Could volcanism have spread organisms?

Recently there have been worrying accounts about pathogens, for instance the viruses that cause foot and mouth disease in livestock, flu in humans and other animals and the sheep disease bluetongue carried by tiny midges, being transported for thousands of kilometres in dust storms.  They raise the question of whether or not in the past organisms small enough to be carried by winds in aerosol suspension might have helped colonise regions distant from where they evolved.

The Taupo eruption's three main vents ran para...

The 600 square kilometre caldera lake of Taupo on New Zealand’s North Island. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Studies of volcanic ash thought to have been transported at high latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere from a 25 thousand-year old major volcanic eruption on the North Island of New Zealand add volcanic activity to violent meteorological phenomena as a possible means of transport (Van Eaton, A.R. et al. 2013. High-flying diatoms: Widespread dispersal of microorganisms in an explosive volcanic eruption. Geology, v. 41, p. 1187-1190). Ash from as far as 850 km from the volcano turns out to incorporate abundant remains of diatoms – species of algae that secrete distinctively intricate skeletons made from silica. The volcano, Taupo, erupted from beneath a lake bed, explaining the diatoms’ origin from lake muds and the water column itself. Even details of the organisms’ soft parts and pigmentation are preserved in the ash, suggesting that at least some of them might have been transported alive. Astonishingly, the New Zealand authors’ counts of organic material in the ash suggest that as much as 0.6 km3 of diatom remains were dispersed during the eruption.

English: Circle of diatoms on a slide

Assorted species of diatoms on a microscope slide (credit: Wikipedia)

Violent sub-aqueous eruptions can entrain liquid water as spray as well as water vapour and glassy magma shards, carrying the mixture into the stratosphere, far above wind belts in the lower atmosphere. At such altitudes transport can spread fine aerosols through an entire hemisphere because they remain in suspension for long periods.

Different species of diatom live in subtly different environments, so that their relative proportions and presence or absence in ash provide a ‘fingerprint’ for the volcano responsible. So the discovery by the team from the Victoria University of Wellington (a ‘first’) presents a new tool for identifying the source of ash layers in the volcanic record that came from  other volcanoes associated with caldera lakes – common for those capable of launching huge volumes of material aloft, such as Toba that erupted in Sumatra at around 74 ka and may have influenced the first modern human migrants from Africa. But could minute organisms survive both the volcanic heat and blast and a traverse through the dry stratosphere to result in colonisation? If that were possible it would have significant implications for the spread of early life forms during the far more volcanically active Hadean and Archaean Eons of Earth’s history.

Commenting on the article, Jennifer Pike of Cardiff University, UK (Pike, J. 2013. Of volcanoes and diatoms. Geology, v. 41, p. 1199-2000) surmises that diatoms might survive drying out in the stratosphere, provided they were in the form of spores encased in silica. Such spores were not found in the Taupo ash, but who is to say that they will not be discovered in other ancient volcanic ash layers? Spores are extremely durable and other micro-organisms than diatoms produce them and have done in the past.

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