Wednesday Wildlife – The Leopard

We saw the leopard slinking low in the desiccated grasses of the Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo region. I almost soiled myself, not out of fear but of excitement. I have been to almost every major game reserve in Southern Africa, yet never to have once spotted this dotty kitty. Until now – this was a huge moment for me and my underpants.

One solitary male on a discrete hunt for food. At first, I celebrated the sighting, treasuring every second that I could watch him sleekly moving through the dry bush. A sighting like this – a once in a lifetime – is too often over in seconds.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 1

But a hunting leopard makes use of lofty vantage points to spy potential prey and, in one fluid movement, our male launched himself up the bole of a tree and took up sentry. Leopards are shy animals and extremely unsociable, which likely explains his unimpressed expression with being watched and photographed.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 3

Legs (and litchis) dangling out all over the place, he remained in suspension for the better part of 20 minutes, while lazily surveying the surrounding bush and staring at us with piercing, tawny eyes. On average, leopards weigh between 60 and 70 kg and can live up to 15 years. What is most exceptional about these cats is that they can drag prey heavier than themselves up a tree, where it can hang safely out of the reach of other predators and scavengers, offering the leopard a consistent source of meat for several days.

Leopard by Thea Beckman 2

The heat, the altitude, and the lack of action took its toll and he let rip an enormous yawn, offering us a glimpse at teeth that could crack your neck like a cheese stick. Seeing this leopard quite honestly constitutes one of the high points of my life and if you’ve seen one, perhaps you’ll understand why. They are truly beautiful, extraordinary animals.

Introducing “Wednesday Wildlife”

I may have shifted my attention to travel but a fascination with wildlife and birdwatching, in particular, remains a stubborn fixture on the landscape of my unorthodox personality. As a part of my new venture, therefore, I shall be posting a weekly picture of an animal or bird that I have taken on one of my adventures. I would like to introduce to you… *appropriately lengthy drumroll*… Wednesday Wildlife! Aren’t I original?

Hold on… I have a better one: Wander Woman’s Wednesday Wildlife! Isn’t the alliteration maddeningly satisfying?

Anyway, enough of that tomfoolery. Before I got around to repurposing this blog to travel, I let rip with the Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, which I urge you all to like, follow, share, interact with, drool over, and even fondle yourself inappropriately to. What I don’t know can’t hurt me. Over the past few weeks that’s been going, I’ve posted three Wildlife Wednesday features – or, I should say, #WildlifeWednesday – so in an effort to bring you all up to speed, here are those posts.

The Cheetah

Wednesday Wildlife post 1

On a recent trip to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, I had the incredible life joy of seeing my very first ever cheetah in the wild. We approached this male by foot and got within about 15 meters of him, where I swooned over his kitten-esque antics. Did you know that cheetahs purr? Also, they are the fastest land animal in the world, able to reach speeds of 80 to 120 km/hr in short bursts. I shit you not.

An excerpt from my article for Southern Vines magazine about the reserve:

“Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is a malaria-free, big five private game reserve located three hours’ drive from Cape Town in the Little Karoo. Believed to have originated from the Khoikhoi word for “desert”, the Karoo is a semi-desert region of unique and desolate beauty, marked by tough, low-lying shrubs, hellishly thorned acacia trees, otherworldly succulent plants, rocky koppies, and russet soils.”

Read full article here.

In other words, get your butts to South Africa and come explore our truly gifted natural heritage. Also, because I love to travel and will use any excuse to get out the house, especially to play tour guide to a foreign visitor, get in touch with me if you do make it to our fair shores. Just please don’t axe murder me.

The Owl

Wednesday Wildlife post 2

This absolutely gorgeous creature is a spotted eagle owl, which I photographed in the golden late afternoon light of a game drive that culminated in a glass of chardonnay overlooking a dry river bed.

Sunset chardonnay

There, just in case you didn’t believe life could get THAT good.

