Eyjafjallajökull one year on: What have we learned (and not learned)?
It has now been one year since the eruption that closed the skies over Europe and captured the world's attention. Before April 13-14, 2010, most people outside Iceland (or this blog) had ever heard the name Eyjafjallajökull and suddenly (much to the dismay of broadcasters everywhere), it became a household name.
We've talked about the volcano - a lot - and rightly so. The eruption at Eyjafjallajökull won the 2010 Pliny for Volcanic Event of the Year, narrowly beating out the eruption at Merapi in Indonesia. Although the eruption at Merapi might have been a bigger disaster in terms of human life and property, it didn't come close to the 24 hour media coverage that was seen during the height of the Eyjafjallajökull event. Part of that was because Eyjafjallajökull was smack in the middle of the western world, between Europe and North America, instead of in southern Asia, where most of the people affected by Merapi were not Americans or Europeans (that's the media for you). Part of it was that there was controversy surrounding Eyjafjallajökull - namely the closure of airspace over Europe. The debate broke down, as many things do, between corporations and government, with the airlines wanting a quick closure (for obvious reasons) and the EU government wanting to be more cautious. Both sides were arguing mostly the same points: (1) we don't know what different amounts of ash will do to aircraft and (2) we don't know exactly where the ash is over the continent. Now, many people came out against the EU government because of their overly cautious approach and reliance on models to predict the location of the ash plume (thanks to diligent work by the London VAAC), but really, there was no other plan on how to deal with such an eruption affecting Europe. In the hearings in the United Kingdom about the closure, it was clear that no one has truly anticipated that an eruption of this relatively small magnitude in Iceland could have such a profound impact on almost the entire European community.
Satellite image showing the ash from Eyjafjallajökull spreading over Europe on April 15, 2010.
So, rather than rehash all the finer points of the eruption - which you can see in the announcement for the 2010 Pliny, your thoughts on the eruption or the vast Eyjafjallajökull archive on Eruptions - I thought I'd take my personal stab at what we learned and didn't learn from the eruption that stopped Europe.
What we learned:
The steam and ash plume from Eyjafjallajökull seen on April 14, 2010.
What we didn't learn:
Needless to say, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull is going to become the textbook example of how a volcano will effect the modern, technologic society of the western world in the early 21st century. It brought some of the great superpowers to their knees with a few explosions and left many people wondering why governments around the world don't have a plan for volcanic disasters, even if you're a country like the UK with no local volcanoes of your own. However, I hope it did get people, especially in government and air travel, to think about how to better deal with an eruption that has the ability to disrupt so much air traffic (ahem, Rainier … or for a better comparison, Glacier Peak?) so the next time an eruption threatens, we have a plan on how to handle the ensuing chaos.
Top left: Eyjafjallajökull erupting on April 24, 2010.
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Here's the first evidence to challenge the "fastest sperm" narrative.
Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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