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As part of a course on Natural Disasters, I have a group presentation in which we focus on a specific natural disaster. One of the questions we have to address is how human activity may have affected the geographic area and/or the disaster. The topic for our group is volcanoes, with a specific focus on the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980. So my question is — is this possible?

The closest I can think of is human-induced seismic activity, due to fracking or wastewater injection, for example. However, I do not know if this could conceivably also affect in any way nearby volcanism. I also don't think there are or have been any oil-related activities around Mount St. Helens, but I really don't know for sure. So, is this possible?

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I think you have drawn the 'short straw'! As disasters go, volcanoes have about the least to do with human activity. Basically, volcanoes are the product of plate tectonics, which operates on a scale vastly greater than human impacts on the planet. At least one book has been written about earthquakes, volcanoes and human impacts, but the linkage is tenuous at best. The argument goes something like this: Humans modify the water table by pumping, diverting water, building dams, etc. Also by human-induced climate change contributing to rising sea levels. Increased hydrostatic pressure in the ground 'lubricates' fault planes causing lesser but more frequent earthquakes. In and around volcanoes, there is more groundwater which increases water vapour in/near magma chambers, and hence increases the activity of volatiles, contributing to volcanic eruptions.

This is all speculative, and most geologists doubt whether these effects are significant, or even if they exist at all. I think you will have a hard task trying to provide supporting evidence for any of this.

On the other hand there is passive interaction in that many terrestrial volcanoes in wet climates produce vast quantities of volcanic ash that weathers rapidly to produce fertile soil. This fertility attracts farming communities who put themselves in harms way, being at risk from hot ash clouds, hot lava, volcanic bombs and mudflows. The latter are produced by hurricane level rainfall mobilizing the loose ash, such that mudflows (or 'lahars') kill far more people than the volcanoes themselves - we have seen many examples in the news in recent decades - in South and Central America, Indonesia, Philippines, etc.

The Mount St. Helens eruption was caused by the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate subducting under North America. It's a 100% natural process, with no human causation whatever.

There are no known cases of fracking having any impact upon volcanoes. Can you imagine any fracking company taking the legal risk of setting off a volcanic eruption? In any case, the basic geology of volcanoes and hydrocarbon bearing sediments is quite different.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for all the info. "Not likely, but here are a few tenuous suggestions..." would be a perfectly good answer. Could you please provide a link to the book you mentioned? Perhaps we can cite it in the presentation, if we decide to even mention the possibility at all. $\endgroup$ – Reinstate Monica May 9 '16 at 0:51
  • $\begingroup$ If I remember rightly, it was "Terra: Tales of the Earth" by Richard Hamblyn, 2009. By he overstates his case. The historical events are a good read, but take the cause and effect argument towards the end of the book, 'with a pinch of salt'. $\endgroup$ – Gordon Stanger May 9 '16 at 18:26
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Yes. Human activity can probably cause volcanic eruptions, albeit indirectly. Regardless, human activity affects volcanic disasters in several other ways.

First, let's look at how humans can cause volcanic eruptions.

Humans affect climate, and climate affects volcanos

Kutterolf et al. (2012) showed recently that climate affects the frequency of volcanic eruptions, chiefly through changes in global sea-level and isostatic effects. Ice unloading can also trigger eruptions in places like Iceland, as researched by Sigmundsson et al. (2010). So it seems highly likely that human-caused climate change will affect the frequency of volcanic eruptions, although according to one of the scientists:

We predict there's a time lag of about 2,500 years," [co-author] Jegen said. "So even if we change the climate, you wouldn't really expect anything to happen in the next few thousand years."

The lead author adds:

The impact from man-made warming is still unclear based on our current understanding.

Clearly this climate cause is rather indirect. And certainly the extent to which it's an issue today is open to debate. As you suggest, there may be some others causes. But, either way...

Humans affect disasters even if they don't cause them

Humans can contribute to disasters in other ways than being the root cause of the natural phenomenon. They are relevant to how natural phenomena affect humans; if they don't affect humans, we don't call them 'disasters'. Think about things like the following:

  • How we educate people about natural hazards that might affect them.
  • How we design early warning and emergency response systems.
  • Where we choose to build our dwellings.
  • Where we build transportation and other support systems.
  • How we manage forests and farming.

Read about hazard evaluation, monitoring, and avoidance, for example around famous recent eruptions. Some of these, such as Montserrat, are especially well studied. This BGS page has some more info on that volcano.

A couple more things

Humans almost certainly had something to do with a mud volcano eruption, which displaced thousands of people in Indonesia in 2006: the Lumpur Lapindo eruption, which is coming up on its 10th anniversary. Read my article from it's 8th birthday, and see this question. Obviously, this is a completely different kind of volcano.

If you want to start an eruption, Erik Klemetti (a legit vulcanologist) has some tips.

Reference

Kutterolf, S., M. Jegen, J. X. Mitrovica, T. Kwasnitschka, A. Freundt, P. J. Huybers (2012): A detection of Milankovitch frequencies in global volcanic activity. Geology, G33419.1, DOI 10.1130/G33419.1. Read more.

Sigmundsson, Freysteinn, Virginie Pinel, Björn Lund, Fabien Albino, Carolina Pagli, Halldór Geirsson, Erik Sturkell (2010). Climate effects on volcanism: influence on magmatic systems of loading and unloading from ice mass variations, with examples from Iceland. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 2010 368 2519-2534; DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2010.0042.

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    $\begingroup$ The mudflow near Surabaya in Eastern Java was caused by drilling into a hydraulically mobile sediment. It was a hydrogeological event, and was no more volcanic than, for example a gushing oil well. The mud volcano was incorrect but popular terminology. An interesting case study though, and a cautionary tale for the drilling industry. $\endgroup$ – Gordon Stanger May 9 '16 at 18:34
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    $\begingroup$ @GordonStanger A great many authoritative sources (eg Mazzini et al in EPSL, Richard Davies in GSL and Nature News, and NASA) refer to it as a mud volcano. I can't stand arguments about jargon, so call it whatever you like. $\endgroup$ – kwinkunks May 9 '16 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ "Humans affect climate, and climate affects volcanos" be careful with that statement - I can already see scaremongers going to use that quote $\endgroup$ – Gimelist May 9 '16 at 23:46
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There are many people in Hawaii right now who believe geothermal wells had a very real impact on the recent eruption, causing it in fact. The assertion is that the geothermal plant was built on sacred ground and angered local deities.

I don't remember hearing any such nonsense when Mt. St. Helens erupted, though.

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