Tuesday, March 23

Convergence: orange lava, red rust, yellow dust, blue moon

Two old scourges return

In 1999 two entirely unrelated events arose in different locations on the globe: In Iceland the large Katla volcano, which had been dormant since 1955 and not seen a major eruption since 1918, showed signs of awakening. In Uganda, an agronomist received confirmation that spores he'd sent to a South African lab for testing were from a mutation of P. graminis, a fungus commonly known as wheat stem rust. Since 1999 the two events have quietly pursued their independent courses but now, driven by natural forces, they inexorably move toward each other on humanity's horizon.

Both events are connected with old scourges that were so lethal to humans they shaped the course of civilization, both ancient and modern.

Orange Lava

On its own Katla is a dangerous volcano; its last major eruption, in 1918, caused severe flooding in Iceland and from one account I read (see the Times Online link below) an appreciable global impact. But Katla is not a lone wolf. It's part of a volcanic fissure in Iceland's south, the Laki, which in turn is part of a large and complex volcanic system in Iceland. Some of the volcanoes in the system seem 'mechanically' related to each other -- an eruption in one causes an eruption in another -- although scientists don't yet understand the mechanics.

The last time there were major sustained eruptions of the Laki, which included eruptions of the adjoining Grímsvötn volcano, something like a nuclear winter was visited on large swaths of humanity.

On March 20, 2010 a small volcano in Iceland with the jaw-busting name of Eyjafjallajokull erupted. (For those who hate reading words they can't pronounce, it's AY-uh-full-ay-ho-kul.) The eruption, despite it lava flow and spectacular pyrotechnics, wasn't much more than a belch, and it didn't cause any loss of life or property damage in Iceland. Yet the eruption raised alarm among volcanologists; that's because every time Eyjafjallajokull has erupted since record-keeping began, Katla follows with its own eruption.

If the historical pattern holds, how long have we got before Katla blows? I've read estimates that range from "a few weeks to a few months' to "sometime within a year of the Eyjafjallajokull eruption."

As to whether we'll get any warning, there are conflicting answers to this question. One account has it that Iceland's volcanic eruptions don't give warnings, unlike the volcanoes on the Pacific Rim. They're unique among the world's volcanoes; there's not even enough seismic activity to warn of an impending eruption.

A National Geographic article in 2008 tells a different story:
Recently scientists have been keeping an eye on the region around Upptyppingar, a mountain north of Vatnajökull. Located in the country’s remote interior, this area has not seen a volcanic eruption since the end of the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago.

But geologists point to an upsurge in seismic activity last year as a sign of an imminent eruption. According to volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson of the University of Rhode Island, the earthquake activity “started at unusual depth—about 25 kilometers (15.5 miles)—which is just under the crust in Iceland, and it is getting shallower and closer to the surface.” At the current rate of upward motion of the magma—as much as one kilometer a month, Sigurdsson says—an eruption might be expected sometime in 2008. [It doesn't seem this has happened yet.]

Some scientists speculate that the filling of the new reservoir behind Kárahnjúkar Dam, some 13 miles away, may be to blame for the increased seismic activity. Sigurdsson notes that Earth’s crust could bend under the weight of the water and begin to break, resulting in faults and possibly triggering earthquakes. Geologists have no firsthand experience with volcanic eruptions at Upptyppingar, making it difficult to predict exactly what will happen—or to pinpoint a cause. [...]
Perhaps the resolution between the conflicting answers is that volcanoes in the Laki fissure don't give warnings whereas other volcanic regions do, although that's an uneducated guess.

In any event Katla is quiet right now. And the USGS disputes anecdotal reports of small earthquakes in Iceland following the Eyjafjallajokull eruption on March 20. Evidently whatever rumblings occurred were so trifling they couldn't be called quakes.

Here is where I think it gets interesting. The previous Eyjafjallajokull eruptions that preceded the Katla ones occurred in the years 920, 1612, and between 1821 and 1823. But the 'nuclear winter' eruptions in the Laki occurred from 1783 to 1784 over an eight-month period:
The lava shot to heights of 1.4 kilometres and more than 120 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide was released into the atmosphere. A quarter of the island's population died in the resulting famine and [the eruptions] transformed the world, creating Britain's notorious "sand summer", casting a toxic cloud over Prague, playing havoc with harvests in France -- sometimes seen as a contributory factor in the French Revolution -- and changing the climate so dramatically that New Jersey recorded its largest snowfall and Egypt one of its most enduring droughts.
That description from the March 21 (London) Times Online hardly conveys the devastation visited on the human race. A more detailed, and macabre, description is found Wikipedia's article on the Laki.

