Why does it always rain (ash) on me?

Why does it always rain (ash) on me?

On May 1st, 1812, a remarkable weather system reached Barbados. ‘At half-past twelve AM a heavy dark cloud obscured the heavens completely. [..]  at half past one a sandy grit began to fall in small quantities‘. Through the night there was the sound of explosions and thunder, and by late afternoon, Barbados had been blanketed in several centimetres depth of ash. The origin of the ‘May dust’, as it came to be known, was soon found to be due to a violent eruption of the Soufriere volcano, on the nearby island of St Vincent.

The German explorer and botanist Robert Schomburgk later realised that this ‘rain of ashes’ showed that there must be winds in the upper reaches of the atmosphere in the Caribbean that blow in the opposite direction to the Trade Winds, near the surface. When he was living in Barbados, in 1846, Schomburgk could still find patches of the May dust across the island, which he collected and shared with Christian Ehrenberg – a scientist who had recently discovered traces of aquatic organisms in wind-blown Atlantic dusts. Later work on archived samples of this May dust showed that they were rich in bacteria and fungal spores, perhaps carried in place by high-level winds. Barbados, it turns out, is no stranger to dust. Mostly, this is carried in from Africa, and is usually only detected by careful air-sampling using carefully cleaned filters.  But, as we saw in 1812; and then again in 1902, 1903 and 1979, everytime there is an explosive eruption of the Soufriere of St Vincent, Barbados is coated in another layer of mineral dust and volcanic glass.

Two hundred years on, and we are still learning how the interaction of the atmospheric winds with the topography of the planetary surface controls where ash is carried, and then dropped, from erupting volcanic plumes. In a new paper, we use sensitive models of the wind-field, that account for the reversal of wind directions and the fine-scale topography of the islands of St Vincent and Barbados, to simulate ash fallout after the 1902 and 1979 eruptions. The computer simulations show how these two factors influence the distribution of ash after an eruption, but also that we can reproduce the observations made on the ground in 1902, and 1979. This approach means that we now have a way to improve forecasts of where volcanic ash will go, and when and how much will land on the ground during an eruption. Given how sensitive human lifelines – transport, water, food and power supplies – are to disruption by volcanic ash, this could be an important step forwards.

Selected references.

Darwin, C (1846) An account of the fine dust which often falls on vessels in the Atlantic Ocean, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, London, 2, 26-30.

Delaney, AC et al (1967) Airborne dust collected at Barbados, Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 31, 885-909.

Poulidis, AP et al (2018) Meteorological controls on local and regional volcanic ash dispersal. Scientific Reports, 8, 6873.

Pyle, DM et al (2018) The 1902-3 eruptions of the Soufriere, St Vincent: impacts, relief and response. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.

Schomburgk, RH (1848) The History of Barbados. Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London. pp. 69-72.

Wilson, T (2012) Volcanic ash impacts on critical infrastructure, Physics and Chemistry of the Earth A/B/C, 45-46, 5-23.

This work was inspired by the STREVA project, funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and is the product of a collaboration between scientists based in the UK, Caribbean, Japan and Singapore.

Lahar: Lost in translation?

Lahar: Lost in translation?

Since late September, the eyes of the volcano world have turned to Gunung Agung. This prominent volcano in Bali last erupted in 1963, when it released enough sulphur dioxide to form a global stratospheric sulphate aerosol layer that led to vivid sunsets, and short-term global cooling. The 1963 eruption was one of the largest and deadliest in Indonesia in the 20th century; and many of the casualties were caught up in the violent pyroclastic flows and mudflows, or lahars, that swept down the flanks of the volcano in March and May 1963.

Even though the eruptive activity at Agung is currently at a low level, the immediate hazard is once again due to the lahars – slurries of ash and water, that may form during heavy rain, and run rapidly down the volcanic flanks. Lahars have already featured prominently in English language news reports; with some described as ‘cold lava‘. Cold lava, it turns out, is the ‘Google translate’ rendering of the phrase lahar dingin, from some reports of the activity. The problem is not one of Google’s making – but goes back to the way the word ended up in English usage.

Lahar is one of the few words from Javanese that has entered the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary entry for lahar describes it as a ‘destructive mudflow on the slopes of a volcano’; originating in the 1920’s. A contemporary Indonesian – English dictionary offers two translations for the Indonesian word lahar – 1, lava; 2 mudflow. Older dictionaries have only the first rendering of lahar, meaning lava.  Although this isn’t reflected in English dictionaries, lahar was a geographical term familiar to Dutch colonialists in Java by the mid-19th Century.

The botanist and geologist Franz Junghuhn used the term lahar to describe the ravines on the slopes of Kelud, Java (Junghuhn, 1854). In reports of the January 1864 eruption of Kelud, Colonel Versteeg, of the engineering corps of the Dutch colonial army, describes how his workmen shouted “lahar is coming“, shortly before a hot stream of ash and water swept by (Versteeg, 1864). John Hageman experienced the same eruption ‘We heard a thunderous roar approaching .. and a moment later the sizzling fluid rolled by‘.  At Kelud, these destructive flows formed when the  eruption emptied the summit crater lake ‘in a single shock; and the water mixed with sand and stones flowed .. to the south-west and north-west along the so-called Lahars or ravines.‘ So, while lahar is only ever used in English as a technical term to describe a particular sort of flow; its non-technical meaning in Indonesian is clearly rather broader.

The use of lahar to mean a ‘flow of volcaniclastic debris and water’ first came into use in volcanology in the early 1920’s, following another eruption of Kelud in 1919. This eruption caused a terrible loss of life as the crater lake failed, sending cascades of lahars down the ravines that drained the flanks of the volcano. These flows and their deposits were described by the geologist Georg Kemmerling in 1921. Kemmerling distinguished hot (eruptive) and cold (non eruptive) lahars; and recognised that their deposits were dominated by sand-sized material, rather than mud. The next year Berend Escher (brother of the artist, M C Escher) compared the lahars of Kelud to the newly-described deposits of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, emplaced during the 1912 eruption of Novarupta (Alaska). British Geologist John Brooke Scrivenor wrote a short account of the Kelud lahars in 1929; and the term later gained widespread use in volcanology after the 1940’s.

Globally, lahars are one of the most significant hazards posed by volcanoes, due to their capacity to rapidly inundate areas many tens of kilometres from the erupting volcano; while the threat from lahars may continue long after an eruption has ceased. We can only hope that the preventative measures taken around Agung are sufficient to reduce the threats from lahars to those living nearby.


Brown SK et al., 2017, Volcanic fatalities database: analysis of volcanic threat with distance and victim classification, Journal of Applied Volcanology 6:15

Escher, BG, 1922, On the hot ‘lahar’ (mud flow) of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, Alaska, Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen, 24, 282-293.

Hageman, J, 1865, Bijdragen tot de kennis der uitbarsting van den Keloed op 3 Januarij 1864, Natuurkundig tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch Indië, 28, 475. [in Dutch].

Kemmerling, GLL, 1921, De uitbarsting van den G. Keloet in den nacht van den 19den op den 20sten Mei 1919: Dienst van het Mijnwezen in Nederlandsch Oost Indie, Vulkanol, Mededeel., 2, 120 p. [in Dutch].

Meinel, AB & MP Meinel, 1967, Volcanic Sunset-Glow Stratum: Origin, Science 155, 189

Pierson, TC, NJ Wood, CL Driedger, 2014, Reducing risk from lahar hazards: concepts, case studies, and roles for scientists, Journal of Applied Volcanology 3:16

Rigg, J, 1862, A dictionary of the Sunda language of Java, Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, Deel XXIX.

Versteeg, WF, 1864, Vervolg op de Aanteekeningen omtrent aardbevingen in den indischen archipel, 27, 129. [in Dutch].

Zen, MT & D Hadikusumo, 1964, Preliminary report on the 1963 eruption of Mt Agung in Bali (Indonesia), Bull Volcanique 27, 269-299


Flooding the Santorini Caldera

Flooding the Santorini Caldera

The flooded caldera of Santorini volcano holds many secrets, buried beneath the ash and pumice of its last great eruption. In the Late Bronze Age, about 3600 years ago, an explosive eruption several times larger that of Krakatoa, 1883, wreaked devastation across this thriving island.

