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The incredible sight of molten lava streaming down a volcano’s sides as voluminous ash plumes gush tens of thousands of feet into the atmosphere will send nearby residents into a panic.
It’s for good reason. Volcanic eruptions and related earthquakes have been known to wipe out neighborhoods and claim thousands of lives.
Indonesia’s Tambora volcano, which was the largest eruption ever recorded, killed nearly 100,000 people both directly and indirectly in 1815, according to History.com.
These violent forces of nature are often associated with death and total destruction. However, it may come as a surprise that volcanic activity can positively impact the environment and people living in the region.
Some of the benefits occur in the short term as well as over hundreds to thousands of years, according to Dr. Tracy Gregg, associate professor for the University at Buffalo’s geology department.
1. Atmospheric cooling
One of the shorter-term benefits could be observed with recent large eruptions including 1991’s Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines and 1982’s El Chichón eruption in Mexico, which both exploded ash and sulfur gas into the stratosphere, according to Gregg.
“The sulfur gas combines with water in the atmosphere, creating microscopic droplets that can stay in the atmosphere for years,” Gregg said. “The effect of those aerosol droplets is cooling the lowest level of the atmosphere, which is the level in which we live and breathe.”
Both eruptions cooled the atmosphere about over a half a degree Celsius, she said. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but when we’re talking about anthropogenic global climate change, volcanoes have actually helped to keep the world about 2 to 3 degrees cooler than it otherwise may be,” she added.
2. Land formation
A long-term benefit of volcanic activity is seen in the Hawaiian Islands’ very existence.
“We’re seeing this right now on the Big Island of Hawaii with Kilauea’s current eruption, as lava is pouring into the ocean and creating new land,” Gregg said. “All of the land in the Hawaiian Islands was created this way.” This land formation can take thousands of years, she added.
3. Water production
Over 4.5 billion years, the amount of water that has been produced by volcanoes has actually given us the water that we have on Earth, Concord University volcanologist Dr. Janine Krippner told AccuWeather.
“It comes out of steam,” Krippner said. “Over time, it’s just built up the water that we have on this planet. Water can actually come out of magma itself, as well.”
Volcanoes have also helped create a large portion of Earth’s atmosphere, she added.
4. Fertile land
Fertile soil is another advantage of volcanic activity. “In places like Japan, Indonesia, Philippines and Hawaii, volcanic material mixed in with the soil provides a lot of important nutrients,” Krippner said. “It gives us really fertile soils, which are great for farming and crops.”
Volcanoes also provide a good environment for the formation of new habitats for animals, plants and insects, she said.
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5. Geothermal energy
Hot springs and geothermal energy are additional benefits. “People use geothermal energy in places like New Zealand and Iceland,” Krippner said.
Places on Earth with the highest underground temperatures are located in regions with active or geologically young volcanoes, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The most active geothermal resources are normally found along major plate boundaries where volcanoes and earthquakes typically occur, like the Ring of Fire, according to the University of Colorado Boulder.
6. Raw materials
Sulfur, copper and gold are produced from volcanic activity, Krippner said. Diamonds are also brought up to the surface from the mantle from a rare kind of magma, called kimberlite.
“Volcanoes also provide a lot of building materials,” Krippner said. “Volcanic material can be made into blocks, and lot of the materials are mined, especially in places like Indonesia, where it’s used for conglomerate building blocks.”
The volcanic material can be ground down to help make cement, she added.
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