Spotted eagle owls are medium-sized, as far as owls go, yet are one of the smallest of the eagle owls. Interestingly, they are a big fan of bathing and so can often be seen around water or on exposed branches or on the ground with spread wings during summer thunderstorms.

Nestled into a thicket of rather nasty Karoo Acacia thorns, this guy glared smugly and somewhat angrily at us, confident that none of us would be stupid enough to breach his/her boma of razor sharp thorns. Of course, human nature is by definition a balance between high intelligence and sublime stupidity. Needless to say, we took our pictures and left the owl alone to its angry vigil.

The Baboons

Wednesday Wildlife post 3

If a picture could speak a thousand words, this one would be a “50 Shades of Grey” novel.

These are Chacma baboons AKA Cape baboons and they are one of the largest of all the monkeys. Indigenous to Southern Africa, they live a highly social life with a defined hierarchy, at the top of which is the alpha male, quite easily one of the most intimidating of all the African animals. Quite honestly, of all the sounds I have heard in the bush, I find the resounding, explosive bark of a baboon to be far more terrifying than a lion’s roar or the hollow clink of an empty wine bottle (and knowing that it’s the last one). An angry male baboon could easily give Chuck Norris a thorough bitch-slapping.

Baboons spend the vast majority of their days foraging and grooming each other as a way of strengthening social ties and, well, just feeling loved.

The Mousebirds

Wednesday Wildlife post 4

These three stooges, who are warming their undercarriage in the mid-morning sun in a coastal bush at De Hoop Nature Reserve (southwestern Cape coast of South Africa), are speckled mousebirds. Mousebirds are gregarious and enjoy the company of other mousebirds, as we can see from the amount of love biting going on in this picture.

Fruits, buds, and berry eaters, mousebirds are named after their appearance (small, greyish bodies and long tails) and foraging behaviour; scurrying around in the bush in search of food. They are the only bird order that is confined entirely to sub-Saharan Africa and – get this – could actually be considered “living fossils” because the 6 species that exist today are the only survivors of a lineage that was massively more diverse in the early Paleogene and Miocene (thanks, Wikipedia).

Another magazine excerpt from an article I wrote about the reserve:

“The seamless confluence of a variety of vegetation biomes and landscapes in De Hoop Nature Reserve has attracted an enormous diversity of birdlife, from iridescent sunbirds and large raptors to swooping aerial birds and gaily coloured flamingos. In a single day, in fact, you could quite easily rack up a bird list of over 100 species, so abundant and varied it is (over 260 species of birds have been recorded here).”

Read full article here.

Wednesday Wildlife with me

That, my friends, is all for today! I will be posting these pictures along with an explanatory blurb every Wednesday at 9am SAST. Of course, if you like my Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, you can get all of this delicious intellectual goodness delivered right to your feed or inbox. You can also find me on Instagram at @wander_woman_thea.

Happy hump day!

Bird Watching: Making Your Safari Way More Awesome

Juvenile Bataleur Eagle
Picture: An immateur Bataleur Eagle taken at the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Thea Beckman (2015)

It can be said without a doubt that bringing a bird with you on your safari makes it way more awesome. Especially if said bird looks tight in a bikini. You can share in the joy of spotting that elusive leopard, watching cheetah chase ill-fated gazelle across the savannah and being stranded in a herd of elephant; desperately hoping that amorous-looking bull doesn’t take a fancy to your Jeep. But I’m not talking about THAT kind of bird. Birds, the feathered variety, are awesome. And the next time you drive home from Magaliesberg feeling short-changed because you didn’t see any lions AGAIN, perhaps you’d better start thinking about becoming a twitcher.

Bird-watching: A Definition

African Birds and safari 6
Green-spotted dove, Kruger National Park in South Africa.

