Volcanoes are cooler than you

Volcanoes are cooler than you

They do more than look good – they change the world

Volcanoes are creators of worlds, capable of remarkable acts and pyrotechnical pows. The Earth came into being thanks to the solar system’s strangest volcano burps. Here, Robin George Andrews – the award-winning author of Super Volcanoes and ‘The New York Times volcano guy’ – reveals how the geological marvels make and break worlds 

At a recent gathering in London, a friend of a friend recently asked me a somewhat curious question:

why do I write about volcanoes so frequently?

“They’re just big rock piles, aren’t they?”

There’s plenty of science out there for a science journalist to write about, they said – so, why focus so much on volcanoes? “What makes them so interesting?”

There aren’t any volcanoes in London. Volcanoes don’t seem to influence the day-to-day life of Londoners. This person’s question wasn’t unfair or unreasonable. But they probably weren’t expecting to be subjected to such a cascading response.

I’m a volcanologist by training. For a large chunk of my still relatively youthful existence, I wanted to become a certified doctor of volcanoes, partly because the title was so amusing to me that I couldn’t resist trying to attain it, and partly because a volcano in a video game I played as a kid inspired me to seek them out in real life. Growing up in the volcano-lacking United Kingdom, it also occurred to me early on that journeying to volcanoes would mean seeing parts of the world few of my fellow Brits ever will – a nice bonus, for sure. I also happen to think the science behind volcanoes is enthralling, and the fact that they just do their thing, perform their pyrotechnical showcases, and there is nothing we can do to stop them, is a humbling experience.

But my primary motivation for researching volcanoes, and then writing about them after I made the switch to journalism, should be obvious to anyone who has ever seen footage of an eruption, whether that be a lava-filled profusion or a more explosive, ash-laden tempest: volcanoes are fucking cool.

Lava flowing from one of the Kilauea fissures in 2018 | All photos and videos courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey

Those braided rivers of molten rock, sizzling at temperatures many hundreds of degrees hotter than boiling water, look otherworldly. Those towering columns of ash and volcanic glass, brimming with lightning, thunder, and almost supernatural power, are astonishing to behold. Seeing partly molten bombs of lava being blasted out of a crater at speeds approaching supersonic? Mind-blowing. Volcanoes create their own weather, their own topography, their own soundscapes. They are self-evidently magical, remarkable feats of geologic architecture.

Watching footage or seeing photographs of eruptions is sufficient to have your soul stirred. But I would highly recommend seeking out (safely, of course) an actively erupting volcano somewhere on this peculiar planet and seeing that effervescence in person. You won’t be the same person afterwards. The first time I ever saw lava up close, it took the form of a fountain, one whose heat brushed my face in the dead of night and whose rumbles caused my skeleton to involuntary tremble. It was like facing down a dragon.

Even when they’re not erupting, volcanoes are astonishing things to behold. I wrote Super Volcanoes, a popular science book about volcanoes – on Earth, and on other worlds far beyond our shores – recently, and the prologue certainly features a volcano, as you’d expect – in this case, Mount Fuji in Japan. But there are zero explosions. (Don’t worry, the big bangs come later.) Fuji has created some truly paroxysmal blasts in the past, and it will one day repeat that history. But for the time being, this beautifully symmetric mountain, one built from eons of erupting ignifluous matter, is the most perfect place in the world to see shooting stars. Head up there in summer, around the time of the Perseid meteor shower, and the moment you crest the clouds, look up at the inky night sky: you will see the incandescence of hundreds of bits of falling space rock graffitiing the shadows, a sight only possible thanks to that cloud-defeating throne of volcanic fire on which you’re standing.

The aesthetics of volcanoes,

whether they are erupting or snoozing,

are rarely anything other than beguiling.

But there’s so much more to them than what you see on the surface. People often say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover alone – and you shouldn’t, even if the covers of these geologic books are staggeringly beautiful. Their real value resides not in what they look like, but what they do.

What they do isn’t always good, of course. We were all recently reminded that volcanic eruptions can sometimes inflict great pain upon societies. Toward the end of last year, the three-month-long lava-spewing eruption on La Palma, one of the Canary Islands, destroyed thousands of homes – although, thanks to extensive examination of the Cumbre Vieja volcano responsible prior to its eruption, people were moved out of harm’s way before that magmatic exsanguination began. And just this past January, after rumbling and grumbling for a few weeks, the South Pacific submarine volcano Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha‘apai produced a cataclysmic explosion, one that sent volcanic debris halfway to space, smothered the Kingdom of Tonga’s main island in a thick veil of glassy ash, and unleashed a lethal regional tsunami.

