Deep beneath your feet is a subterranean melting pot. A fiery inferno ready to boil over at any moment. Anywhere or anytime.
Imagine that today is the day the ground beneath your feet gave way, and the Earth’s crust rips open. Giant rifts are causing unparalleled destruction, and city streets are covered in scorching lava.
Things are about to get a little toasty. Just how much damage would this do? And would we even stand a chance of surviving?
Our planet is geologically active. The bad news is, we can’t tell when, or where, something called a large igneous province (or LIP) could form.
LIPs are geological features formed when a massive amount of magma flows onto the Earth’s surface. This can result in regional-scale uplift, continental rifting, breaking up the ground, and climate changes.
LIPs do some major spring cleaning, but their house is the Earth itself. Most of us know about an asteroid hitting the Earth and wiping out the dinosaurs, but most people don’t know that the Earth nearly got devastated by a large igneous province that formed in Siberia 250 million years ago.
Now, imagine that we had to deal with a colossal LIP like that today. How much damage would it cause?
Urban areas would be decimated by the rift, causing extensive destruction. And those quakes? They’re just the preview. Next, the lava makes its grand entrance.
Once here, it’s on the warpath. Farmland needed for raising crops would be incinerated.
Bodies of water like lakes, streams and rivers would be vaporized if there was enough lava. And depending on how fast the lava flows, endangered species would be wiped out if they cannot relocate in time.
It’s also going to devastate the economy. Schools, businesses and hospitals would be ravaged, along with infrastructure like highways, power generating facilities, gas lines and water mains.
And yeah, that beautiful new house you just bought? It’s covered in lava. Your new car? It’s under lava.
And what about you? Well, according to Oregon State University, lava moves on a flat slope (like Hawaii’s Mount Kilauea) at a maximum of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) per hour.
The average speed people walk at is about 5 km (3.1 miles) per hour, and average running speed is about 13 km (8 miles) per hour. So if you aced track and field, now’s your time to shine.
But lava flowing downhill (like Mount Nyiragongo) can speed along at 100 km (62 miles) per hour. Good luck outrunning that.
In addition to the extreme heat burning, melting, and destroying anything it touches, lava releases particles into the air and toxic gases such as sulfur, carbon dioxide and halogen. Even if you can get out of the lava’s path, you’re still in danger from breathing the gas and particles in the air.
How long can you hold your breath? So with all that, is it possible we could come out of this ok?
Well, there’s no how-to manual or strategy to combat the formation of an LIP. How and when they form is a pretty complex subject, requiring a lot of scientific disciplines to understand.
But, it’s not like it’s really going to happen, right? Well, it’s definitely possible. In 2019, Mount Kilauea in Hawaii erupted and destroyed more than 700 homes. Now, Kilauea is a volcano rather than a large igneous province, but it makes it clear that magma is still flowing to Earth’s surface, and there’s plenty more down in Earth’s core and mantle.
So, maybe we should start planning for it. There are procedures in place to deal with volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, so why can’t there be one for LIP’s?
Our planet is going to continuously shift and change forever. It makes us wonder what other mysteries could be brought to the surface with these geological shifts.
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- “THE CRACKS RIPPING EARTH APART”. Melissa Hogenboom, 2016. BBC Earth. Accessed February 8 2020.
- “Large Igneous Provinces Commission”. 2020. largeigneousprovinces.org. Accessed February 8 2020.
- “The Making of the Siberian Traps Nearly Ended All of Life on Earth”. Jennings, Ken. 2020. Condé Nast Traveler. Accessed February 8 2020.
- “How fast does lava flow?”. 2020. volcano.oregonstate.edu. Accessed February 8 2020.
- “Large Igneous Provinces”. 2020. ideo.columbia.edu. Accessed February 8 2020.
- “Lofty Ambitions of the Inca”. 2020.nationalgeographic.com. Accessed February 8 2020.
- “How close can I get to lava and will it hurt or kill me?”. 2020. volcano.oregonstate.edu. Accessed February 8 2020.
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