I’ve harboured a deep interest in birds since I can remember. Some people are addicted to nicotine, amphetamines or Robert Pattinson. I love bird watching. I really do. And I’m pretty sure that, psychologically, it has something to do with a love of collecting meaningful things. Every time my family would go for a weekend, week’s or month’s vacation somewhere in southern Africa, I would make and keep a list of the different species of birds we identified during the course of that holiday.

Bird watching and safari
This trusty field book has travelled with me all over southern Africa and bears the dirty smudges, rugged braai (barbecue) smears and cheap brandy stains to prove it.

 You experienced a shudder of awe and excitement when you saw a lion on your African adventure. I experienced a shudder of awe and excitement when I saw a Violet-eared Waxbill at the Karoo National Park. Partly because, against the drab semi-arid landscape, it is one of the most beautifully coloured creatures you could ever imagine; something straight out of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. And partly because this particular species of waxbill didn’t appear on the Karoo National Park’s bird list, meaning that we were the first to report seeing it there. Essentially, we made history.

I See Your Lion and Raise You a Bataleur Eagle

Bataleur Eagle
Mature bataleur eagle, Kruger National Park in South Africa. Picture by Thea Beckman.

I experienced another shudder of awe and excitement when I saw a Drakensberg Prinia in Pilgrim’s Rest; a Pallid Harrier at the Blyde River Canyon; a Collared Sunbird at the Nelspruit Botanical Gardens; a Striped Cuckoo at the Pilansberg Nature Reserve outside Rustenberg and again when I saw a flock of Southern Bald Ibises in the Drakensberg. None of these are particularly striking birds – except perhaps the Bald Ibis, whose head resembles an unmentionable male body part. But they were all new! I had never seen them before! It’s like discovering the Mufasa marble in your Engen Garage lucky packet back in the day when the Lion King and marbles were all the rage.

For the record, the Lion King was, is and always will be awesome.

Identifying a brand new bird and ticking it off in your book may sound completely nerdy, inane and lame. But it actually makes you feel amazing; like you’ve accomplished something. It’s a tiny intellectual victory and one of those ingredients that makes life rich and exciting.

I saw a brand new species of bird!

You saw a lion.

I saw a Crowned Eagle!

You saw another lion.

I saw a Giant Eagle Owl!

You saw (oh wow!) another lion.

I saw a Carmine Bee-eater.

You saw (surprise) a lion!

Lion yawning 2

For every one species of awesome animal you see on safari. I see 10, maybe 20 different species of birds. This is no war, my friends. No competition. The point I’m trying to make here is that if you can culture and develop an appreciation and then a love of identifying birds, you can get so much more out of any holiday, any getaway and any safari experience. You’ll also totally impress your chick who, through your appreciation of soft feathered creatures, will see your softer and more vulnerable side.

And then you’ll get to show her your softer and more vulnerable body parts.

 Kgalagadi Case Study, August to September 2009

African Birds and safari 8.png
African Ground squirrels (Xerus inauris) enjoy an eclectic diet of roots, seeds, insects, pods, fruits, grains, bird eggs, small vertebrates and pink marshmallows.

Many years ago, I went on a 10-day vacation to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which straddles the three borders of Namibia, Botswana and the Northern Cape. The bird list I had kept for that holiday totalled 106 different species. The animal list I made totalled 12. Actually, it was more like 11. Animal #12, which we thought was a leopard prowling around the camp at night, turned out to be nothing more than my mother’s snoring. Or so we suspected after three consecutive nights of rhythmic zzzggghhhnnnnngggg, zzzggghhhnnnnngggg, zzzggghhhnnnnngggg-ing, which is actually quite similar to a leopard’s cough-like grunting.

We saw ONE lion that entire holiday. And it was a female so pregnant with zebra meat that she had hitched a leg up onto the bole of the acacia tree she was food coma-ing under in order to make more space for her distended gut. She didn’t so much as bat an eyelid at the rocks we were throwing at her to get her to move.

I am, of course, just kidding.

