In Praise of the (Almost) Supernatural Power of Volcanoes

Robin George Andrews Thinks Lava Needs Better PR

Volcanoes have a terrible reputation. When most adults think of volcanoes, especially adults that don’t live particularly close to one, they think of huge explosions that often result in death and destruction. Volcanoes are perceived as harbingers of doom whose sole purpose is to maim and melt.

It isn’t difficult to work out where this reputation comes from. Science journalists, like myself, write about volcanoes whenever they do something noteworthy or when scientists poke around them a bit and find out something fascinating or surprising about them. But volcanoes understandably crop up in the general news cycle when they erupt near a bunch of people and those people are put in peril. If an eruption ends up killing people, as happens every so often, we are treated to grim tales of suffering and some horrific accompanying imagery. These stories tend to be punctuated by two common threads. The first features people wondering aloud why no one saw this coming. The second involves scientists doing their utmost to explain that no volcano telegraphs whether it will erupt, precisely when it will erupt, and in what manner it will erupt. And these stories often give the impression that volcanoes are scary, unpredictable bombs hiding in cones of immense danger.

Volcano soothsayers on social media and unscrupulous editors at terrible news outlets, on the prowl for clicks, will make bold and entirely false claims in order to get a good harvest. They will tell you that an innocuous volcano is without question about to erupt and destroy this city/country/world. They will imply scientists have no idea what is happening or that they do know but are trying to hide the truth from the masses. As the past few years have made nauseatingly clear, misinformation playing to people’s fears quickly becomes viral. Millions of people, anxious about the state of the world, get their information on volcanoes through the prognostications of these charlatans.

And then, of course, there’s Hollywood. Don’t get me wrong: if it’s a good film, you can use volcanoes to spectacular effect. But the vast majority of movies that feature volcanoes frame them as nature’s ovens of annihilation. Whether you are trying to melt Chris Pratt and some dinosaurs or are hoping to destroy an evil ring, volcanoes will do the job. It doesn’t have to be lava that puts our characters in danger. Volcanoes have a bottomless box of deadly tricks, from avalanches of superheated matter moving at supersonic speeds to showers of asphyxiating ash. And because volcanoes have a phenomenal sense of dramatic timing, they will always do the most inconvenient, visually over-​the-​top thing possible whenever it is required of them. You can almost hear the volcano laughing like a stereotypical comic book supervillain as it keeps chasing screaming humans around. There are exceptions, but movies largely treat volcanoes like supremely powerful antagonists: they are there to end lives, burn down cities, and even bring an end to entire civilizations.

Okay. To be fair, volcanoes have done all three of these things.

A scientific paper published in 2017 had the unenviable task of estimating how many people have been killed by volcanoes, directly (for example, hit by lava) or indirectly (for example, severely altering the weather to cause a famine), in the past 500 years. Although counting the dead gets more difficult the further back in time you go, this reliable record came to a tally of 278,368 fatalities. Some of these deaths took place on the slopes of a volcano, while others happened hundreds of miles away.

Movies largely treat volcanoes like supremely powerful antagonists: they are there to end lives, burn down cities, and even bring an end to entire civilizations.

Eruptions can sometimes jettison all kinds of sunlight-​mangling vapors into the sky that end up briefly but acutely disrupting weather patterns, causing some parts of the world to suddenly dry up while others get a soaking. On a few historical occasions this has triggered environmental troubles so unyielding and severe that teetering empires were finally pushed over the edge, including the Roman Republic and the Ptolemaic dynasty in Ancient Egypt.

On a planetary scale, they’ve done far worse. Around 252 million years ago, a planet already suffering from ecological turmoil was also baking thanks to the 2-​million-​year-​long eruption of lava gushing out of what is now Siberia. This continental-​scale volcanism, unleashing climate-​perturbing gases of its own, also ignited a huge reservoir of coal, triggering a global warming offensive. When all was said and done, this Murder on the Orient Express–​style apocalypse killed more than nine out of every ten marine species and seven out of ten terrestrial vertebrate species—​birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and so forth—​on the planet. This event, aptly known as the Great Dying, was easily the worst mass extinction in Earth’s history and its darkest chapter. Life barely made it through to the other side.

But here’s the thing: volcanoes spend most of their time not erupting. When they do erupt, they often don’t kill anyone. On average, there are about 40 volcanoes on Earth spewing lava or ash at any single moment in time. They don’t usually make headlines because they are merely obeying the laws of thermodynamics, not melting people.

Volcanoes, like hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and so on, aren’t inherently dangerous. They become a danger when people are in the way of them. We, the people, make the hazard. Eruptions only kill us because we, knowingly and unknowingly, built our cities on the slopes of lava factories.

Around 800 million people live within 60 miles or so of an active volcano. The reasons why are complex. The land closer to the riskier sectors of a volcano is often cheaper and is therefore more likely to be lived on by those lower down on the socioeconomic ladder. There are also plenty of grim historical reasons why people live close to potentially lethal volcanoes. Jazmin Scarlett, a social and historical volcanologist, once shared with me a particularly egregious example. Before the Europeans arrived, the indigenous population of the West Indies’ island of St. Vincent lived along the shores. But after becoming a British colony in the 1760s, the newly enslaved people were forced to live much closer to the island’s La Soufrière volcano. A powerful eruption in 1812 killed many slaves working on inland plantations. Another major eruption in 1902–​1903 left the liberated descendants of former slaves in financial ruin. Today, those living closest to the volcano are often the island’s poorest.

