Twisters on Sinabung Eruptions

The Indonesian volcano Sinabung was dormant until pretty recently. In 2010 it kicked into action, but in January 2014, it switched to high gear, blasting out massive amounts of ash high into the atmosphere (see picture below). Then a lava dome collapse on Feb. 1 created a pyroclastic flow, a rapid wave of hot gas and rock that thundered downslope.

volcano ash devils
Towering twisters of ash spawned by a pyroclastic flow from a volcano explosion, because why not.

These flows are incredibly dangerous (15 people were killed by Sinabung’s flows when they ventured inside the 5-kilometer exclusion zone) and are for my money one of the most terrifying events on Earth. And now we find out they can create tornado-like vortices! And they’ve been caught on camera. Here is some video of the flow, which cuts to the towering funnels about a minute in:

Now technically these aren’t tornadoes, even if they look like it. Tornadoes are when a funnel cloud is connected to the ground at its bottom and the base of a cumulonimbus cloud at its top. They form from the top down, dropping from the cloud base.

In this case, though, the phenomena are built from the ground up. The pyroclastic flow heats the air over the ground, causing it to rise. Air from the sides then rushes in to fill the partial vacuum. This creates swirls, eddies of turbulence, which can get amplified into the vortices seen in the video (and also in fire tornadoes which are also seriously a thing). This makes these events more like a dust devil than proper tornadoes. Or, we suppose, an ash devil. But still, yeesh.

The Sinabung volcano started erupting violently again in January 2014. This shot, from Jan. 7, shows the huge ash plume blasting into the sky.

Sinabung’s eruption has been very dangerous and has caused the evacuation of over 30,000 people from nearby villages. When we saw the picture above of one of the eruptions, our instinct was to curl up into a tight little ball and scream into my own belly. Remember, that’s not just smoke you’re seeing; it’s vaporized rock, millions of tons of it! And it’s superheated to glowing, which can then flow downhill at hundreds of kilometers per hour, laying waste to whatever it touches.

Like we said, terrifying. Amazingly, though, volcanologists are getting better at predicting these. Magma moving underground can cause tremors that indicate an explosive eruption is imminent, allowing people to be evacuated. We can’t save everyone from volcanoes—they’re ubiquitous, and sometimes very close to dense population centers—but science is letting us understand what happens deep underground, which then informs us of what might happen closer to home.

There is a terrible beauty to volcano eruptions (much like hurricanes seen from space) that belies their destructive power. But one of the beauties of science is that it gives us the potential to save lives, and cut that threat down.


Thousand Islands in St Lawrence River

The Thousand Islands is an archipelago consisting of exactly 1,864 islands that straddles the Canada-U.S. border in the Saint Lawrence River as it emerges from the northeast corner of Lake Ontario. They stretch for about 80 km on St. Lawrence Seaway, but the largest clustering of islands falls between Cape Vincent and Alexandria Bay in the United States and Kingston and Rockport in Canada. The islands range in size from over 40 square miles to smaller islands occupied by a single residence, to even smaller uninhabited outcroppings of rocks that are home to migratory waterfowl. The number of islands was determined using the criteria that any island must be above water level all year round, have an area greater than 1 square foot, and support at least one living tree.

The Just Room Enough Island.

The largest of these islands is Wolfe Island which is about 29 km long and 9 km at its widest point. It has a resident population approximately 1400 people. By comparison, the very aptly named “Just Room Enough“ is the tiniest island that squeezes a single house and a couple of wrought-iron benches pushed hard up against the shingles onto its banks.

A large number of these islands are inhabited, often bearing a single and at times a tiny house, and are serviced by ferry boats from the mainland. Today most of the islands boast of having hydro electric power and telephone service being carried by underwater cable from island to island.

Around twenty of these islands form the Thousand Islands National Park, the oldest of Canada's national parks east of the Rockies. The park hosts campgrounds, inland walking trails, annual family events, as well as a national heritage building. The Thousand Islands-Frontenac Arch region was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 2002.

Another view of Just Room Enough Island.

An undated picture of Just Room Enough Island. Photo credit:

Aerial view showing some of the many islands of the Thousand Islands.

Boldt Castle, located on Heart Island in the Thousand Islands.


Beautiful Black Roses From Halfeti

Turkish Halfeti Roses are incredibly rare. They are shaped just like regular roses, but their color sets them apart. These roses so black, you’d think someone spray-painted them. But that’s actually their natural color.

These stunning black roses would make excellent props in a movie about witches and black magic, or in a heavy-metal video. There’s something extremely attractive about them, in an intense sort of way.

Although they appear perfectly black, they’re actually a very deep crimson color. These flowers are seasonal – they only grow during the summer in small number, and only in the tiny Turkish village of Halfeti. Thanks to the unique soil conditions of the region, and the pH levels of the groundwater (that seeps in from the river Euphrates), the roses take on a devilish hue. They bloom dark red during the spring and fade to black during the summer months.

