Space & Innovation

The Deadliest Volcano Ever

Plant fossils from Pakistan bolster the theory that a gigantic volcanic eruption in Siberia was responsible for the largest extinction event in Earth's history. ->

The damning evidence keeps rolling in with regards to volcanoes and mass extinctions. The latest is in the journal Geology regarding the mother of all extinction events - the end-Permian event 252 million years ago. The new evidence is from the Salt Range in Pakistan, where fossil plants reveal a huge input of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that yanked the global climate into a new regime.

Sound familiar? Yeah, that's the same thing we are worried about happening under the current global warming event. Back in the Permian it looks like it was the Siberian Traps volcanic eruption that released the carbon dioxide. Now it's humans digging up and burning fossil fuels, releasing into the atmosphere millions of years worth of naturally sequestered carbon.

The Siberian Traps are a gigantic volcanic deposit unlike anything that has been laid down in the time that humans have inhabited Earth. And that's a good thing (the timing, I mean), because it's beginning to look like these sort of jumbo lava flows - which can ebb and flow for millions of years before they are finished - are the prime suspects in most of the worst mass extinction cases in our planet's history (yes, even the one that killed the dinos).

ANALYSIS: Biggest Dino Killer: Volcano vs. Asteroid

In this particular study researchers from Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Pakistan focused on carbon data locked up in land plant cuticles (essentially, the outermost layer of plant skin) and fossil wood fragments. They used the carbon-13 isotope in the plant cuticles as a proxy for atmospheric CO2 across the Permian-Triassic boundary - which is marked by the loss of 96 percent of all marine species, 70 percent of all land vertebrates, and is the only mass extinction known to have seriously perturbed insects (who otherwise tend to ride out hard times rather nicely). The Pakistan cuticle carbon reveals a shift in carbon isotopes that reflects a surge in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Is this "proof" of the cause of the worst mass extinction? No. But it's pretty damning evidence and hard to come up with any other possible cause of the die off that can be found in the geological record. Does it have any bearing on us today? Only the same lesson all history has to offer: If we don't learn from it, we will be condemned to repeat it.

Image: The Salt Range in Pakistan is rich in fossil bearing rocks that cross the Permian-Triassic boundary at 252 million years ago. This boundary marks the Earth's most extensive mass extinction event. Image credit: WikiCommons

Ring of Fire

In 2008, 72 volcanoes erupted around the world -- that's a lot of fire, and slightly above average. 2009 got off to a fast start, too, with Mount Redoubt letting loose in Alaska, Japan's Mount Asama raining ash on Tokyo and an undersea volcano in Tonga breaching the surface and growing an island. But none of these is likely to break into our list of Top 10 Volcanoes in Geologic History. Most of these come with signs that read "Danger: Keep Back at Least One Continent." But if this list of past catastrophes teaches us anything, it's that the biggest, baddest volcanoes can erupt anywhere and at any time. And they will again -- it's just a matter of when.

10. Ontong-Java Plateau, South Pacific

This is the biggest volcano you've never heard of. When it erupted 125 million years ago, it covered a region of the south Pacific Ocean the size of Alaska with basalt, in some places as much as 30 kilometers thick. It was so big, the eruption itself is thought to have lasted 6 million years. Scientists call this type of volcano a large igneous province (LIP). They are highly mysterious, and appear to form when huge amounts of hot magma well up from thousands of miles deep in the mantle, near Earth's core. There's a lot of debate as to whether LIPs erupt in huge explosions, or just ooze out in massive sheets of lava. Either way, mass extinctions have a tendency to occur whenever one of these things go off, so it's probably a good thing we've never seen one in action.

9. Mount St. Helens, Washington, USA

May 18, 1980, was a bad day in Washington state. Silent for over 100 years, the picturesque 9,677-foot peak had by late April grown into a bloated, trembling blister of rock and magma. And like a blister, it popped early on a Sunday morning, rocketing fiery ash out to the north at close to the speed of sound. The eruption killed 57 people and did almost $3 billion in damage when all was said and done. It also lopped 1,314 feet off the height of the mountain, which was reduced to a smoldering crater. This was the most deadly volcanic eruption in Unites States history -- and it was just a pipsqueak, really.