But, for a decent proportion of those 800 million, living with a volcano on the horizon or right on their doorstep is a choice. Although often aware of the hazards it poses, their lives entwine with the volcano’s benefits. Volcanoes can provide fertile soil to grow crops on, a center of religious or spiritual importance, a nexus for tourism, a hot spot of biodiversity, and an astoundingly beautiful backdrop to people’s homes. For many, the volcano is their home. The risk of a dangerous eruption, which varies from volcano to volcano, is usually an acceptable price to pay. People in Florida may wonder why anyone would choose to live near an active volcano, but the inhabitants of a volcanic region may wonder why anyone would choose to live in a part of the world that gets hit every year by hurricanes, which are only becoming more powerful because of climate change.

I’m not pretending that volcanoes can’t be dangerous. Nearly 280,000 deaths is a lot of fatalities, and in some cases, tens of thousands of people can be slaughtered by a single eruption. But as I write this in the fading summer of 2020, a respiratory virus that barely registered six months ago has already killed nearly a million people all over the world. Unlike volcanoes, which have far more benefits than drawbacks, deadly respiratory viruses don’t have any plus sides. They are thoroughly terrible.

I would argue that volcanoes are, for the most part, good. No, they are incredible. Volcanoes are capable of doing things that verge on the supernatural.

Let me tell you about a Japanese volcano named Sakurajima, meaning “cherry blossom island.” Its name used to make sense, because it once stood alone in Kagoshima Bay. But one day, the volcano decided that isolation didn’t suit it. It yearned for an encounter with the mainland. When it realized that the people on the opposing shores wouldn’t build a bridge themselves, the volcano decided it couldn’t wait any longer. In early January 1914, it rumbled and grumbled, letting the people know to stand back. On January 12, it exploded to life, sending ash punching through the clouds, flinging sparks into the air, and spilling lava out into the bay in what amounted to the largest volcanic paroxysm in Japan during the twentieth century. The eruption continued until May 1915, by which point it had dumped so much volcanic debris into the bay that the island was now a peninsula, connected with the mainland. More than a century later, that bridge, built in a volcanic crucible, still stands. I’ve walked over it several times.

Volcanoes showcase the extreme resilience of life that is far from human.

Volcanoes all over the world make their own magic. Eruptions at the bottom of the oceans grow shimmering cities of glass. Lakes of molten rock pool at the top of the glaciated Mount Michael, a volcano hiding on an island just shy of Antarctica. Vertiginous tree canopies full of wild animals embellish the steep slopes of Arenal, a volcano spiraling into the clouds in Costa Rica. Wine grapes coat the flanks of Etna, the Roof of the Mediterranean, while its peak coughs, simmers, and sizzles as a thunderstorm of its own design dances in the night above. Lava flinging itself out of the sea 600 miles south of the Japanese mainland is, at this very moment, piecing together one of the youngest islands on Earth. The lava of Kawah Ijen, a volcano in Indonesia, glows blue and purple at night as the sulfur inside bursts into flames. And not too long ago, just outside of Tokyo, two lifelong friends scrambled up a frozen throne of flame to reach a gate lingering far above the clouds.

Earth, however, doesn’t have a monopoly on volcanoes. Any world that has either some heat trapped over from its explosive birth or a geologic method of making new heat can make volcanoes. Orbiting our Sun are planets and moons that, simply by cooling down, can create eruptions that beggar belief: those where lava breaches the gravity well of the world and shoots off into space; those resembling demonic spiders; those so hot and effusive that they can outshine the glittering stars suspended in the background; those that, with time, build volcanoes so immense that they change the journey of these worlds around the Sun. There is no need to apply a science-​fiction sheen to the volcanoes of the solar system. To do so would only dull their brilliance.

And there is more to volcanoes than their scientifically explicable sorcery.

The solar system is no longer the land of gods and monsters, but the breathtaking theater of mathematics, physics, and chemistry. We have torn down the dusty veils of superstition and replaced them with a complex cartography that charts and chronicles the behavior of worlds so that we may better understand them. There are, however, far more conundrums than definitive answers.

Fortunately, volcanoes dig up secrets for us that no other natural process can. The peaks, craters, and chasms form where they form, look the way they look, and erupt the way they erupt—​if, of course, they are still erupting—​because the planetary engines far below the surface are operating in a specific way. When volcanoes erupt, they bring with them scientific gold: heat, direct from the belly of the beast itself; gases, trapped in crystals; ancient rocks filled with a hadean chemistry. These components don’t just tinker with a planet’s surface in the present. They are quite literally the ingredients for the recipe that makes that planet in the first place. They clue us in to why one planet has water and an atmosphere while another world doesn’t, let us know where continents are ripping themselves apart in order to create a new ocean, and tell us if a planet’s surface is made up of broken puzzle pieces whose movements fashion everything that is made on the skin of the world. They take us billions of years into the past so we can find out how planets come together and open a window into the possible futures a planet could have taken. Volcanoes showcase the extreme resilience of life that is far from human. And they sketch out the ways worlds can end, and the ways they can’t.

 

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Excerpted from Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal About Earth and the Worlds Beyond. Used with the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Robin George Andrews.

Robin George Andrews
Robin George Andrews
Robin George Andrews is a science journalist with a PhD in volcanology. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, National Geographic, Scientific American, Atlas Obscura, and other publications. He lives in London, England.





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