The local Turks seem to enjoy a love-hate relationship with these rare blossoms. They consider the flowers to be symbols of mystery, hope and passion, and also death and bad news. Unfortunately, the black roses of Halfeti are an endangered species. They have been under threat of extinction ever since the residents of the village moved from ‘old Halfeti’ in the 1990s, when the Birecik Dam was constructed.

Old Halfeti and several other villages were submerged under the waters of the Euphrates, when the dam was made. The new Halfeti village was re-built on the grounds of Karaotlak village, merely 10 kilometers from its former location.

This short distance proved fatal for the beautiful black roses. The villagers replanted them in their new gardens, but the flowers didn’t take to their new environment very well. There was a steady decline in the number of black roses grown in the region.

The district officials have made efforts to save the roses. They collected seedlings from village homes and replanted them closer to their original surroundings in greenhouses. They have been doing slightly better, ever since.

Seeing a black rose in full bloom is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing. Don’t miss it if you ever happen to be in Turkey during the summer!


Vila Franca do Campo Islet

Situated in the middle of the Atlantic, 1,369 km west of the European mainland, the Azores archipelago comprises of nine islands spread over three groups. The volcanoes that gave birth to these islands also created smaller islets, located right off the coast of the main ones. Probably the most famous of these small formations is the Islet of Vila Franca do Campo, located about 500 meters from the coast of the Island of São Miguel, the largest and most populous island in the archipelago. It is named after the city of Vila Franca do Campo, the former capital of São Miguel, which lies across from the islet.

The Islet of Vila Franca do Campo is formed by the crater of an old underwater volcano. The islet which is now classified as a nature reserve is one of São Miguel’s main tourist attractions, particularly since an event in the Red Bull Cliff Diving world championship was held here.

The walls of the crater are lined by endemic vegetation, while inside there is an almost perfectly circular natural lake, which is linked to the sea by a narrow channel. This opening is called Boquete and faces north towards the coast of São Miguel. The canal allows for the circulation of water between the ocean and the lagoon while preventing waves from entering the crater, allowing a rich marine life of crustaceans, fish and algae to thrive.

The islet has been used for a variety of purposes having served as a lookout point for whalers and as a military fort. It was even cultivated as a vineyard. In 1983 it was acquired by the Regional Government and that same year it was classified as a Natural Reserve, in order to protect it and the species that inhabit it from destruction. The islet is home to many species of birds, crustaceans and flora that need to be protected from the intervention of mankind.

Once open all year round, now the islet can only be visited during the high season, between June and September, during which a special boat service takes passengers from Vila Franca to the islet on a daily basis. The crystal clear waters of the lagoon and the lovely beach are excellent for sunbathing, swimming, diving and snorkeling.

A participant of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series dives at Islet Vila Franca do Campo, Azores, Portugal on July 21, 2012

A participant of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series dives at Islet Vila Franca do Campo, Azores, Portugal on September 8, 2012


Sinabung Eruption Kills 16 People

At least 16 people have been killed by a violent volcanic eruption on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, which sent ash spewing several miles into the air.

The dead include a TV journalist, four high school students and their teacher who went to see Mount Sinaburg up close after being told it was becoming safer.

Only yesterday thousands of villagers were allowed to return to their homes on the slopes of the volcano despite the fact it has been erupting sporadically for four months.

At least 16 people have been killed by a violent volcanic eruption on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia which sent ash spewing several miles into the air

Catastrophic: The volcano erupts in Banos, yesterday sending ash and pyroclastic material into the atmosphere

Authorities had evacuated more than 30,000 people after the earlier eruptions which sent lava, gas and rocks from the 8,530ft peak

Fleeing: Locals from Bekerah village run for their lives as clouds of scorching dark ash followed them down the sides of Mount Sinabung

All unclear: Thousands of locals had only returned home yesterday after being evacuated in September

Rescuers run away from Suka Meriah village after they searched for victims of the Mount Sinabung volcanic eruption in Karo, North Sumatra, Indonesia

An Indonesian soldier runs on ash-covered road as he and his team search victims of the eruption of Mount Sinabung in Bekerah, North Sumatra, Indonesia

A police utility vehicle during the search for victims of Mount Sinabung eruption in Karo, North Sumatra, Indonesia

Rescuers search victims of the eruption of Mount Sinabung in Bekerah, North Sumatra, Indonesia after a volcano erupted

Tragedy: Relatives carry a coffin containing one victim at a nearby hospital. Officials fear the death toll will rise as the darkness and heat from the eruption hamper efforts to reach the mountain slopes

Distraught: A man weeps after identifying a family member killed by the eruption in Kabanjahe, Sumatra

Trauma: Thousands of villagers have been displaced by the eruptions, with families torn apart

A series of huge blasts and eruptions thundered from the 8,530-foot-high volcano, spewing lava and pyroclastic flows up to three miles away

At least three other people have been injured and officials fear the death toll will rise further.

Rescue workers have been hampered by darkness and cannot get closer to the affected areas because of the heat.

Authorities had evacuated more than 30,000 people, housing them in cramped tents, schools and public buildings, after the earlier eruptions which sent lava, searing gas and rocks from the 8,530ft peak.