On that same trip, we spotted a beautiful Giant Eagle Owl in her nest in broad daylight; identified the tiny Pygmy Falcon killing machine; heard the haunting yelps of Pearl-Spotted Owls at night and kept the campsite company of the flamboyantly coloured Burchell’s starling.

African Birds and safari 5
The handsome Burchell’s starling, Kruger National Park in South Africa.

Class Dismissed: The Take-Home Message

African Birds and safari 7
Wahlberg’s Eagle? Malachite Kingfisher? Violet-eared Waxbill? Now that’s a handsome bird list…

I have always kept bird lists for the various holidays our family has been on. I also keep a list of animals on the occasions we go to wildlife reserves. Every single time, my list of different bird species, which has often stretched into the hundreds, dwarfs the list of different animal species. Nothing can be more exciting than actually spotting a leopard in a tree, seeing cheetah in action or watching a hippo emerge from the water (or doing that funny tail-thing when they poop.) But to go on safari and never notice the activity constantly going on around you, in the bushes, in the trees, on the ground, in the sky… well you are cheating yourself out of 90% of the fees you paid at the park entrance.

Open your eyes friends.

And whatever you do. Never, ever sit under a hornbill perched in a tree. They have impeccable aim.

African Birds and safari
Zazu, I mean, Yellow-billed hornbill, Kruger National Park in South Africa

Big Holes

Get Your Mind Out The Gutter!

Whoever coined the title of this video is a genius: the second I clapped eyes on it, the inner depraved version of myself immediately demanded that I click on the link to find out more about Earth’s biggest and most mysterious holes. As it turned out, the video is quite interesting, albeit well-behaved. So, if you’re desperately trying to look busy and important while waiting for a date, or want to avoid that annoying dude from accounting during your lunch break, here’s a fabulous and educational 10 minutes well spent.

P.S. Donald Trump was accidentally omitted, but should have been featured as Earth’s biggest A-hole.

Video Source: “15 Strangest Holes On Earth” Uploaded by Planet Dolan to YouTube channel www.youtube.com/watch?v=pxSkbBXpMjo

Prehistoric Life: A Time When Size Really, Really Did Count

From flying insects that would cave in your car’s bumper to a snake that, at an average 50 feet (15m) long, could easily have eaten a herd of cows for breakfast… there are some pretty large animals to have roamed the Earth in its history and this amazing science video takes us on a journey through them. It also provides us with a relative scale, so that we can appreciate just how f***ing huge they are in comparison with our own tiny selves. Just do yourself a favour and turn your computer’s volume off, because the accompanying music will make you want to bludgeon yourself to death with a brick.

Video Source: “World’s 10 Biggest Animals of All Time” Uploaded by Hybrid Librarian on YouTube channel https://youtu.be/qVftGh4K8JA

How To Bake a Diamond

Beautiful diamond gem

Diamonds have been getting men out of trouble for hundreds of years. They have also been getting men into trouble for hundreds of years. So, what’s so special about diamonds? They’re really pretty, they’re really strong, they have a great pair of tits…

Sorry, that’s Lara Croft.

DIAMONDS are really pretty, they’re really strong and they’re really RARE. They are also the gemstone of choice when it comes to getting hitched because, just like Shirley Bassey sang, diamonds are forever.

Diamonds are Forever… No, Really, They Are!

Aside from their unparalleled resilience and durability, diamonds are spectacular-looking rock minerals. Cut into a complex and intricate array of facets and planes, their refractive light properties send out a kaleidoscope of colour which spans the visible light spectrum, even though the gem itself appears totally translucent and colourless.

What are diamonds? What are they made of? How are they formed?

Yeah, yeah… what you REALLY want to know is what it takes to bake your own diamond so that you can become super rich and super lazy just like Paris Hilton. Well, just like everything else on this planet and in our universe really, diamonds are made of tiny, tiny building blocks. A closer look into their crystal structure tells us just how these highly coveted stones are formed.

