Posts tagged ‘Geology’



Mountains are getting higher. Way down at the tip of South America, Patagonia’s tall mountains are each getting about an inch and a half taller every year.

This isn’t from tectonic activity. It’s because of the rate at which their glaciers are melting. As the weight of all that ice flows away the mountains bounce back up in compensation.

“Most deaths from building collapse in earthquakes occur in countries with high scores for corruption.”

Roger Bilham (University of Colorado)
and Nicholas Ambraseys (Imperial College London).

Clearly there are other factors — poverty for one, proximity to an ocean with the potential for a tsunami and imperiled nuclear plants for another, both as in Japan 2011. But political corruption —and thus inadequate requirements for inspection and construction of buildings — is a factor that people can do something about.

Kilauea, photo courtesy U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey

Lava fall from Kilauea

As all you trained navigators out there know, that latitude and longitude means that my wife, Betty Anne, and I are on a ship, dodging around the islands of Hawai’i. Why? you ask. Cruising around the Pacific beats staying in Illinois in January, for one excellent reason. Because this is a beautiful part of the world, for another. And because there are things to be seen here, even from shipboard, which are simply unique. We saw one of them last night — an erupting volcano — and not for the first time.


Our first occasion for wandering around these islands on a giant cruise ship came more than a dozen years ago. A total solar eclipse was about to occur. Hawai’i would be one of the best places to see it. Omni magazine sent me to cover the event, which we did from the deck of a former transatlantic liner, the Independence, commanded by Captain Richard Haugh. He did a wonderful job for us, too. On eclipse morning, that whole part of the Pacific was overcast with thick clouds, with few and tiny breaks. Captain Haugh was getting minute-by-minute weather reports, though, and he managed to find one opening just in time for a perfect four-minute observation of the whole eclipse (but that’s another story).

People on shore on the Big Island saw nothing but the bottoms of the clouds.

Then, that night, Captain Haugh outdid himself. We were sailing around the southern tip of the Big Island toward the port of Hilo and he advised that we all be on deck around ten that night. We obeyed. What we saw, all along the gentle slope of the mountain to the sea, was a scattering of what looked like campfires — like, I thought, King Kamehameha’s army poised to invade the other islands — with a vast conflagration just at the water’s edge.

But that wasn’t the actual case. What we were seeing was in fact lava streams oozing down from the vent of Kilauea. As the lava streams flow, the lava on the outside hardens and forms a pipe through which the molten rock continues to flow. But the shells of the pipes are not very sturdy. Occasionally they crack open at random points revealing the hellfire within. These were Kamehameha’s “campfires.” And when the stream hits the sea, it makes an explosion of violent instant steam, firing glowing fragments of lava in all directions … and that’s what we saw again last night.

It is a wonderful — I’ll say it again, a wonderful — sight. If you ever get the chance, I urge you to take it in. You may not need to hurry, either. That flow has been going continuously for fourteen years now and shows no sign of stopping.

The Boy Who Would Live ForeverWhat may one day stop it once and for all would be for the added weight of that rock to cause the southern end of the Big Island to split off and plunge to the bottom of the sea, creating a huge tsunami. (Readers of the last book in my Gateway series, The Boy Who Would Live Forever, will remember that this is a plot element in the story. Waste not, want not. That’s what I always say.)

By the way, we’ve kept in touch with Richard Haugh, though he has moved on to more serious jobs than captaining a cruise ship. Last time his travels took him to the Chicago area, he gave us a call. “Hey, this is Captain Dick!” he cried.

But it was our daughter Cathy who answered the phone. When she heard that she hung up on him. She thought it was an obscene call.