Explosive news of life on Jupiter’s erupting moon, and in Indonesia

While volcanic eruptions disrupt life in Indonesia, elsewhere in our solar system they might be making it interesting.

This column won’t be of much comfort to the thousands displaced by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia. Lava flows are reaching as far as five kilometres from Mount Sinabung, which has been erupting since September, and the Indonesian government has said that any settlements within three kilometres of the mountainside will be relocated permanently. But even if there is no human habitation in the area, we know that there will be much new life emerging in the shadow of the volcano.

This is what happened on the Japanese island of Nishinoshima. Created by a volcanic eruption 40 years ago, it is now home to four species of plant and plenty of insects.

Volcanoes are a great boon to biology. According to a paper published in this month’s edition of the journal Geology, volcanic eruptions and other side effects of the earth having a hot, molten interior are responsible for the vast range of life on our planet.

The evidence comes from zircons, crystals that are formed only in volcanic eruptions. Geologists have found a glut of zircons in rocks that formed just before the period biologists call the Cambrian Explosion. The Cambrian Explosion occurred 540 million years ago, when a huge number of new animals suddenly appeared. Most of the body forms of today were formed in this ten-million-year evolutionary spurt – after the zircons appeared. The conclusion? Volcanic eruptions are one of the earth’s vital signs: an indication that life is about to get interesting.

That is largely because eruptions throw huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The warming effect this produces affects the climate and provides a change in conditions that favours the emergence of diversity. Put simply, the organisms that were suited to the old earth fall by the wayside, creating space for new life experiments.

That is especially fascinating given observations of one of Jupiter’s moons. The ice-world Europa has long been seen as a good potential home for extraterrestrial life. That candidacy just got much stronger: it was reported last month that astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to keep an eye on Europa have spotted evidence of volcanic activity.

Europa’s ice crust, which is thought to be a few kilometres thick, covers a watery ocean over 100 kilometres deep. Nobody knows whether life exists in that ocean, but if it does it would require a source of energy. As so little sunlight penetrates the ice crust, that would have to come from within. That is why the signs of intermittent plumes of vapour erupting from the ice have so excited hunters of extraterrestrial life: it suggests that some kind of life-giving volcanic energy is at work inside the icy moon.

We won’t find life on Europa any time soon. Though the plumes rise high enough that passing spacecraft could sample the vapour spurting from the ocean – and perhaps detect life within it – the next scheduled flyby of Europa will take place in 2031.

It is sobering to think that, if the astronomers’ conclusion is right, Europa is only the fourth body in the solar system to exhibit volcanism. The other three are its neighbouring moon Io, Saturn’s moon Enceladus and, of course, Planet Earth. These are very special places: volcanoes bring misery and death but they also usher in the possibility of complex biology. While volcanic eruptions disrupt life in Indonesia, elsewhere in our solar system they might be making it interesting.
 

More than 25,000 people have fled their homes following a series of eruptions and lava flows from Sinabung volcano in North Sumatra. Photo: AFP/Sutanta Aditya/Getty Images.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

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Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.