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  • Writer's pictureSiheli Siyathra

The Ring of Fire

There’s been a lot of volcanic activity lately. Mount Mayon in the Philippines erupted in January 2018. It continued for over a month. In February of the same year, Mount Sinabung erupted in Indonesia. The ash cloud was seen from space. An eruption in Guatemala killed over 100 people. Turns out that’s pretty normal. On average, there are 10-20 volcanoes erupting around the world at any given time. When you mark these on a map and add volcanoes that are not currently erupting, you start to see a pattern. Most are concentrated along the edges of the Pacific ocean. This region is known as the Ring of Fire. It’s also where most earthquakes and tsunamis take place.

Volcanoes have terrorized people for centuries. In the 1800s, explorers and scientists started grouping them together. Scientists recognized the belt of activity, but it would be a long time before they agreed on what caused it. By the 1960s, most scientists concluded that the Earth’s surface is made up of tectonic plates. They slowly move into and apart from each other. The Ring of Fire is a result of some of these plates crashing into each other. The plates in the Pacific move faster than the others, adding stress where the plates interact. There’s one particularly violent plate that crashes into the North American plate. That explains all the volcanoes. Over in California, the Pacific plate is grinding past the North American plate. Where they meet is called the San Andreas Fault. The movement causes thousands of earthquakes per year. A few of them are even large enough to cause serious damage.

All these plate interactions are independent of each other. But, when grouped together, they make up the most seismically active region in the world. The problem with the Ring of Fire is that geologists can’t accurately predict when a volcano is going to erupt. They can monitor tremors, gas emissions, and temperature changes around a volcano to estimate when it might erupt, but they can’t be sure. And the predictions get weaker with earthquakes which aren’t predicted by warning signs. We can’t even see them coming.

One way scientists forecast the future is by looking at the past. Take New Zealand for example. Earthquakes have occurred on this fault line every 500-1000 years. There was a massive quake over 800 years ago, and another one around the 500 mark. So, scientists now believe New Zealand is due for a mega-earthquake. In California, there’s a 72% chance of a major earthquake in the next 30 years. In fact, many countries along the ring of fire will continue to be at risk in the foreseeable future.

Many countries along the belt don't have early warning systems. That’s what makes the Ring of Fire more dangerous. We know for certain that more natural disasters would occur around the belt. What we don’t know is if we’ll be prepared for them.

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