Keepers of the Flames

Lawrence M. Small

You might expect a center for short-lived Phenomena to be preoccupied with pop stars and political agendas, but the enterprise of that name that existed at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory from 1968 to 1975 had a properly scientific mission: to take note of significant transitory events on earth and in space and to spread the word about them (on postcards no less, in that near but distant age!). Though the center succumbed to its prophetic name, its mission has endured in various other entities in the Institution, among which the National Museum of Natural History's Global Volcanism Program (GVP) stands out as unique in the world.

The GVP was formally established in 1984 on sturdy twin foundations: a database of the world's volcanoes that the museum's Department of Mineral Sciences had been building since 1971, and a global infrastructure that documents current volcanic activity. The GVP's indispensable resource is a worldwide network of volcano watchers—a far-flung front line of observers. The scientists in the program collect, analyze and disseminate information about the earth's more than 1,500 "active" volcanoes, defined as those that have shown signs of life and erupted within the past 10,000 years.

The program's database contains records for more than 8,000 dated eruptions and is of enormous value because it reveals patterns back through time. A volcano may exhibit signs of unrest, but are they cause for alarm? Scientists can take the pulse of a volcano today and compare it with a detailed history of its past behavior. The painstakingly assembled data—about earthquakes, ground deformation, lava flows, mudflows, ash clouds and fatalities—allow an informed diagnosis, which, in turn, may have an urgent application. Consider, for example, that in the past 20 years more than 100 airplanes have flown unintentionally into volcanic ash clouds, which are virtually undetectable by aircraft radar, and suffered some $250 million of damage to engines, aircraft exteriors and electronic equipment. Some of those encounters occurred hundreds of miles from an eruption. So it becomes critical to understand the emission and atmospheric drift of volcanic clouds.

Visitors to the Museum of Natural History can sample the extraordinary riches of the GVP archive on touch-screen terminals in the Geology, Gems and Minerals exhibit. The vivid computer displays are hotbeds of information about cinder cones, lava domes, shield volcanoes, stratovolcanoes and pyroclastic flows, and they tell you more than you ever thought you'd know about the viscosity of magma. But that's just the beginning. The most astonishing display shows a map of the earth on which colored triangles represent the world's volcanoes. Press a button and the icons begin to throb to a chorus of percussive pops keyed to real data about eruption types and magnitudes. You've set in motion the history of earth's volcanic eruptions since 1960. Those 40 years of volcanic activity—more than 1,200 eruptions—register on the screen in a dazzling blur in little more than a minute. But the gathering of the knowledge that informs the simulation has been the patient labor of years.

The GVP would have had a strong advocate in James Smithson himself, who, in 1813, more than three decades before there was a Smithsonian Institution, read a paper before the Royal Society of London about the "ejections" of volcanoes: "They cease to be local phenomena," he wrote. "They become principal elements in the history of our globe; they connect its present with its former condition; and we have good grounds for supposing, that in their flames are to be read its future destinies." In their flames, Smithsonian scientists have indeed learned to read the future—by linking it to a past of immense reach and consequence.

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