New Horizons: News from Pluto

 Pluto as seen by New Horizons. The image is colour-enhanced. Full resolution has to be seen to be believed. Don't click if you pay per Mb!

Pluto as seen by New Horizons. The image is colour-enhanced. Full resolution has to be seen to be believed. Don’t click if you pay per Mb!

The Judgement of Jupiter is a story written around 1495 in Germany and published under the pen name of Paulus Niavis. It tells of a case in the court of law of Jupiter. The accusation is parricide (destruction of the environment). The accused is a mine worker; the victim is Mother Earth. Mercury is the lawyer and the witnesses are a variety of deities. Bachus complains about the destruction of his vineyards by mining. Ceres (god of agriculture) says that his fields have been devastated. Faunus, god of forests, protests against the cutting of his trees for the coal burners, used in the silver and gold mining. Among the witnesses are Pluto and Charon. Pluto, god of the underworld, complains that because of the noise of the mining, sleep has become impossible and he is barely able to live in his realm. Charon, as the ferryman carrying people across the river Styx to the land of the dead, says that the underground water is all being used and diverted, and soon the Styx will be too low for him to deliver the deceased souls to the land of Pluto. The miner defends himself vigorously: he argues that Mother Earth is not a true mother but a hostile stepmother, who hides her treasures from their rightful heirs and owners. It is his right to explore and to recover those for his own use. The Judgement of Jupiter describes a very modern conflict. (The modern case of coal mining in the Hunter wine valley in Australia comes to mind.)

Jupiter refers the case to another judge, Lady Fortuna, who finds that humanity had no choice but to dig for resources, but predicts that if humanity continues in its exploitation, it will suffocate in the bad air, be poisoned by the wine, plagued by hunger, and swallowed by the Earth.

In our age of modernity, Pluto and Charon no longer rule our own world but have been exiled to the outer Solar System, far from human interference. But their peace didn’t last. On July 4, 2015 New Horizons visited the dwarf planet and its moon. Pluto’s realm has again been entered.

The images from New Horizons showed us the surface of Pluto’s realm. The highest resolution mosaic is shown at the top of this post: click for the full image if you dare. For those of us who were familiar with the crater-pocked, indistinct surfaces of places such as Mercury, the Moon, and Ceres, it was a revelation. Every part of the dwarf planet seems different. There are mountainous regions, with mountains up to 4 km tall, craters, long canyons or rift valleys, and even an ocean. But nothing here is what it seems; we are after all in Pluto’s dark realm. The structures may look familiar but they are made from different substance, like Shakespeare’s dark tale of Macbeth wonderfully transposed to ancient Japanese culture by Akira Kurosawa: the same story but build on a different background and characters. Pluto’s ocean cannot be water; in fact it is an ocean of nitrogen ice. The mountains aren’t rocks: they are made of water ice which at these temperatures is rock hard. Pluto’s mountains are true ice bergs. The true rock is deep below, in the core of the dwarf planet.

Craters and canyons


There are fewer craters than may be expected, but they can be seen. The image shows a region with a variety of different looking craters. The ones on the left side are bowl-shaped, surrounded by rings, as you might get when throwing stones into wet sand. The ones in the centre have broken edges, like weak sandstone, with the appearance of a central peak: they seem to have exposed layers of different material. On the right hand side, the craters have much clearer central peaks. Vaguely visible, there is a large impact crater in the centre of the field, with a flat bottom, looking similar to the Moon’s maria. The appearance suggests that this crater was filled in with other material later. It is dubbed Burnley basin, after the school girl who named Pluto. The appearance of many of the craters suggest that the ground incorporates material that flows a bit on impact: nitrogen and methane ices fit the bill.


And what about the rifts and valleys? They haven’t received much attention because they were outperformed by an even deeper crack on Charon, but they are evidence that Pluto has geology. A good example is shown here. Obviously they can’t be rivers – can they? Perhaps they are more like grabens: depressions due to extension of the crust.

Secrets of the heart

Sputnik Planum and Pluto's heart

Sputnik Planum and Pluto’s heart

The biggest surprise, and the most visually appealing, was the white heart. The pictures are mostly of the western part of the original heart; it has been called Sputnik Planum. (Names on Pluto are provisional: the final names will be assigned by the International Astronomical Union, and they may or may not follow the ones given by the New Horizons team. Sputnik Planum will probably survive the naming battle, but some other names may not.) The flat, smooth surface of Sputnik Planum was quickly identified as the expected nitrogen ice cap, although it being near Pluto’s equator was a bit counter-intuitive. The southern edge is on the equator; the northernmost part extends to 45 degrees latitude. It has survived the northern summer: it is a permanent, 1000-km glacier, one of the largest of the solar system. There is a complete lack of impact craters on the Planum: this means that the ice surface cannot be old, and either flows easily or reforms its surface perhaps every few million years. Pluto’s geology is alive and kicking! The eastern side of the heart was out of sight during New Horizon’s closest approach, but more distant images look like snow-covered terrain. Perhaps the snow is coming of the Sputnik Planum glacier.


In the eastern part of Sputnik Planum we see floating debris on top of the glacier. What are these? They are icebergs! Nitrogen ice is denser than water ice. The mountains are made of water ice: if a bit of mountain breaks off, and falls on the nitrogen glacier, it will float. The icebergs are floating mountains, carried to the heart on the ice and bumbling along on top, subject to the whim of the glacier. There may be a few hundred of these, all in a fairly small part of Sputnik Planum. Why only here? Perhaps there was a Pluto quake here which left debris, later collected by a rising glacier. But that is speculation. The time scales are long: the icebergs may form at a rate of one per million year. Once formed, they can exist forever. The larger ones are over 10 kilometer across.



Sputnik Planum shows a cell-like pattern on its surface. The centres of the cells are smooth, and the surface becomes more rough towards the edges. The icebergs are located along the edges, between the cells. What is this? Models suggest it is a convection pattern. The ice slowly rises from below, cools at the surface, and sinks, like an old-fashioned lava lamp. The edges are where it sinks. This explains the roughness near the edges (the surface is older here) and the location of the icebergs along these edges: they are carried by the flow but cannot sink in the denser nitrogen. The edges collect floating debris like an extraterrestrial Saragosso sea. The convection flow is exceedingly slow: centimeters per year. The turn-over takes a million year. Still, that is fast on geological time scales. The closest analogue on Earth would be the convection in our mantle, which also is a slowly flowing solid.

The pitted surfaces seen in some places are caused by sublimation: you may get the same effect on old snow on Earth. The nitrogen slowly sublimes into the atmosphere, freezes out as new ice elsewhere, and flows back to the glacier. It is a weather cycle of nitrogen. On Pluto, ice behaves like rock and nitrogen like water.

Methane mountain snow

Methane mountain snow

Nitrogen is not the only substance on Pluto that creates weather. Methane behaves similar. The image below shows a mountain range with the tops covered in a white substance. This is believe to be methane snow. At plutonian temperatures, nitrogen and methane ice mix only little, and each form their own layers. The mountain range involved, provisionally called Cthulhu (a name less likely to survive), is stretched out near the equator. A thick layer of methane ice also seems to exist on Pluto’s north pole.

So what is Sputnik Planum? The convection models suggest the nitrogen glacier may be ten kilometer deep or more. That puts the bottom well below the rest of Pluto’s surface. The vaguely circular shape suggests that it may have started its life as an impact crater, which slowly filled up with the ice. (Against this, the southern part does not look even remotely circular so this suggestion should be taken with some caution.) Now it is the closest Pluto has to an oceanic basin, filled with the densest flowing material it has. On other planets, it might have filled with sand. Here, it is an ocean of frozen nitrogen, surrounded by mountains of ice.

 Sputnik Planum is the only ocean but not the only sea on Pluto. This is a small glacial sea

Sputnik Planum is the only ocean but not the only sea on Pluto. This is a small glacial sea


Pluto’s atmosphere is mainly nitrogen, mixed with 0.25 per cent methane. The surface pressure is minute, 10 microbar, but that is enough to get weather. Surface winds may be a few m/s: some dark trails on Sputnik Planum are believed to be wind-blown. Similar to Earth, mountains force the winds to go up and over them, and clouds may form. New Horizons saw many different layers of haze which may have formed in this way. The air is colder higher up (albeit only by 0.5 K per km) and so can contain less methane: this may cause methane condensation, hence the methane snows on Cthulhu. The coldest surface temperature was seen at Sputnik Planum, 37 +-3 K, probably cooled by sublimation of nitrogen from this glacier.