Diamond, which is derived from the ancient Greek word adámas, meaning ‘unbreakable,’ is made from one of the most common elements here on planet Earth. It’s in the soil we walk on, in the air we breathe and in the food we eat. Here’s another clue: you’re made from it.

Carbon!

Diamonds from black carbon

It’s the same black crap your science teacher created from burning sugar, the same black crap the graphite in your pencil is made of and the same black crap shown in the picture above. Oh, how unromantic!

Surely such a rare and highly prized stone would be constructed from something equally as exotic and just as rare? Alas, my friends. It is not the building blocks of diamonds that make these stones so special, but rather the conditions under which they are forged. It’s like baking a cake: at the right temperature and with the right cooking time, the cake will come out beautiful, spongy, moist and delicious. At the wrong temperature and cooking time, the same batter will come out black, bitter, inedible and more appropriately used as a bludgeoning weapon.

Carbon + Contaminant = Colour!

Colorful diamond array

We’ve established that diamonds are made from carbon. Actually, they’re made from a carbon allotrope, just so that you geology geeks don’t get a kick out of correcting me. But for all intents and purposes, diamonds are essentially made out of carbon. And carbon is abundant. So, theoretically, you should be able to make your own diamonds! Just don’t tell anybody about it or you could throw a major spanner in the traditional works and symbolism of marriage, just like those pesky homosexuals who want equal rights. I mean, who do they think they are?

Hold on a minute! All it takes is carbon? Then what gives some diamonds their colour? Well noted, my avaricious rapscallions! Diamonds don’t ONLY come as colourless, expensive globules of carbon. Interestingly enough, the unique and very rigid arrangement of carbon atoms in the crystal structure of a diamond (cubic to be exact) makes it difficult for other chemical elements to infiltrate it, causing impurities. This explains why the insides of most diamonds look so beautifully pure and translucent.

Most, but not all.

Diamond, actually, is quite snobby. It only allows very particular elements into its crystal lattice and then again, it only does this on the rare occasion. To give you an idea of just how fussy diamond is, it is estimated that for every million atoms of well-behaved carbon, there is a single alien atom infiltrator. The result: a fantastic analogy for opening your heart to different races, creeds, genders and nationalities.

And colour!

The colour of a diamond can have a huge influence on the amount wealthy housewives get their husbands to pay for them. Blues and greens are exceptionally rare, so they will fetch a high price. Yellows and browns are more common. And there’s nothing like a brown diamond to make you feel REAL special.

Now, gather your cooking implements and turn the oven on… HOT.

Hot temperature oven

Diamond Recipe

What You’ll Need:

  1. Carbon
  2. A choice of chemical impurity or radioactive element (for colour)
  3. Titanium metal
  4. A shovel
  5. Patience
  6. A degree in town planning

Step 1: Take carbon and mix in desired chemical impurity, or pilfer local science laboratory for radioactive element*.

* If you want to bake a blue diamond like the one Rose threw into the ocean at the end, you need to add boron to your mix of carbon. If you want to bake a yellow diamond, you’ll need nitrogen. If you want your diamond to turn a more exotic shade of purple, pink, red or orange, then make sure you bury it close to a radioactive element, such as plutonium or uranium. Other colours, such as black, brown and sometimes even red and pink are caused by structural flaws that harbour dark impurities that only make them appear the colour they are.

Step 2: Put ingredients into an air-tight and incredibly durable box.

Step 3: Phone NASA for left-over titanium to build said box. If you struggle to get past some power-tripping secretary, you can always melt down your brother’s professional tennis racquet; a legacy from the days he actually thought he’d be a professional at anything. If THAT fails, dental implants are made from titanium, but whatever you do, don’t get caught at the morgue.

Step 4: Bury carbon-filled box at a depth of between 140 and 190 kilometres, or 85 to 120 miles, where there exist conditions of immense pressure and temperature. An ambient temperature of at least 1,050 deg Celsius is what you’re aiming for.

