Love Lava. Love Life.


This post was run almost a year ago (February, as will be obvious from the start) but has remained an old favourite, often talked about but now hidden in the catacombes of the lost site. VC is taking the liberty of doing a re-run of this celebration of life.

It’s Valentine’s day this weekend. A time to celebrate that activity that marks the difference between living and non – living components of our planet. Love and Reproduction.

Living things are incredibly single minded and stubborn. Their sole objective is to reproduce, and organisms go to extraordinary lengths to achieve this goal. To be successful in reproduction or replication , living things usually need certain things. Firstly a place to safely settle. (A habitat.) Food to provide energy (Nutrients) and water that is essential for cell growth and metabolism.

Now here is where things get complicated. Living things range from micro-organisms which on their own cannot replicate or do not have every characteristic of a living cell such as a virus through to incredibly complex and large collections of cells as found in Blue Whales and elephants. Despite the huge differences in size the virus and the elephant need the basic requirements of habitat, energy and water to reproduce. Hold that thought whilst I start off on an apparently unrelated rumination.

What is Lava? It is the liquid magma that reaches the surface of our planet as it is ejected by a volcanic eruption. It is composed of a myriad of chemical elements and compounds. We have been watching it for the last few month being pumped out in Iceland. Surrounding the fissure there,  there are square kilometres of hot but now  cooling rock.

Lava can kill. Lava creeps or races down the sides of volcanoes destroying all in it’s path leaving death and devastation. It may spread but it is not reproducing. Spreading is the behaviour of a liquid. The volume stays the same it just changes depth. At the rifting Zone Iceland is growing. It is not reproducing it is spreading.

A cooled lava flow is a black and grey, jumbled mass of sharp sulphurous rock that scars the landscape. A doom-monger’s hell. A biologist’s heaven. In structure and composition all lavas differ. However on average they are mineral rich and porous. The porosity is due to the rounded cavities produced by the bubbles of gas that help drive the eruption. The surface of the lava is uneven, Folds and creases. Hollowed broken bubble cavities like mini basins. Wind, rain and frosts start breaking down the rough,sharp edges. The loosened particles collect in the corners and hollows of the rock. Now let us go back to our life forms. seeking a home to raise their offspring.

At first the lava provides no place to in which to anchor sensitive roots of plants such as grasses. The mineral composition is more than likely toxic and  any water collecting in the newly cooled lava hollows will be highly acidic. Certainly not a gardener’s paradise. Any insects that somehow arrive will find little food so will move on or die. No insects to eat,  so no larger vertebrates will be arriving to hunt for food.

The lava flow therefore appears to be an impossible place to live. Not so. It is a very desirable place for bacteria. Not the sort that cause dire health problems to us humans, but similar single celled organisms. The unforgiving habitat provided by a bare, wet or dry, smooth or rough rock surface provides us with an insight into my statement about the stubbornness of life to find a way to survive and so reproduce. At some stage in the history of our planet a cyanobacteria met up with an algae and a fungus. They “fell in love” and decided to live together. The bacteria could form a mat on which the algae and fungus could cling too. The algae and bacteria could use the sun for photosynthesis to obtain the energy to grow. The fungus could absorb water and collect minerals in solution and, being larger, could provide some protection for this unlikely Ménage a Trois . So together they formed a symbiotic relationship to form a mini habitat that provided security,water and nutients. This complex structure is called a lichen and would be one of the first organisms to colonise the newly cooled lava.

Lichens like all living things eventually die Their remains contain some nutrients including nitrates. Their skeletal remains may not completely disintegrate and the organic particles will collect in nooks and crannies in the hardened, rocky lava flow mixing with the volcanic ash and minutely fragmented particles of lava created by wind and frost erosion. This mixture forms a vitally necessary substance to all higher life on earth. On land it is called soil and beneath water, the oceans and lakes it is called sediment. (sediments contain organic remains washed off the land and also remains from bacterial mats.)This substrate allows more complex plants to find an anchoring site for their roots.

For simplicity in this short article I will concentrate on a land lava flow

The first plant to find these substrate filled hollows are mosses. They form dense clumps or carpets and as they too die their remains add to the depth of the soil.

