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Column: At the world’s seams, the plates have always been fighting
Rudi Kiefer

Volcanic eruptions on La Palma (Spain) in September. Fuego Volcano in Guatemala. Popocatépetl (Mexico) continuing strong activity. Nevado del Ruiz (Colombia) producing explosions. Reventador (Ecuador) intensely explosive. Does this mean that volcanoes and their eruptions only occur in Spanish-speaking countries? It doesn’t. But neither are volcanoes distributed randomly around the world. Plenty of other eruptions are happening around us, in countries that speak English, Japanese, Russian and more. The deciding factor is where a country is located with regard to the puzzle pieces that constitute the globe. Imagine a soccer ball. It’s composed of leather patches of different sizes and shapes. Now assume all the seams are broken. Then imagine the inside of the ball filled with hot pudding. This makes a crude model of the Earth, except for the fact that the “patches” that hold it together, called tectonic plates, are much thinner relatively than the leather of the soccer ball. 

It’s where those plates meet that we see the most significant action. In the soccer ball image, the seams are ripped, so there’s no effective obstacle to the scalding pudding squishing out. The effect is greatest if you squeeze two of the patches together. This applies to the globe as well. Where tectonic plates are crashing into each other, trouble ensues. Central America is one of those spots. Fuego keeps threatening Guatemala City, only 18 miles away and home to one million people. Across the Caribbean Sea, there are more cracks in the Earth’s crust, or ripped seams if you will. St. Vincent and the Grenadines (a French-speaking island country) had a violent reminder from its La Soufriere volcano this past April. Thousands had to be evacuated. When the eruption died down, the island was covered in so much volcanic ash that news media called it an “apocalyptic landscape”. 

The western edge of the USA and Canada are another area where tectonic plates are in a struggle.  The plate carrying the Pacific Ocean wants to drift toward the northeast. The thicker American Plate, which carries the two countries, doesn’t want to let it do that. As a result, there’s a struggle deep down below that brings hot content up to the surface every so often. Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams and many other volcanoes are reminders of this. Climate change has nothing to do with it. At the world’s seams, the plates have always been fighting.


Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of physical science at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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