Fortunately, such paroxysms also offer scientists bounties of invaluable data, the sort that improves their understanding of not just the eruptions of the present, but of those that happened long ago, and of those yet to pass. And with each successive decade, as more volcanoes are better monitored, and as continuously accruing volcanic knowledge leads to more scientific breakthroughs, an increasing number of people become less likely to experience volcanic harm.

It’s also worth noting that 800 million people live within 60 miles of an active volcano. There are a range of reasons why this is the case, but the most compelling one I’ve found is something that everyone can relate to: for close to a billion people, living in the shadows or on the slopes of volcanoes is, simply, home. Volcanoes provide land, fertile soil, remarkable scenery, economic opportunities, spiritual experiences, and nucleation points for entire cultures. We should all be so lucky to live near one.

Children pose with 8 ton ballistic block at Kīlauea, Hawai‘i, 1924 | Photo courtesy of the Tsuchiya family

Relative to us surface dwellers, volcanoes are also timeless. Nothing lasts forever, and that includes their magma fuel supplies. But volcanoes have been around for 4.6 billion years, popping up the very moment the global magma ocean splashing about on the infant Earth began to cool and solidify. And they have been playing a key role in our planet’s affairs ever since.

Volcanoes made the very first land. Our continents may be forged from ancient rocks, but if you’ve ever been to a volcanic island, especially one that’s actively erupting, you get to see the youngest land on the planet being manufactured before your very eyes. Volcanic gases provide planets with their first atmosphere – and, as is often the case, their present-day atmosphere, (although the emergence of photosynthesis on Earth took our planet’s skies on a very different journey). On very rare occasions, eruptions transpiring over the course of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years, can disrupt the climate so significantly that they cause mass extinctions. But as underwater volcanoes and their alien-like hydrothermal vents demonstrate, they also incubate a plethora of life, from hardy microorganisms to creative crustaceans and fantastical fish. It also happens that water is a key component of eruptions – and Earth without an abundance of liquid water would be a deeply unpalatable place to live.

Halema‘uma‘u crater activity recorded in 2021

Volcanoes don’t just look cool. They affect, and often determine, the fates of entire worlds. They are a clear sign that we are attached to a living world, one that’s hot and churning on the inside. And by erupting, they give us the opportunity to peer into this otherwise hidden realm – to look under the planetary hood, to see how Earth’s engine is running.

Volcanoes are fiery truth-tellers, planetary tinkerers, and the very best landscape architects. There is nothing quite like them. How could I not write about them?

After I took a breath, my interrogator silently nodded. Fair enough, he seemed to say. I asked him what he did. “Quantity surveyor,” he shot back.

“Alright,” I said. “What makes that so goddamn interesting?”

Magma-curious? 5 mind blowing volcano facts

1. A volcanic mountain grew to become so massive so quickly on Mars that the entire planet’s crust tipped over by 20 degrees – a bit like London suddenly moving to the North Pole. 

2. After the Philippines’ Pinatubo volcano blew its top in 1991, leaving behind a 1.5-mile hole in its peak, ecologists expected it would take an age for life to return. Within a matter of months, a very meek-looking mouse became the most dominant mammal on the mountain. 

3. If you fell into the most common type of lava, you wouldn’t sink into it. You’d float on it and be grilled to death.

4. A nuke can’t set off a volcano. We know this because during the Cold War, the US blew up multiple buried nuclear weapons around a few Alaskan volcanoes and none of them erupted. 

5. Around 40 volcanoes are erupting somewhere on Earth at any given moment. That’s not weird, that’s normal. If no volcanoes were erupting, that would be deeply worrying.

What’s so good about this?

Volcanoes aren’t just there to put on a fireworks show. They incubate life. They foster human cultures. They paint the skies and forge new land. They make and break worlds. We live on a planet covered in active volcanoes – and we should consider ourselves extremely fortunate to do so.

Want to learn more? Super Volcanoes is an exhilarating, time-traveling journey to the solar system’s most awe-inspiring volcanoes.

Meet the writer

Robin George Andrews is a doctor of volcanoes who decided a few years ago to jump the academic ship and become a freelance science journalist instead. It’s not going too terribly. His work often appears in the New York Times, Scientific American, National Geographic, The Atlantic, Gizmodo, Atlas Obscura, Supercluster, WIRED, New Scientist, Quanta Magazine and a bunch of other neat places. He recently wrote a popular science book – Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond – that people seem to like, and he won a science journalism award, which he thought was ridiculous but lovely. You can find him @SquigglyVolcano on Twitter and Instagram, and you can read through some of his musings over at robingeorgeandrews.com

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