You can see from a comparison of the dates of the Katla and the major Laki eruptions that they don't comport. That means that at least since record-keeping began, the Katla eruptions seemingly didn't cause the Laki to go haywire as it did in 1783. However, during those earlier times Iceland didn't have the Kárahnjúkar Dam, heavy earth-moving equipment, and extensive tunneling.

As to why Icelanders would feel the need to build dam complexes -- in a land that has been described as "unsuitable for much of anything beyond raising sheep," and which has plenty of natural sources of power -- I do not know, and I am not sure I want to know.

I do know that trying to keep up with the Joneses in the EU trade scramble has led more than one EU government to back questionable projects for their nation. As to whether this observation applies to Iceland -- again, I don't think I want to know, which is why I haven't clicked on the links in Kárahnjúkar Hydropower website that refer to heavy industry and Alcoa in Iceland.

To finish up with lava, we can only hope that Katla, if it erupts, will give off just a small burp, as it did in 1955, then go back to sleep; that its eruption if it happens won't rouse the whole Laki fissure; and that the tectonic plates the country perches on are not so hyper that a major explosion on Katla would set off a chain reaction in other volcanic regions on the island.

Red Rust

Wheat stem rust has been one of civilization's deadliest enemies going back to ancient times -- going back to the cultivation of wheat. When the blood-red fungus took hold, certain death by starvation awaited farming communities that depended on wheat as the food staple. Then, in the 1940s, a young Iowa native and agronomist named Norman Borlaug went to war against wheat stem rust. A mind-warpingly tedious war, as he described it.

Genetic modification in this case was simply years of grueling trial and error, and finally cross-breeding strains of wheat that resisted the fungus. That led to the Green Revolution. Buh-bye wheat stem rust, humans won, cross that scourge off the list.

But in the best tradition of horror stories a few spores of the fungus survived, unnoticed, in the Ugandan highlands. They evolved into an incredibly smart pathogen, one that learned that constant mutation was the way to beat the new-fangled fancy wheat hybrids.

The fungus was aided by human complacency. In 1999 the USDA yawned that the mutation, dubbed Ug99 (Ug for Uganda, 99 for the year of its discovery) did not pose a threat to the descendents of Bourlag's hybrid wheat strains, and that the odds of it spreading outside Uganda were remote.

The story of Ug99's spread outside Uganda, and the race among agronomists to outfox it before it's responsible for the death of a billion humans, is a frightening and fascinating tale, beautifully told in Wired Magazine's March issue. A big thanks to the McNorman blogger for sending me the article. However, I've decided against quoting passages from the article; it's not that long and you really need to read it from start to finish to get a clear picture of the seriousness of the threat posed by Ug99, and its wind-blown continent-hopping travels.

The hope here in the United States is that Ug99 can be stopped before it reaches the Western Hemisphere. If not, "God help us," said one American scientist.

At least according to this organization, scientists have identified 100 strains of wheat that have shown resistance to Ug99. Yet it keeps mutating in response to hybrids it encounters.

Another big problem is getting wheat farmers the world over to abandon their tried-and-true strains of wheat for ones more resistant to Ug99, and which might not grow so well in their regions. It's taking a massive education campaign and one that's racing against time. Ug99 has already wreaked havoc on Kenya's subsistence farmers.

As to why there isn't some kind of fumigant that could be used against Ug99, I haven't studied the issue enough to know the answer.

I do know that while we were trying to save the planet from warming, we diverted much attention and money from simple actions to save ourselves -- actions such as improving our response to earthquakes, hurricanes and other extreme weather.

Even Ug99 could have been stopped before it got out of the gate if we'd thought in more practical terms. The fungus was discovered only by accident; that's because routine testing programs were suspended when it seemed wheat rust stem was a thing of the past.

That's enough of the laundry list for one day; I'll pick up from this point tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Your post is excellent. Very scary stuff.

Dymphna said...

oops...don't let the bio-engineers start with genetically modified wheat which could resist this spore. Better to die of starvation than to eat anything impure or unnatural.

I was wondering what new fear would arise now that Swine Flu has passed and global warming is fast becoming a joke.

Well, even if there is no wheat left, what does it matter? We won't have any money to buy it with once the economy really starts down the steep slope of stupidity.

Anyway, everyone knows those earthquakes and volcanoes are simply manifestations of Gaia's anger. We could throw in a few nubile virgins to satisfy her, but there aren't any virgins left.

Think of the advantages: it solves Western obesity in one fell swoop. Anorexia will certainly be wiped out early.

We'll all have health insurance, though. Isn't that nice?