Above 5 km, there is a temperature inversion: temperatures begin to rise again. That is caused by absorption of sunlight (as happens on Earth, in the ozone layer) and ineffective cooling. It reaches 70-100 K at 10 km altitude. The low gravity makes the atmosphere very extended: it is detectable up to 1000 km (!) altitude. Before New Horizons, it was thought that from this altitude, some nitrogen could escape altogether, when molecules reach the escape velocity. But at 70 K, that doesn’t happen. However, methane, which is lighter than N2, moves a bit faster and this can still escape. Pluto is therefore expected to have a wind, losing a bit of methane to space. Over its life time, 28 meter of methane ice has been lost in this
way. A little bit of weight loss, but nothing dramatic even for something as small as Pluto.

>Haze layers in Pluto's atmosphere. The outermost layer that can be seen is 200 km high. Source: Gladstone et al., 2016: The Atmosphere of Pluto as Observed by New Horizons

>Haze layers in Pluto’s atmosphere. The outermost layer that can be
seen is 200 km high. Source: Gladstone et al., 2016: The Atmosphere of Pluto as Observed by New Horizons

New Horizons, looking back while the Sun was behind Pluto, saw as many 20 separate haze layers in the atmosphere. The layers are separated by about 10 km and extend to 200 km height: the most prominent are at 10, 30, 90 and 190 km altitude. They seem to be a mixture of very small and larger particles, with the larger particles mainly at lower altitudes. The small particles are small enough to have the same effect that gives Earth’s sky its colour. Pluto’s sky is also blue – although you would need good eyes to see it. The hazes are probably due to chemistry caused by UV radiation on methane – a photochemical smog. Humanity does not have a monopoly on producing pollution!



The high resolution images of Pluto show a number of mountains. That is interesting in itself since mountains don’t form out of thin air. They need a push from below; their presence tells you that at some time in its past, Pluto was geologically active – things were moving underground. Two of those mountain in particular captured people’s interest. Provisionally called Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, they are 3 to 5 km tall and 150 km wide, and adjacent to each other. So far nothing special, but both have large depressions at their summits; a hole on top of a mountain is normally a clear volcanic feature. Are they volcanoes? People are unsure.

On Earth (and Mars), large depressions on top of mountains means calderas, and they form by the emptying of the magma reservoir below. Bardarbunga in 2014 comes to mind. Can that have happened on Pluto? You can’t have proper magma chambers where there is no rock to melt. The ‘rock’ is ice, and any volcanoes must be based on water ice. (Ice volcanoes are also called cryo volcanoes.) But water ice doesn’t erupt easily, because when you melt ice to fill the ‘magma’ chamber with water (think swimming pool), it has higher density than the ice around it. So it tries to sink rather than erupt. This will make an excellent caldera, but how can sinking water make a mountain?

One can speculate. These two mountains are close to the nitrogen glacier and nitrogen ice is denser than ice or water. If the surface was cracked, nitrogen may have crept inside, and pushed up the ice mountain. Or you invert the volcano. No, not that way. I mean start with liquid water underground, and freeze it. The freezing expands the ice, and raises the ground above – there you have your mountain. Keep a central chamber liquid (the water magma chamber) and let it drain – now you have your central caldera. But you will get little or no surface eruption.


That may be a problem for this explanation, as the surface of the mountains seem to be devoid of impact craters and is probably young. The texture looks like something that flowed and solidified, a highly viscous material. A partial melt, perhaps, that crept down the mountain? Perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree (if you can say that on Pluto). If you put nitrogen underground, could this erupt? Overall, there isn’t enough nitrogen within Pluto to drive eruptions, but it might be different near the white heart glacier. The only other type of volcanism driven by a trace element era the hydrothermal explosions on Earth (there are nitrogen geysers on Triton but not nitrogen-volcanoes). Perhaps Pluto does nitro-thermal. For now, Pluto’s volcanoes remain mysterious.

Oceans of the deep

Phase diagram for pure water. The vertical line is the temperature at which liquid water freezes, 0C. Source:

Phase diagram for pure water. The vertical line is the temperature at which liquid water freezes, 0C. Source:

How can water be liquid at plutonian temperatures? It can’t. The phase diagram of water shows that the liquid water does not exist below 240 K. Pluto is FAR colder, and so can’t have liquid water. Adding anti-freeze may help. The most effective one is ammonia, and that does exist on Pluto. Adding ammonia to water reduces the freezing temperature to as low as 140 K (at Pluto’s air pressure). This is still 100 K warmer than the actual temperature, but perhaps on occasion this difference is surmountable? But even if you warm the surface by this amount, you’ll just boil away the mountain.

Underground, things are more promising. The pressure goes up with depth, by about 6 millibar per meter. Liquid water can exist at a pressure above 10 millibar, so in theory it could exist within meters of the surface. All we need to do is add heat! Heat is conveniently provided by radioactivity. The heat this generates is estimated to be 6 milli-Watt per square meter (this number is very uncertain). For comparison, on Earth it is about 90 mW/m2 on average (but rather higher in Iceland). On Earth, as you dig down the temperature goes up by 25C per kilometer. On Pluto, with ten times less heat to be conducted, you expect 2.5C (or 2.5K) per kilometer. (This assumes that rock and ice have similar thermal conductivity. It ignores many other complications but lets stick to this for now). You need a temperature of 200-300 K warmer than the surface. That is reached roughly 100 km down. The pressure here is 6 bar – we are in the liquid water range! In reality, it is marginal. Deep liquid water may or may not exist. But if it does, you wouldn’t get a few drops. Remember this region is mostly ice and little rock. Melt it and you’d get a massive underground ocean.


Radioactivity is a decaying process. Over time, it diminishes. That affected New Horizons itself, which receives its power from nuclear decay, and now lives of 20% less power than when it was launched. The radioactivity inside Pluto decays much more slowly, but it still would have been stronger when Pluto was young, and Pluto’s interior was warmer at that time. Thus, even if an ocean is not there now, there is little doubt that Pluto would have had a mantle ocean in the past. Imagine Captain Nemo traversing an ocean the size of the Atlantic and 100 kilometer deep.

 An extensional fault structure on Pluto

An extensional fault structure on Pluto

When (or if) this ocean froze, it expanded. This would have increased Pluto’s diameter by 10 to 20 km, because ice is less dense than water and therefore needs more space. Such an expansion could explain the rifts and canyons on Pluto! They would be true extensional features, plutonian rift valleys. The rifts look relatively little eroded and could be geologically young, meaning that the deep ocean would have frozen fairly recently, or is still in the process of freezing.

But not all ice is the same. At pressures above 2 to 20 kbar (for temperatures of 50 to 250 Kelvin), it becomes ice II, which has a different structure. This kind of ice is denser than water, by about 15 per cent. A pressure of 20 kilo-bar (for 250 K) is found at 300 kilometer depth. If the ocean goes deeper than this, its freezing would have caused the water to contract, not expand, and Pluto would have contracted rather than expanded. Pluto’s surface shows no evidence of features caused by crustal contraction. This suggest the ocean was deep but not superdeep. Recent models, assuming 5% ammonia, suggest that ice-II would indeed form, and since crustal contraction is not seen, the ocean must still be partially liquid. Bring on the Nautilus.

if the mantle of Pluto is an ocean, the crust floats and can shift around. On a spinning planet, the crust would orient itself in such a way that the most massive regions would be on the equator. That appears to have happened on Mars, where the massive Tharsis bulge is precisely on the equator. But the maps of Pluto show no particular effect. (We do not have detailed images of the other side, and crucial evidence may be hiding there.) But this may be an argument against the underground ocean.

The ocean’s to-be-or-not-to-be remains an open question. But if there is still liquid water down there, the possible cryo-volcanoes and the apparent geological activity would be easier to explain.


Charon as seen by New Horizons. Click for an enhanced-colour image with further detail

Charon as seen by New Horizons. Click for an enhanced-colour image with further detail

New Horizons did not get as close to Charon as it did to Pluto. (Charon is stuck on the far side of Pluto compared to Sputnik Planum, and do New Horizons could get close to one or the other, but not both.) The images do not show as much detail. They reveal a more cratered landscape, lacking the white ices of Pluto. But the craters are still few and the surface may not be that old. Charon as a whole is darker than Pluto, because of the lack of nitrogen ice. It also lacks an atmosphere.

There are three notable features. At the north pole, there is a dark region. This seems to be a thin layer of hydrocarbons. How did they get there? Charon is close enough to Pluto to capture some of its escaping methane and products of the photochemical smog. This may have ended up on the north polar region: the dark colour can be the organic molecules from the smog. This also explains the lack of white ice regions, as nitrogen does not escape from Pluto, and thus does not get to Charon. However, why would the dark stuff collect only on the north pole? The higher resolution image shows the appearance of a large impact structure here: perhaps the dark debris is instead from the impact of a comet.

The second notable feature is the deep cliff on the edge of our images. It is as much as 9 km deep. We don’t understand how it formed and sadly we may only see part of the full structure, but it indicates that Charon is an active body.

