Why is This Man Smiling?
Is He Blowing Up Hawaii? Unlikely, BUT...
This evening's news at my elderly friend's home showed extraordinary images of the latest eruptions of deadly lava dancing skyward from Hawaii's Kilauea volcano. We learned the lava is creating "laze," or a lava haze as it meets the sea, which sends hydrochloric acid steam and glass particles into the air. As if this new health hazard isn't enough, we also learned the lava is creeping closer to a geothermal power plant which, if reached, could release the deadly gas, hydrogen sulphide, into the air.
Lava spewing from fissures on Hawaii's Kilauea volcano. (USGS photo)
At this point my friend turned to me in a very serious, soul-searching sort of way, and with an almost childish curiosity asked, "I wonder if all these nuclear explosions we keep setting off are causing these volcanos to erupt?" My knee-jerk reaction was that we must have too large a world for an explosion on one landmass to impact an eruption on another. But then I started to wonder, and my curiosity sent me scrambling to the internet for an answer. Could this beautiful blue orb we call home finally have reached a saturation point for underground nuclear explosions? Might the number have finally reached its threshold? Or, more to the point, might a large enough underground nuclear detonation close to a fault line trigger volcanic activity somewhere else along that fault line?
As it turns out, after much reading and sifting of information, the best answer to my friend's question I could come up with is somewhere between "we don't know for sure" and "no." Okay, so that got me thinking about how much we just don't know. As the old saying goes, "you don't know what you don't know." My corollary to that is, "at the very least, you'd better know that you don't know." So, I did more digging.
The U.S. Department of the Interior via the USGS suggests it is highly unlikely a nuclear explosion can cause a volcanic eruption. It used data from a 5 megaton (the largest device ever detonated) nuclear test in the Aleutian Islands in 1971. Because that test in a seismically active zone didn't trigger any volcanic activity, along with other tests in other parts of the world not contributing to volcanic activity, the conclusion reached was that nuclear explosions do not trigger seismic activity like volcanic eruptions. That doesn't sound like a very scientific analysis, but I'll accept it for now.
Still scratching our heads as we scratch the surface of the science of volcanology. What don't we know? The tools are getting better to measure seismic activity, but we still have a long way to go.
Other sources seem to be asking the same question as my elderly friend. The most recent September 2017 North Korean nuclear test was measured at 120 kilotons (as compared to 15 and 20 kilotons in 1945 for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.) It was nowhere near the 5 megatons of the 1971 detonation in the Aleutian Islands, but plenty big to disrupt the earth in many frightening ways. These disruptions can include landslides, pressure ridges, faults, water movement and water table level changes, ground slump, and escape of radioactivity known as containment failure. In fact, the released radioactivity from a nuclear test can even be measured in cow's milk as a "convenient, sensitive fallout indicator." That should scare any farmer, and it certainly scares me as a consumer of all kinds of dairy products.
The USGS has further said that theoretical calculations suggest an underground thermonuclear explosion is not sufficiently large to trigger fault rupture at distances beyond a few tens of kilometers from the shot point. That means the causality between a nuclear test and an earthquake it pretty slim. But, wait, what are a few tens of kilometers? That seems vague. "A few tens." Does than me a few multiple's of ten? Or a few multiples of tens? And how many tens? It might be a few, as in 3, multiplied by 10 tens of kilometers, or 300 kilometers. And what if the explosions keep getting bigger and bigger? And what if a simmering volcano is close to the test site of a much larger nuclear device detonated a year from now? How much do we not know today that we might know tomorrow?
The North Korean watchdog organization 38 North has weighed in on this issue to debunk the "volcanic panic." Yet it relies on the USGS information mentioned above. What does 38 North not know that it may not know? It makes me wonder even further.
Mt. Peaktu is a volcano within about 60 miles of the North Korean nuclear test site. Peaktu has started to experience landslides and aftershocks. There's a real fear that seismic activity from nuclear testing might trigger volcanic activity there. And closer to ground zero is Mt. Mantap beneath which the latest North Korean nuclear device was detonated. A 60-meter-wide cavity below the mountain could now leak radiation. That, along with volcanic activity at Mt. Peaktu could destabilize the region. Then there's groundwater flowing from a river near the test site. Where will that water end up?
Mt. Peaktu and its beautiful crater lake. Are they in jeopardy?
There are still too many unanswered questions left for me to decide whether nuclear testing might cause volcanic activity. I think it's highly unlikely that Kim Jong-un's nuclear tests impact Hawaii's Kilauea volcano, but, hey, with volcanology and forensic seismology still in their infancy, we just don't know what we don't know. I'll hang my hat on that for now and suggest there's a probability greater than zero that a nuclear explosion in one region of the world might impact seismic activity in another. That, in turn, might trigger volcanic and/or earthquake activity. Perhaps this is the next frontier for political destabilization of regions, that is, by literally destabilizing the ground upon which we walk with a targeted seismic boom somewhere a long way away. This sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it might be closer at hand than we know.
I shudder to think what our little blue orb of a planet has to endure at our irresponsibly immature caretaker hands. Or what we may have to endure when large parts of our world can no longer be inhabited safely as a result of our explosive madness. Perhaps the world should begin to judge "leaders" like Kim Jong-un by the amount of irreparable damage they cause the environment in the large-scale loss of the stability of regions within their control. He ought to listen to this given his penchant for powerful public relations. If the world turns fully against him on a planet-saving platform, he'll be forced to end his nuclear testing program. And that, in its own small way, may well save our world.
Dave Celone (a/k/a Poetic Licence) is a writer and poet whose curiosity leads him many places. He also happens to own Long River Gallery & Gifts in White River Junction, Vermont. Click Here to follow Dave whenever he posts to the dailyuv.com.