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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Next month's Spanish election is on a knife edge

After a December election failed to produce a clear result, Spain goes to the polls again a month today - but the result will likely be tight again.

In December 2015, Spain had the general election Britain was predicted to have had last year: the two biggest parties unable to form a majority, with two smaller parties playing kingmaker. In the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats did so much worse than predicted that the Tories were able to scrape a majority from their losses. In Spain, however, the two older, established parties performed so badly, they ended up with just 50 per cent of the national vote between them. The bulk of the remaining votes went, primarily, to two parties contesting a Spanish general election for the first time: Podemos and Ciudadanos.

The two largest parties falling from 75 per cent of the national vote share to 50 per cent was a political earthquake, but one that was expected. Over the past few years, a series of corruption scandals saw support from traditional, unionist voters for the establishment dwindle. Before the results came in, most of the Spanish media had predicted that a two-party coalition would be necessary to reach the 176 Deputies needed for a majority. However, neither the two major right-leaning nor left-leaning parties were able meet the threshold together. This was in part due to how close the final result was, but also because of 26 Deputies being split between five small, regional parties. Why a coalition wasn’t formed with some of these smaller parties needs a bit of backstory.

Of the two biggest, and most established, parties, the largest at the last election was the incumbent Partido Popular (PP). In English, their name means The People’s Party. The irony here is that a former minister in the regime of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, founded the PP’s original incarnation, the People’s Alliance. The dictatorship lasted from 1936 to 1975, so there still are plenty of people who remember life under its oppression.

The PP’s closest equivalent in Britain would be the Tories. Both represent the interests of the establishment, oppose regional devolution, and are deeply ideologically conservative.

I spent a couple of years living in Spain, specifically in Tenerife and Pamplona. In both the Canary Islands and Navarre, there is a strong local identity separate to that of Spain; in Navarre, there is even a language, Basque, which is completely unrelated to Spanish. What these two regions, at opposite ends of the country, also have in common, is large numbers of people with a deeply rooted hatred of the Franco dictatorship and its descendants. While there are plenty of politically conservative voters, they refuse to vote for a party with such strong links to the dictatorship.

Nonetheless, the PP won the most Deputies in the December election, which afforded them the first opportunity to form a government. Their most obvious coalition partner was the Ciudadanos party (Cs). In English, their name translates to Citizens. They were founded a decade ago in reaction to Catalan separatism, which they perceived as anti-Spanish, and three years ago they began to organise nationally. The Cs found masses of support amongst liberal and conservative voters who opposed further devolution, but wouldn’t vote for the PP.

It’s hard to find a British equivalent, but the closest would be the Ulster Unionist Party, if they had more Liberal Democrat policies and decided to field candidates in the rest of the UK, appealing to those who oppose Scottish and Welsh nationalism.

I worked for an environmental charity in Tenerife and in primary schools in Pamplona. Neither of these jobs was political in the government and elections sense, and yet co-workers and neighbours discussed the struggle between regional and national identity every day. After four decades of dictatorship, support for devolution was inevitable. But after years of nationalist and seperatist parties emphasising the divisions between their communities and the rest of Spain, perhaps the rise of a post-nationalist party should have been expected.

The Cs’ central tenet of anti-nationalism quickly became as popular in the many Spanish regions with separatist parties as it was in their native Catalonia. However, they only won 40 Deputies, which, when added to the PP’s 123, fell 13 short of a majority.

The PP’s main rival for 40 years has been the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). Its name translates as The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, and is, unsurprisingly, a party founded by socialists that looks a lot like the UK Labour Party. In 2016, and for at least the past decade prior, the PSOE has been far more New Labour than Labour. Nonetheless, the PSOE weathered the rise of two insurgent parties better than the PP, but still came second, with 90 seats.

The PSOE’s most obvious choice for a coalition partner was the left-wing Podemos (in English: We Can). Podemos, a coalition of left-wing parties, is best described as an anti-austerity, anti-corruption party: essentially, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. They have since formed a new alliance with other left-wing parties, becoming Unidos Podemos (UP), which translates as United We Can. UP is a larger coalition, combining communists, greens, and socialist regional parties who want independence or greater autonomy. Together, they won 71 seats, which, when added to the PSOE’s 90, left them 15 short.

This meant that the larger parties had to consider involving some of the 26 Deputies belonging to the five regional parties. The problem they encountered was that these five small parties were divided between conservatives and socialists, as well as unionists and nationalists.

On a purely left to right scale, there were 11 socialists, which meant that even if they joined with the centre-left PSOE and left-wing UP, they would still have fallen short of a majority. This left 15 conservative Deputies, which would have given a coalition of the conservative PP and centre-right C’s two more than needed for a majority. What stopped this before it could begin were the PP and C’s anti-separatist ideologies. So, while they may have agreed on just about every topic, the subject of devolution was too divisive for a conservative coalition to have been possible.

So, you might wonder, if the left didn’t have the numbers and the right did but couldn’t work together, were there any other options? Of course there were! Any three of the four biggest parties could have formed a coalition with a large majority, but, as you should expect by now, negotiations failed.

Put simply, the historic divide between the PP and PSOE made their coalition as likely as a Tory-Labour one. The Cs, positioning themselves as centrists, seemed willing to work with either of the bigger, older parties, but refused to form a coalition with UP, due to the latter’s support for a Catalan independence referendum. The PP refused to work with UP for the same reason, in addition to their massive political differences.

So, after negotiations failed, a second election had to be called so the electorate would solve the problem for the politicians. Any hope the two older parties had of the insurgent Cs or UP collapsing, and their votes being swept up by the old guard look increasingly unlikely.

Recent polls show UP has edged above the PSOE, and is now in second place. The Cs are also rising, with the PP maintaining its numbers and PSOE slightly slipping a percentage or two into third place. The gained votes are coming from the smaller parties, particularly Catalan nationalists, who have split into two parties and stand to lose seats as a result.

Next month’s result, however, may not be all that different to December’s, given Spain’s use of proportional representation to elect its Deputies. The current small swing of a few per cent won’t drastically alter the end result in the same way it would in Britain. However, all that’s needed to break the deadlock is a very small shift towards any of the 4 big players.

Based on recent polls, I predict the election next month will produce a coalition, albeit one with a razor thin majority. At the moment, it feels like the left and the right have equal chance to scrape victory, but both scenarios would result in governments that depend upon compromise, not just within their coalitions, but with their oppositions too. This is something Spanish parties have yet to master, and, until they do, Spain won’t have a government for the foreseeable future.

The effects this will have on the European Union remain to be seen, as whoever leads the next Spanish government as their Prime Minister, is currently anyone’s guess.