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Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

What Has a Volcano Done for You Lately?


Volcanoes are common in the solar system. Remnants of ancient lava flows are plentiful on Mercury and Venus. Our moon has large “seas” (maria) of solidified lava. Mars has the largest extinct volcano known in the solar system, Olympus Mons — a single volcano as big across as Arizona. Beyond Jupiter, evidence of cryovolcanic activity has been detected on some of Saturn’s icy satellites, especially Enceladus, which erupts salty ice water out of over 100 fissures at its south pole. Saturn’s Titan and Neptune’s Triton may have ice volcanoes, too, and a large cryovolcano may still be active on Pluto.

Only two bodies in the solar system, however, have hot-lava volcanoes that are erupting now, as far as we can tell: Earth and Jupiter’s moon Io. Comparing these two worlds, can we find a story of intelligent design related to this powerful geological force that can toss material upward for miles against gravity and cover vast areas of real estate with hot lava, rocks, and dust?

Fraser Cain wrote an intriguing article for Universe Today, “What Are the Benefits of Volcanoes?” — a jolting headline for those of us picturing residents fleeing for their lives from pyroclastic flows, mummified remains under Pompeii from Mt. Vesuvius, houses in Hawaii being swallowed up by hot lava, or other disasters in the news. Actually, though, we owe much to volcanoes. As frightening as they can be up close, they are mere pimples on Earth’s skin as seen from space. And they provide a remarkable delivery system from the depths of the Earth to the surface. Cain lists the ways volcanoes enhance the habitability of the Earth.

Soil enrichment. In addition to the noxious vapors and silica, volcanic debris often contains minerals high in iron, magnesium and potassium. “As a result, regions that have large deposits of volcanic soil (i.e. mountain slopes and valleys near eruption sites) are quite fertile.” In Italy, he says, much of the land is limestone, yielding poor soil. By contrast, the volcanic plains around Mt. Vesuvius are very fertile because of weathered volcanic ejecta. The same is true on the Hawaiian islands and in many other locales.

Land expansion. Volcanoes expand the habitable area of the Earth. “In addition to scattering ash over large areas of land, volcanoes also push material to the surface that can result in the formation of new islands,” including the Hawaiian chain, the Aleutian islands, many areas in Micronesia and the south Pacific, and other places. Interestingly, early human civilizations made their marks on volcanic islands in the Mediterranean, like Cyprus, Crete and the Aegean islands. (The inhabitants of Santorini, however, were in the wrong place at the wrong time.) In recent years we have seen volcanic islands like Surtsey rise from the ocean, then become rapidly colonized by plants, birds and other animals, as were the Galapagos Islands in prehistoric times.

Volcanic minerals and stones. Humans make many useful products from volcanic ejecta, everything from pumice for hand soap to road material. Cain has lots of examples to share:

The finest grades of these volcanic rocks are used in metal polishes and for woodworking. Crushed and ground pumice are also used for loose-fill insulation, filter aids, poultry litter, soil conditioner, sweeping compound, insecticide carrier, and blacktop highway dressing.

That’s just for starters. He mentions that the roof of the Pantheon in Rome was made from concrete that includes volcanic tuff, making it light and strong. From roofing material and plaster to the walls of nuclear reactors, volcanic materials find their ways into well-designed structures, and have since the dawn of civilization. But that’s not all; there are riches from the depths of the Earth delivered by volcanoes.

Precious metals that are often found in volcanoes include sulfur, zinc, silver, copper, gold, and uranium. These metals have a wide range of uses in modern economies, ranging from fine metalwork, machinery and electronics to nuclear power, research and medicine. Precious stones and minerals that are found in volcanoes include opals, obsidian, fire agate, flourite, gypsum, onyx, hematite, and others.

He doesn’t mention diamonds. Did you know that diamonds are delivered from deep in the mantle at high speed through explosive eruptions called kimberlite intrusions? Think about that the next time you watch the groom place a sparkling gem on his bride’s finger.