8. Grimsvotn, Iceland

Nothing says "explosion" quite like the mixing of searing hot magma with ice from a glacier. It's a common circumstance at Grimsvotn, a volcano buried underneath the Vatnajokull glacier in eastern Iceland that last erupted in 2004. Each time Grimsvotn erupts, huge amounts of liquid build up under the glacier until the pressure becomes so great that the water literally lifts up the glacier and escapes in catastrophic floods, called "jokulhlaups." You don't want to be around for a jokulhlaup. The flood that came after the 1996 Grimsvotn eruption discharged 50,000 cubic meters of water per second, making it briefly the second-largest river in the world. But that kind of thing doesn't faze Icelanders – these are the same folks who once sprayed seawater on a lava flow to keep it from engulfing a nearby harbor town.

7. Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA

Given the violent company it's in, Mauna Kea is pretty chill. Dormant for the last 4,500 years, it was never much of an exploder even in its heyday. That's because the lava that comes out of volcanoes in Hawaii is a low-viscosity basalt -- it tends to ooze and flow like a river. Shown here with snowy peaks in the foreground, the mountain has erupted a lot of lava over the eons. It is only 13,796 feet above sea level, but from its base at the bottom of the Pacific, it measures 33,476 feet high, making it the tallest mountain in the world. Its upper reaches used to have enough snow for skiing (and further back, glaciers).

6. Krakatau, Indonesia

In 1883, humanity witnessed what scientists call a "caldera-forming eruption" in Indonesia. In plain English, we call that a mountain blowing itself apart. At 200 megatons of explosive power, the eruption was four times more powerful than the biggest nuclear bomb ever detonated. Since the volcano and island were one and the same, there wasn't much left after the explosion rocked the Sunda Strait and sent 100-foot-high tsunamis and scalding ash flows ashore up to 25 miles away. In the ruined void the volcano left behind, a new island has been growing back (through a series of much smaller eruptions) and is now around 1,000 feet high.

5. Ra Patera, Io, Jupiter's Moon

Thanks to space exploration, the list of greatest volcanoes can no longer be restricted to Earth. In 1979 the Voyager space probe made a shocking discovery -- Jupiter's moon Io was pock-marked with active volcanoes. Voyager's snapshot of Ra Patera was the first discovery of an active extraterrestrial volcano, though the bigger vents Loki and Pele were discovered soon after. But it didn't make sense. Io is about same the size as Earth's moon, which long ago froze in the vacuum of space. So why was it still active? As scientists soon learned, Jupiter's intense gravity was tugging on Io's innards, creating such heat that the moon was literally disemboweling itself, spewing sulfur-rich lavas all over the surface of the moon, and out into space.

4. Santorini, Greece

Look at the small group of five islands known as Santorini, and it's clear something bad once happened there. In fact, the islands all were one, until an eruption bigger than Krakatau blew the place apart about 3,600 years ago. Ash deposits 100 feet thick have been found 19 miles in all directions from the caldera. Shown here is a wall of the volcano where you can see layers of ash, lava flows, pyroclastic deposits and other volcanic products. The ancient eruption is thought to have spawned the tales of the "Lost City of Atlantis" and perhaps even hastened the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the nearby island of Crete.

3. Olympus Mons, Mars

The biggest volcano in the solar system is also the quietest. It's the size of Arizona, and close to 90,000 feet high, but this gentle giant hasn't erupted in millions of years. When it did it was probably a lot like Mauna Kea, leaking rivers of liquid rock rather than exploding into the Martian skies.

2. Tambora, Indonesia

Between dozens of volcanoes, the biggest earthquakes in the world, and devastating tsunamis, Indonesia has a lot of geology to worry about. And Mount Tambora, a huge volcano on the island of Sumbawa, is no exception. The mountain produced a gargantuan eruption in 1815 that produced an ash cloud so big, it canceled the summer of 1816 in North America and Europe. The eruption also killed between 70,000 and 90,000 people, making it the deadliest in human history. And the No. 1 volcano in geologic history is ... (you saw this one coming) ...

1. Siberian Traps, Siberia

A LIP just like Ontong-Java, the Siberian Traps supervolcano has one distinct difference: it is by far the deadliest volcano the planet has ever seen. The traps erupted at the end of the Permian era, 250 million years ago. It was the worst mass extinction the planet has ever seen; 90 percent of all life on Earth was wiped out. The massive traps basalts appear to be the smoking gun. They seeped into huge coal deposits on their way to the surface, and their enormous heat baked the coal, sending billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The global warming that followed was catastrophic -- it took millions of years for life on Earth to recover.