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Volcanoes in Human History

Volcanoes in Human History: The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions

Jelle Zeilinga de Boer
Donald Theodore Sanders
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Volcanoes in Human History
    Book Description:

    When the volcano Tambora erupted in Indonesia in 1815, as many as 100,000 people perished as a result of the blast and an ensuing famine caused by the destruction of rice fields on Sumbawa and neighboring islands. Gases and dust particles ejected into the atmosphere changed weather patterns around the world, resulting in the infamous ''year without a summer'' in North America, food riots in Europe, and a widespread cholera epidemic. And the gloomy weather inspired Mary Shelley to write the gothic novelFrankenstein.

    This book tells the story of nine such epic volcanic events, explaining the related geology for the general reader and exploring the myriad ways in which the earth's volcanism has affected human history. Zeilinga de Boer and Sanders describe in depth how volcanic activity has had long-lasting effects on societies, cultures, and the environment. After introducing the origins and mechanisms of volcanism, the authors draw on ancient as well as modern accounts--from folklore to poetry and from philosophy to literature. Beginning with the Bronze Age eruption that caused the demise of Minoan Crete, the book tells the human and geological stories of eruptions of such volcanoes as Vesuvius, Krakatau, Mount Pelée, and Tristan da Cunha. Along the way, it shows how volcanism shaped religion in Hawaii, permeated Icelandic mythology and literature, caused widespread population migrations, and spurred scientific discovery.

    From the prodigious eruption of Thera more than 3,600 years ago to the relative burp of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the results of volcanism attest to the enduring connections between geology and human destiny.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4285-8
    Subjects: General Science, Geology, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Robert D. Ballard

    most people seldom think about volcanoes or the role they have played in human history. That is because most of us do not live where volcanoes are erupting. They are not part of our everyday lives.

    But if you lived near Mount St. Helens when it exploded in 1980, you will not soon forget its tremendous eruptive power. In Iceland, which sits astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, volcanoes dominate peopleʹs lives and their mythology. Those who live on the Icelandic island of Heimaey literally have an active volcano in their backyards. Residents of Reykjavik, the countryʹs capital, have their homes heated...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Table of Conversions
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. 1 Volcanism: Origins and Consequences
    (pp. 1-21)

    when our ancestors realized that their world was not a flat disk resting on the back of a giant turtle—that instead, the earth is a spheroid whirling through space in orbit around the sun—they began to comprehend the nature of the planet that is our home. Over many centuries, scientists pieced together a great deal of information about the earth—the materials of which it is composed, the atmosphere surrounding it, the infinite variety of landforms on its surface, the kinds of rocks that are exposed there.

    Eventually, by studying earthquake waves and the time they take to...

  8. 2 The Hawaiian Islands and the Legacy of Pele the Fire Goddess
    (pp. 22-46)

    the people of Hawaii have always lived with the perils of volcanism. The islandsʹ earliest settlers, like early humans everywhere, attributed natural phenomena to gods. Myths about the gods taught each new generation about their volatile environment. Moreover, the ancient beliefs formed the basis of religious and ethical codes, including many taboos, which helped the Hawaiian people cope with their often dangerous surroundings.

    The awesome results of volcanic eruptions, the Hawaiians believed, were the work of a fearsome deity named Pele, the goddess of fire. Many myths involving Pele were derived from observations of the profound natural changes brought about...

  9. 3 The Bronze Age Eruption of Thera: Destroyer of Atlantis and Minoan Crete?
    (pp. 47-73)

    a small group of islands known collectively as Santorini lies in the eastern Mediterranean Sea about 110 kilometers north of Crete. The archipelago is roughly elliptical in outline and measures 13 by 18 kilometers. It comprises two large islands, Thera and Therasia, and three smaller islands named Aspronisi, Nea Kameni, and Palaea Kameni (see Figure 3-1). Santorini was named by early Venetians in honor of Saint Irene.

    Unlike most other Greek islands, which dot the blue Aegean Sea with masses of white limestone and marble, Santoriniʹs islands are dark and brooding. They are the remains of a great volcano that...

  10. 4 The Eruption of Vesuvius in 79 c.e.: Cultural Reverberations through the Ages
    (pp. 74-107)

    Mount Vesuvius, rising 1,279 meters above the Bay of Naples in southern Italy, is the only active volcanic mountain on the European mainland. Surrounded by cities and towns with an aggregate population of perhaps 3 million, it is both a magnificent landmark and an ever-present menace. When Vesuvius erupted in 79 c.e., it killed thousands of people, devastated the surrounding countryside, and destroyed at least eight towns, most notably Pompeii and Herculaneum—and it left a cultural and historical legacy that has resonated through Western civilization for almost 2,000 years.