The most enlightening is the third feature, a series of cliffs and troughs arranged along the equator, possibly extending around the entire moon. This is exactly what one might expect if Charon has contracted over time. It may be from thermal contraction, when the interior of Charon slowly cooled over time – being smaller than Pluto, it would have lost its heat faster. But the relatively young surface suggests another explanation. Perhaps Charon too had a deep liquid ocean, which kept its surface active but froze some time ago. But being colder than Pluto (smaller bodies can’t keep their heat as well), it froze into ice-II and Charon contracted. This contraction caused wrinkles on the surface, in particular the long cliff, which oriented itself along the equator in the same way that Pluto didn’t. If this is correct, the presence of a relic ocean in Charon strengthens the case for an ocean in Pluto’s depth considerably. Charon, the ferryman of the Styx, may again have run out of underground water.

So many reasons to go back.. We really need an orbiter around Pluto but this is hellishly difficult because of the amount of fuel that is needed to slow down on arrival. Aero-braking may help, having the mission dive into Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere, but in the end it is all about the fuel. It would need to be a minimalistic mission: low weight, basic instrumentation only, and using several gravity assists to get on the way. The travel time could be decades. But why not? Pluto can wait. It can be our gift of discovery to today’s children.

Exploring the underworld

The Judgement of Jupiter is a story about a conflict of philosophy. During the Middle Ages and before, the world’s riches were seen as belonging to Mother Earth, and we explored and used them at our peril. They were not ours but belonged to another realm. The new philosophy saw the riches as meant for us; we have every right to take them for our use. The natural world (as we now call Mother Earth) has no intrinsic value. This conflict of world views continues today. We could not live without mining Pluto’s old realm, yet we are damaging the world we live in by using these resources. The story still rings true, including its ambivalent conclusion. In Pluto’s new realm, things are so much clearer. Its resources are beyond our use and are safe from us: we can only look, study and learn – and admire. Out there, we are only observers, and see a world beyond our powers, at the limit of our understanding. Jupiter would have approved.


This was the final part of the Volcanocafe Pluto trilogy. See here for part 1 and part 2.


Albert Zijlstra

153 thoughts on “New Horizons: News from Pluto

  1. Wonderful essay. Do you have a link to the Medieval text? The best treatment I have encountered treating a balance between legitimate exploitation of the animal kingdom and abuse which includes respect and sustainability and recognition that humans are stewards of the earth is the delightful Islamic “Lawsuit of the Animals against mankind”. This may well have been known to the author of the Judgment of Jupiter; it was translated into Hebrew in Spain in the 13th century and circulated widely in Jewish circles in Medieval and early modern Europe.

    I’ll have to go check Martin Luther on this one. His family business, which he rebelled against, was mining, and the date would raise suspicions of a connection.

    • The original is called  Iudicium Iovis and was published in latin and german, I think. You may find it under Paul Schneevogel. I haven’t read the original but come across two descriptions over the years. One is in a book called An environmental history of the middle ages, by John Aberth: it is on page 7 of this book. I didn’t know about the earlier text. There is a more recent story about a law case against humanity where all animals are witness against humanity, with two exceptions: dogs, and house flies. But that is another post.

    • Absolutely amazing conclusion to the series and to have all the data analysed and presented for our leisurely perusal by an expert such as Albert… I feel both humbled and honoured, thank you Albert!

  2. To those that have said in the previous post that I leak, yes I do, and I proudly leak and proudly release gas! Our gas does stink but it far more wide reaching that the gas of homo sapiens, sorry for the pun.

    My heart is not cold rock but hot, and as deep as hundred of kms, in fact the deepest of any of the Icedlandic volcanoes in the vicinity!

    Karen, we volcanoes, like humans, are mortals, but we live a much longer time. Way longer. We are aware of the time-space continuum to a degree that human mortals are not, (because we have time to develop our consciousness to a high degree) so we can tell you about the future eruption of July 2018. We don´t care about the human calendar. Those pieces of paper are insignificant if placed in our belly furnaces and those timescales are nothing compared to our cycles of caldera collapse and rebirth. So I stand to my assertion about that great upcoming eruption, as I did of my claim that I would erupt before the year of 2014 came. And that July 2018 has nothing to do with that month´s eclipse. Eclipses do not trigger us! But to some smart humans here in the blog, glacial meltwater and glacial disappearing does!

    I dont receive leaks from the southeast, but rather leak towards that direction. As I am the center of all action in Iceland. My bowels created the North Atlantic ocean some 63.5 million years ago, even if there was no Icedland at that time.

    And my Holuhraun child is just the first of several events. You will see this Ian.

    But we volcanoes of Iceland stand united, we are all one and came from a single source. In fact think of us as siamese twins. Katla gets all its magma from the source, located under my belly, even though you don´t see it. Also Torfajokull, but this you already know it. And In Holuhraun you only got a glimpse of what I can do.

    Thousand years ago my lava flowed 250km southwest. Earlier than that, even longer. I am the most powerful volcano in Iceland but I tend to be passive-agressive at times and release all my fury through my closest sister vent located at the Grims lakes.

    Meanwhile, rest assure, you will see action at Katla. But Katla likes to surprise you, and she will erupt in an unexpected location. Check its edges.

    Watch my fat sister of Hvannadalshnúkur. She is big and mighty and she is preparing her eruptive show in soon too! She is so ignored by humans, but she is a beast when she awakes!

    Lambafell will be what you like to think of a black swan.

    Enjoy the lively 2020s, they will be volcanic both literally in Iceland and metaphorically worldwide 😀

    • Dear Bárðarbunga
      They don’t know how hard it is for us to hold our breathe. I’ve been on the edge to sneeze and vomit several times. Last time in 1918 it was a tragedy. I don’t know how long until, but I feel the next one will be quite dirty. I have too much magma in my belly now.

      How about you, do you feel in the same way?

      • Note to all. He gets it.

        The critical thing about a swan, is no one sees it coming. Sure, there may be a wingnut ( or an insightful scientist ) that notices the problem, but no one will give it any attention until it’s over, or too late to do something. This falls into the post event rationalization phase.

        Example: Mogi noticed that it was quite possible for the plate structure to release much greater energy than was expected, and had been trying to get the officials to take note of the threat. It wasn’t until after Fukushima that anyone took note of what he had to say.

        Per some digging by Albert, it turns out that Fukushima was built to withstand a typical “large” event for the Pacific basin, which was assumed to be a single event off the coast of S America. If you look at the historical tsunami data, you’ll find that their seawall was only built to handle 85% of what is possible. I font know what Mogi used, but he realized that the fault system was capable of much more.

        Yes, this is the same Mogi that gave us the “Mogi model ” for estimating magma inflow to a volcano based on deformation data. A really smart guy. Someone should have listened to him.

      • That’s why it’s a black swan, the upcoming eruption will be a VEI-5+, no one will suspect it.

        • Volcanoes tend to erupt in the manner in which the have done in the past… except when they don’t.

      • From what I have gathered by casually studying and reading on Black Swans, they are events that are greater (usually much greater) than 3 SD from the mean. 5 SD or greater is more representative of a Black Swan from a probability point of view. That’s about where people tend to dismiss the highly improbable events, as being impossible. Its also where the law of large numbers come into play. With volcanoes, each day of existence is another “test” in a Bernoulli trial. (Erupt today? No? Okay, try again tomorrow.)

  3. We have a
    Magnitude: 3.3
    Depth (km): 2.9

    And a
    Magnitude: 2.1
    Depth (km): 3.0

    With in 3 min of each other in the SW Rift Zone of Mauna Loa


  4. Thank you Albert for a wonderful conclusion of the series!

    As I look inte the comment section above I just got the picture to how it would be if we arranged a Volcanocon. People dressed up as their favourite volcano lumbering about while guzzling drinks. 🙂

  5. Thanks for the Pluto trilogy. Very interesting with all new knowledge and all new questions!

  6. Thank you, Albert, for sharing a truely eye-opening, well written series. However, you have set the bar so high that some of us who may have thought of contributing some research results may be too intimidated.

  7. Minor quake in California? Any details? All I have is a friend posting on fb that she was woken by the house shaking.

    • This leaves me underwhelmed. There are much better statistical methods than used in this paper (circular statistics, bayesan statistics) . They find that 9 out of 12 very large earthquakes are near (within 5 days of) peak tidal stress. The effect disappears for smaller quakes. Throwing a coin and having nine tails out of 12 is far from a black swan. They need to make a stronger case. What observation could falsify their hypothesis?

    • I think it is time for a two-tongued attack on that one.
      We will shortly repost the Moon and the Moonies piece by Lurking, and I would be very happy if Albert could do a piece upon the statistics used in the paper and about the need for falsification in theoretical models.
      Then we could do the universe some good beyond Pluto 🙂

      • If I remember correctly, collecting the data for that critter was a pain in the arse. I had to upgrade my software to be able to handle a million plus data points. I also think that was the time that someone wanted to contest the point so I threw the spreadsheet data at them and stated “Here’s the data, show me” (earlier versions of Excel choke about a quarter of the way through loading the file, or just lock the machine due to lack of memory)

  8. For Mike Ross or anyone else who follows SakuraJima, there was a great paper released about current inflation levels and some possible implications. Really a must read. Saw this posted in the VC facebook page.

