Editor’s note: Originally published on russgeorge.net, this article was republished in shorter form with permission from the author.
The Kamchatca Kuril Islands’ Raikoke volcano erupted on the longest day of the year. Will its iron-rich ash, now falling on the North Pacific, be manna from heaven for all of ocean life? The dust will convert the dying clear blue ocean desert into a flourishing garden of Eden. Billions of baby fish that were sure to starve will now be treated to a feast.
Volcanic Ash Nourishes Ocean Pastures
Raikoke volcano on the Kuril Islands very rarely erupts. The two most recent prior eruptions were in 1924 and 1778. The volcano’s most recent eruption began at 4:00 a.m. on June 22, 2019, as a vast plume of ash and volcanic gases shot up from this sleeping giant. Many satellites — as well as astronauts on the International Space Station (that’s their photo above) — observed as a thick dust cloud rose nearly 10 miles into the air and then streamed east as it was pulled into the circulation of a storm in the North Pacific.
Heavy ash falling from the eruption has already spread over 30,000-50,000 square kilometers (km2) of the western Pacific. This ash fall could not have come at a better time nor in a better place to assist the many species of salmon that spawn in the rivers of far eastern Russia. The far northern summer growing season has just started. And now their ocean pastures are almost certain to respond to the mineral-rich ash. They will become a spectacular and long-lived ocean pasture bloom of plankton.
Billions of baby salmon that have hatched and reared in the rivers are just now making their way out of the Okhotsk Sea into the vast North Pacific Ocean pastures. The question of whether they starve or survive is dependent on the plankton blooms. This year, instead of mostly starving, they will be treated to a feast.
Mother Nature is doing what she can to sustain her oceans. At times, her blessed help comes in the form of volcanoes that explode with the power of a thousand H-bombs. Volcanoes like the one erupting along Russia’s North Pacific coast have at times been Pacific salmon’s saviors. Raikoke is just such a miracle of nature. It is sending its life-giving dust at just the right time and place.
The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired the second image on the morning of June 22. At the time, the most concentrated ash was on the western edge of the plume, above Raikoke. An oblique, composite view based on data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on Suomi NPP, shows the plume a few hours later. After an initial surge of activity that included several distinct explosive pulses, activity subsided and strong winds spread the ash across the Pacific. By the next day, just a faint remnant of the ash remained visible to MODIS.
Volcanic Eruption a Good Cause for Optimism
Two recent events have helped the fish come back — not at recent decades’ near-extinction levels — but rather in historic abundance! The first of these events took place in the late summer of 2008. A near-by volcano on the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, Kasatochi, erupted. And for a few days, it sent a similar plume of ash to the southeast onto the salmon pastures of the Northeast Pacific.
The North Pacific is legendary for being enshrouded in clouds most of the year and almost no one took note of the eruption. Satellites glimpsed only a few effects of the Kasatochi volcanic ash. But within weeks, the Northeast Pacific Ocean pastures produced a richly nourishing and vast bloom of plankton.
As no researchers were working in the region, no oceanographic research boats studied the dusted and thriving ocean pasture. But for the ocean observatory satellite fleet, the bloom might have been missed. We now know the Kasatochi bloom captured hundreds of millions of tons of CO2. And it converted these deadly fossil fuel/fool age emissions into life itself.
Two years later in 2010, the Canadian government had commissioned a Royal Commission to investigate why the iconic sockeye salmon of British Columbia seemed to be nearing extinction. All of the experts had, in sworn testimony before the judge, forecast that only 1.2 million of the gorgeous scarlet sockeye salmon would return from their Northeast Pacific Ocean pastures to spawn that year. News reports were non-stop doom and gloom.
Salmon Pay No Attention to the Judge
While Canadian Supreme Court Justice Cohen was commanding experts to try to find the reason for the demise of salmon, something completely unexpected and wonderful happened. Instead of the disastrously low number (1 million) of sockeye expected, upwards of 40 million of the beautiful fish returned to the Fraser River at Vancouver, British Columbia, while Judge Cohen was listening to his witnesses and experts. (By the way, Judge Cohen ended up spending more than $37 million on his hearings, which did nothing to help the salmon; the real crisis is that they are starving at sea. Read the report.)
This was a return of sockeye not at near-extinction levels, but in numbers equal to the largest returns of salmon in all of history. Those fish survived and thrived as abundant dusted ocean pastures and plankton repurposed hundreds of millions of tons of CO2 into new life in the oceans. It was an inspiring moment, I even wrote a song and produced a video with musician friends about the miracle of the volcanic salmon: 40 Million Salmon Can’t Be Wrong.
Volcanoes Rarely Dust the Ocean at the Right Time & Place
Two earlier volcanic eruptions dusted the Eastern Pacific at the perfect time and place so that their ash fell on ocean pastures that would put the ash minerals to good use. One was in the early 1950s and the other in the 1920s. Such perfectly timed volcanic dustings are few and far between.