Step 5: Bake for at least one billion years, but it could take as long as three billion years. This is where patience comes in handy.

Step 6: Wait for a super-deep volcanic eruption to bring the box of crystallized carbon to the near-surface of the Earth.

Step 7: Plant a flag at the location, build a town, exploit the native inhabitants as your labour force and dig a big hole in the ground to retrieve your creation.

Step 8: Allow to cool before eating.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Beautiful gem diamonds

It’s probably better to buy a diamond than make your own.

This aside, the next time you walk past a jewellery store or stare lovingly at your own engagement/wedding ring, you should look – really look – at the diamond. Know that the real beauty of these radiant gems transcends the price tag affixed to them. Diamonds are approximately half the age of the Earth, they will last your lifetime and millions more like yours and they’re composed of carbon, the very same building blocks as you and me.

The very same material that is forged in the hearts of dying stars.

Fire and Brimstone – the Story of Volcanoes

eruzione Etna volcano
Mount Etna eruption, Nicolosi Catania, Italy

There’s something beautiful about a woman’s rage (not counting the tarts from Geordie Shore) and in no better way is this sentiment illustrated than by Mother Nature’s ire. As terrifying as it is to be at ground zero, from a safe distance, natural disasters are incredibly awe-inspiring and angry volcanoes deserve a top spot for making people go “ooooh” and “aaaaah” and “oh shit…”

Volcanoes are literal pathways from the Earth’s fiery guts to its crusty exterior. But the channels available for the molten rock and gas that spew forth are far too narrow to satisfy the sheer volume of indigestion within and the result is an immense build-up of pressure. The release of this pressure includes, but is not limited to, violent sprays of lava, devastating pyroclastic flows, stratospheric columns of volcanic ash, electrical storms, scalding gas and dust and Hiroshima-type explosions that not only dislocate millions of tonnes of solid rock, but have been reported to be audible many thousands of kilometres away from the point of origin.

Vesuivio_Eruzione eruption volcano
Source: “Vesuivio Eruzione April 26th, 1872” by Giorgio Sommer – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Volcanoes have the potential to send species to extinction, yet at the very same time, they nourish the biosphere in an appreciable radius around them (volcanic ash is highly fertile). Volcanoes are magnificent and a wonderful example of how the surface of our planet is in a constant state of dynamism.

Where Not To Go On Summer Vacation

Planet tectonics plate diagram

Volcanoes typically form at the convergent and divergent boundaries between the enormous shifting tectonic plates that comprise the Earth’s crust (see gorgeous image above). It is here that the seams of the Earth permit plumes of its molten interior to travel towards the surface. But as it was mentioned, the surface-bound transport of this material is anything but a six-lane highway. It’s more like a gravelly, pothole-ridden country road. The gas and molten rock that are trying to get from A to B encounter rigid rock and the cracks they exploit along their journey are incredibly narrow. A build-up of pressure results in a potentially explosive situation, so that when something finally gives, the results are disastrous for the local biology: human habitation included.

Volcanoes also form over features called “hot spots”, which don’t necessarily occur near plate tectonic boundaries (see diagram below). The Hawaiian Islands – all of them formed by volcanic activity in the middle of the Pacific Plate – are a prime example of this.

volcanic-hot-spots

There are several scientific theories that seek to explain what hot spots are and a popular one is that they are upwelling intrusions of molten material (mantle plumes) that originate at the boundary between the Earth’s core and mantle. The exact depth of this varies, but the Hawaiian hot spot is estimated to be 3,000 km deep. That’s 9,842,520 ft. for those of you in ‘Merica.

Volcano Classification

There’s more to volcanology than your stock standard angry Earth pimple. Volcanoes come in many shapes, sizes and compositions. What happens at the surface – what we see and experience when volcanoes awake from their slumber – is dependent on a suite of factors and an especially important one is the composition of the magma that is trying to escape the lithified constraints of the crust.