Mosses are followed by grasses. The height and structure of the grass determined by availability of nutrients,water and light. Between the grasses other tough little plants that we call weeds grab a niche in the crevices. Their death and decay adds yet more depth to the substrate.

Sooner or later there is enough substrate to support a larger plant such as a tree or bush. Gradually the surface of the lava flow gets covered as the multitude of plants reproduce and their offspring grow, breeds and dies. These plants provide shelter and food for animal life.. Insects, worms and others such as wood lice and thrips. They are food for larger vertebrates and so a new ecosystem has been created that can support hundreds of varying life forms. This amazing process is called succession.

Each instance of succession will never be identical ot another. Every lava flow has a different mineral content. Our Icelandic lava flow as we see through the web cams is subject to cold winds, low light levels in winter and low temperatures. Precipitation falls often as snow most of the year. A similar flow on the slopes of Kilauea in Hawaii would have warm temperatures all year round, plenty of sunlight and warm rains. It stands to reason that the succession on each of these lava flows will be considerably different although the initial or Primary succession as it is called, would follow a similar course. Bacterial and lichen growths, mosses, grasses then higher plants. To illustrate these differences let’s look at two islands that have emerged from the sea. And briefly think about how such inhospitable surfaces can possibly be colonized successfully without any interference from us humans.

Surtsey and Krakatau

Surtsey Photograph courtesy of Kristjan Jonasson

Photgraph of Anak Krakatau 2014  Courtesy of Oystein Lund Andersen with my thanks.

Surtsey erupted out of the sea in 1963 and soon it became apparent that this new volcanic island was going survive the sea’s attempts at erosion. The island was a perfect setting for the world’s first organized biological monitoring and recording of a pristine succession of life on new land. So much has been discovered there that it is impossible to even start to list the findings. If you want to find more then do read the information on this site as a starter.

The findings there confirmed the basic progress of primary succession as described above.

But how did the bacteria and lichens get there? Firstly the wind carried fungal spores from the land close by and even further away. Animal hairs and bird feathers carried by the wind were carriers of other spores and bacteria. Seeds of higher plants were washed up on the shore and managed eventually to put down roots. Birds carry seeds and spores on their feet and caught in theur feathers. Think of the burrowing puffin. Grass seeds get trapped on their feet and feathers as they go in and out to feed their young. Within ten years here was a diverse range of plants on the previously  barren island and soon birds arrived and used the island as a breeding site. However the progress of succession was not easy. The more sheltered areas and hollows allowed for a steady increase in species but the damaging storms that affected the island on a regular basis and the harsh, cold winters has resulted in patchy colonisation.

In 1883 Krakatau exploded leaving only several small islands showing above the sea. Since that date a new island has formed around the volcanic vent now known as Anak Krakatau. The huge eruption killed everything and the islands appeared bare and devoid of life. However with the warm climate and monsoon rains seeds that washed up on the shore by the sea and were carried by the wind found a fertile habitat. By 1886 there were 23 new species growing and in 20 years there were 115 species colonising the slopes. Interestingly each island’s succession was very different. Different species became dominant. Read a little more about it here.

This article just scratches the lichen covered surface of how life survives and flourishes in volcanic areas and I hope maybe I have encouraged some further reading on the subject.

To all my fellow Volcanoholics I wish you all nutrients in the form of chocolates, shelter in the form of a cosy sofa and may your water be turned into wine. Have a Happy Valentine’s Day and if you are on your own , celebrate anyway for Love and Succession makes the world a better place.

With thanks to the following:-

Yellowstone National Park


The Sertsey Research Society


Further reading:-

Click to access bg-11-5763-2014.pdf

(Due to an unforeseen SBS malfunction which has required specialist care and maintenance, Carl’s article planned for today is unfortunately inaccessible but will be published as soon as possible.)

63 thoughts on “Love Lava. Love Life.

  1. Since it is still January, it is still a bit early for Valentine’s day. But Hey, who cares! Nice article Diana Barnes!