    I’d be interested in hearing Carl or anyone else’s take on this. I didn’t find much that was dramatically new, but given the quiescence of SakuraJima and the seismic crisis of 2015, this is definitely relevant.

    Of note, they listed the average magma accumulation rate of SakuraJima to be approximately .014 cubic KM per year with occasional heightened pulses. This gives an approximation of around 130 years between major eruptions here.

    Also of note, if we were to extrapolate that .014 cubic KM over the past 29,000 years (since the formation of the Aira caldera), we end up with a very volume of 409 cubic km that has been re-injected into the system since. While there were a few large eruptions in between, there has been nothing larger than a vei-6 since the major vei-7 eruption, so we could probably assume the magmatic accumulation is at least over 300 cubic km since the Aira eruption.

    • Also, it’s worth noting that this study used data from 1997 to 2007, and activity has seen a notable uptick since then, so it’s possible it could be on the more conservative end of things compared to current influx.

    • I would agree that the paper is quite outdated now since it uses old data.
      In regards of your calculation about when major eruptions occur we need to look at that. There is a large fallacy in it and that is that it is A) recorded under a short time and B) that it is the magma ACCUMULATION rate and that is not the same as the rate of erupted lavas.
      But, let us for the sake of things say that the figure of 0.014km3 per year in accumulation is correct, that still makes it possible to calculate roughly the average erupted amount of lava per year (in various forms).
      On average the ratio between magma accumulation and erupted lava is between 1 in 5 to 1 in 10. The lower number is about true for hotspot volcanoes in shallow oceanic crust and the higher figure for thick subduction crusts. Iceland would be somewhere in between.
      So for Sakurajima and the Aira Caldera about 9/10ths are lost in dykes and sill intrusions and 1/10 pops out during eruptions.
      That would give that about 0.0014km3 of magma is erupted in the form of 0.00392km3 of lava on an annual average basis.
      Now, if there was no other volcanic activity that is enough to produce a minimum size VEI-4 every 70 years.
      To go further we would need to know how much is erupted in those small happy puffs every year from Sakurajima, funnily enough that number is about the same as the average yearly eruption rate.

      Now, what does this tell us? Well, that the sample years are not representative over time for the Aira Caldera complex. The number is obviously higher over time, otherwise there would be no larger eruptions.

      • Yeah, it’s a very very rough estimation if you were to project it backward. Reading the paper, the purpose is more focused on revising the previous inflation model for a more accurate model. They also do note that the inflation is more or less focused on the short term re-inflation of the Sakurajima edifice after the 1914 eruption.

      • Sounds like just another “due” claim, besides surely such a long eruptive period would have quite a significant “delay” on the timing of the next big blast. Unless, that is, the sudden change in behaviour last August signalled a new phase in activity (I’m not too sure what to make of this dramatic decrease in activity).

  9. Thank you Albert for this outstanding

    “Specialist Remark (IMO): An earthquake M3.3 occurred at the NW caldera rim of Bardarbunga today (13 Sept.) at 08:15.”
    Why they didn’t add it’s normal for a post-eruption state ? 🙂

    • Because they are tired of adding that part since nobody seems to listen.

      • My problem is that so many seem to have a problem grasping that earthquakes of todays strength are very small compared to what a charging earthquakes at Bárdarbunga are, and that a charging earthquake has a completely different signature.

        How small was todays earthquake? It was 729 times smaller than the series of charging earthquakes during the decades leading up to the eruption.

        Also, these earthquakes has nice sharp seismic signatures with tectonic style initial breaks and that a true charging earthquakes has a highly weird messy non-double couple signature that leaves a non-volumetric solution.

        It is not like comparing apples and oranges, it is like comparing apples with a whale that lives in a distant sea.

        • Linguistic/math pet peeve of mine ” 729 times smaller…” does not compute.
          Either it’s “…earthquakes were 729 times larger…” or
          “this one is only 1/729th part as large as previous….”

          “Times” indicates that’s something is larger than the previous thing mentioned.

          The most common example of this mistake, that you’ll hear is “It’s twice as small…” where it should correctly have been “It’s half as large…” otherwise you’ll go into negatives.

          • I’m Swedish, we love our double or even triple negations 😉

            Todays earthquakes was 927 times no-larger than the earlier no-smaller earthquake leaving me no-stumped that people unbelieve IMO.

            To be exact I am from northern Sweden, we usually compete in using more negations than the one we talk to. We do this by turning any word into a negation by combining it with ‘o’ before the actual word. The closest to ‘o’ in English would ‘un’. So to say that it is warm and that you are not wearing a sweater and that you have become cold would turn into this sentence: It is uncold so I am unwearing a sweater and now I am unwarm.

            Anyhoos… ‘times’ is just a term for 27 x 27 = 927 read out 27 times 27 equals 927. It is a most correct way to use the word so I missed the gripe about the current ununtimely use of ‘times’.

          • I’m Faroese, and I see this problem happen in at least a dozen different languages. Reading it or hearing someone voice it out loud, just has the effect of the stereotypical “nails on a chalkboard” screech to me 😛

          • Swedish is a form of linguistic genetic decease, but it is highly logical in its use of negations.

          • Correct Albert, I got it right the first time around and the second time I ended up with inverted numbers. The correct one is obviously 729 not 927. I forgot to flip it around in my head before writing it down (I guess you know the math trick I am using).

          • The old, trusted (30-3) x (30-3), did the -3^2 first and then butterfingered the result of 90-18?

          • Do I detect spurious accuracy again? I suspect even 700x would suggest a higher accuracy than pertains.

        • So that maybe it’s no useful to write something. Everybody sees the star and know EQ>3

          • Sometimes I just think that IMO duty technicians are a bit bored and write about things that are not that juicy 🙂

          • Randall Monroe is an ex-NASA robotics engineer/scientist. His cartoons and “What-if’s” are great, funny, and scientifically accurate to a point. A sharp point. His cartoon on Rayleigh Scattering is GREAT! (Rayleigh Scattering explains why the sky is blue…but not why it isn’t violet instead…) Go grab a copy of “What If” from the library and give it a good read. Or, “Thing Explainer” is another great read as well!

  10. Tuesday
    13.09.2016 08:15:40 64.662 -17.490 2.8 km 3.3 99.0 3.0 km NE of Bárðarbunga

  11. Hey all,

    While things in Iceland seem calm at the moment (despite the increasing action at Katla and sometimes Hekla), things are a bit more problematic when it comes to climate change.

    2016 has been a rather insane year of weather records, mostly of warmth.
    Many months have beat the warm record, in a succession, from January to July. And during that period, many countries have broken records. For a while, the world has neared the threshold of +1.5°C of global warming.

    Today was the hottest day in the UK for over 100 years. London reached 35°C and this is September. Scotland was balming in almost 25°C. Iceland has been also pretty warm, with highs up to 17°C. Greenland probably had the hottest summer ever recorded, highs got up to 24°C back in June and many months have been extremely above average in terms of temperature.

    In Austria where I live now, temperatures have been above 30°C for many days in a row, and this is not the common fresh September weather expected here. And things are even more serious when one considers that something major and unique has been ongoing in 2016:

    End of my offtopic. While the volcanoes in Iceland don´t get hot yet….

    • The only thing surprising really is how much the IPCC has been off. Due to political pressure they have used the most conservative models. If they had used the mean-average models they would still have been off.
      So far it looks like it is the worst case scenarios that are coming true, and that is bad news. Right now it looks like we will hit the 2+ mark about 30 years early and that in turn put us on a track for +4C at the end of the century.
      Anyone planning to build a beach house is nuts…

      • 15 out of the last 16 months have been new world temperature records and there has now been 378 consecutive months where the temperature have been above the rolling 100 year average.
        Now if anyone want to write that off as a coincidence you are talking about a black swan event far beyond reality.
        Just as a mental model: Imagine that you have a very large chessboard and that you start at a corner by placing a grain of rice. If the next month is warmer you emplace twice as many grains and if it is colder than you halve the amount. At month 378 you have to place more rice grains than there are atoms in the universe. And yes, that would be the odds.
        I hope that the impossibility just dunked through.

      • I guess we will all get to see if the clathrate gun hypothesis could be potentially real or not.

        With that aside, I’m curious how this will affect volcanoes. We know how much glacial unloading may have affected Iceland in the past, but something that isn’t considered is how that unloading occurred over a much more gradual time period. If the glacial melting occurs much more rapidly, will that cause more dramatic effects?

