WASHINGTON—”A frightening noise and then a blast of wind hit us, and we saw fire falling from the sky.” That was one of the many descriptions that reached the Scientific Event Alert Network (SEAN) after Ruiz, a volcano in Colombia, blew up Nov. 13, 1985. Peaceful for 140 years, Ruiz erupted and killed more than 22,000 people. Only three volcanoes have taken more lives; in contrast, Mount St. Helens, which got far more attention, is blamed for only about 60 deaths.

But the scientists who maintain SEAN (pronounced say-on) aren’t only interested in geological “superstars” like Mount St. Helens or ultra-catastrophic events like the Ruiz eruption. Nestled in the inner recesses of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, SEAN has gathered information on 205 of the world’s volcanoes, as well as meteorites and fireballs. Its information comes not just from news accounts, but also from the more than 1,000 correspondents...

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