    Vesuvius today is the most widely known volcano on earth,...

  11. 5 Iceland: Coming Apart at the Seams
    (pp. 108-137)

    Iceland is a volcanic island, about the size of the state of Virginia, that lies astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge some 370 kilometers east of Greenland. It is among the worldʹs most active volcanic areas. Since Norsemen settled there in the ninth century, there have been about 150 documented eruptions, many of them not from volcanic mountains but from fissures in the earth. The interior of the island, mostly uninhabited, is characterized by rugged terrain and several large ice sheets, orjökulls. Vatnajökull, in southeastern Iceland, has an area of 8,400 square kilometers and is a thousand meters thick in places....

  12. 6 The Eruption of Tambora in 1815 and “the Year without a Summer”
    (pp. 138-156)

    in North America in 1815, the United States was a young country that extended no farther west than Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana; and eastern Canada was a British colony. Both the United States and Canada were agricultural countries with few cities. Most people lived on farms, and their livelihood was intimately linked to the weather.

    On the other side of the world that April, on the island of Sumbawa in what was then the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, a volcano named Tambora exploded in the greatest eruption known to history. It obliterated entire populations, destroyed forests, and covered...

  13. 7 Krakatau, 1883: Devastation, Death, and Ecologic Revival
    (pp. 157-185)

    in 1883 Krakatau was a small, uninhabited volcanic island in the Sunda Strait between the large Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. Long believed extinct, the volcano erupted that year in a series of cataclysmic explosions that were heard for thousands of kilometers in every direction—certainly among the loudest noises ever heard on earth. Enormous quantities of ash and pumice were thrown into the atmosphere, and much of the island collapsed, forming a huge caldron-shaped depression, or caldera. Giant sea waves, or tsunamis, crashed onto nearby shores, destroying more than 160 towns and villages and killing as many as...

  14. 8 The 1902 Eruption of Mount Pelée: A Geological Catastrophe with Political Overtones
    (pp. 186-208)

    on May 8, 1902, Mount Pelée, a volcano at the northern end of the Caribbean island of Martinique, erupted and destroyed the city of St. Pierre, only about 6 kilometers away. The cityʹs entire population—30,000 people—died almost instantly. The volcano had provided many warnings of an impending eruption, if only the science of volcanology had been far enough advanced for the warnings to have been understood. And tragically, for political reasons, government authorities on Martinique discouraged, and in at least one town prohibited, the evacuation of people despite obvious indications of volcanic activity. The catastrophe also ended a...

  15. 9 Tristan da Cunha in 1961: Exile to the Twentieth Century
    (pp. 209-227)

    the island of Tristan da Cunha is the most isolated of the earthʹs inhabited places. It is the top of a volcanic mountain that rises from the depths of the South Atlantic Ocean about 500 kilometers east of the axis of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. At 37 degrees south latitude, Tristan is about as far south as Buenos Aires in Argentina and Cape Town, South Africa. Buenos Aires is almost 4,300 kilometers west, and Cape Town, more than 2,800 kilometers east (Figure 9-1, top).

    Being the peak of a volcano, Tristan has an almost circular outline, with a diameter of only...

  16. 10 Mount St. Helens in 1980: Catastrophe in the Cascades
    (pp. 228-249)

    after sleeping for 123 years, Mount St. Helens, a volcano in the state of Washington, shook itself awake in 1980. A series of earthquakes beginning in mid-March, followed by minor eruptions of steam and volcanic ash, led up to a climactic blast on May 18. The top 400 meters of the mountain blew away, 500 square kilometers of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest became a gray, ash-covered wasteland, and fifty-seven people died. Great clouds of volcanic ash darkened the regionʹs skies, and dust from the eruption drifted around the Northern Hemisphere. It was the first volcanic eruption in the contiguous...

  17. Afterword
    (pp. 250-250)

    in this book we have tried to bring volcanoes to life, so to speak. We have tried to give them a human dimension, showing, with the aid of the ʺvibrating stringʺ metaphor, how their aftereffects can resonate in human affairs for years, decades, centuries, or millennia. At the same time we have tried to explain, in terms of plate tectonics, why volcanism exists and how selected volcanoes came to be.

    We have included chapters on seven specific eruptions, and we have described two areas—Hawaii and Iceland—where primordial volcanism reveals plate tectonics at work. In human terms these catastrophic...

  18. Glossary
    (pp. 251-260)
  19. Notes and References
    (pp. 261-278)
  20. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 279-280)
  21. Index
    (pp. 281-295)