Are eruptions like Mount St. Helens, Galunggung and El Chichon previews of worse to come? Bible prophecy reveals the answer.
VANCOUVER, Vancouver. This is it!" The excited voice on the radio stopped abruptly, with an air of anticipation and resignation. It was the morning of May 18, 1980 and 30-year-old David Johnston of the U.S. Geological Survey was making observations of the bulge on the north slope of Mount St. Helens, located in southwestern Washington state, when he radioed his base with the frantic message. Seconds later, he became engulfed and perished in one of the most awesome events in the realm of natural disasters. At 8:39 a.m. that morning, the once stately Mount St. Helens erupted with the awesome fury of a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb. This massive upheaval sent thunderous plumes of more than 1.5 cubic miles of hot ash, rocks and earth some 12 miles (19 kilometers) high in the air. Millions of trees in a 150-square-mile (390 square kilometers) area were snapped like twigs only seconds after the initial blast. Superheated gases released from the awakening giant almost instantly melted the ice and snow on the mountain. The result was a huge avalanche as earth and water descended together to form a massive wall of boiling mud that destroyed the once crystal clear waters of Spirit Lake and altered the course of the Toutle River. A blizzard of fine gray ash covered parts of several Western states, turning day into night. Moscow, Idaho, 300 miles east of the erupting volcano, was covered with about eight tons of ash an acre. In all, 65 people lost their lives while 370,000 were put out of work because of the eruption. Millions more suffered as officials estimated the cost of the damage to be 10 excess of US $2,700,000,000!
Anniversaries to Remember
The devastation caused by the eruption of Mount St. Helens just four short years ago is still very much evident in the area around the volcano. Though new life has sprung up out of the devastation, the inhabitants can still see the scars on a land that in 1980 was more akin to a moonscape than its once breathtaking vistas. An uneasiness remains. Mount St. Helens had been quiet for 123 years before it erupted. Many residents simply were unaware that they were living in the shadow of an ominous time bomb. Millions more around the world are even now in the same dangerous predicament. We do not realize that picturesque mountains like Mount Rainier, also in Washington, or Mount Fuji in Japan could one day come back to life with all of the sound and fury of a Mount St. Helens — with disastrous results.
The world experiences an average of 30 eruptions each year from the more than 600 active volcanoes that dot our planet. More than 75 percent of these volcanoes lie within the so-called Ring of Fire. This region encompasses the coastal areas of the circumpacific from Chile north to Alaska across to Siberia and down to New Zealand. The other great volcanic region is the Mediterranean Belt that stretches from Southern Europe to Central Asia. Within these two great regions also occur more than 95 percent of all earthquakes. These areas are full of sleeping giants just like Mount St. Helens. Despite centuries of dormancy, many are waiting to thunder back to life.
A Window on the Earth's Interior
Volcanoes, like earthquakes, are manifestations of the enormous forces that lie beneath the earth's surface. You might call a volcano a window on the heart of the earth. Many volcanologists have learned more about these forces through firsthand experiences at places like the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory near the frequently erupting Kilauea volcano. Others, like David Johnston, have chosen to examine more dangerous volcanoes like Mount St. Helens. Through the use of sophisticated equipment, volcanologists are able to measure the many changes that take place in volcanoes. This has improved their understanding of the complex processes involved before, during and after an eruption. Yet even with this improved understanding, scientists are quick to point out that the art of forecasting volcanic eruptions is no more perfected than the much-maligned weather forecast. One reason meteorologists have such a hard task may be because of volcanic eruptions.
