The Best Studied Volcano On The Planet

7:43 minutes

geysers of lava and blue flames of methane on mount kilaeua
Blue burning flame of methane gas, observed in the cracks on Kahukai Street, on May 22, from Kilauea’s eruption. Credit: USGS

Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano has been actively erupting for 30 days—and there’s no end in sight. But what we have seen are some rare events associated with volcanic activity, like phreatic eruptions and volcanic fog (or vog). And it’s giving scientists an opportunity to study them and better understand how and when they happen, for next time. Sarah Kaplan, science reporter for the Washington Post joins Ira to discuss what scientists are learning about the rare phenomena associated with eruptions. Plus, how stick insects trick birds into helping them spread their genes.

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Segment Guests

Sarah Kaplan

Sarah Kaplan is a science reporter at the Washington Post in Washington D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. Mount Kilauea in Hawaii has been erupting actively for 30 days and there is no end in sight, but what we have seen are some rare events associated with volcanic activity, like burning blue methane and volcanic fog also known as vog. It’s a welcomed opportunity for scientists to study these weird events for learning about what happens the next time. And here to share with us what they’re learning is Sarah Kaplan, science reporter for The Washington Post. Welcome back, Sarah.

SARA KAPLAN: Thanks, good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: So they’re learning all kinds of stuff this volcano is teaching them.

SARA KAPLAN: Yeah, the cool thing about Kilauea is that even though we’ve been paying attention for the past 30 days ever since these new fissures opened up in a neighborhood started spewing lava, Kilauea has actually been erupting continuously for 35 years. It’s the most active volcano in the world. And it’s covered in instruments is kind of like a patient in the ICU. There’s just seismometers and gas sensors all over that place. And so that means that when it does behave in weird ways, like it’s doing right now, scientists are getting really good information about what’s going on.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about some of that interesting stuff. Most recently, there’s been something called “phreatic,” a phreatic eruption. What does that mean?

SARA KAPLAN: Yeah, so the Kilauea is a shield volcano, so usually it erupts in this kind of oozing lava. It’s not explosive like Mount St. Helens or Krakatoa or something. But what’s happening right now is the lava is actually oozing out of a different part of the volcano than it normally does and that’s kind of– it’s like someone sucking on a straw. It’s pulling the lava in a different direction. So it’s draining out of its main vent. And so this main vent at the summit, as the magma sinks beneath the water table– the water that’s in the ground. That water is getting heated up and then flashing into steam, and that steam creates a lot of pressure and it can blow rocks and gas and dust really high into the atmosphere. It looks very dramatic. There was an eruption a couple of weeks ago that sent ash plumes five miles into the sky. So enough to disrupt airplane traffic.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, so you mentioned how instrumented the volcano is. It’s probably the most studied volcano on the planet, right? Do scientists know then– and I’m sure they get asked this at least twice a day– when things might start to slow down?

SARA KAPLAN: Yeah, I mean, that’s the real question with something like this. This is not a natural disaster like an earthquake or a hurricane where it’s sort of there’s an end in sight. Even though Kilauea is so well understood, we still don’t really know sort of exactly what’s happening in the plumbing. And it’s hard to say will these fissures eventually close up? Is this a permanent change? Is this the new main way that magma is going to make its way to the surface right in the middle of people’s neighborhoods? So there’s a lot of people in Hawaii right now still evacuated from their homes not able to go back and not knowing when they will be.

IRA FLATOW: OK, let’s move on to our next short subject in science and that is stick insects. We don’t talk much about them. But they have some rather–

SARA KAPLAN: No, and we should!

IRA FLATOW: Tell us why.

SARA KAPLAN: So stick insects are really strange animals. They look like sticks as you could probably guess from the name. And another way that they mimic plants is that their eggs actually look like seeds. Some of the eggs are even– I was looking at pictures, and they’re basically indistinguishable from an acorn. They’re covered in these hard tough shells, and they even have a substance on them that protects them from acid. And scientists have kind of been curious, like why is this?

Why put all this energy into making your egg look like a seed? And they thought maybe it’s because stick insects are doing the same things with their eggs that plants do with seeds, which is you get an animal to eat it and then it passes through the gut and gets pooped out somewhere else. and that’s how you spread. And so some researchers in Japan thought they might test and see kind a stick insect eggs survive the journey through an animal’s digestive system. And it turns out, actually, they can. They recently fed 70 eggs to some birds and not only did 14 make it out totally not cracked, not harmed, but two of them hatched a healthy infant insect.

IRA FLATOW: So why do they have to resort to such trickery to spread their DNA like this? Not only look like a plant but reproduce like one.

SARA KAPLAN: Yeah, I mean, the thing is that even insects are insects, they are sort of similar to plants in that they’re not very mobile. They’re pretty slow and a lot of them don’t fly. And so if you are a stick insect mom, and you’re trying to make sure that your offspring not only survive but also spread then getting a bird to do the dirty work of carrying your eggs a long way. That’s a good way to do it. And they actually do another really clever thing where they get ants to bury their eggs. Their eggs have these little nutrient capsules on them that ants like. And the ants will take them into their nests. Yeah, so stick insects are really good at getting other animals to do work for them.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s move on to a group of ex-government officials playing a game of Pandemic this week. Things get a little too real. Explain what happened.

SARA KAPLAN: Yeah, it was pretty high stakes. So the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security does these pandemic simulations. This is the third one, it was called Clade X. And they basically invited a bunch of government officials and experts to come in and basically simulate what would happen if a very virulent form of influenza started spreading around the globe. They were faced with all kinds of questions as they were role playing as US government officials. So they had to decide, do we impose a quarantine? Do we have a travel ban? Do we send military support to the countries that are being affected?

Once it hits the US, how do you develop a vaccine? Who gets that vaccine first? And over the course of the simulation, it emerges that this virus, which has no vaccine at the time, actually had been bioengineered by a terrorist group. And they had inserted the virulence gene from Nipah virus– which actually there’s an outbreak of Nipah in India right now– into a flu virus. And so you wind up getting this disease that spreads really easily and has a 10% lethality rate. And by the end of the simulation, 150 million people had died around the globe.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, 100– so that was probably– wow.

SARA KAPLAN: That’s scary.

IRA FLATOW: Were they surprised by the size of the number of deaths?

SARA KAPLAN: Yeah, I mean, so the simulation had been planned out beforehand by experts at Johns Hopkins, and it wasn’t as though the participants involved could change the outcome. The point was more to sort of raise the questions of here are the major issues that the government will face in a situation like this. And everyone who was involved said that the situation is highly plausible– it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, but it could. It actually comes at a time when the infrastructure in the US, right now, for dealing with pandemics is– people are calling for it to be stronger. Timothy Zimmer, who served on the National Security Council focused on global health security, actually left the administration earlier this month and his team was disbanded. And no administration– people on both sides of the aisle say that no administration is really prepared for something like this, and it is a particularly pressing at the moment.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thanks for some good news, Sarah.



IRA FLATOW: It’s always good to have you here. Sarah Kaplan, science reporter for The Washington Post.

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