Lava Composition

Lava flow in Hawaii

Rock that is rich in silicates tends to form chunky, viscous slow-moving magma. This subset of liquid rock is in no hurry to go anywhere and tends to contribute to terrible congestion. It also has the particularly nasty habit of trapping gas, which is why things can get explosive. Since Hawaii is no stranger to seismic activity, its inhabitants have coined a word for this particular magma and it’s pāhoehoe.

At the other end of the spectrum, you get magma that doesn’t contain a lot of silicates, but is rather rich in ferrous (iron) compounds. This magma – ʻAʻa, pronounced “ah ah” – get’s extremely hot and tends to flow hard and fast. If you’ll excuse the crass analogy, the difference between pāhoehoe and ʻAʻa is much like the difference between constipation and Delhi belly.

Both, however, are extremely uncomfortable.

Magma isn’t, of course, one or the other. There is a vast spectrum of mineral compositions between, but by understanding the difference between one extreme and the other, we can begin to understand how different kinds of volcanoes are formed.

Cone, Shield and Stratovolcanoes

If there’s one thing to be said for geologists, it’s that they don’t mess around with terminology. The name bestowed upon a volcano is as transparent as a wet T-shirt.

Cone (Cinder) Volcanoes

Bromo volcano in Indonesia
Mount Gunung Bromo (Indonesian island of Java): A classic cinder or cone volcano

Cone volcanoes, also known as cinder cones, generally consist of a hill that can be anywhere from 30 meters (98 ft.) to 400 (1,312 ft.) meters in height. Formed from the eruption of materials that are riddled with gas, crystals and a hodgepodge of fragmented rock. To see an example of this kind of volcano, put on your sombrero, crack open the tequila and get on a plane to New Mexico. There, you will find a spectacular volcanic field called Caja Del Rio, which comprises more than 60 cone volcanoes. If the prospect of New Mexico doesn’t appeal, you can always bum a lift on the next scientific mission to Mars or the moon, both of which are believed to feature this type of volcano.

Shield Volcanoes

Kohala-Landsat Hawaii shield volcano
Kohala Mountain, the oldest of Hawaii’s five volcanoes. The entire island is a massive shield volcano. Source: By USGS (source usage) via Wikimedia Commons

Shield volcanoes have a much broader profile than cone volcanoes and, as the name suggests, are shaped like shields. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. These beasts are formed from the eruption of very runny lava that tends to escape the Earth’s crust before causing too much mayhem as a result of a build-up of pressure. Shield volcanoes are, by comparison, the placid elderly aunt of volcanoes and are most commonly found at oceanic tectonic boundaries. Oceanic plates aren’t usually rich in silicates, which explains why the magma produced here is more felsic in composition, hence its lower viscosity. Skjaldbreiður in Iceland (say that three times fast) is an example of a shield volcano. The Hawaiian Islands, which have formed almost smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Plate over a “hot spot,” are also shield volcanoes.

Pyroclastic_flows_at_Mayon_Volcano
In June of 2013, the Mayon stratovolcano in Albay, Philippines, reached Level 1 alert level due to what the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology refers to as “abnormal behavior”.

Stratovolcanoes 

Stratovolcanoes, or composite volcanoes, are the tri-polar member of the volcanic family. They look like your typical volcano but actually consist of alternating layers of different kinds of erupted material as the above diagram depicts. Stratovolcanoes produce a range of eruptions depending upon their mood and these include chunky cinders, choking ash and molten rock (lava). One of the best known (and least loved) of these volcanoes is Mount Vesuvius, which is located in Stromboli, Italy. This one was responsible for the notorious levelling of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79, killing 16,000 people. It is estimated that Mount Vesuvius released 100,000 times the energy liberated by the Hiroshima bomb.