  2. According to Erik K, El Misti has shown some signs of waking up. Definitely a high risk volcano – 1 million people live within 30km in the area of Arequipa. Definitely a bit of a nasty volcano as well in terms of its disposition.

    Definitely worth keeping an eye on, although I’d wager this isn’t likely to lead to any major eruption. Of all the volcanoes in the world, this is definitely not one you want to see waking up or becoming increasing active for a wide variety of reasons.

  3. This was one of my favourite posts of last year. Considering how special island creatures can be (Darwin at Galapagos a terrific example), and considering that all deep-sea islands are volcanic in origin, life would be a lot less varied without lava!

  4. There seems to be at least 10 volcanoes in the Galapagos. How about one of those for 1809?

    • Love the post, Diana thank you.
      Aaron my own suspicions lie there too,
      but in 1809, there was no one around.
      to speak of. I’m sure some tortoises could tell
      but they ain’t talkin’

    • I think that the Galapagos volcanoes would not be my preferred candidates for 1809, because they are basalt shields not known for major explosive eruptions. I’d favour either the high Andes -apart from anything else, a volcanic plume has a head start on reaching the tropopause, these buggers are 4-5 km up- and pretty drastic Plinian events can happen without leaving a caldera (Quizapu for example). Second favourite would be somewhere in the SW Pacific, Vanautu or PNG area, still pretty well une3xplored in 1809. But not the East Indies as was, the spice trade would rule out that area

  5. … wasn’t Surtsey the one where a researcher was forced to go back and clean up his “mess?” or else spoil the pristine environment?

    • That’s from the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in eastern Russia.

    • I was noticing that as well. I would not be surprised if this is magma movement given the nature of Grimsvotn. The reservoir is still filling so a slight increase of eq’s at this point is to be expected. We are still in the waiting game though. Carl can tell us more. But above is what I believe.

  6. Could Pulses in Earth’s Magnetic Field Forecast Earthquakes?

    “…Now, he and his colleagues suggest that these blips stem from microscopic changes in crystals in rocks under seismic stress deep within Earth. In many types of rocks, particularly volcanic rocks that have substantial amounts of water locked inside them…

    …But another aspect of the team’s findings is even more worrying, he notes: “I’m concerned that the pulses are not originating deep within the Earth.” It’s possible, he continues, that the blips may have some inexplicable humanmade origin. Decades ago, Ebel notes, his Boston-based magnetometers started picking up a series of odd pulses every morning. Eventually, he and his colleagues identified the sources of those gremlins: It was the engineers cranking up Boston’s trolley cars at a rail yard a few kilometers away from the instruments.”

  7. Those explosions at popocatepetyl concern me since the fact of a lava dome forming shall definitely lead to more explosions.

    • Dunno, just because my toothpaste hardens in the tube doesn’t mean it will get on my mirror.

      • No, but it does raise the question how much your toothpaste is used.. Is it a daily VEI1 or a monthly VEI5? Or worse?

    • As ebuso5 said, Popo has been extruding (and destroying) domes frequently for the last 20 years. Either they’ll blow up, or will slowly ooze out laterally to form a thick, ring-shaped lava ‘flow’ across the crater floor. From its shape that looks like one of the latter. So (probably) no worries yet. Take a look at the GVP Bulletin reports on Popo over this period

      • Geyser, I would do your homework on the recent history of Popo first. As Michael mentioned and I eluded to, Popo has been extruding and destroying domes for quite some time. It’s good to be vigilant, but it looks like the current activity pattern for Popocatepetl is dome-building and destruction without much outward impact on residents in the area.

        Kelud was a little different in that it had a historical pattern of building a dome then going silent, then blowing apart the dome after a period of quiescence.

        Given, I always say that “conditions are subject to change” at any time with most volcanoes, but I don’t really think building a dome is a big deal here.

        • Volcanoes have a habit of not conforming to their history.Mt Vesuvius.,St Helens,Krakatoa,Pinatubo are some extreme examples.On a lesser level they can and do change eruption patterns,even erupting different magma than previously.