They culminated today in a series of huge blasts which sent lava and pyroclastic flows up to three miles away, said officials.

Caught: Officials have said 16 people have died but they fear the death toll could rise

Harrowing: Rescue workers set about looking for bodies and survivors but their job was made more difficult by the intense heat, the dark and the threat of another eruption

Villagers were seen tending to the charred corpses of victims, themselves covered in thick grey as, as far as two miles from the peak.

Many in the rural island communities had been desperate to return to check on their homes and farms, presenting a dilemma for the government.

But hundreds of villagers also demanded to be moved safer areas because they were scared to go back.

Evacuee Naek Sembiring, one of 156 camping in a church, told The Jakarta Post two months ago that his entire village had agreed they would not return despite the situation being declared safe.

'We fear we might die,' he said. 'Our village is nearest to Mount Sinabung. In the event of an eruption where would we run to?'

Policemen sit on an utility vehicle as they search for victims of Mount Sinabung eruption in Karo, North Sumatra, Indonesia

Dilemma: Evacuated locals had only been permitted to return home yesterday but today had to leave behind homes and farms as the ash reached further and further down the volcano's slopes

Deadly: Lava and pyroclastic flows have spread from the volcano, killing people up to two miles away

Deadly: Lava and pyroclastic flows have spread from the volcano, killing people up to two miles away

Yesterday authorities allowed nearly 14,000 people living outside a three-mile danger zone to return home after volcanic activity decreased. Others living close to the peak have been returning to their homes over the past four months despite the risk.

After today's eruptions all those who had returned have been ordered to move back to evacuation centres. 'The death toll is likely to rise as many people are reported still missingand the darkness hampered our rescue efforts,' said Lt. Col. Asep Sukarna, who led the rescue operation.

Indonesia is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin. Mount Sinabung had been dormant for 400 years until it erupted in 2010, killing at least two people and displacing 30,000 others. It is now among about 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia and has sporadically erupted since September.

But despite volcanos being notoriously hard to predict, it is difficult to keep farmers away because the slopes of the mountains are highly fertile. In 2010, 324 people were killed over two months when Indonesia's most volatile volcano, Mount Merapi, roared into life.


Is it Possible for Moons to have Moons?

Can moons have moons? More technically, could a natural satellite of a major planetary body have its own natural satellite? In short…kind of.

The answer to this question is not black and white. To answer it more completely, let’s back up. What is a moon? The International Astronomical Union Assembly of 2006 yielded this definition for a planet:

“A ‘planet’ is defined as a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.”

Unfortunately there is no official definition of a moon. Most astronomers just refer to them as natural satellites. So throughout this article, when I refer to a moon I am speaking of a natural satellite of a planet as defined by the IAU. So picture looking up on a clear night, and you see the moon, full and bright. After watching it for some time, a second, smaller sphere begins to slowly peek its way around from the other side of the moon. We’ll call this hypothetical object a sub-moon.

It would be quite a sight, and it seems plausible. After all, the sun is a satellite of the galactic center, and the earth orbits the sun, the moon orbits the earth…couldn’t nature just go one step further? The moon, like all other massive objects, produces it’s own gravity. That’s what allowed us to land on the moon and put things into orbit around it.

So we can orbit the moon, doesn’t that prove sub-moons are a possibility? Again, not exactly. As of right now there are 174 known moons in our solar system orbiting the eight major planets, and none of them have sub-moons of their own. It was thought that Saturn’s moon, Rhea, might have its own ring system, but such claims have been since dismissed. If true this would have been the closest thing to a sub-moon within our solar system.

Rhea and its hypothetical rings

So it could be possible, but with so many moons why don’t we see it happening? Believe it or not, the reason is likely because of the age of the solar system. All objects within orbit have something called a Hill Sphere, which is an area around an object (say, the Earth) where it’s gravity is more powerful than the object it orbits around. An object outside of the moon’s Hill Sphere would orbit (or fall to) the Earth. Outside the Earth’s sphere you would orbit the sun. The trouble is that the smaller the object, the smaller the sphere.

On top of this, the more levels of orbits you have, the more unstable the orbit is. For example, it would take a lot to pull our sun out of orbit, but to pull the Earth out of orbit would only require another star to pass too close to our solar system. On the level of a sub-moon, the orbit would be horribly unstable for a celestial object. In the case of the Earth-moon system, their are tidal forces between the moon and the Earth, which cause the moon to be gravitationally locked with the Earth. If you combine all of these factors, a possible sub-moon would fall out of orbit on a cosmologically short time scale. A sub-moon could last long enough for us to enjoy it, perhaps thousand of years (its lifespan depends on lots of different factors), but most, if not all, moons probably formed in the early solar system. So a sub-moon would most likely not last long enough for humans to see it 5 billion years down the line. It’s not impossible, it just requires very special circumstances, ones we were not blessed with.

Cheer up, though! Within the next several years, our dreams of a sub-moon may come true. NASA plans to capture an asteroid and plant it into orbit around our lunar friend. I should mention that the asteroid will only be seven or eight meters wide, so don’t get your hopes up for a sub-moon to be seen in the sky any time soon.