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AIPT Science presents: The most devastating and uplifting geology stories of the decade

The Earth’s movements can be harsh, but there’s beauty, too.

The ground beneath our feet is constantly changing, and despite those changes taking place over millions of years, we’re able to experience geologic change in much shorter time spans.  The last decade has been filled with geologic news, from deadly earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides, to the discovery of lost continents. Here are a few of the biggest stories of the 2010s.

Earthquakes

The decade started off with what is currently the deadliest earthquake of the century.  On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 quake hit the island nation of Haiti. Millions of people were left homeless and more than 300,000 lives were lost. The country was totally devastated by the quake and is still working to recover, 10 years later.

Haiti after the 2010 earthquake

Just over a year later, in March of 2011, Japan would be struck by the largest earthquake of the century.  The 9.0 magnitude Tohoku earthquake and resulting massive tsunami killed more than 20,000 people, lead to the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, and is known as the costliest natural disaster in world history. It was so strong it changed the Earth’s axial tilt and lengthened the day by 1.8 microseconds.

The central Asian country of Nepal experienced a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake on April 25, 2015. Nearly 10,000 people were killed and the quake triggered avalanches on Mt. Everest which killed nearly two dozen sherpas and shut down the 2015 Everest climbing season.

Volcanoes

Spring of 2010 saw the first large volcanic eruption of the decade. In April, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland began sending an ash plume into the sky that lead to the worst European air travel disruption since World War II.  The eruption continued until October, but fortunately caused no casualties.

In September of 2014, 63 people were killed when an eruption of Japan’s Mt. Ontake took hundreds of hikers by surprise.  The hikers, nearby lodges, and outbuildings were covered by volcanic gas and ash.

In its largest event since 1974, Guatemala’s Volcán de Fuego erupted in June of 2018. The eruption killed 194 people and left hundreds more still missing.  Ash spread over 12 square miles, mud flows covered roads and killed crops, and more than a million people are still suffering the effects.

The decade will end with the deadliest eruption of 2019 at Whakaari (White) Island in New Zealand.  While not the deadliest of the decade, 20 tourists were killed when the volcano erupted on December 9. This, along with the deaths of hikers in Japan and Italy, has lead to discussions about the safety of geotourism.

Indonesia

Indonesia, an island nation off the coast of Southeast Asia, is part of the Ring of Fire, a geologically active area that encircles the Pacific ocean.  Its location at the edge of a subduction zone means the area is known for large earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. On April 11, 2012, in the Indian Ocean, near Sumatra, two large quakes measuring magnitudes 8.6 and 8.2 occurred, causing 10 fatalities and tsunami concerns.  On September 28, 2018, a shallow 7.5 magnitude quake and its resulting tsunami claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people in the Minahasa Peninsula.

Mt. Merapi, Indonesia’s most active volcano, experienced a large eruption on October 25, 2010 causing the evacuation of more than 350,000 people and the deaths of 350.  Not to be outdone, Mt. Sinabung experienced eruptions in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. Not all were considered major eruptions, however the pyroclastic flows from these eruptions claimed at least 15 lives.

Eruption of Anak Krakatau

The most notable Indonesian volcanic eruptions this decade were those of Anak Krakatau in December of 2018. The “Child of Krakatoa,” which formed in the remains of that infamous volcano, began erupting in July of 2018, with escalating eruptions through the fall.  The series culminated on December 22 with the collapse of part of the volcano, which triggered a tsunami along nearly 200 miles of coast line. More than 400 people were killed and more than 40,000 displaced. Anak Krakatau currently holds the rank of deadliest volcanic eruption of century.

Landslides

Landslides don’t always make for big news, as they often happen in remote areas with few people.  However there were a number of notable landslides in the 2010s that deserve a brief mention.

One in Gansu, China, killed 1,287 in 2010; on June 6, 2013, rain-soaked North India lost 5,700 people; up to 500 people lost their lives in Afghanistan in a May landslide.  In what was the third deadliest weather disaster in Columbian history, 330+ people were killed in Mocoa on April 2, 2017, and nearly 1,200 people were lost in the Sierra Leone community of Freetown after a heavy rainy season.

On the brighter side

With all of the doom and gloom geology seems to bring via the violent, destructive tendencies of the Earth’s motion, it’s important to remember that not all interesting geology leads to death. In 2010, scientists in the journal Environmental Science & Technology proposed that in just a few hundred years, people have changed the Earth enough to have begun a new epoch in geologic history.  They believe that the combination of pollution, climate change, and human-caused animal extinction has caused what will be a visible, measurable geologic effect.

A new geological map of Mars was created in 2014 using 16 years worth of data.  Thanks to a large amount of close-up exploration of the red planet, data exists regarding mineral types, atmospheric water levels, and subsurface structures.  This updated map accounts for the presence of surface water as well as geologic activity of the planet. Extraterrestrial geology is a growing field that will surely keep us excited in the decades to come.

Magnetic north (the spot on the Earth that your compass points to) is known to wander.  It’s existed in many places over our planet’s long history, and it still moves in our modern world. As early as 2015, it was noted that the movement of magnetic north was speeding up a bit.  It’s moved more than 600 miles since 1990, and is now located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, about four degrees south of geographic north.

Research has indicated that the location of magnetic north is controlled by two areas of the magnetic field beneath Canada and Siberia.  The movement of the pole indicates there may be something major happening in the Earth’s liquid iron outer core. It’s interesting to note that magnetic south does not wander the same way magnetic north does, staying relatively stable. While the change in location of magnetic north isn’t something that has a large effect on human life, updating it allows for better GPS location.

The latter part of the 2010s saw the discovery of two “lost” continents.  In 2017, researchers announced the discovery of Zealandia, a mostly submerged South Pacific continent.  Located less than a mile below the sea, between New Zealand and New Caledonia, this small continent is about two thirds the size of Australia and has yielded significant new fossil discoveries, showing Zealandia was not always underwater and was likely sunk as a result of geologic activity along the Ring of Fire.

Greater Adria, from the journal Gondwana research

Greater Adria, the continent found hidden under Europe in the Mediterranean Sea, is a very different piece of land. Rather than being an existing, accessible continent, Greater Adria is believed to have broken away from North Africa, only to be buried under southern Europe. The only part of the continent that remains is the mountain range that runs from Turin to the heel of the boot of Italy.  Most of the continent was believed to have been underwater, and was incorporated into the mountains on the Mediterranean during this area’s very chaotic geologic history.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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