Volcanic Hazards

Mount Pinatubo Explodes
Run? Source: “Point of View Photos” Huffington Post

When volcanoes become active, a number of things can happen, none of them good if you’re fond of life. One of the most devastating of these consequences is ash. You wouldn’t think so… ash is soft and white. How on Earth could it possibly inconvenience you the way a searing hot lake of lava might? Stratovolcanoes are especially fond of explosive eruptions, which send voluminous clouds of ash into the atmosphere and cascading down their slopes.

This ash, however, isn’t the kind you find in your barbeque pit after a night of camping, beer and sing-a-longs. It’s mixed with gas that is hot enough to disassociate your atoms. These eruptions send roiling clouds of gas, dust, ash and other debris down the mountain, which devastate anything organic in their path, leaving behind a scene that looks like a bomb went off in a cocaine factory.

Extinct, Dormant and Active Volcanoes: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Stromboli volcanic eruption3

Volcanoes are dangerous creatures. So an apt analogy for the popular classifications of these geological features would be your mother. When she has a gin and tonic in her hand (dormant), you may want to make plans for the evening. When she’s 10 G&T’s down (active), it’s time to execute those plans and get the hell out of the house. When she’s passed out on the couch (extinct), it’s safe to come home, although my recommendation to you would be to move out your childhood home and get yourself an education.

Extinct volcanoes, such as the Netherland’s Zuidwal and Shiprock volcanoes, are no longer considered to be active at all because they don’t have a supply of magma. They also have no documented history of indigestion. Dormant volcanoes, on the other hand, are known to have erupted at some stage in recent history. They may be quiet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t suddenly awaken. Mount Vesuvius (Gulf of Naples) was a purring kitten before it went psycho in AD 79, as was Mount Pinatubo (Philippines) prior to its epic tantrum in 1991. The latter is now considered an active volcano, which is one that has exhibited recent activity and is therefore a potential hazard to all within its vicinity.

Krakatoa

krakatoa-volcano-1883-eruption

If you’ve ever had a fight with Mexican food and lost (who hasn’t?) then integrating “Krakatoa” into your vocabulary is a wonderful idea if you need help explaining exactly what just happened to you to the flat mate who is next in line for the bathroom. You may not be absolved for your sins, but it’ll get you a laugh or two.

Krakatoa is a first class example of what happens when Mother Nature gets really cross and decides to let off a bomb that makes Hiroshima look like a fart. In 1883, the build-up of pressure under the Earth’s crust between the islands of Sumatra and Java in the Sunda Strait was so immense that it caused an apocalyptic-sized explosion, sending a once much bigger island into the stratosphere.

The Krakatoa eruption was reported to have been heard almost 5,000 km away (the loudest sound ever made in recorded history) and the resultant shock waves sent barograph needles oscillating violently off the page. Over 36,000 people were killed by the eruption: if not by the devastating pyroclastic flows and falling debris, then by the tsunamis that followed. The dust catapulted into the atmosphere caused stunning sunsets around the world for months after the eruption.

Too bad colour photography wasn’t in vogue in the 19th Century.

krakatoa - krakatau volcano map
Source: Krakatau Tour Website: A map of ex-Krakatoa and the now much smaller island of Anak Krakatau, which means “son of Krakatoa”. The dotted line represents the size of the island before it went nuclear.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

If you ever needed to respect the fact that we are just not in control of our natural environment, then stand next to an active volcano. From lakes of lava and earthquakes that shake the foundations of your stick hut to falling debris and scalding hot pyroclastic flows that choke the biosphere, volcanoes are creatures to be respected, studied and understood. If ever there were an item to put on your bucket list, it would be to stand next to an active volcano and feel the heat of Earth’s exterior lap at your cheeks. Just make sure you’ve ticked off the rest of those bucket list items before you do so…

Mount Redoubt Eruption
“Mount Redoubt Eruption” by R. Clucas – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Mount Redoubt is a stratovolcano and is part of the very seismically active Aleutian Range in Alaska.