Volcanic Activity and Its Effects
Volcanoes long have been a major factor in shaping our environment. Significant amounts of our atmosphere have come from gases released by volcanoes. Much of our landscape has been shaped by ancient and modern volcanic activity. Scientists have long wondered how volcanic eruptions affect climate and weather. In 1815, the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded human history took place. Tambora volcano in what is now Indonesia exploded. More than 36 cubic miles (1.7 million tons) of debris were scattered over one million square miles. So much debris filled the stratosphere that it created a huge filter that reduced temperatures by as much as 2 degrees Fahrenheit for more than a year. It is believed that this caused the record low temperatures that produced what was called "the year without summer." Until now, however, evidence was more circumstantial than conclusive. But studies conducted at El Chichon volcano in Mexico after its 1982 eruption have given scientists evidence to suggest that volcanic eruptions can and do affect weather conditions. In the case of El Chichon, it was found that after its eruption, temperatures of the equatorial stratosphere rose by 4 degrees Celsius, causing the warmest temperature reading since stratospheric temperatures were first recorded in 1958. Many scientists conclude that by altering these temperatures so much, the El Chichon eruption contributed to the intense El Nino phenomenon of 1982-83. (See the January 1984 Scientific American.) Nevertheless, in spite of these new discoveries, a comprehensive picture of volcanoes and their effects remains elusive. What is known is that many volcanoes are now about due for eruptions. According to a 1983 report by the U.S. Geological Survey, Mount St. Helens may only be a preview of things to come for the Western United States. What would have happened had a Mount St. Helens erupted near a large city? It is a frightening thought, but, as the report suggests, not one that is beyond the realm of possibility. What is puzzling to many scientists is that though the earth theoretically is cooling off, volcanic activity is increasing, not decreasing. A preliminary list in this report noted 35 volcanoes in the Western United States that are now considered likely to erupt sometime in the future. The Mono-Inyo Craters, near San Francisco, California, are considered the next most likely to erupt. Then come Lassen Peak and Mount Shasta, also in California. Others on the list include Mount Rainier, Mount Baker in Washington state and Mount Hood in Oregon — all much nearer to large population centers than Mount St. Helens.
Heeding the Warnings
In the last five centuries, more than 200,000 people have lost their lives because of volcanic eruptions. "Such catastrophes [loss of life] needn't recur. A volcanic eruption is preceded by ample warnings of tremors or escaping steam," noted one scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey. This is most assuredly true, but history — modern and ancient — has proven that people do fail to heed warnings. Whether out of curiosity or indifference to the repeated warnings of civil authorities, humans do become fatalities — witness Mount St. Helens (65 dead), Mexico's El Chichon (187 dead — unofficially thought to be five times that high) and Indonesia's Galunggung on populous Java (30 dead). History records many such tragedies. In 1883, approximately 36,000 lost their lives in a 100-foot tidal wave caused by the spectacular eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia. So powerful was the explosion that it was heard 3,000 miles away! The effects of the tidal wave that ensued were seen as far away as the English Channel. In 1783, one fifth of the population of Iceland starved to death from the loss of almost half of that island nation's livestock to the poisonous gases from Mount Laki's massive eruption and lava flow.
Examples for Us Today
For weeks the stench of sulfur corrupted the air in the city of Saint-Pierre, Martinique — sometimes called the Paris of the Caribbean. It was indeed a charming city, with brightly colored homes with wrought iron trim. The landscape, however, was dominated by an active volcano, Mount Pelee. But besides the volcano there was another undesirable side to this city. Saint-Pierre, it seems, was also known as the lustiest port in the Caribbean! On May 8, 1902, the 34,000 inhabitants of Saint-Pierre were slaughtered in only three minutes when Mount Pelee erupted. The lateral blast of this volcano sent a raging tide of superheated gases (about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit — 1,000 Celsius) toward the doomed city at a speed of 300 miles an hour! Probably the most famous volcanic catastrophe in history was the A.D. 79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum and several other Companion cities. These were wealthy cities on the Gulf of Naples just southeast of the modern-day city of Naples. Pompeii, with many famous Roman residents, was the chief city in the area. It was known for its good climate, fertile soil, fine baths, the Emperor Nero's favor and its entertainment. The passion of the Pompeiians was the gladiator games, where men cruelly battled each other or animals — often to the death — for the pleasure of a ravenous citizenry. Archaeologists