Friday, November 29, 2013

If there was ever a tornado going on when a volcano is erupting…

Then there are questions that could only come from children who are learning, but haven't learned much, and have no fear about asking questions about things that are scarey/fascinating to them. The following "improbable" is actually not that far from the probable.

Q: Hello my name is Thorin and i have a question for my geography class.

If there was ever a tornado going on when a volcano is erupting, can the tornado, so to speak, pick up the lava erupting from the volcano. I hope you guys respond to my question.  Thanks, - Thorin T

A: Hi Thorin,

Tornadoes don't usually occur where there are volcanoes. Tornadoes generally require pretty flat terrain or ocean (not common in volcano territory) and a complex mix of warm and moist air, with cold and dry air coming from another direction. Again, this is not common in volcano territory like the Pacific Cascades, Kamchatka, or Japan. That said, however, it has been reported that tornadoes can pick up cars and carry them hundreds of meters away - even kilometers - and then drop them. Three tornado-hunter scientists from Denver were killed that way this last May (2013).

So. IF there was an erupting volcano, AND a tornado passed through nearby, it's conceivably possible that a tornado could pick up a bit of lava. However, lava is pretty dense. By comparison a car is much less dense (it has a lot of air space in it). More likely, the tornado would pick up ash and tephra (tephra is cooled lava filled with gas bubbles, so it is not very dense) and throw these around. 

Something like this is not all that unreasonable, actually. There was a tropical cyclone (a Pacific hurricane) passing through the Philippines when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991. The effect of the hurricane-force wind, the HUGE amount of water that the cyclone brought with it, and the really huge volcanic eruption made quite a mess of the island of Luzon. It basically destroyed Clark airbase and badly damaged the nearby Subic Bay naval facility - and even though evacuations had been ordered, it still killed a lot of people. 
Thorin later replied:
Thank you very much Jeff and it answers my question in great detail. Thank you for taking your time to answer my question and give me a very helpful answer. 

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