Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Analysis of a cataclysm

Any idea what volcano is responsible for the largest known eruption?

Krakatau?  No.  Vesuvius and the Campi Flegrei?  Not even close.  Tambora or Toba?  Nope.  The Yellowstone Supervolcano?  Closer, but still not right.

The biggest volcanic eruption on record came from an extinct caldera I'd never heard of until a friend and loyal reader of Skeptophilia mentioned it a couple of days ago.  It's the La Garita Caldera in southwestern Colorado, near the little town of Creede, and when it last erupted -- during the Oligocene Epoch, on the order of 28 million years ago -- it did so with an estimated force of 250,000 megatons, which is five thousand times the explosive force of the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated.

The eruption resulted in something called ignimbrite -- a rock layer created from a frozen pyroclastic flow.  When a volcano powered by viscous high-silica (felsic) magma erupts, it's usually explosive, quite unlike the runny, flowing lava from one made of low-silica (mafic) rock.  Instead of creating a liquid flow, the force of the eruption pulverizes the magma and surrounding rock, creating a superheated cloud of ash, dust, and volcanic gas that then rushes downhill, incinerating anything in its path.  This is what did in Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 C. E., and more recently, occurred during the devastating eruption of Mont PelĂ©e on Martinique in 1902 that killed thirty thousand people in the space of a few minutes.

An ignimbrite forms when the pyroclastic flow loses speed and settles, and the ash, pumice, and glass shards (still plenty hot) fuse together to form a solid layer of rock.  If you've seen pictures of Pompeii (or better yet, been there) you can picture what this looks like, and your mental image is probably of something like a meter's worth of consolidated ash.

The La Garita Caldera eruption produced an ignimbrite an average of a hundred meters thick.

The amount of rock and magma blown to smithereens in the eruption is estimated at around five thousand cubic kilometers -- compare that to the one cubic kilometer blown skyward when Mount Saint Helens erupted in 1980, and you have an idea of the scale.  The resulting rock formation, the Fish Canyon Tuff, covers 28,000 square kilometers.

[Image is in the Public Domain courtesy of photographer G. Thomas]

The most interesting part of this is what caused the eruption.  It's part of the larger San Juan Volcanic Field that was created when the center of the North American continent was stretched and cracked by the Rio Grande Rift.  This is a long, north-south trending fault running from northern Mexico up through New Mexico and into central Colorado, and was responsible for a number of eruptions between forty and eighteen million years ago (although none as big as La Garita).  The reason for this fault, in the middle of the stable continental craton, is still being puzzled over by geologists, but here's one possible explanation.

Starting during the Cretaceous Period, a huge slab of oceanic crust called the Farallon Plate subducted underneath the North American Plate.  This had a couple of major effects -- cementing a number of island arcs onto the west coast of North America (called suspect terranes because they don't have the same geology as the neighboring land they're welded to), and triggering the Laramide Orogeny that created at least parts of the Rocky Mountain Range.

[Nota bene: the geology of the Rocky Mountains is ridiculously complicated, so what I'm presenting here is a vast oversimplification.  If you want a great overview of it, as well as the geology of other parts of North America and the people who study it, a good place to start is the excellent quartet of books by John McPhee, Rising From the Plains, Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.]

In any case, the Farallon Plate was eventually consumed by the subduction zone, leaving only three small pieces still in existence -- the Gorda, Juan de Fuca, and Explorer Plates, which I considered in my post about the Cascadia Fault a month ago.  The rest of Farallon is now underneath western North America.

And, more germane to our topic, the rift zone that powered it eventually got dragged underneath as well.  This meant that the force pushing the Farallon and Pacific Plates apart was now beneath the North American continent.  The result was that the continental crust was stretched, creating a topography called horst-and-graben (or basin-and-range), where extension cracks the rock layers and some of them sink downward, creating an alternating step-up and step-down landscape that you see all over Colorado, Utah, and Nevada.

But along the Rio Grande Rift, the cracks ran so deep that it didn't just cause earthquakes and topographic change.  The fault went down far enough that magma upwelled into the fissure, resulting in a chain of volcanoes -- the aforementioned San Juan Volcanic Field, one of which is the cataclysmic La Garita Caldera.

Eventually -- and fortunately -- the convection current powering the spreading center ran out of steam due to friction with the thick, cold continental crust, and the whole thing simmered down.  The last ignimbrite from the San Juan Volcanic Field is about eighteen million years ago, and the entire area has been geologically quiet since that time.

Whenever I find out about something like this, I'm awed by the power of which the Earth is capable.  We tend to flatter ourselves about our own capacity for controlling nature, but by comparison, we're pretty damn feeble.  Being reminded of this is not, of course, a bad thing -- especially since at the moment our activities stand a good chance of unleashing a backlash from the climate that could be nothing short of catastrophic.

It's best to keep in mind that in a war between nature and humanity, the odds are very much in favor of nature.


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