Tragically, the Northeast Pacific ocean salmon pasture has once again fallen into a terrible state of collapse. 2015 saw the lowest number of sockeye salmon return to the Fraser River ever, even worse than the near-extinction event levels that had resulted in the Royal Commission of 2010.
Can We Become Like Mother Nature?
Following the record volcanic salmon return of 2010, my work — which had begun years earlier to develop and delivery methods and technologies to restore ocean pastures around the world — became even more focused on the North Pacific salmon pastures. After years of work in collaboration with Canadian government ministries, scientists in academia, and native people in the region, I was ready to try a grand experiment.
If we dusted a large ocean pasture of some 10,000 km2 with vital mineral dust, would it safely and sustainably restore that ocean pasture? Was it possible to intentionally restore and revive such a vast pasture targeting salmon in the region? And in doing so, would we help the baby fish that inhabited that pasture to survive, thrive, and swim back home to us in large numbers?
Restoring Life to a Dying Ocean
By July 2012, I was ready. I had chartered a large fishing vessel, the Ocean Pearl. Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans frequently chartered this same vessel to conduct research voyages in the Northeast Pacific. We loaded the Ocean Pearl with 100 tons of vital mineral-rich dust and set sail to a region of the Pacific hundreds of miles out to sea in the Gulf of Alaska. The home and pasture of both the pink salmon and sockeye salmon. We sprinkled our treasured load of “simulated volcanic ash” onto our ocean pasture. And over the course of two weeks, the ocean turned from a lifeless blue to a life-filled green. Some of my friends now refer to our dusting of that ocean pasture as the “volcano Russatochi.”
Where before our work, we studied and collected a vast library of oceanographic data, we observed precious few living things in that barren ocean pasture. We might see one or a few seabirds on any given day, but never large numbers. Every few days, we saw one or perhaps at most two whales sending their misty spumes into the air. And we were fishing constantly as well as conducting extensive plankton trawls and data collection. Very little life was apparent.
In the days and weeks that followed our success at creating a vast thriving ocean pasture, blooming in abundance with all manner of plankton, everything changed. We began seeing seabirds, not in ones and twos, but in the thousands — perhaps tens of thousands. One morning, I was on deck as the dawn was breaking and flying in great circles around the brightly illuminated ship were flocks of thousands of seabirds, their morning birdsong drowned out the roar of the ship’s mighty diesel engines. Every day, we saw great herds of whales — not merely one or two, but often scores of them.
One day, the captain of the ship — who in his early 70s had spent 50 years in this ocean — called me excitedly to the side window of the bridge deck. There he excitedly pointed to two mother fin whales with calves. “Look, look, they are coming right up to the side of the boat,” he said. “They are looking us right in the eye … they’re smiling at us.” Fin whales are known as the shyest of all whales, but these had decided we were their friends. After all, we had brought their ocean pasture to a condition of health and abundance rarely seen in recent decades.
We were able to catch salmon with fishing rods from the deck of the boat. And even more surprisingly in this incredibly cold northern ocean, vast schools of albacore tuna arrived on my restored ocean pasture. My and their ocean world had become a “Garden of Eden.” It was a humbling experience. And I thought back to my tutorial by the master ocean scientist, John Martin, who proposed in the 1980s that we not only could but must work to restore our dwindling ocean pastures.
What Happened as a Result of ‘Russatochi’?
The year following my work to restore the salmon pastures of the Northeast Pacific, the forecast for the catch of pink salmon, the most abundant of five species of salmon in Alaska, was that between 50-52 million “pinks” would be caught. That prediction made everyone happy, it meant a very good catch!
But unexpectedly to most, there were a lot more of my pasture-fed pink salmon than the “authorities” could ever know. When the fishing began, it was immediately reported that the salmon were abundant everywhere as never seen before.
By the time the catch season had ended, at least 226 million pink salmon had swum into the nets and hands of Alaska fishers, fish processors, and into the mouths of humans and marine life in the largest numbers in all of history.
Join me in cheering on the Russian volcano Raikoke as it delivers vital mineral micronutrient-rich ash to the dying ocean pastures of the Northern Pacific.
About the Author
A life-long nature lover, as a child Russ George spent more of his childhood in fields and forests than inside. After university, he moved into the western Canadian wilderness where he was a back-to-the-land hippy, logger, mountaineer, and tree planter. His first business was a tree planting company that continues to this day, though with new owners; it has planted hundreds of millions of trees across Canada. Today, his grandchildren consider some of the forests they love — forests Russ helped plant with his own hands nearly 50 years ago — to be old growth, like him. For 20 years now, he has focused his life and love on the job of restoring the ocean pastures, the blue-green forests of this blue planet, so that we might bring back the fish and all of ocean life. Learn more at russgeorge.net.