There’s nothing quite like the fireworks display of a volcanic eruption, and this month, Costa Rica’s Turrialba volcano has stepped up to the plate in a dramatic and flamboyant fashion.
This particular stratovolcano, roughly 3,340 meters (11,000 feet) high, rises up above its own national park, and last week decided to fling ash and molten rock up to an additional 3,000 meters (9,840 feet miles) into the air – almost taking out a scientific webcam as it did so. Although Turrialba has exhibited five cataclysmic eruptions over the last 3,500 years, this recent activity is comparatively minor, but no less spectacular.
A thermal webcam barely survives the volcanic violence. RTNNoticias13 via YouTube
Turrialba’s recent activity is said to be the strongest in around 6 years, with planes being diverted away from the nearby capital city of San José and hundreds of people being admitted to hospital with respiratory difficulties. Local buildings in the area have been blanketed in ash and the air stinks of sulfur. The prevailing winds are unfortunately blowing most of the eruption plume westward towards the country’s most densely populated areas.
A thermal imaging camera within the crater of the volcano itself captured the moment a high-temperature plume, which contained lava droplets reaching a peak temperature of around 1,200°C (2,190°F), suddenly rocketed out of the volcano.
Drifting ash plumes at Turrialba volcano. Ezequiel Becerra/AFP/Getty Images
The fire fountaining and increasingly explosive steam-and-gas blasts were likely being generated by Strombolian volcanism, which involves huge slugs of gas coalescing within the magma conduits beneath the surface and forcing their way out at the open vent, dragging up some magma with it. This commonplace eruption style is a bit like a burp accidentally forcing up some gastrointestinal fluids.
As of May 24, ash is no longer being generated and the seismic activity beneath the volcano has quietened down, implying that the main phase of volcanism is coming to an end. Turrialba has been erupting at the same time as Mount Etna in Sicily, which has seen a spike in explosive activity this year, as well as multiple other volcanoes scattered around the world.
Despite claims to the contrary drifting around in the more logically defunct sections of the web, this isn’t because Mars is making its closest approach to Earth in more than a decade. Volcanoes are constantly going off across the world, but when one erupts with sufficient visual flair, the media pay more attention to the others erupting at the same time. In reality, it's business as usual on planet Earth.
Recent volcanic iridescence at Mount Etna, in Sicily. Turi Caggegi via YouTube
Sadly, Sinabung, a particularly violent Indonesian volcano, has also been erupting recently, and a series of pyroclastic flows recently consumed and killed seven people fleeing the scene. Although Sinabung and Turrialba are very different volcanoes, any documented volcanic eruption helps scientists understand their underlying eruption mechanisms, even just a little bit.
In this respect, the explosive activity at the Costa Rican volcano, recorded in detail by scientists, will only help them to advise those in harm’s way in the future, including at more dangerous volcanoes, like Sinabung, across the planet.