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Volcanoes in Human History:
The Far-Reaching Effects of Major Eruptions
Jelle Zeilinga de Boer & Donald Theodore Sanders
With a foreword by Robert D. Ballard

Book Description | Reviews | Table of Contents

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 2001, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to


THERE IS A WIDESPREAD PERCEPTION that the sciences and the humanities are incompatible, that they have little or nothing in common. What do history, the arts, and great literature have to do with physics, chemistry, biology-or earth science? In 1959 the British scholar C. P Snow analyzed that question in his widely read book The Two Cultures. Snow attributed the apparent incompatibility to misinterpretation and lack of understanding on both sides, and in his book he attempts to reconcile the "two cultures."1

The notion that Snow's two cultures are at odds is trenchantly expressed in a novel published in 1983 by the American author Trevanian in a scene where one of the characters warns another, "Beware the attraction of the pure sciences. They are pure only in the way an ancient nun is-bloodless, without passion. No, no. Stick to the humanistic studies where, though the truth is more difficult to establish and the proofs are more fragile, yet there is the breath of living man in them. 2

One of the present authors (Zeilinga de Boer) has attempted to bring the two cultures together at Wesleyan University in his course on geological catastrophes, in which he demonstrates to liberal-arts students that the sciences are not "bloodless," that in the earth sciences in particular, something akin to the "breath of living man" can be seen in such phenomena as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. In his lectures, Zeilinga de Boer discusses selected geological events, describing their origins while emphasizing the many ways in which the events have affected people, societies, cultures, even history itself. This book, which grew out of those lectures, has as its theme the human dimension of volcanism. The ways in which earthquakes and the humanities are intertwined will be discussed in a later volume.

Volcanic eruptions are treated only descriptively in most books, the descriptions concerned mainly with environmental consequences and the number of casualties. Many of these short-lived events, however, have had long-lasting aftereffects. Some eruptions have had global consequences that have lasted for years, decades, centuries, even millennia. Some of the events can be described as catalytic in the sense that their direct aftereffects give rise to other phenomena, whether environmental, economic, or cultural.

Moreover, most books treat only the destructive side of volcanism. But volcanic eruptions, devastating as they may be in the short term, have been of long-lasting benefit to human kind in many ways. Volcanic soils are among the most fertile on earth. Many of our mineral resources are of volcanic origin. Even water, the basic resource without which life could not exist on our planet, ultimately is created by volcanic activity within the earth. All these aspects of volcanism-destructive as well as beneficial-are discussed in the chapters that follow.

In this book we explore nine volcanic eruptions. In each case we briefly discuss the geological setting in terms of plate tectonics-the theory that virtually rigid segments of the earth's crust move about over a less rigid layer and collide, and that the collisions give rise to earthquakes and volcanic activity. Then we discuss the aftereffects of the eruption-its consequences-in human terms.

By describing not only the immediate physical effects of volcanism but also the long-term aftereffects, we demonstrate the inherent connections that exist between the earth sciences and the humanities. Some eruptions have changed societies. Some have been followed by famine and disease, or by political changes either peaceful or violent. Others, of truly ancient origin, have passed into mythology or are reflected today in religious beliefs and practices. Some have achieved cultural immortality in the arts or in literature-in paintings, poems, great books, operas, motion pictures, even architecture.

Volcanism is the surface manifestation of a living earth. We can think of a volcanic eruption as the plucking of a long, tight-stretched string representing time: when the string is plucked it vibrates. During the eruption, at the point of origin, where a great deal of energy is being released, the vibrations will have high amplitudes and short wavelengths. The vibrations will be powerful, but each will last only a moment. Farther along on the string, with the passage of time, the amplitudes will decrease and the wavelengths increase. That is to say, the aftereffects will become less intense and they will last longer, as shown in the figure below.

For example in 1815, Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, exploded in the greatest eruption known to history. It killed perhaps 70,000 people outright. Regionally the catastrophe devastated forests and croplands, producing famine and disease. Around the world there were major changes in the weather as dust and aerosols from the eruption, carried by high-altitude winds, circled the globe and dimmed the sun's rays. In Europe, prolonged inclement weather caused crop failures and food riots, and in -18-16 North America suffered the infamous "year without a summer." The European weather inspired Lord Byron's gloomy poem "Darkness" and Mary Shelley's immortal novel Frankenstein, which continues to attract readers and moviegoers almost two centuries later. Tambora's string vibrates to this day.

By discussing Tambora's "vibrating string," and eight others, we hope to draw interest both to the tectonic origin of specific volcanic eruptions and to their interdisciplinary consequences. When most of those eruptions occurred, the earth was sparsely populated. Today the human population exceeds 6 billion. The geological events discussed here are not unique. Similar events will occur in the future, and their effects will be magnified by the population density of our crowded planet. It is crucial that we understand the origin of volcanism as well as the devastation it can cause, and the aftereffects, for good or ill, that can linger for years, even decades, to come.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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