FEMA and volcanoes

So, as I am apt to do from time to time, I was wandering the interweb and stumbled across the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) for Kids website. Naturally, I thought, what do they have to say about, oh, I don't know, volcanoes. Well, was I in for a doozy!

FEMA, in its infinite wisdom, has this to say about volcanoes (for kids, mind you):

[A] volcano is a mountain that opens downward to a pool of molten rock below the surface of the earth.

Oh. My. Word ... but wait, there's more!

The ash can cause damage to the lungs of older people, babies and people with respiratory problems.

Yes, if you're young and strong, ash doesn't nothing to your lungs. Nothing at all! Suck it in, its full of vitamins ... and minerals!

Alright, so maybe FEMA is just getting carried away with the dumbing down for kids. So, I traipse over the to adult version of "Volcanoes" on the FEMA website. Here's how it begins:

A volcano is a mountain that opens downward to a reservoir of molten rock below the surface of the earth.

Oh. My. Word.

Yes, it is exactly the same as the "FEMA for Kids" entry on volcanoes. Sure, the substitute the fancy term "reservoir" with "pool" for the kiddie site, but for all intents and purposes, it is the same. They sort of fix the lung issue by slapping on an "although not immediately hazardous", but beyond that, the sentences are in a different order and both versions are terrible. It makes you wonder what might happen if a volcano in the continental U.S. near a populated area decided to erupt and FEMA was sent in, but that is a tale for another day. Remember, 9/10 of volcanic hazard mitigation is preparedness and education, so one would hope that the government could put a better foot forward.

I think, what might be fun here is to try to help FEMA out. I know we can do a better job describing volcanoes in a simple and clear fashion to the general public. So, I invite my readers to leave a comment on this post with part or all of what they might post for a FEMA-style brief synposis of a volcano and its hazards. Maybe I'll forward the best on the FEMA to see if they'll upgrade.

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I am an archaeologist and wanted to know what the dates are for the eruption at Thera/Santorini that destroyed the island. Also were there any large eruptions leading up to the main event?


By Sanjay Deshpande (not verified) on 20 Mar 2009 #permalink

A volcano is a mountain formed by the release of liquid rock(magma)from the interior of the earth to the surface. The magma may contain dissolved gases that expand and create superheated ash which flows down the volcano in what are called pyroclastic flows. These ash cloud flows are extremely fast. The ash is also blown very high into the atmosphere and can travel great distances before falling back to the earth. The resulting deposits are composed of fine silica particles that are hazardous to all animals that breathe them in. In some cases the ash deposits are thick enough to collapse buildings and can even bury entire communities.

I believe we need policies in place beyond FEMA in case of a major eruption someplace which could place a growing season at risk. As we are now using grain to create biofuels and additives for conventional fuels, we no longer have the huge grain surpluses that we had only a decade or two ago.

For example, there should be policies on the shelf that could be put into play immediately if there were an eruption that the government deemed could put crops at risk due to temporary climate change. Things like: stopping all biofuel production, temporary waiver of fuel formulation rules requiring ethanol and going on an emergency national fuel formulation (eliminating over 40 different fuel formulations currently in use). Temporary suspension of certain heath regulations and educating the people on switching to animal fats from vegetable fats until the crises is over (use lard instead of vegetable shortening, for example). Temporary restriction on brewing and distilling. Emergency suspension of ordinances concerning farm animals in certain areas to allow the grazing of some animals on lawns and parkland. A large lawn can keep a goat fed through a summer which can be used as food come winter.

If we were to experience an eruption that puts the Midwestern US or Eastern European steppes grain crop at risk of a killing frost before harvest, it would be a major disaster for more people than the original eruption.

If there were policies already on the shelf to deal with this scenario, we might be able to conserve more of the current year's crop so that more can survive the winter with smaller crops in one or more subsequent years.

By crosspatch (not verified) on 20 Mar 2009 #permalink

I think it is important to note that not all volcanoes are mountains - some volcanoes that might produce significant eruptions might not be visible at all in this moment (think of Novarupta near Katmai, Alaska). Yellowstone, the icon of a potentially devastating volcano, is not exactly what we imagine to be a volcanic mountain.
The best general description of a volcano that I have come across thus far is from Gordon Macdonald's "Volcanoes" (1972), which says more or less: "A volcano is both the place or vent on the surface of the Earth where rocks and gas from the interior of the Earth are erupted onto the surface, and[/or] the hill or mountain built up around the opening by accumulation of the emitted rocks." This is a bit longer than the one given by FEMA but although simplifying complex things for the general public is useful, oversimplifications can create major problems.
Volcanic ash, it should be said, can be a problem for everybody, particularly for babies, old persons, and those suffering respiratory problems, and basically it is recommended that it be avoided by all of us. Reference should be made to the excellent educational material on the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHHN) web site (http://www.ivhhn.org/).
Volcanic hazards comprise a broad spectrum, of which volcanic ash is one of the most far-reaching but not necessarily the most hazardous one. And, although lava flows are much less hazardous (to human lives at least) than is commonly believed, they do represent a hazard also in the western U.S., because there are a great number of basaltic vents interspersed with the larger, more famous, and more explosive stratovolcanoes and occasional calderas. We should not underestimate the effects of sulfur dioxide-rich gas plumes (vog or laze; see http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs169-97/) that might be produced during basaltic eruptions at low elevations, also when lava enters water bodies such as lakes. Still, as for basaltic eruptions, lava flows blocking rivers might result in significant problems such as flooding. Such events, overshadowed by the far more dramatic and admittedly more widespread effects of major explosive eruptions, are part of the cocktail of volcanic hazards that the western U.S. has to face, and possibly they are more frequent.

Here's my 2c:

A volcano is formed by the release of molten rock (called magma) from the interior of the earth. Volcanos come in all shapes and sizes, from big lakes and mountains to small cones and ponds. When magma reaches the surface it may be released as fluid rock (called lava) or as powdered rock (called volcanic ash) or both.

Dangers from volcanos include lava flows which destroy anything lying in their path, ash falls which can kill or poison people and animals and disrupt machinery like cars and planes, emissions of toxic gas, and pyroclastic flows, which smother everything in their path in a cloud of burning ash. A big eruption can also change the global climate and lead to crop failures far from the actual volcano.

oops.. guess that didn't simplify it after all.

Volcanoes, Duck and cover the only protection.
Seriously though if thats on the FEMA website that is shocking.

This FEMA text sounds like it was taken from some bad disaster movie... In my homeland, Hungary, there are no active volcanoes, but I knew more at my age of 5 about them... I think today when the Internet would be a great help for education, with so many breathtaking pictures and videos it is a shame to have such an "advise" of an official oganization.

Now that our new president has announced plans to expand the Faith-Based Initiative of his predecessor, it would seem obligatory that both kids' and adults' versions of this page pay homage to the power of Hephaestus, with handy pointers on proper rites of appeasement.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 23 Mar 2009 #permalink

do you know if volcanoes can have babies? i am a child so please respond in kid like words

Hey, i just ended on your www by luck, and as always i start reading to see if there´s something interesting, the article gets a little interesting after you get a bit further into it. Thanks for putting it up, thanks and have a good evening