Category Archives: Earth

Chile’s Calbuco Volcano erupts without warning

Around 5:00 pm local time on April 22, scientists at Southern Andean Volcano Observatory in Chile began picking up volcanic earthquakes at the Calbuco volcano. A disturbingly short 60 minutes later, the volcano was in full eruption, producing an impressive column of ash extending to more than 49,000 feet into the sky. Ash primarily drifted north and northeast of the volcano, covering towns below in a layer of fine ash. Observatory scientists quickly called for an evacuation zone of 12.5 miles.

A second explosive eruption began at 1:00 pm local time on April 23 and lasted for at least six hours. During this time an average of 150 earthquakes were recorded per hour. This eruption also produced a similar-sized column of ash, which drifted north, northeast and east of the volcano.

My colleague Dr Jeff Johnson, who co-taught a Boise State University geophysics and volcanology course with me at Villarrica volcano just after a March 3 eruption, reports from Pucón, Chile, that the Calbuco ash cloud blocked sunlight and turned morning to night. As of 11 AM, on April 23, Pucón, which is more than 130 miles north of Calbuco, was still covered in darkness.

People who live this part of Chile are well-accustomed to volcanoes, yet is still causing widespread concern.

As a physical volcanologist, I’ve studied how people who live near volcanoes can deal with the hazards and risks from sudden eruptions as we’re seeing now in Chile.

On close monitoring

It’s hard to miss the multiple, large, ominous volcanoes that can be seen at any point along the drive from Chile’s capital city Santiago to the south of the country. Many of the volcanoes are remote and in sparsely populated areas, but others are popular tourist destinations for skiing, trekking, horse-back riding and visiting hot springs.

Because of frequent volcanic activity in Chile, especially as of late, volcano observatory scientists closely monitor Chilean volcanoes.

If a volcano begins to show signs of unrest, such as an increase in shallow earthquakes or ground swelling, observatory scientists go on a 24/7 monitoring schedule. Such was the case prior to the March 3 eruption of Villarrica. However, sometimes, despite careful monitoring, a volcano erupts with no warning at all.

An ash cloud rose at least 15 kilometers above the Calbuco volcano, menacing the nearby communities of Puerto Montt, Chile, and San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina.
NASA’s Earth Observatory/flickr, CC BY

Calbuco is a 6,570-foot-high volcano located in the Los Lagos region of southern Chile, 20 miles northeast of the town of Puerto Montt. It is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile and is known to erupt explosively. The largest witnessed eruption of Calbuco occurred in 1893, registering an impressive level 4 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index — similar in size to the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens in Washington state in the US. Calbuco has erupted 10 times since, with the most recent eruption occurring unexpectedly on April 22, 2015.

Volcanoes typically show signs of unrest for weeks, months and sometimes even years prior to an eruption. Unrest may include a slow inflation, or the swelling of magma in the volcano; increased earthquake activity beneath the volcano; and potentially an increase in the amount and type of gas escaping from the volcano. The only sign of activity from Calbuco was increased gas venting in 1996; since then, it has been quiet.

Volcanic Hazards

The most serious hazard to towns within the 12.5 mile evacuation zone are lahars – mudflows generated by melted snow and ice mixing with volcanic ash. Lahars are confined to places where water normally drains, but have the capacity to destroy bridges and any other man-made structure in their path.

So far at Calbuco, lahars have traveled more than nine miles from the volcano. Lahars are often produced during eruptions, but also can occur long after an eruption has ceased when ash is remobilized by heavy rain. Thus,residents of nearby towns can be displaced for weeks to months depending on the activity, amount of falling ash and climate.

The most widely disruptive hazard from this eruption will be the ash fall, which currently has covered regions as far as 165 miles to the north under millimeters of ash.

Ash from the Calbuco volcano eruption in Chile has fallen on surrounding towns, including Ensenada, pictured here.
Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Ash presents a health hazard to those with respiratory problems such as asthma. Ash also can result in loss of electricity and severe disruption of transportation. Only one to three millimeters of ash – or about one tenth of an inch or less – can significantly reduce visibility on roadways, and less than one millimeter of ash will shut down an airport.


Despite the negative consequences of such an eruption, natural hazards such as this and the March 3 eruption of Villarrica are quite survivable. It comes down to taking a few basic steps to be prepared.

Everyone lives at risk from some form of natural hazard, such as wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, severe storms and many more. These natural events can knock out power for days at a time and displace loved ones. The people in the towns around Calbuco certainly reported being scared, but their knowledge of evacuation routes and readiness to go at a moment’s notice likely saved many lives.

Each of us can rest easier at night by taking a few easy steps to ensure that we also know what to do if disaster strikes in our own backyard, such as preparing food and water for at least three days, getting a first aid kit, and making a plan for contacting loved ones if separated unexpectedly. The preparedness statement from our own Cascade Volcano Observatory sums it up well: Don’t be Scared, Be Prepared.

In the meantime, scientists such Dr Johnson and I will continue to research these natural events in an effort to better understand their consequences and better forecast eruptions and volcanic hazards in the future.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Spider Venom and the Search for Safer Pain Meds

Some of the most poisonous animals on the planet are found down under. Australian researchers retrieved exciting new data when taking a closer look at spider venom. Biosynthesized chemicals designed to be highly reactive with other organisms could inspire new drugs and, eventually, an entire new class of painkillers.

It can be defensive but the function of spider venom is often to incapacitate or kill prey. University of Queensland academics released their findings in The British Journal of Pharmacology, after they isolated seven unique peptides found in certain spider venoms that can block the molecules that allow pain-sensitive nerve pathways to communicate with the brain. One of the pepetides originated in the physiology of a Borneo orange-fringed tarantula. That peptide possessed the correct chemical structure, combined with a stability and effectiveness to become a non-opiate painkiller.

15% of all adults are in chronic pain, according a study published in 2012 Journal of Pain. Most readers are already aware of the danger of addiction and lagging effetiveness of opiate drugs like morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone. The medical community is hungry for a change in available medications. Opiates are all derivatives or inspired by opium plants which have been tried and tested for centuries. Venomous spiders are difficult to study but the motivation for new drugs has loosened funding with the help of promising finds like this one.

“Spider venom acts in a different way to standard painkillers,” ~ Dr. Jennifer Smith, research officer @ University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience.

While cessation from pain might in itself create an addictive reaction, this venom is promising, according to Dr. Smith, because it blocks the channel through which the pain would even reach the brain. Opiates merely block the widespread opioid receptors in actual brain cells, deep within and in the surrounding nerve tissue of the brain itself.

What’s the mechanism of action for this spider-drug? Some people are born with a rare genetic defect that renders them unable to feel pain. Geneticists identified the human gene responsible, known as SCN9A. Dr. Smith hopes the peptide will enable the cells of a human without the defect to shut down part of the DNA that manifests this immunity to pain.

There could be other breakthroughs in medicine and chemistry. The findings are awesome in the Australian project but those researchers only documented findings of roughly 200 out of 45,000 known species of spider.  Out of those 200, 40% contained peptides that interacted with the way pain channels communicate. The next step would be to test the painkillers on animals.

“We’ve got a massive library of different venoms from different spider species and we’re branching out into other arachnids: scorpions, centipedes and even assassin bugs,” said Dr. Smith.


Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY