Boy oh boy we humans do love our volcanoes! We want to live right up on them, we want to grow our food in the rich volcanic soil they produce while admiring their majestic natural beauty, we want to get right into bed with our volcanoes, God love em! If they rumble a bit now and then or puff a bit of ash and smoke, hey, what’s not to like? Volcanoes are exciting!
If there’s a volcano anywhere around we are there, building our houses, tilling our fields, setting up homes, farms, businesses, bed and breakfast inns, Olive Gardens and Outback Steakhouses, Walmarts even. Hell, if we can, we even want to get right into the crater of our beloved volcano and set up a bar there! Think of the names you could give it!
As we go looking around the world in Google Earth our deep and abiding urge to buddy up to our volcanoes becomes readily apparent, and quite regardless of their reputations, how badly they have treated us or even how many people they have killed.
It’s like the horrific boyfriend that we cannot break up with no matter how many times he’s hospitalized us. Oh yeah, it’s self-destructive behavior for sure and totally dependent upon denial of the situation we have chosen to put ourselves in, just like many of our relationships with each other, but that never stopped us before, why should we be any smarter where volcanoes are concerned?
Think about it okay? In 79 AD Mt. Vesuvius exploded in a spectacular plinian eruption wiping out the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum killing everyone in them that hadn’t managed to hop a boat as the pyroclastic floes were roaring down on them. Did we avoid the place after that? Hell no! Today there are over two million people living around the base of Mt. Vesuvius! We as a species just do not learn.
Consider the beautiful little town of Sete Cidades in the Azores. A quite charming place to live as long as your are fundamentally in denial about where you are living. Below we see it from about 2000 feet altitude.
At this altitude something begins to dawn on us a little bit, and we might wonder what those round features are around the pleasant little town. Gosh, can they be… nah! But let’s go a little farther up and then look down…
That’s right folks, our charming little town is located in a volcano crater three miles across. The eruption that produced that crater had to be about a VEI 6, or on the scale of the 1883 eruption of Krakatau. That one wiped out 36,400 people, all of them living more than 20 miles from the volcano. Not good enough here, we have to be right in the crater! Hey what? Ya wanna live forever? There’s bass in that lake!
If you think that one is good I’ve got more for you. About 74,000 years ago the entire human race was very nearly wiped out by the eruption of the Toba super-volcano in Indonesia. If we love our volcanoes we super-love our super-volcanoes! Nothing could be more super than living right in the caldera of one! We are total suckers for this stuff. Why do you think we make so many movies about gigantic disasters? It’s because we have a morbid fascination with our own mass destruction.
We are not a well species.
Seen from about 80 miles altitude is the gigantic elliptical gash in the earth from which Toba erupted. It is 53.6 miles long and nearly 20 miles across. It was the largest eruption anywhere on the planet for the last two million years. No wonder we couldn’t wait to move right in there!
The sheer scale of the Toba eruption is almost beyond comprehension. Superheated ash and pumice covered an area of at least 7,700 sq mi., with deposits as thick as 2,000 ft around the caldera. All of India was covered in at least 6 inches of ash from this one, and India was 1500 miles away. The volume of material erupted there was more than 670 cubic miles of rock, ash, and magma.
This could happen again quite easily. Indonesia is one of the most volcanically active places on earth, but, don’t worry, be happy! See that lake in the caldera with the island in the middle? There’s bass in that lake!
And who wouldn’t want to live there? Check out that cute little bungalow to the left here. Paradise, right? Well yes, up to a point, and you might be able to live out your life there dying of natural causes, or, you could be flash carbonized in another supervolcanic eruption at any time, but that’s really not my point here. My point is that we tend to heavily populate such places without any thought whatever to the long term consequences or risks, and we get wiped out in enormous numbers when time runs out, the inevitable happens, and we become roughly estimated statistics coldly reported on CNN. These days we seem to be very concerned about the environment and our impact upon it, while we blissfully ignore the impact it might very well have on us as we drive our hybrid Toyota’s around the narrow streets of Naples Italy catching scenic glimpses of Vesuvius on our way to buy spiral CFL lightbulbs, or gloating over the value of our property which has a gorgeous view of Mt. Rainier from where it’s lahars will wipe us out.
Millions of Japanese live with the massive inconvenience of cleaning up the ash from Mt. Sakurajima year around giving no thought to the fact that it’s located in the caldera of the Aira super-volcano which they are living in. Millions of Americans flood into the Yellowstone caldera every year, equally oblivious, enjoying the billions of dollars in infrastructure we have installed there as though the worst can never happen. The Nevado del Ruiz volcano killed 24,000 people in Armero Columbia in 1985 because they just could not believe it might happen no matter the warnings.
In many ways we are not a well species, or an intelligent species, and especially not when it comes to our relationships with our beloved volcanoes. We strain out the gnats and swallow the elephants, and we obsess over what comes out the exhaust pipe of an SUV while ignoring what might come out of the crater of a super-volcano.
Sometimes I really don’t think much of my own species.