Images of lava sliding down steep volcanoes are so frightening we have made movies based on outbursts of what many call ‘flaming rivers.’ Pompeii, Dante’s Peak or Joe Versus the Volcano all evoke horrifying pictures of deadly natural disasters.
Volcanoes are not unusual elements of our environment, although we often consider them a far away danger. Indeed, we might very well be geographically distant from volcanoes, but do we know the role they play in our lives?
What volcanoes are and what they were thought to be
Mountains and volcanoes are similar but their formation is different and it explains why volcanic activity is far more dangerous than any other. The geological process that forms mountains is nothing but a movement of tectonic plates.
A volcano is formed around a vent that allows magma to reach the surface of the earth after previous volcanic eruptions have amassed lava (liquid rock) and have formed volcanic stones that then cool down around the vent.
Besides their actual geological origin, the peculiarity of volcanoes has always aroused people’s curiosity. Ancient Greek and Roman myths are evidence of how volcanic activity has always been perceived as a danger surrounded by fascination and mystery.
Hephaestus (Vulcan for the Romans) forged the weapons for the Olympic gods by crafting lava and many more myths surround the origin of Mount Etna, which today is the highest active volcano in Europe.
According to one of the myths, when Zeus overpowered the monster Typhon, he imprisoned him under Etna and it is said Athena hurled the whole island of Sicily on top of him.
A monster trapped under the surface of the earth was a good explanation of the volcanic activity of the Mount and it certainly worked as a warning against the dangers of the volcano.
Even Hephaestus, the Greek god, wasn’t immune to the dangers of volcanoes. He was often represented with damaged skin or with a general ugly appearance, and experts have taken this to be a sign of arsenicosis, i.e. the effect of exposure to high level of arsenic, found in combination with sulfur.
Doesn’t this sound like the result of toxic purging of volcanic eruptions?
Living in proximity to a volcano
Although one would keep some distance from such dangers, many populations in history have settled in proximity to a volcano, exploiting its fertile soil but exposing themselves to a lethal risk.
Everyone is familiar with Herculaneum and Pompeii, two cities in Southern Italy which were buried in 79 A.D. under the ashes and rocks of Mount Vesuvius.
To this day Vesuvius is an active volcano and, although it is deemed one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, more than 3.000.000 people still live in its proximity, making a potential future eruption a disastrous perspective.
Of course there are preemptive strategies in place. Seismic monitoring can pick up signals of earthquakes that usually precede volcanic eruptions, signalling that the volcanic activity has become shallower.
However, earthquake detection alone can’t prevent tragedies. First, earthquakes can cause devastating effects, that is, tsunamis. Secondly, pyroclastic flows – hot gas and volcanic matter – moves at up to 700 km/h, making it impossible to outrun them. Nor is it possible to take refuge inside a building. When a flow passes by, temperatures can reach 300 °C, making breathing impossible.
Many adapt to a life in proximity to volcanoes. For example, people living near Sakurajima, Japan’s most active volcano, get on with their daily lives albeit the likelihood of an eruption.
Previous eruptions have already killed several people and covered the city in ash. Citizens are prepared though: they stock up dust masks, they cover any openings with damp cloths and are ready to tape shut windows.
Sakurajima regularly spews ashes, but the citizens of Kagoshima simply clean up the streets and wash their cars, just ready for another eruption.
Some good things about volcanoes
Although volcanoes are almost exclusively associated with disasters, they also positively contribute to Earth’s health.
For example, volcanic ashes are natural fertilizers for plants and soil and they contain beneficial minerals. By creating air space in the soil, volcanic ash insulates plants and acts like a shield against temperature changes.
Additionally, the fact that volcanoes’ slopes are virtually inaccessible – both for safety concerns and because of their steepness – allows the growth of plants and the presence of animals that human activity would otherwise interfere with.
Due to their internal heat, volcanoes also provide geothermal energy, a potentially sustainable source to generate electricity. A volcanic environment is characterized by a hydrothermal component, which is a valuable source of geothermal heat.
However, much of the thermal energy comes from magma and at present we can only exploit the hydrothermal component. The exploitation of nonhydrothermal components would involve drilling and other processes that would return only a small amount of energy, compared to analogous mineral and energy resources that are more accessible for present-day technologies.
Much remains to be explored and in the future geothermal energy might turn out to be an invaluable energy resource.
Volcanoes also help keep Earth’s temperature cool enough to be suitable for life as we know it by removing heat from its interior.
Additionally, early volcanic emissions have contributed to the formation of aerobic atmosphere by releasing carbon dioxide and water vapor, which is also believed to be the major source of water for the formation of our oceans.
From myths to reality, volcanoes are an essential component of our environment. They might be a threat to our survival, but they are also synonym of life itself.
This is a guest post written by Erika Mastrorosa.
Erika is a philosophy graduate with a passion for writing and communication. Born and raised in Rome, she moved to London to continue her studies in philosophy.
In addition to writing on environmental matters, she enjoys researching and writing on mental health and social issues. She is a passionate advocate for equality and education and she is currently working for a mental health foundation as a research/bid writer.