        • On a global scale there should be no net effect.
          The meltwater will increase the load on oceanic volcanoes at the same degree that the melting will unload the sub-aerial volcanoes.
          Be that as it may, I expect that any glacially submerged volcano will live in “interesting times” and that a few of them will go quite nuts.

          • I disagree Carl.
            if we lost an ice from sub aerial it may be 100.000 tonnes from say 5km2 . so surely weight on top of it in lost ice is that over area. the melt water of same weight is plead over a much larger area. so volcano and ice melt has more effect. just my thoughts.
            record for September in uk not broken today as record was 36 or 37 c on September 2nd many years ago. highest UK temp for this day thou and is obscene for the month. Global warming still seems to be eccelerating but ozone better. let’s hope lag effect and we stabilise soon. The small islands will be effected badly even at 2c

          • The thing is that the effect will be large on a few sub-aerial volcanoes and small on a great many sub-aquatic volcanoes. The difference in numbers even things out.

          • Yeah, on the whole, the difference may not be that great, but I think in terms of realistic volcanism that affects humans (referring to volcanoes that aren’t subaquatic, which never have had a major impact on people in history), there could be a significant impact.

          • It is well known that Icelandic volcanoes erupt much more and much more massively after deglaciation, due to ice weight relief.

            It might have to do with meltwater too, as we see often in Katla seasonal earthquake activity and tendency to erupt in summer or early autumn.

            Also I noticed that the Holhraun dike erupted right at the edge of the ice cap, as if pressure there was lower and made for the eruption easier.

            Another example was the last shield volcano eruption in Iceland in Langjokull some 1000 years ago, which occurred right at the edge of the ice cap. There seems to be something to this process.

      • You can’t judge the current rate from a single exceptional year. You could do so using the previous year that as similar, 1998. That gives a rate of warming more consistent with that from before 2015. Still, the rate at 0.3C/decade is very high. I would agree that it looks like we are heading for the +3-4 C range by 2100. After that it gets scary.

      • So is that report saying we’ve just recently reached the +1C mark accurate or are we ahead of that? Also, is there a point of no return where we can’t stop the warming (runaway train idea) and if we could stop it, is there a way we can reverse it or would it just stall?

        Anyway, without a doubt it looks like the GW deniers will have to eat their words at this rate.

        • Is there a correlation between the geography of one’s country of origin and the propensity to take the possibility of Global Warming seriously? The Dutch seem to be more worried about it than Brits or Swedes are whereas Americans (USA) and Russians seem pretty much unconcerned.

        • I think at this point, we will all have to deal with climate change and adapt to it. Adaptation will be key.

          It will be probably dramatic. The refugee crisis in Europe will pale in comparison of what will happen when major cities are threatened by sea level rise and storms, or the impact of temperature rise in subtropical countries. And we can´t even deal with the current refugee crisis.

          Thinking positively we due have relatively easy and cheap solutions to limit the climate change. We could replace fossil fuels cars by electric cars by next decade, and create much more sustainable models of CO2 capture in animal/plant farming, for instance agroforestry (as it makes use of space much better than conventional farming as trees capture CO2).

          But why this has not happened yet? It´s the whole paradigm of thinking that requires change. The current economic paradigm of perpetual growth and profit-making is seemingly incompatible with the ecological limits of the planet. To make people replace this paradigm with another, seems at the moment really difficult.

          We seem well established at 1°C warming at the moment and due to cross 2°C much earlier than predicted (by 2030 instead of late in the century). This makes a 4 or 5°C warming by the end of the century very likely.

          But the question is what happens after. Does warming continues? Do we trigger runaway global warming or a ice age? Or does climate settles in a new climate status quo similar to that of a tropical planet that happened several times in the past?

          At least the ice caps will melt accordingly, and sea level rise will not 1 meter by end of the century but likely higher. Remember that ice cap melting is an exponential process. Some models predict a rapid warming by the second half the century, with melting reaching 3-5 meters, enough to submerge many major cities like NYC, London, Amsterdam, Bangkok or Sydney.

          • “Thinking positively we due have relatively easy and cheap solutions to limit the climate change. We could replace fossil fuels cars by electric cars by next decade”

            This is a fallacious argument in more than one way:

            * The main problem is not how energy is “consumed”. It is the fact that it is “consumed” at all which is the problem as it will eventually be converted to heat, the lowest form of energy

            * The electricity would have to be generated and no matter which way this is done, it will cause further environmental damage

            * By generating the energy elsewhere, then transporting it it before storing it, we induce losses at every stage of the way. Current fossil-fuelled hybrid F1 cars have an efficency in excess of 50% whereas the supposedly “green” Formula E electric cars barely achieve 30%

            No. The main problem is that there are too many people demanding an affluent lifestyle where muscle power has been replaced with other sources of energy. If the “greens” really were serious about “saving the planet”, they would demand that humanity be limited to no more than 2,000 – 2,500 million people and the excess ruthlessly killed off.

            Anything else is just pie-in-the-sky daydreams.

          • Please god help me. Electric cars are not pollution free, they just export it to where the marginal (ie extra) electricity is generated. This is at best gas, but typically coal fired stations. All the renewables go to feed base capacity. So you get coal in australia, get to to the coast, ship it to europe (that’s all actually quite efficient, probably >80%). There again you have to do that with oil, too. Again the processing of both will be similar to make a usable product. After that its different

            Then you burn it in a coal fired power station (~35%) the the grid (98%) then local distribution (~8%) then an inverter (~90%) then in and out of the battery (~80% at very best) to the electric motor (95% at best). Overall efficiency is thus:

            0.35*0.98*0.92*0.9*0.8*0.95 = 21%

            Good modern diesels are (I am told) >40% efficient so use half the oil of an electric car.

            Actually a HUGE amount of the apparent reduction in CO2 consumption in europe is actually exporting it elsewhere. We import steel, cement, metals of all sorts, plastics goods etc etc, all of which have a rather high carbon footprint, but apparently generated elsewhere.

          • It’s depressing to think of the complete lack of action by our dear leaders when sea level rising is already affecting low lying coastal towns and island nations across the world. Trump an active climate change denier and the UK ENVIRONMENT (emphasis intentional) minister being one too – I mean, c’mon, WTF?

            I guess there’s too much money invested in systems that would lose money for the level of change required. Seems odd to me, surely there’s still an opportunity for profit in areas that would benefit us and help prepare for and/or limit GW?

            I am however buoyed (there’s always a first time) by the recent call to action by the US defence force and experts advising national security is at risk. Seems funding was denied though …

            Anywho, a couple of links below for an article and associated graphic that I recently read for those interested.



            And speaking of volcanoes, I wonder how much more active Antarctica will get once the Ice sheets start retreating.

            Right, as I’m on holiday I will cheer myself up by adding Gin to my OJ and will go enjoy the sun whilst I peruse the internet looking for property at least 400m above sea level that will not be prone to drought, flood or other natural disasters.

            Oh, and don’t get me started on British Antiquarians who have disneyfied some of the most amazing archaeology sites …

            Rant mode off, sunscreen on!

          • O dear – I have to disagree (partly) with Henrik. The heat directly generated by our energy consumption is irrelevant on a global scale. Global warming comes from the greenhouse effect and the sun, not from the burning itself.

            Transport of electricity is actually quite efficient. You are transporting voltage, not electrons. A loss of 10-15% is not a major problem in hte scheme of things.

            Fossil-fuel cars have limited energy efficiency for many reasons. It was notable how quickly the numbers improved once the EU put its foot down. Car companies knew how to do it, just had no reason to do so. But any combustion engine will produce heat and the heat is wasted. Electric cars should have much better efficiency, provided you don’t generate the electricity by a combustion engine elsewhere as that just moves the inefficiency. The biggest problem for electric cars is the need for a battery: that will need some serious research.

            If we make our transport electric, the demand for electricity would go through the roof. At the moment, the UK uses about 20kWh per person per day of electricity, Add electrified transport and it becomes over 100 kWh(in my recollection). That needs generating. The only viable option to generate that much is nuclear power, but that has its own problems and is not an inexhaustable resource either.

            Biofuels would be great but last time we pushed that hard it caused the Arab revolutions. It turns out you can either grow fuel or food but not both. Global warming will make this conflict worse.

            The first reason that CO2 emissions are not growing as fast as they could is increasing energy efficiency. We can do get better, as long as governments keep the heat up. The second reason is replacing coal by gas, which isn’t the solution to global watming but does buy us a bit of time.

            Solar and wind can generate enough energy to keep us ticking over. The problem is storing it for when it is needed. There are innovative ideas: you could do a lot by using deep mines for hydropower, pumping water out and letting it pour in again. It is used already with high-altitude mines, but you could wonders with a kilometer-deep hole. Puts the ‘bad’ coal mining to good use. You can only solve the energy problem by thinking big.

          • O dear – I have to disagree (partly) with Henrik.

            Excellent! If everyone agrees all the time, we (almost) never learn anything new. It is only when we disagree that new knowledge can be acquired – provided that we are prepared to listen and maintain an open mind!

