen. By the end of the month (4 days later), the volcano was all over the news and concern about the Drift River Oil Terminal was high.


It was the Redoubt wait that dominated the volcano news during February. Earthquakes, steam and speculation were the order of the day. We also got news of recent eruptions at NW-Rota 1 from Dr. Ed Kohut off on a research cruise in the Pacific. Chaiten was still going strong, but the social fallout from the relocation of the town of Chaiten was proving to be a major problem was well. Finally, volcano monitoring made a surprise splash at the end of the month when Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal suggested that monitoring volcanoes was “wasteful” – he learned quickly that badmouthing volcanologists is not a good idea.


We had to wait most of the month, but right after AVO thought things were winding down at Redoubt, the volcano goes and erupts anyway on March 23rd. It wasn’t a little eruption either, throwing ash to over 50,000 ft / 15 km and eventually closing the international airport in Anchorage. March ended up being a double feature, with the surprise – and very impressive – eruption of Hunga Tonga – Hunga Ha’apai in the island nation of Tonga. This eruption started as an undersea eruption noticed by commercial pilots in the area and quickly became a classic island-building event. We also had a lot of noise about the earthquake swarms in the Bombay Beach area long the San Andreas fault in southern California. March also marked my move from WordPress to ScienceBlogs – so I send a special thanks to all the readers who came with me and all my new readers – if you can believe it, Eruptions will be just short of half a million visits in the 10 months since coming to ScienceBlogs!

Llaima in Chile erupting in April 2009.


April ended up being my busiest month – with over 50 posts in the month alone. A lot of that was, again, dominated by Redoubt’s activity that continued throughout the month. We also saw impressive eruptions of Llaima in Chile and new fissure eruptions at Fernandina in the Galapagos Islands. I addressed some concerns people have on the dangers of geothermal drilling causing an eruption (short answer: probably not). We also got an inside look at the USGS Volcano Hazards Program and I got all worked up about some questionable volcano journalism (what a surprise).


May marked two anniversaries: one was for Eruptions, the other, more important one marked one year of eruptions at Chaiten in Chile. The eruption that got me on this blogging track was still going strong after a year, with at least three domes growing inside the Chaiten caldera. Of course, we were also still waiting for the big dome collapse at Redoubt as well, but little came of that. We also got the first glimpse of West Mata erupting in the Lau Basin of the Pacific – the media would really get fired up about this in December when video was released. However, the most exciting event of the month was the earthquake swarm and potential threat of volcanic eruption in the Harrat Lunayyir region of Saudi Arabia. At times, I felt like I was the only person covering the event, getting reports from people on the ground in Saudi Arabia – but when all was said-and-done, no eruption came.


We had two volcanoes headed in opposite directions in June. First, Redoubt settled down for the summer. Second, Sarychev Peak in Russia blew its top in a spectacular fashion – disrupting air traffic all across the Pacific. The eruption was a major sulfur dioxide event and provided one of the most stunning volcano images – well, ever. The eruption did a number to the small island of Matau. Sarychev Peak wasn’t the only volcano on the Kamchatka Peninsula making noise: Shiveluch also had a major eruption. In June, we also got the first taste of the “Mt. Saint Helens: Supervolcano” controversy and media disaster that would come back later in the year. Finally, my colleagues at UC Davis, Naomi Marks, Peter Schiffman and Robert Zeirenberg, made the news by drilling into an active rhyolite magma in Iceland – nice way to end the month!

Sarychev Peak erupting in June 2009.


Volcanically speaking, things quieted down during summer after a very busy spring. The biggest news for July was likely eruption at Mando Hararo in Ethiopia – adding more fissure volcanism in the East African Rift. Of course, it might have been most fascinating to Eruptions readers because one of your own might have been the first to notice the eruption actually occurred. Over in Hawai`i, a rockfall captured on camera temporarily “snuffed out” the Halema`uma`u vent, but it didn’t take long for lava to retake the crater. Mayon offered foreshadowing of things to come with evacuations prompted by the beginning of the current eruption.


August was especially quite around these parts – thanks partially to my move from California to Ohio, but also to the fact that, well, not much happened (so much for 2009 being an “anomalously volcanic” year). We started the month with some news that there might have been a volcanic eruption on Venus. I’ve since lost track of the research on this event – anybody have any new theories in what happened on our sister planet? Kamchatka was in the news, mostly because it was such a volcanically active area in 2009 – 5 volcanoes were erupting at once during August – and a new geyser was found as well. And if you need something to read in the long winter months, check out my favorite volcano books.


Things picked back up once the fall began. I dabbled in the world of “manmade volcanoes” (short answer: bad idea unless they erupt a dinosaur). In what now seems premature, the eruption at Soufriere Hills on Montserrat was declared “over” after 6 months of quiet at the volcano. We all know what came two weeks later. The international media was all over the proclamation that Australia was “overdue” for a volcanic eruption – a notion that most people think is fear-mongering at its best. There was some suggestion of something happening at Mt. Rainier – but what exactly is still a mystery. Finally, after 6 months of eruptions and noise, AVO lowered the warning level at Redoubt to green (normal). The eruption was over … or is it?

Nevado del Huila in Colombia steaming from the summit in 2009.


With Redoubt out of the picture (for now), a couple of new volcanoes took to the streets. Gaua in Vanuatu erupted, prompting evacuations of people living near the island volcano. We also saw more activity at Huila in Colombia – it was a busy year for volcanic eruptions in Colombia, with eruptions at Huila and Galeras, along with signs of life from the slumbering volcano of Machin (enough to prompt the Colombian government to ponder diverting a major highway to avoid it getting cut by a Machin eruption). A study in Nature was published showing that the magma erupted during 2008-09 at Chaiten shot through the crust – and then you got to ask Dr. Jonathan Castro, coauthor of the study – all about Chaiten. I also attended the GSA Annual Meeting in Portland, Oregon, where I found out some fun information on Toba, New York kimberlites and Mackenzie Pass.

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Two non-events dominated a lot of the discussion during November. First was the attention paid to the idea that geologists could “destroy Naples” through exploratory drilling into the Campei Flegrei. Second was the non-eruption of Karkar in Papau New Guinea – we all thought a major eruption occurred, but now it looks like the satellites might have been a bit confused, thanks to reports from the ground. Dr. Boris Behncke answered your questions about Italian volcanoes. Both Gaua and Soufriere Hills were full-steam-ahead when it came to their respective eruptions.

Mayon erupting in December 2009.


As 2009 closed out, all eyes turned to the Philippines and the eruption of Mayon. The volcano produced some impressive lava flows and avalanches, but as of December 30, the big explosive event that PHIVOLCS is thinking is in the cards has yet to arrive. Large-scale evacuations have occurred, but keeping people out of the danger zone has been problematic. Piton de la Fournaise on Reunion Island actually erupted first in November, but the December eruption was captured in time-lapse video, showing the growth of the fissure vent eruption on the basaltic shield volcano. Soufriere Hills stayed in the news, causing power problems on Montserrat and ash from the volcano cancelled flights as far away as Puerto Rico. And in a bit of a surprise, as 2009 closed out, Redoubt was put back on Yellow Alert status after new signs of potential activity.

So there is 2009 in a nutshell … any predictions for 2010 (volcanically speaking)?


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