          • Another point to add; not all domes are the same. In some cases, the viscosity of the material is so high that it is extruded in a more or less rigid state, virtually incapable of ‘flowing’ but able to support its own weight. The classic Peleean dome, for example. In other cases -and I suspect that Popo’s current dome-building is in this category- slightly lower-viscosity lava sags and deforms , moving downwards and outwards to produce a pancake-shaped structure
            with a high diameter/height ratio. In this case an explosive event doesn’t necessarily destroy the dome as blow a new explosion crater through the centre. Turning the pancake into a doughnut, if you will pardon the gustatory analogy.

            CENAPRED know more about El Popo than any of us, I suspect, and they haven’t pressed the panic button. Yet.

            BTW, and at the risk of going well off topic: Pinatubo conformed pretty well exactly to its previous behaviour pattern. Unfortunately that pattern (paroxysmal explosive episodes at immensely long intervals) wasn’t discovered until a few weeks before it went boom

        • As long as Popo keeps building and destroying domes, you can sleep easily, for there must be a relatively easy conduit all the way to the summit. Any fresh gases entering the system will quickly outgas at the top, and any fresh magma intrusion will produce a corresponding extrusion. Neither will build up within the system.

          It’s when these sticky, high-silica lavas completely clog up the works up there and the dome-building *stops* that you start worrying, because now the system is going to start building up pressure. Once that’s happened, you’ll be wanting to get nervous every time a quake swarm or other symptom indicates a new intrusion at the bottom of the system.

          Although, if you get a really *big* intrusion that might reactivate a lot of evolved mush, then all bets are off.

      • The scale of explosive eruptions varies widely even in systems that a prone to these sorts of events.Mt St Helens would have had violent eruptions in its history,but how many blew the flank of the mountain out?Was the previous eruption of Pinatubo as violent as 1991?Did these systems exceed expected parameters with their most recent events?True Popo will very likely do what it’s always done and the experts will go with most like scenarios,but sometimes,quite rarely the unexpected happens.

        • Popo DOES have a record of massive flank collapses, although the interval between such events is in the tens of thousands of years range at least. But I think it likely that GPS measuremets would give warning of any major instability

          On Pinatubo: it’s been reckoned that the 1991 eruption was one of the smaller events of its history, believe it or not!

          • Every thing is bigger in a history that no one observed.The thing with Pinatubo is for the longest time,in human terms,it was a harmless hill, so from that perspective 1991 was a big deviation.A deviation from quiescent state for centuries.The climate is changing we are told but that change is minor compared to say the last ice age.

        • Actually at least two flank explosions and maybe a few more
          but in the late 1400’s there were some that rivaled 1980.
          The local Natives called it “Loowit” and roughly translated,
          it means “She who smokes” or something on that order.
          Here is a Wiki on it:

  8. Just a thought on this missing 1809 eruption,if it occurred it would have been most likely located in the tropics,which a highly populated,so it may have been witnessed and entered the local folk lore.Then if there is no reliable witness record,it then is most likely a volcano the has erupted since and obscured the obvious evidence of the prior eruption,or a completely unknown edifice ,considering it was only 200 years ago,unlikely.Maybe an eruption of a volcano in Indonesia or the Phillipines,overshadowed in its place in history by its proximity to the massive Tambora event?

    • Another random thought about the SW Pacific region. In that part of the world there are several subduction arcs which are partly -or mostly- submarine. and have a record of high-magnitude explosive eruptions. Maybe checking historical records of unexplained tsunami from that period could narrow down the search area

      • Thanks for reminding me. Sunda trench volcanoes are fed by steeply diving subdued plates. The plate under Mexico is pretty much flat slab subduction. That might have a bearing on just how volitile any generated magma is.

      • I did indeed check for tsunami evens around that time, when writing the post. Found one in Table Bay but it was due to a large earthquake in the area (if they had realized that this is an active quake zone, Koeberg nuclear power station wouldn’t have been build where it is. Although it is probably far enough from the highest risk areas.) Other than that, I could find no records and that is one of the reason I though a desert location was more likely.

