Volcanoes need a new agent.
Every time an eruption begins somewhere on Earth, we are overwhelmed with news of destroyed buildings, closed airspace, people being evacuated, and at worst injuries and deaths. These extreme impacts occur during certain eruptions, but as any volcanologist would remind you, volcanoes spend most of their lives not erupting. Yet these geological wonders are still portrayed as villains in the media, in movies, and in books. Robin George Andrews might be that agent volcanoes need to change their public persona, as his new book, “Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal About Earth and the Worlds Beyond,” attempts to rehabilitate their image and define them as vital features on and outside of Earth.
Even the term “super volcano” was coined for the Hollywood ideal of a giant, deadly eruption. There is no technical definition of when an ordinary volcano turns into a super volcano; the term is used to refer to the massive, apocalyptic eruptions that many fear will occur in places like the Yellowstone Caldera in Wyoming. The types of eruptions that would fit the theoretical definition of “super” haven’t happened for thousands of years, but even volcanologists have admitted the term is here to stay.
Andrews’ stated goal is to use his enthusiasm for volcanoes to kick-start our thinking about these fiery forges. A scientist turned science writer, Andrews realized that the world of academic volcano research was not the reason he deepened his volcanic knowledge while earning his doctorate at the University of Otago in Nova Scotia. Zeeland. Instead, he wanted to spread the gospel of volcanism to the masses who only view them as harbingers of doom. In “Super Volcanoes” he blasts his way through some of the most significant recent eruptions and discoveries.
Starting with the Kilauea eruption in Hawaii in 2018, Andrews travels back and forth from the past to the present to reveal the history of modern volcanology. Thomas Jaggar’s early attempts to take the temperature of lava in the early 20th century are woven into the stories of the start of the 2018 lava flows that buried several communities on the slopes of Kilauea. The frenzied response to the 2018 eruption is told through the eyes of US Geological Survey geologists such as Christina Neal and Wendy Stovall, who put us in their boots as lava fountains pour molten rock on houses and roads.
Our current understanding of volcanic processes is the thread that connects the chapters. Surprisingly, it has been less than 100 years since we first recognized the Yellowstone caldera and its history of huge eruptions that Andrews calls “the Mephistophelian paroxysms”. Yet even as we learn of those cataclysmic eruptions from Yellowstone that blanketed land from Montana to Louisiana in ash, it’s really the science of volcanoes that drives Andrews’ prose: “But the world won’t end. It wouldn’t even come close to bringing civilization down. We know this, because this experiment has already been carried out.
In the first half of the book, Andrews takes us on a whirlwind tour of volcanoes around the globe. We join scientists who study volcanoes and volcanic processes and learn how these processes affect people and life. Andrews tends to introduce us to new characters with a Dickensian quickness that dulls the impact of all those amazing scientists, but he shows us that the world of volcanology is a large and diverse community.
In its second half, the book dives deep into the nature of extraterrestrial volcanism. Andrews takes us to Mars, the moon, Venus, and the outer planets, primarily researching how volcanoes relate to the potential for life on other worlds. Sometimes you feel like you’ve wandered into another book. But regardless – Andrews creates a sense of wonder in the reader over the detection in September 2020 of a gas most people have never heard of, phosphine, a chemical compound made up of part of phosphorus and three parts hydrogen. “And the world went mad,” Andrews writes of this sighting, since phosphine has been suggested to be a chemical sign of life. In this case, it would be life in the clouds of our sister planet Venus.
Andrews is good at describing volcanic processes in a way that most people can understand. Discussing the extremely unusual carbon-rich lavas of Oldoinyo Lengai in Tanzania, he notes that nearby “there is a large piece of mangled continental rock, a block 3 billion years or older named the Tanzania Craton. Over its long history, mantle plumes have risen… tickling the belly of the craton and providing it with plenty of carbon.
Andrews provides illuminating analogies that capture the uncertainty and unknowns of volcanology. Describing how we don’t know the relationship between large asteroid impacts on the moon and the massive lava flow fields that mark dark areas on its near side, he writes: “It’s a bit like coming home. house to find your dog destroying the pillows on the couch, the toilet paper, the TV remote and a few books: it’s unclear which of these fundamental acts of destruction happened first, or last.
Andrews admits that what he really wants to be is a time traveler. This is clear from “Super Volcanoes”. The book excels when it immerses us in an alien place or time, such as a devastating eruption in Yellowstone or the atmosphere of Venus, and paints a picture for us of actually being there. Yet, as we all know, we are not time travelers. Volcanoes can help record times past, and Andrews reminds us that there’s a reason we’ve been writing about them since the days of Pliny: “Time flies. But volcanoes and eruptions have a timeless effect on our minds, whether we watch their embers on land, underwater or in space.