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#275 :: Volcanic ash

November 10, 2004

You probably think yourself old. “I’m ancient,” you moan, pulling at wrinkles to flatten them, running fingers through your thinning hair. “I’m *so* OLD.” There are parrots older than you. Hell, there are cameras and cigarette lighters older than many of you. Seconds of your lives tick by – “I’m wasting time!” you shriek, and scurry off to get lost in addictions and duties and obsessions and distractions, lest you waste any more. Relax. Even the gorgeous, preposterous Clock of the Long Now cannot entirely fathom the vast scale of time upon which the ground beneath your feet was created, the billions of years this planet spent as a superheated blob of spinning metallic elements and vapor, before it began to cool to the point where it could sustain life. Earth is still cooling, as it so often seems to enjoy reminding us. In 1991, a previously dormant volcano on the western end of Luzon in the Philippine Islands, exploded, hurling tons of ash and sulfur dioxide 21 miles into the air. The gas readjusted the world’s climate:

The cloud over the earth reduced global temperatures. In 1992 and 1993, the average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere was reduced 0.5 to 0.6°ńC and the entire planet was cooled 0.4 to 0.5°ńC. The maximum reduction in global temperature occurred in August 1992 with a reduction of 0.73°ńC. The eruption is believed to have influenced such events as 1993 floods along the Mississippi river and the drought in the Sahel region of Africa. The United States experienced its third coldest and third wettest summer in 77 years during 1992.

and the ash poured down on nearby hillside villages, mixing with torrentional seasonal rainstorms to form deadly lahars or ash-flows that swept homes and families to oblivion. We visited my wife’s relatives there the following year – rains had washed the ash away from Manila, but people still kept jars of Mt. Pinatubo ash around with a typically Filipino mingling of respect and dark humor. It’s abrasive, colorless, with a metallic tang to it. Hold a magnet near the stuff, and out of it leap dark, magnetic particles of iron, finer than grains of sand.

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