        • Oh well, back to the drawing board. 🙁 Finding space for an unnoticed VEI6/7 anywhere in the tropics at such a comparatively late date is not easy, most of the areas with likely suspects had at least been visited by record-keeping explorers/missionaries/pirates by then. East Africa? (Ethiopia/Afar) The area now known as PNG? Possibly a lesser eruption but with an exceptionally high sulfur content -as with more recently the 1982 El Chichon event? In the words of the TV series “I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue”

          • It was a good idea. And it may be possible that records are hiding somewehre. I was only able to do a superficial search

        • I’m leaning towards the idea of an ephemeral island exploding. As noted in the discussion that lead to this topic, there are some places south of Tonga that at the time, could easily have gone poof, taking the entire population with it, and no one would have noticed for several months, if at all.

          Even in modern times, fairly large events can happen with no one really noticing it until later. The amount of SO2 could have been pretty significant if the water was shallow enough. I don’t think this thing generated a detectable tsunami at all.

          • I think he was just using that as an example of how big eruptions can happen far out in the pacific without noticing, not implying that a deep ocean eruption could have been a candidate. If the Havre eruption occurred in shallow water, it would have been a completely different story, although its still a crapshoot as to how big that eruption really was.

          • Which is why I specified a shallow water erupter. Atmospheric water vapor leaches SO2, actual water leaches even more… if not all.

            Never mind, you got it.

          • One of the things about this eruption possibly being in the Andes, is that it shouldn’t be that difficult to spot if it is anywhere in the altiplano. The Altiplano, compared to most other areas of the world suffers far less erosion since there is so little life there, and also very little water to form glaciers or cause erosion. So when you look at the Altiplano volcanoes, you can directly see ancient lava flows that are still well-formed and non-eroded in many instances. Similarly, you can even see ashfall beds and other volcanic formations that are likely quite old.

            This image is a google earth capture of Huaynaputina, which should be around 200 years older than our missing eruption. Despite the fact that it’s almost twice the age, you can clearly see the ashfall deposits from the VEI-6 eruption in the 1600’s – they can be spotted by the difference in color, along with the smoother texture (less valleys and surface expressions of erosion).

            If our mystery eruption were to be in the high Andes, it should be just as, if not more visible than Huaynaputina, but I don’t really see any good candidates in the region.

            I did some research on Ticsani, which showed some similar traits to Huaynaputina (including similar looking tephra surrounding the volcano), but there has been a lot of research done on this volcano by Peru, and they do not mention any large eruptions in recent time. There was a small eruption around 1800, but this wasn’t anything particularly large unless they completely botched everything (which I tend to doubt).

            My best current guess in the Andes would be Sacabaya (also known as Tambo Quemado), although this is significantly far away in Bolivia.

          • Very good! I see the similar looking terrain around Ticsani: it is very obvious in google Earth. Volcanodiscovery attributes it also to Huaynaputina, but it seems a bit far away and disconnected? And there is one around Challapalca but that one is not identified as a volcano in Volcanodiscovery so perhaps is something different. I had been thinking about volcanoes further south, where the Bolivian winter does at times give significant weathering.

            If Pacific, it should be far enough south that is outside the area of the easterly trade winds (but these may reverse during El Ninos?). Otherwise the haze would be blown the other way, to Asia

          • In the tropics, the jetstream is also towards the east. The high altitude ejecta from Krakatoa spread towards the Indian Ocean.

          • The window for the missing eruption is December 1808,So for the southern hemisphere the Jetstream would be further south as that’s summer,so does that indicate an eruption north of the equator as the Jetstream would have moved towards the equator,so does that push the candidate back to western pacific north of the equator?The Phillipines?An 1808 Pinatubo with greater global spread in the stratosphere because of its occurrence in winter when the jet stream is nearer the equator?

  9. Thanks for the lovely article Diana and to all for the web site.
    Just a brief request for any explanations, speculations regarding 15 earthquakes in the last week, 10 of which M1.5 +, all at depths of less than 13Km. Located around 44.725°N 110.550°W Wyoming USA ?

    rescued from the pending box /Hobbes

    • Which appear to have an epicenter somewhere near Norris Canyon Road in, err, Yellowstone National Park. Oops.

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