            I willingly admit that I was being provocative (in order to generate debate) as well as my argument being abbreviated to the point where it became somewhat unclear. Given the current state of our technology and what is politically possible globally, the only way to generate the colossal amounts of energy necessary is to burn fossil fuels. Renewable energy (water, wind, waves) is inadequate and comes with its own environmental consequences. Nuclear power is politically impossible and especially so if one considers the non-proliferation aspect. At present, Sweden runs ten ageing reactors whose performance has been boosted (causing shut-downs from “runners” every now and then) to levels that are only marginally safe. It is impossible to reach a consensus to replace even a single one of these, so how could it ever be hoped that permission to build the dozen or so needed for 100% electrification of our road vehicles would ever be granted? Theoretically possible, politically impossible.

          • Henrik, I dont agree with your way of thinking. It´s a nihilistic way to think that there is no way out of our fossil fuel problem and that the only solution is to reduce the population – obviously not ethical!

            I dispise the thought that genocide is a solution. Let´s be reasonable!

            Henrik, people still associate green thinking with fairy tales and hippies. Far from it, we need to embrace the technologies we have to create cleaner energy in order to avoid a catastrophic future.

            There are countries that are generating energy with renewables that pollute next to nothing compared to oil, coal or nuclear energy. Portugal, my home country generates most of its energy with hydroelectrical dams, wind and solar farms. And it does not import energy.

            Iceland lives also solely in geothermal and dams. And their energy output could support a significantly larger population.

            Of course these sources of enery are less productive and also have impacts in the nature, but its far less than coal, oil or even nuclear energy.

            So we can´t say that there are no solutions. There are. And there must be, if we want to prevent disaster. We must embrace a green future. And I believe that with time, these forms of technology will become far more efficient.

          • We can still do a lot to improve our outlook. Reduce emissions, build up renewables, and design a new infrastructure using them. Redesign existing fossil fuel plants to be much more efficient (very strange argument against renewables is that fossil fuel plants can’t be quickly turned on!) Climate change can’t be prevented any more. But we do still have the choice to keep it manageable. But do nothing and it will become uncontrollable rather quickly. Some good things have been done in the past decade, luckily.

            I don’t understand why especially some republicans in the US want to deny it. The physics of global warming is simple – which law of thermodynamics do they not believe in? How can you give top priority to homeland security but be blind to the biggest risk to our future?

            Anyway, this is a topic where both sides do villify the other. We can only solve it together. Going back to a pre-oil existence is not the answer either. It is the same conflict as that of the Judgement of Jupiter.

          • Irpsit/Paolo, of course you are allowed to disagree! But at the same time I have to ask you: Do you see the whole picture or do you choose to see only what you want to see? Iceland and Portugal are not very good examples as they are small countries with small populations (0.33 million and 10.4 million respectively) that nature has endowed with renewable energy resources aplenty. Yet those nations too contribute to the global problem with their fishing fleets “helping” to deplete the oceans (while spewing out plenty of the most unclean fossil fuels there are in the process). Hydroelectric dams cause environmental problems too as they drown vast tracts of land as well as denies migrating fish access to their spawning grounds. Not to mention the high altitude atmospheric pollution caused by the jets that carry the 9 million foreign tourists annually that represents 5% of the Portuguese economy.

            Now, take more relevant countries to the argument such as Indonesia (255 million), Egypt (89 million) or Nigeria (166 million). Their citizens demand that their standard of living be raised towards our Western standards – and who has the right to deny them this ambition, dream or pursuit? The only way to achieve that at a speed that satisfies their yearning for change is, you’ve guessed it, by burning fossil fuels. Theoretically we could help them achieve this without increasing fossil fuel consumption by cutting down our own standard of living and investing all the surplus thus garnered in such countries. But do you seriously think that this is ever going to happen?

            Furthermore, is the Earth to be set aside for an almost monoculture of Homo Sapiens and the animal and plant species we deem “useful”? Species are disappearing fast as a result of our proliferation and “pursuit of happiness”. Are mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, rhinoceros, elephants, whales, lions, tigers etc. worth so much less than human beings that its alright for us to usurp their habitats and drive them over the edge of extinction?

            Unless we tame fusion, our planet can only sustain a human population long-term (thousands of years) of approximately 2 billion without serious biological and environmental consequences and that at a much lower standard of living than that which we seem to take for granted and as our “right”.

            Right now, we are killing our planet and every living thing on it very efficiently and at an accelerating rate, including ourselves even if we seem to refuse to realise this. Global warming may be the most serious issue but it is still only one of many symptoms of the main problem – too many humans dreaming of and pursuing a Western standard of living well within their own lifespan.

            Like Albert says; “Climate change can’t be prevented any more. But we do still have the choice to keep it manageable” and “We can still do a lot to improve our outlook.” But this can only be done if all of us acknowledge that there are problems, what those problems are and that all of us have to pull together in order to effectively combat these problems. (This will include such inconveniences as giving up our current indiscriminate use of motorised transportation, be it on roads or in the air, paying more for locally grown food and products and severely curbing our wasteful consumer society.)

            We only have ONE world.

        • I picked up on this project as a side effect to my involvement in the campaign to prevent tidal range generation in the Severn estuary some years ago (more about that in a moment). You may find it interesting…. a wind powered sports car ! “Wind powered” because the man behind the project, Dale Vince, is the owner of Ecotricity, a wind generation business.

          About that tidal power generation…. I became a spokesman for one of the bodies opposing the construction of the Severn Barrage, because after a significant amount of personal research it became obvious to me that in the context of the Severn Estuary, tidal range generation did not actually represent a renewable resource. It would, in effect “use up” the estuary within a couple of decades, due to massive and complex issues around siltation.

          I did , however, also become a keen advocate for tidal stream generation. This technology is still in its infancy, and suffers from under-investment, which is a great pity. The British Isles have a potentially very large tidal power resource. If the technology were invested in more significantly, this could easily form a base load generation for our grid, because the tide is predictable, and peak generation (maximum tidal flow) times vary sufficiently across the UK coastline such that a large number of arrays could be active at any one time.

          In this respect it has a great advantage over other forms of generation from renewables. It also faces significant challenges. But I could not, and still do not see these as insurmountable, if the will exists to develop the resource.

      • Carl, why are you surprised? Anyone with any experience of the world could see years ago that carbon would not be cut. At best the rich countries would reduce a little but with all the developing world growing at a huge rate, either economically (china and far east) or in population (pretty well everywhere else) or both (india) carbon consumption would inevitably rise, probably quite a lot. The effective demise of the one possible saviour, nuclear, to plug the gap until direct solar energy sources could be brought reliably on stream made the severe warning inevitable. Thank you ecofreaks, you killed the world.

        Certainly move high and polar to avoid the direct effects but war is also a very likely possibility.

        Its also unclear to me whether a significant warming would put enough water vapour into the atmosphere, let alone the release of billatons (new word) of methane from clathrates to cause a thermal runaway. This would kill all higher life on earth but probably after a million or so years the temperature would decline as methane is lost to space. Archaic thermophilic bacteria would almost certainly survive…. somewhere.

        At the very least a rational plan would be to start adjusting our populations and efconomies to cope with sea levels at least 50m higher and temperatures at least 6C higher. Now there’s a challenge for the C21 and C22.

        And yes, I am one of the generation that had it better than perhaps any other humans for millenia, but only if you lived in “The West”.

    • Link noworky. I don’t see an article here, and the PDF link on the page does not result in my browser displaying a PDF but merely the same HTML page reloading.

  12. Looks like there’s going to be some pretty bad weather in Iceland at the weekend, just a heads up for those who don’t know and regularly watch the Iceland seismographs.

  13. Albert! I was absolutely stunned by the photos and interpretations. Up to now I was mildly interested in space exploration, now I am riveted . It was so readable and I actually understood it! Thank you so much.
    As to global warming. I feel a bit ostrich – like. I have blythely thought “There have been climate changes throughout prehistory so let’s not worry. I won’t be here anyway” That cartoon was excellent and really put everything into understandable perspective. Indeed it’s very alarming.
    However there is one thing I cannot understand…….. With all the record temperatures and the increase in GW, why? Oh Why, are my tomatoes not ripening in my greenhouse?

    Black swans are to be found in New Zealand and Dawlish in south west England (Where I first saw them) I really hope they are the only black swans to which I get up close and personal. I understand completely Lurking’s definition and that too is alarming.

    I need coffee #2 to steady my anxiety levels.

    • Diana, I was able to grow and ripen tomatoes outdoors in Iceland, when I live there. With simply growing them against a wind shelter facing south and creating heat traps like basaltic black rocks to trap warmth.

      It´s down to the variety you grow. Many people grow tomatoes in places like Alaska, Canada, Siberia or much of the west coast. Perhaps you got seeds of a variety that is not fit to grow in your local conditions.