have also discovered many other pursuits that were fashionable in Pompeiian society. Prostitution was openly accepted; signs conveniently noted locations and prices. Much evidence from contemporary literature suggest that divorce and infidelity were commonplace. Life seemed to be good to most Pompeiians. Then, one day their world came literally crashing down on their heads. Violent earthquakes had shaken the area before the eruption, but no one seemed to be all that concerned. The Romans felt that Vesuvius was extinct. Therefore, the huge "pine tree-shaped" cloud of ash that rose from the volcano on August 24 took the Pompeiians, assembled in numbers in the amphitheater, by surprise. The poisonous gases from the volcano killed hundreds. Others were buried alive by 10 feet of volcanic ash in Pompeii or 60 feet of boiling mud in Herculaneum. We can view many of these tragic victims today through replicas from preserved molds of corpses found in the hardened volcanic ash and mud. Many reflect the agony of the inhabitants wretched deaths as they struggled for their last breath. The loss of more than 10 percent of the populations of these cities shocked the Roman world and sent many searching for the reason for the anger of their gods. The destruction of Pompeii and Saint-Pierre means little to most people today. Yet there is a striking similarity between the life-styles of the inhabitants of these two cities and those of our world today. Many live out their lives tragically unconcerned with the ramifications of their actions. But the Creator God is concerned. He has given us living laws by which we can live happy and fulfilled lives. We break these rules at our peril. Of course, time and chance happen to all. Possibly — just possibly — this is what happened in Saint-Pierre and Pompeii. But don't count on it! The Bible mentions instances when God intervened in the affairs of men to halt activities that were a grievous insult to God and men. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed for their wickedness. The world of Noah's day was destroyed in a flood because of its licentiousness and previously unparalleled violence. Are the ruins of Saint-Pierre and Pompeii merely the end product of time and chance, or is there a lesson here? In Proverbs 11:11, God says, "Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted, but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed" (New International Version throughout). It is food for thought, especially when we can look around and see the many crimes and sins rampant in our cities today. Perhaps a pre-eruption message scrawled on a wall in Pompeii provides a fitting epitaph for that city; it simply reads, "Sodom, Gomorrah." Maybe someone then saw the analogy and recorded it on the wall for a warning to Pompeiian society. It went unheeded. How about our own societies? Could we soon witness similar catastrophic disasters — or worse? Scientists believe we are headed for a reawakening of volcanic activity, but they cannot tell us when or why. For these answers, we must turn to a source that lies outside the realm of science: the Bible.
Prophesied to Happen
Bible prophecy does indeed foretell a tumultuous period of natural disasters. World conditions plainly indicate that we are in the perilous last days that Jesus described in Matthew 24. Jesus warned that before he returned to rule this earth, there would be "earthquakes in various places" (verse 7). Other scriptures plainly show that these earthquakes will be accompanied by historically unparalleled volcanic activity heralding the coming of Jesus Christ to rule the earth (Matt. 24:29-30). "Suddenly, in an instant, the Lord Almighty will come with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with windstorm and tempest and flames of a devouring fire" (Isa. 29:5-6). Why will these events happen? Jesus elaborated on this coming punishment in Matthew 24:29. Here he quoted from Isaiah 13:10-11: "The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light. I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins...." See also Deuteronomy 32:21-22. For nearly 6,000 years, man has rejected the peace and security our Creator has offered us through obedience to his laws. The result has been sin — untold grief and pain caused by living a selfish way of life. And unless God stops our present course, there will be nothing left of this physical creation to salvage (Matt. 24:22). In the past, mankind largely was blinded to the truth of God's creation by superstition. Now he is blinded by a vain assessment of his abilities. Those who have scoffed at their Creator, and yet seen the wonderful design in his creation, will soon be astounded as the elements of the creation become aroused by God's fierce wrath at this world's conduct (Rom. 1:20). The whole earth is going to be affected by these soon-coming events. God is merciful, however. He has plainly told those who are willing to listen, "Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man" (Luke 21:36). But a disbelieving world is going to be ensnared. How about you? Take this warning to heart. Find out where your life is leading — ask God to open your eyes — BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE! For more information, why not read our free booklets Are We Living In the Last Days? and Why Were You Born?