Global cooling. The ash clouds from volcanoes also play a role moderating Earth’s climate. “When volcanic ash and compounds like sulfur dioxide are released into the atmosphere, it can reflect some of the Sun’s rays back into space, thereby reducing the amount of heat energy absorbed by the atmosphere,” Cain says. The Pinatubo eruption of 1991 caused measurable temperature drops for years — all from one volcano.

Hot springs and geothermal energy. Many countries rely on geothermal energy associated with recent volcanic activity. Yellowstone’s geysers are a popular tourist attraction. From free energy production to enjoyment of a soak in a natural hot spring, heat close to the surface of the planet has proven a benefit to many. There are even macaques in Japan that soak in hot springs. Molecular biologists who study “thermophiles,” bacteria that thrive in hot springs, are learning about heat-tolerant enzymes that inspire numerous applications in technology and medicine (example at PubMed).

At this point, you may be wondering if we are going to assert that volcanoes are intelligently designed. No. Cain’s last bullet point in his “benefits of volcanoes” will lead to the issue we want to focus on.

Outgassing and atmospheric formation. To Cain, this is “by far” the most beneficial aspect of volcanoes: the role they have played in forming Earth’s atmosphere. But here, he brings in Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Io, saying:

And Io, Jupiter’s volcanically active moon, has an extremely tenuous atmosphere of sulfur dioxide (SO²), sulfur monoxide (SO), sodium chloride (NaCl), sulfur monoxide (SO), atomic sulfur (S) and oxygen (O). All of these gases are provided and replenished by the many hundreds of volcanoes situated across the moon’s surface.

As you can see, volcanoes are actually a pretty creative force when all is said and done. In fact, us [sic] terrestrial organisms depend on them for everything from the air we breathe, to the rich soil that produces our food, to the geological activity that gives rise to terrestrial renewal and biological diversity. [Emphasis added.]

Io’s volcanoes plaster its surface with lava and give it an atmosphere, but nothing lives there. Nothing benefits from all that heat and energy. The only ones who benefit from volcanoes are living things that have a genetic code. The intelligent design is not in the volcanoes, but in the code that can build an organism, whether an archaeal microbe, a macaque, or a human being that knows what a “benefit” is. An organism can take a force of nature and use it for a function. Everything on Io is dead. Nobody benefits, except the scientist who studies Io’s volcanoes from spacecraft intelligently designed for understanding the forces of nature.

But on Earth, volcanoes are a resource. We can find an aspect of design in the fine-tuning of the forces of nature that make our universe and Earth habitable. Beyond that, volcanoes are not examples of complex specified information (CSI). They are unguided forces that possessors of CSI can harness. Where there is no life, volcanoes — as impressive as they look — are mere scars of undirected energy.

Let’s end with one more remarkable example of design harnessing undirected forces. You probably have seen jewelry with palladium in it. You probably also use platinum, an “extremely rare metal,” every day. One source says that “one-fifth of everything we use either contains platinum or requires platinum in its manufacture.” We already know that human beings can intelligently design things with these metals. But here’s something really interesting that came to light recently. Scientists at the University of Adelaide have discovered that we find platinum on the surface of the Earth because bacteria bring it to us!

Traditionally it was thought that these platinum group metals only formed under high pressure and temperature systems deep underground, and that when they were brought to the surface through weathering and uplift, they just sat there and nothing further happened to them,” says Dr Reith.

We’ve shown that that is far from the case. We’ve linked specialised bacterial communities, found in biofilms on the grains of platinum group minerals at three separate locations around the world, with the dispersion and re-concentration of these elements in surface environments.

“We’ve shown that nuggets of platinum and related metals can be reformed at the surface through bacterial processes.”

Now that is uncanny. We might not have found these useful metals to apply our design skills on them if it had not been for the fact that “the entire process of formation of platinum and palladium was mediated by microbes.” And what do microbes have embedded within them, class? Complex specified information.

Image: Olympus Mons, Mars, via Wikicommons.

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