      I am actually having a tomato disappointing this summer. This summer in Austria, where I live now, has been very warm and very wet. The seed I used was from the tomatoes I ripened outdoors in Iceland, expecting that it would work here too. Here they set fruit prolifically but the moisture makes them rot when ripening or the slugs eat them. Also the potato harvest was weak due to heavy rains that killed the plants much earlier than it should.

      So yes climate warming can make things difficult, as heavier precipitation can be not suitable for some crops. Though we had an outstanding cucumber crop as they love heat+moist combination.

      Sorry for the offtopic 🙂 Things are too quiet in Iceland…

      • Thank you irpsit. It’s good to see you again and that you are settled in oyur new home. I usually get good crops with the variety I grow but I think it is lack of actual sunshine rays rather than warmth that is to blame this year. I am afraid there is no black basalt here just sandstone 🙁 and Yes! I thought Iceland looked quiet especially this morning.

        • I had a small plot in Sandy soil. My solution was to mix in copious amounts of spagnam peat moss to give the soil some body. Best set of peppers I ever grew. Had an issue when I took some to show my mom at my cousins wedding. The groom asked me what they were, I jokingly said miniature sweet bell. He replied “I’ve never had one of those and deftly scooped one up and bit into it. It was 5 years before my cousin would talk to me again. It was a red savina habanero. (Same general species as the “Carolina Reaper” variety.)

  14. Once again a small swarm after a 2.6 earthquake at Katla. This should be the squeaking and groaning mentioned by Carl in his article on Katla. Again the intriguing place in the north of Katla.

    14.09.2016 11:51:32 63.656 -19.143 0.1 km 1.3 99.0 5.6 km ENE of Goðabunga
    14.09.2016 11:34:20 63.659 -19.131 0.3 km 0.1 99.0 6.2 km ENE of Goðabunga
    14.09.2016 11:29:41 63.667 -19.145 0.8 km 0.6 99.0 6.0 km ENE of Goðabunga
    14.09.2016 11:29:13 63.665 -19.151 0.5 km 1.5 99.0 5.6 km ENE of Goðabunga
    14.09.2016 11:27:41 63.700 -19.164 2.3 km 1.2 99.0 7.9 km NNE of Goðabunga
    14.09.2016 11:26:19 63.659 -19.148 0.1 km 2.6 99.0 5.4 km ENE of Goðabunga

    • Sorry, that is not Katla. It is Goðabunga, another volcanic entity.

      • How is that Godabunga, when the swarm is located well inside the Katla caldera? Those are just location name references, which put quakes 6km E of Godabunga, which is well inside the caldera.

  15. Please forgive a total newbie question here; what look like the little steam-vents – fumaroles? – on the flank of Hekla closest to the Mila webcam seem to have gone into overdrive. Is that something that just happens periodically, possibly dependent on how much water’s getting into the system?

    • It just looks like the clouds drifting by over a few patches of ice or snow to me. From everything I’ve heard so far about Hekla you’ll know something is going on because the place will be an utter mess of smoke and debris.

    • There are no fumaroles at Hekla, and as Neil pointed out. Hekla does not do small steam thingies, Hekla is hell opened up in the greatest show on earth.
      Short checklist to see if Hekla is erupting.
      Did you just scream “Holy Shit!”? If the answer is no Hekla is not erupting.
      Do you see Icelanders arriving with ice-cream trucks? Hekla will very soon erupt.

      If you think about it, during the first minute the same amount of energy will go off as the Hiroshima bomb per second, and yes, there will be a huge mushroom cloud bursting upwards. It will look like a nuke. A Hekla eruption is among the most violent opening stages of any volcano on the planet with the possible exception of Kelud.

  16. Something worth keeping in mind regarding Katla when looking at these earthquakes is that Katla has a very shallow magma chamber. The bottom of the magma chamber, which is very clear, sits just 3 km below the surface, and only 1.5 km below sea level.

    The top of the magma chamber is far less clear, and is likely much more of a “mush” than a clearly defined region of magma storage. My main point here, is that any potential quake stacks may be more difficult to see here due to how close the magma chamber is to the surface, and the likelihood of phreatic earthquakes to occur in such a shallow region (which would make it difficult to track a forming quake stack due to noise).

    • Living in western Oregon I am somewhat conscious of the possibility of a devastating subduction earthquake, and for some reason I recalled an incredible minus tide correlated with a solar eclipse on July 20, 1963. The tidal forces here on the west coast are likely to be pretty awesome on August 21, 2017.

      • Yes, the first snows of autumn have recently fallen in the vicinity. And even in summer, hypothermia kills people in Iceland.

        Another possibility is that he was by himself, tripped, fell, lost consciousness and – because he had no companions and therefore no one to report the accident and call out Ice-SAR – died. Sad.

        It surprises me just how foolish people can be in Iceland, doing things for which they have no relevant experience and probably wouldn’t do if they were at home. Reynisjfara (?sp) beach being the key example.

        • Me and my ex went hiking in Iceland back in 2008. 14 days…. It was magnificent! We are quite experienced hikers, and we were VERY happy that we brought a proper, high quality tent and did not base our expedition on making it from hut to hut…

          The weather, even in summer, kept changing from “very good” to “horrible” over the scope of a few hours…

          During the “bad weather” it was almost impossible to walk in the mountains, and we had to turn around when trying to hike the trail from Thorsmork to Vik (over Fimmvorduhals)….

          We made it to the approximate location of the 2011 flank-eruption, and was unable to move forward because of the excessive winds…. “On paper” the wind in the southern part of Iceland was “just” a “strong breeze”, but the venturi-effects between the mountains increased it a lot some places..

          Had to crawl back down again on all four limbs… If you fall and twist an ankle or something in those conditions you are stuck and have to be able to survive on your own…

          In a temperature of just a few centigrade, with storm-strength wind-chills and pouring rain it goes downhill pretty quickly….

          We actually passed quite a few monuments erected to remember hikers that had succumbed to the elements….

          Here are some pictures from the trip:

  17. Thank you very much for the illumination!

    Sorry for my amateur question.. How can the quakes be allocated to the respective volcano? I assumed them to belong to Katla since I took a look on those maps that have been posted in an earlier article and compared it to the IMO information. Katla seemed to be nearer, but I don’t know about the borders of the actual systems below ground.

    However, these maps locate the volcanos (especially Godabunga) to different spots. Which one is more accurate?

      • Problem is that neither of those maps are 100 percent correct.
        Godabunga is the name of an old cryptodome that is located correctly on the upper image. The problem is that the old cryptodome has also given name to a series of massive intrusions that came up from mantle and that has formed what can best be called a proto-volcano and that is not well printed in on any map I have ever seen. The best mapping I have seen was done by Lurking when he masterfully plotted it a few years ago.
        With a proto volcano I mean that it has a well formed magma conduit from depth and a formative magma reservoir, but has not yet erupted and has the capacity to do so in the future. It may though have partially erupted in 2010 since it may have been the source or trigger for the Fimmvörduhals eruption that in turn triggered Eyjafjallajökull.

        • Cool stuff! Where can I find this map that Lurking made? It will be interesting to see how Godabunga will behave with the deglaciation caused by global warming that has been mentioned above.

          So is it even possible to allocate quakes to one specific volcanic system with certainty? I am thinking especially about Katla – how can ‘joey the standardlurker’ distinguish between the two volcanoes when he sees some earthquake activity going on at Myrdalsjökull? If I remember correctly the 4.5 earthquakes and all the following ones have also been described as “NNW (or NNE) of Godabunga”. “NNE of Katla” or likewise would be easier to grasp. Pardon my confusion here.

          • If the earthquake are on the edges or in between it is impossible really to tell what is what. Even with the best equipment on the planet the resolution is not good enough since the earthquakes are so small to build clear pictures of where the magma reservoirs begin.

  18. Up above there was a discussion about global warming. I put in som statistical data there, but most people find that an image is far better as a representation and easier to grasp.
    Here is one that sadly gives you the full picture.

      • I think it is the GISTERM northern hemisphere land-ocean temperature index. There is also one just for land areas but that shows much larger changes than the plot.

    • How is this measured, especially in the earlier years? I would have expected to be able to see more of the impact of a few eruptions in that. OTH the sequence starts around the time of Krakatoa.

      • This spans the rolling 100 year index. So Krakatoa is not a part of it. And volcanoes do very little if no change to the weather pattern unless they are really big. Even Pinatubo gave a piddly -0,2C for the year and that could be something else that did it since it is below the standard deviation for the planet.

      • After checking the plot did indeed show the aftermath of Krakatoa. Or more to the point, the lack of aftermath. First of all, Krakatoa only affected in any measurable way the year after the eruption.
        And notice that the following 50 years or so show no large deviation in any way, so the large Katmai and Santa Maria eruption did not even produce a dip in the curves.
        To actually notice a difference on a global scale you need a Laki or Tambora event to get any effect on the climate, and even than that is within the standard deviation on a global scale. Laki did though affect on the hemispherical scale.

        • I wonder just how much effect there is after a VEI 8 eruption.

          • It seems like the effect is less than previously speculated. New sediment data from Lake Turkana poked a hole a mile wide in the idea that most of humanity died after Toba.
            Very few in Africa seems to have died from the effects, but many died who was near. Still archaeologists have found human traces directly on top of the ashes left by Toba in the vicinity.
            Yes, a VEI-8 eruption would be a heavy blow, but it would not be the end of humanity or our culture.

          • So if the Toba catastrophe theory isn’t correct/accurate, what else could have caused the population bottleneck?

          • The bottleneck theory only applies for the very small part of humanity that was ambling about. Ie, those that had left Africa and was close to Toba as the eruption occured. The effect on the African population was minute to say the least.
            The entire theory is a western point of view fallacy. 98 percent of the human variation of the genome exist in Africa, there is often larger differences in DNA between two close by villages in Africa than there is between people from Northern Scandinavia and aborigines in Australia.
            Let us say that there was 500 fertile women out and about as Toba happened and that all of them came from the same tribe in Africa that started the trek and that half of them died due to Toba, and as few as five mitochondrialy different women arrived in Europe. So, for the rest of the world outside of Africa Toba did have an effect mainly due to the highly limited amount of ambling women and that the mitochondrial remnants further diminished due to linebreeding.
            This is a bit out of the question you asked, but from a genetic standpoint all of us who is not of a recent african decent should really get married to someone from africa to avoid further inbreeding.

          • Yeah, somehow I don’t see that happening any time soon! 😀
            Anyway, it makes sense that it was the immediate area directly affected. I suppose for a truly global volcanic disaster there would have to be a VEI 9 eruption; good job that doesn’t exist! (unless there was a time when that could happen in the distant past)

          • I do though relish the idea of how angry that would make all sorts of racists…
            Turning humanity into a nice milk-chocolate colour to save our genes must be their ultimate nightmare 🙂
            After all, the process is happening, but it will take about 20 generations to complete.

          • That was 5000 cu km, which makes it a mid-VEI 8. If you use the eruption magnitude (volume x mass) you get a figure of about 9.1. That’s the reason why some think it was VEI 9, but it’s the magnitude that is 9.

          • There is some speculation that there may have been some eruptions that have gotten close to VEI-9 during the opening of the atlantic in the Parana Etendaka volcanic province. But this has not been thoroughly researched yet at this point.

            Also, there are some truly enormous tuffs in Yemen that likely occurred as Arabia split off, some of which may approach or be larger than the Fish Canyon Tuff.

            There are likely many other ridiculous tuffs and supereruptions in the far far distant past that we are unaware of the actual size (assuming singular eruptions). I wouldn’t doubt that the Whitsunday or Sierra Madre Occidental produced similar sized super eruptions at some point or another in their prime.

          • I suppose considering that the planet was somewhat more energetic geologically relatively early in its history (and hotter inside as evidenced by the now-non-existence of komatiite eruptions), such ridiculous eruptions would have happened but even then I don’t think any eruption would have quite reached the 10,000 cu km needed for a VEI 9, but could have got somewhat close in the high-VEI 8 range. The Fish Canyon blast does appear to be an extreme anomaly in a significant portion of time. I’m not sure the planet is even capable of such unimaginably large eruptions now, at least not without a very long time between. Thinking in mathematical terms, the number of VEI 7s compared to 6s and (low) 8s to 7s, there can’t really have been very many high 8s ever.

        • You can just about see the Krakatoa effect on climate using the land-only data, separated to latitude. It mainly shows at mid-northern latitude. The effect is 0.2C. Krakatoa wasn’t a major eruption, and the global effect was not that large. El Chicon (1982) should have had a detectable effect but didn’t: it happened to coincide with an El Nino which balanced it out. A VEI7 does have a major effect but we haven’t had one for 200 year.

          • And even that effect is debatable.
            There are several sources stating out of their arse that the temperature fell 3 degrees and the doomsayers proliferate that number.
            Thankfully there is science and Oppenheimer.
            In his 2003 paper on Tambora he states that the drop in temperature globaly was between 0.4 and 0.7 degrees and that the particle mass in the atmosphere and SO2 (sulfates) was 6 times larger than Pinatubo. That is based on factual data on altitude of the Fenix cloud and the height of the ultraplinian column mated with data on ash composition and rate of fragmentation.

            Another point that needs to be made, the climate effect was worst during the 3 first months, and Tambora erupted on the 5th of April if memory serves. So the main cold was during the time where seeds where germinating and that caused the famine. If the eruption had happened in early September people would just have griped about the cold winter and gone out and planted a normal crop and gotten a normal harvest.

            So, Tamboras negative effect is indeed smaller than humanities positive effect on temperature. It says a lot about our lack of brain capacity.

            Here is a spiffing paper on Tambora based upon Oppenheimer:

          • The Tambora eruption began in April of 1815 but the most catastrophic phase was in June, and the “year without a summer” was 1816. So, nearly a year of lag time between the eruption and the mid-latitude climatic effects. The winter of 1816-17 was a severe one in the British Isles and New England, and summer 1817 was cooler than usual. I have tried with out success to find information on the effects of famine and epidemics on the population of the Mississippi drainage – largely agricultural and mostly native; it would have been very vulnerable.

          • I should actually point out that the largest drop in temperature was in England where temperatures dropped between 1 and 1.5 degrees. But then English weather makes England uninhabitable even at the best of times. (running for cover)

          • That paper does point out that the effect differed per location. In mid-northern latitudes, again, it was 1C or more reduction. The eruption mainly affect the summer temperatures, and with less effect in winter. Land temperatures are affected much more than sea. The effect is going to differ depending where you measure it.

            There was a paper last year discussing this: they found that a large eruption gives a cooling in excess of 1C, and the 540 AD eruption as large as 2C for summer temperature in Europe, for several years. It should be noted that Tambora is not considered that large an eruption any more: there have been at least 5 eruptions over the past 2500 year that were larger.


            I will not mention swedish climate compared to, say, Guatemala.


            I will agree that human impact on climate is already exceeding that of even major eruptions.

          • Absolutely correct Albert.
            I amended the figures a bit for the Isles to show the harder impact in northern latitudes in my second comment.
            My main point remains, it would have to be a significant event at mid VEI-7 to impact more on a global scale than what humanity has caused, and even a small VEI-8 would only lower the temperature below rolling average with 1 to 2 degrees and only for the first year.

          • I will make a comment of the Swedish abysmal weather. I hate it, today it was as cold as 27C. Much nicer in Guate 😉

      • Land-based. stations for land areas. Ship based measurements for sea, supplemented by satellite sea-surface temperatures since 1982.

        • Items for discussion
          Distribution of land base sites, density higher in USA/Europe verse ROW?
          • New sites verse long term sites
          • Long term sites change in landscape, once a field, now located in urban area due to growth
          Show change in temperatures between 0 degrees to 30 degrees Latitude, (assuming lowest delta over time)
          Show change in temperatures between 30 degrees to 60 degrees Latitude, (assuming some delta over time)
          Show change in temperatures above 60 degrees Latitude, (assuming largest delta over time)
          Not saying I disagree with the data, however, as an engineer I don’t trust data that is not explained or clearly understood

          • Sea based data,
            Prior to the early 70’s ships provided data, since, buoy’s/ships?

          • All the zonal averages you are asking for are available from the same site:


            The GISTERM has a method to deal with urban sites which effectively excludes them from the long-term average. They are identified as such from the light pollution seen in satellite images. Other teams have done it differently, but we are long past the point where that made much difference. The effect of including or excluding urban sites is at about the 0.1C level. We are already a full degree up, so an 0.1C uncertainty is neither here nor there.

          • “The effect of using urban sites is neither here nor there” – not too sure about that. There are temperature differences across London of 2-3C due to varying building densities, etc.

          • Locally the urban effect is important. But there is still much more non-urban land. In the global average, the urban sites only change the value by 0.1C.

  19. Thursday
    15.09.2016 04:14:54 64.679 -17.458 3.1 km 3.5 99.0 5.5 km NE of Bárðarbunga

    • It was raised to Aviation Colour Code Red for a few hours last week.

  20. Earthquake swarm at or near Momotombo, Nicaragua, M5.4 + a few M4’s.

  21. HI
    OT: is there a volcano beside Hella? . Southern Iceland – earthquakes during the last 48 hours: 78?

    • It is a highly seismic area in Iceland called the Southern Icelandic Seismic Zone. It is not known for any volcanic activity.

  22. Thanks everyone for the feedback on the Pluto trilogy! It was fun to write it, with a hint of sadness that it may be decades before we can get a better view.

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