Montserrat volcanic dome collapse seen from space!

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Feb. 16 2010 6:19 PM

Montserrat volcanic dome collapse seen from space!

On the Carribean island of Montserrat is the Soufrière Hills volcano. This is the very same one that erupted in 1997 and did so much damage to the small island (and killed 19 people).

On February 11, just a few days ago, the growing lave dome on the volcano partially collapsed, sending a plume 15,000 meters (more than 8 miles!) into the air. A few hours later, the plume was caught by NASA's Aqua satellite:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Holy, well, Haleakala! Click to Envesuvianate (and to see the full frame picture).

The plume is obvious, as is its shadow to the northeast. Two smaller, lower plumes can be seen rocketing out over the sea to the north and south, and the wind is carrying ash in beautiful eddies to the east, too.

From this view, high above the Earth, it's eerily beautiful. I imagine seeing the pyroclastic flows from this event would have been underpants-soilingly terrifying from the ground, however. I'm not seeing much news about this, even though it happened days ago, and I haven't heard of any deaths resulting from it.

When I see images like this, I have to lean back and revel at the forbidding power and terrible beauty of volcanic eruptions like this one. I'm fascinated by them, and hope one day to see an active volcano (though from a safe distance). It's a good reminder that as much as we rail and froth, we are hardly the lords and masters of this planet. We live on its thin skin by the graces of geology and the whims of random events, and that can be taken away just as easily.

The good news is, by studying events like these, and learning all we can about the natural world around us, we can understand what makes these dangerous giants tick. I mentioned that when Soufrière Hills blew in 1997, nineteen people died. That's on an island with a population of over 4000... so why were so few killed? Because volcanologists -- scientists -- knew the warning signs and were able to get most of the people out of harm's way.

Science. It's cool, and it makes our lives better. It sometimes even saves them outright.

Image credit: NASA image by Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.