Dozens killed in Guatemala volcano disaster

Hellish: Lava flows spewing from its summit reached temperatures of around 700 degrees C.

Should we all worry about volcanoes? On Sunday, Guatemala’s Fuego volcano erupted, killing at least 60 and injuring hundreds. Other long-dormant supervolcanoes could be even more devastating.

Desperate search and rescue operations continue in Guatemala after it suffered its most deadly volcanic eruption in over 100 years on Sunday.

Late in the evening, the Fuego volcano unleashed deadly pyroclastic flows — a deadly mix of red-hot rock, gas and ash — which sped down its slopes, engulfing entire villages.

The mountain also spewed a river of lava five miles long, and a thick black column of ash and gas. Dozens were killed, hundreds injured and many remain missing.

Around 1.7 million people were affected by the explosion, with 3,000 villagers evacuated from the immediate area. “Not everyone escaped,” said one survivor, “I think they were buried.” Another compared the eruption to a “river of lava that overflowed its banks”.

The disaster is the latest of several eruptions to make headlines in recent weeks. Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano erupted last month, destroying dozens of homes and sending thousands fleeing. Indonesia’s Merapi volcano — one of Earth’s most dangerous — erupted last Friday.

But just how perilous are the world’s volcanoes? Since the year 1500, around 280,000 people have been killed by eruptions, with 2,000 fatalities since 2000.

Compared to other types of natural disasters, these numbers are relatively low. Up to 280,000 people were killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami alone. And since 1900, millions more have died from floods and droughts.

But dig deeper into the past, and the unique power of volcanoes becomes clear.

Around 75,000 years ago, the Toba supervolcano exploded with enough force to cause a global volcanic winter. Some scientists claim it nearly wiped out the human race.

There are still around 20 supervolcanoes on Earth — including one in America’s Yellowstone National Park. If that blows, the consequences could be dire: from global starvation sparked by disrupted food supplies, to massive areas covered with toxic ash.

So should we all be worried about volcanoes?

Hot topic

Of course not, some argue. The risk of a supervolcano actually erupting is extremely low. And even if one did, the effects would likely fall short of the apocalyptic vision some have in mind. As for smaller eruptions, early warning systems and slick evacuation drills can help reduce harm. We might not be able to stop eruptions happening, but we can prepare ourselves for when they do.

Concern makes us proactive, others respond. With supervolcanoes it is not a question of “if”, but “when”. NASA is already developing strategies to stop the Yellowstone volcano erupting — something it would not do unless the threat was real. Volcanoes may seem like a remote issue to some, but they can have a potentially disastrous global impact.

You Decide

  1. Is it worth worrying about natural disasters?
  2. Would you live near a volcano?

Activities

  1. List all the different natural disasters you can think of. In pairs or small groups rank them in order of how dangerous you think each one is. Why did you choose to put them in that order? Compare your decisions with the rest of the class.
  2. Using the video resources under Become An Expert, do some research into how volcanoes work. Then draw a flow chart illustrating the process of an eruption in clear steps. Label your diagram with as many technical terms as you can.

Some People Say...

“We cannot stop natural disasters but we can arm ourselves with knowledge.”

Petra Nemcova

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Situated on the “Ring of Fire”, Guatemala’s Fuego volcano is one of Latin America’s most active. In 1974, a major eruption destroyed local farmland but did not claim any lives. The eruption is not in any way connected to those in Indonesia or Hawaii — as volcanologist Karen Fontijn emphasises: “At any point in time there will typically be about 10-20 volcanoes in eruption around the world, we just don’t always hear about them.”
What do we not know?
When the next supervolcano will erupt. Typically, supereruptions occur every 100,000 years. The most recent instance was the Toba eruption 74,000 years ago. The final death toll of Guatemala’s Fuego disaster is also yet to be confirmed.

Word Watch

100 years
In 1902, an eruption of Guatemala’s Santa Maria volcano killed at least 5,000 people.
Fuego volcano
Translates as “Volcano of Fire”.
Affected
Ash reached as far as Guatemala City, situated 25 miles away from the volcano. Officials have advised people to wear masks to protect themselves from the ash.
Dangerous
Its last big eruption in 2010 killed 300 people.
280,000
Statistics compiled by Dr Sarah Brown from the University of Bristol. Just six big eruptions account for around 170,000 of those killed.
Millions
For an in-depth study of the comparative death toll of different natural disasters, see the Our World in Data link under Become An Expert.
Volcanic winter
A reduction in global temperatures caused by volcanic ash blocking the Sun.
Wiped out
Known as the Genetic Bottleneck Theory, some scientists claim the eruption caused the global human population to plummet to around 3,000 to 10,000 individuals. However, other researchers refute this hypothesis.
Developing
See the link under Become An Expert.

Subjects

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