View, looking North, of the northern part of the Santorini caldera. The island of Thersia (left) is separated from the island of Thera (right) by a channel, that is now thought to have formed at the end of the Late Bronze Age eruption.

View, looking North, of the northern part of the Santorini caldera. The island of Therasia (left) is separated from the island of Thera (right) by a channel, that is now thought to have formed at the end of the Late Bronze Age eruption.

A great trading port, Akrotiri, was buried under metres of pumice; preserving for future generations a snapshot of Late Cycladic urban life.

Akrotiri ruins

Bronze Age street scene – Akrotiri, Santorini. Precursory earthquakes damaged the town. But there was time for the residents to clear up rubble (foreground), and rescue furniture (those are casts of bed frames in the street), before the town was buried in pumice.

Once the eruption was over and the dust had, literally, settled the geography of Santorini would have looked much like it is today: a group of three islands, forming a ring around a caldera occupied by the sea. The central ‘Kameni’ islands would not have begun to emerge for another thousand years, or more.

But when did the sea flood the caldera, and what were the consequences? It has long been suspected that the Santorini eruption triggered tsunamis, implicated in Late Bronze Age destruction along exposed coastlines around the Aegean. Observations of the Krakatoa eruption in August 1883 include harrowing accounts of the great sea waves that swept across low-lying areas of Java, Sumatra as this eruption reached a climax. These tsunami were triggered either by the convulsions of the sea-floor, as the island of Rakata collapsed into the newly-forming caldera; or, as now seems more likely, by the displacements of colossal volumes of water as the pyroclastic currents raced into the sea.

Krakatoa - before and after images.

Krakatoa – before and after: notice how much of the island of Rakata (labelled Krakatau) has disappeared in the eruption; and the large shoals of pumice that formed new islands north-west of Krakatau (Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society).

But could tsunami have been triggered by the Santorini eruption; and how? Until now it has been thought that collapse of the caldera could have triggered a tsunami; but only if the caldera was already flooded by the sea. A growing body of geological and archaeological evidence suggests that the crater of Santorini volcano was not open to the sea, as it is today, at least at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age eruption. Large blocks of stromatolites, an algal concretion, and chicken-wire gypsum that were caught up in the eruption debris point to the presence of a muddy lake in the northern part of Santorini. Before the eruption, this would probably have been an area of hot, bubbling mud-pools, fed by volcanic heat and fluids from depth. Among the wall-paintings from Akrotiri is one, the flotilla fresco, that shows a city on a hill, with a river running by. Are these features that might have been found inside the caldera of the volcano?

Metre-wide block of stromatolite, thrown out during the LBA eruption

Metre-wide block of stromatolite, thrown out during the LBA eruption, now in the entrance to the Heliotopos hotel.

In a new paper in Nature Communications, we present some new evidence that may help to resolve some of these questions. High-resolution mapping of the seafloor shows the presence of a remarkable scour at the northern end of the deep channel that separates the islands of Therasia and Thera, below the town of Oia. This feature can be seen on older sea-floor maps; but not in such detail. Using sound-waves to look at the structures that this channel cuts through shows that the channel didn’t form until most of the material thrown out in the eruption had already been deposited. The shape of the scour will be familiar to anyone who has built dams of sand on a wet beach, and then let it fail. This shape shows that the channel formed quickly, and that the sea broke through and poured down a great waterfall into the caldera, but only after the eruption was over. Any tsunami waves that formed during the eruption must have been triggered by the entry of the pyroclastic currents into the sea.

Image of the northern 'breach' in the Santorini caldera, and the scour and channel that cut through it.

Image of the northern ‘breach’ in the Santorini caldera, and the scour and channel that cut through it. From Nomikou et al., 2016.

This new evidence, along with new ‘cosmic ray exposure’ age measurements showing that the cliffs of the northern part of Santorini are ancient and formed before the Late Bronze Age, may strengthen arguments that the pre-eruption interior of Santorini island was not filled with seawater as it is today. It doesn’t, however, have any direct connection to the events that led to the collapse of the major Late Cycladic culture on Crete, the Minoan, a few decades later. Disruption caused by the loss of a major trading hub and short-term damage caused by fallout of ash across the islands of the eastern Aegean might well have contributed to the eventual decline and fall of Minoan culture; but the later destruction of the Cretan palaces must have another cause. Earthquake, anyone?

Selected references 

Heiken G, McCoy F, 1984, Caldera development during the Minoan eruption, Thira, Cyclades, Greece. Journal of Geophysical Research 89, 8441–8462

Manning SW et al., 2006, Chronology for the Aegean Late Bronze Age 1700-1400 B.C.,  Science 312, 565-569

Nomikou P et al., 2016, Post-eruptive flooding of Santorini caldera and implications for tsunami generation, Nature Communications 7: 13332, 8 November [open access]

Novikova T et al., 2011, Modelling of tsunami generated by the giant Late Bronze Age eruption of Thera, South Aegean Sea, Greece. Geophys J Int 186, 665-680.

Paris R, 2015, Source mechanisms of volcanic tsunamis, Phil Trans Roy Soc London A 373: 20140380

Pichler H, Schiering W, 1977, The Thera eruption and Late Minoan-IB destructions on Crete, Nature 267, 819 – 822


Thanks to NERC for funding for my work on Santorini; the organisers of NEMO 2016 and Heliotopos Conferences for a recent visit to Santorini; to Christos Doumas, Lefteris Zorzos, Clairy Palyvou and Maya Efstathiou for introductions to Akrotiri and the Late Bronze Age, and Floyd McCoy for discussions.

Into the Inferno: an anth(rop)ology of volcanoes

Into the Inferno: an anth(rop)ology of volcanoes

What do volcanoes mean to you? This is perhaps not a question to ask a volcanologist (cue: a paean to their current flame); but what do they mean to the publics? Fire and brimstone? Death and destruction? Of humans pitted against mountains? Or is it something else? Perhaps the answer is obvious, but it is certainly something we need to think about when preparing for an audience: what will they expect to find? and how can I surprise them?

It is a question that the volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer has pondered for some time. Five years ago his book ‘Eruptions that Shook the World‘ caught the attention of film director, Werner Herzog. They had already met earlier (on the Antarctic volcano, Erebus, of course); and have now released the fruits of their collaboration on Netflix.

Running at 1 hr 44 minutes, Into the Inferno is part anthology, part anthropology, and part conversation between volcanologist and film-maker. Taking in breathtaking footage of some of the volcanoes ‘du jour’, Herzog and Oppenheimer explore their own, rather different, attractions to volcanoes – as objects; as cultural symbols; as places incidental to the life and living that goes on around them.

Clive Oppenheimer introducing 'Into the Inferno' at the Cambridge Film Festival

Clive Oppenheimer introducing ‘Into the Inferno’ at the end of the 36th Cambridge Film Festival

For Herzog, volcanoes are not the main attraction. Sitting on the rim of Erebus, the world’s most southerly volcano, it is almost as if he couldn’t care less about the fuming crater below. It’s the people, and their stories that he wants to capture.  So it is that the film takes us from the roiling chasm of the crater of Mt Yasur on Tanna, to the verdant slopes of Ambrym: devastated in a hurricane just the year before, but with the scars hidden by the new tropical growth. Here, Chief Mael Moses explains how the volcano is a part of the neighbourhood, but not a part of their lives. Later, he relates a story of how, glimpsing into the crater, he explains how the swirling fires looked like the tumbling waters of the sea; and of what this implies for the future.

Exploring the origins of the film takes Werner Herzog and crew back to Erebus; while the origins of Clive Oppenheimer’s relationships with volcanoes takes him to Toba, Sinabung and Merapi: into an observatory bunker room, stocked with a month’s supplies of food, and a Church in the shape of a chicken; or is it a dove? The search for human origins and volcanoes takes us to the Danakil desert of Afar, Ethiopia; where Tim White has just found the skeleton of another early human. Entombed in the ashes a hundred thousand years ago, and exhumed as the visitors arrive. The origin tale takes us to the Codex Regius and Iceland, where we hear the stories of eruptions of Heimay, Eyjafjallajokull and the great Laki fires of 1783. En route, newsreel of past eruptions are spliced with some footage from the peerless volcano filmmakers, Maurice and Katia Krafft. Katia sampling, as surging rolls of lava surf in a channel, and a moment of Chaplin-esqe fun as a foil-coated Maurice toddles towards a wall of fire. Footage of the hot rock avalanche and surging pyroclastic cloud that brought their lives, and the lives of 41 others, to an abrupt end in Japan in 1991 creates a pause for reflection.

To conclude his curious tales of people around volcanoes, Herzog takes us to the mysterious and closed world of DPRK (North Korea). This is a country under international sanction, with rhetoric that is throwback to the last century. Its northern border is anchored by the ‘long white mountain’, the volcano known as Paektu-san in Korea, and Changbaishan in China. This volcano looms large in the national psyche, with links to the nation’s origins, and those of the present regime; and where the Paektu-san song is almost a national anthem.

Volcanoes as icons: Mt Paektu, on the DPRK (North Korea) - Chinese border

Volcanoes as icons: Mt Paektu, on the DPRK (North Korea) – Chinese border

This is a delightful film that shows off volcanoes and their context in a quirky and entertaining way. In a cinema setting, the mesmerising footage and soundscape pull you right in to the crater. But ‘Into the Inferno’ is about much more than fire and brimstone; it gives voices to the people who live, work on or are drawn to volcanoes, revealing in their own words what it is, or is not, that volcanoes symbolise for them, and their kin.


The smallest volcanic island in the world?

The smallest volcanic island in the world?
Oshima Ko Jima on May 4, 1805

Oshima Ko Jima on May 4, 1805. Sketch by Wilhelm Tilesius.

One of the delights of talking to children of primary school age is their disarming ability to ask really simple questions that demand straightforward answers, but leave you struggling to throw your academic caution to the wind. Even with the questions of the biggest, the smallest, the oldest and the youngest there are still different ways of (over)interpreting the question, that can leave you floundering. So for those of you looking for a clear answer to ‘what is the smallest volcanic island in the world?’, here is a suggestion of an answer from the early 19th Century. In 1805, Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius was engaged as the physician, naturalist and draftsman on the Russian ship Nadezhda, on the first Russian circumnavigation of the world. In May 1805, they were sailing across the sea of Japan and past the Matsumae peninsula in northern Hokkaido, heading for Kamchatka, when they came across two small volcanic islands ‘Oosima and Coosima’. Tilesius described Coosima (Oshima Ko Jima) as ‘perhaps the most diminutive volcanic island in the world’, noting that it was essentially a small pointed rock, which was incessantly smoking. The island was just ‘150 fathoms’, or 270 m, tall; lacking in vegetation and made of dark blue lavas with a weatherbeaten dark-red skirt around the base. Tilesius made all of his observations from on-board ship, as it took a quick tour around the island, and describes ‘light coloured smoke’ and ‘blue sulphur flame’ from the summit crater. Tilesius’ paper suggesting that this was the world’s smallest volcanic island soon found it’s way into Charles Daubeny‘s ‘Active and Extinct Volcanoes‘, and shortly afterwards in a number of popular periodicals of the time. Whether – with an area of 1.5 square kilometers – it really is the world’s smallest volcanic island; and whether it is actually ‘active’ are both moot points; in fact, so little seems to be known about the island that the Smithsonian catalogue still lacks a photograph of it.

Dr W Tilesius, 1820, On the Volcano called by the Japanese Coosima and situated in the neighbourhood of Cape Sangar, in the archipelago of Japan, Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, Vol III, no 6, October 1820, pp. 349-358.

Living with volcanoes, and learning from the past.

Living with volcanoes, and learning from the past.

November 13th, 1985, is a date that is still etched in my memory. This was the day that the Colombian town of Armero was submerged beneath a catastrophic flood of volcanic rocks, mud and water; a lahar that had swept down from the summit of the volcano Nevado del Ruiz, erupting about 40 kilometres away. For days, terrible scenes of anguish and despair filled our television screens, as rescuers struggled desperately to help the survivors, and recover the many thousands of victims. Thirty years on, and Colombia has one of the most sophisticated national volcano monitoring systems in the world, run from a network of observatories by the Servicio Geologico Colombiano (SGC). But what of the people of Armero; the survivors, and those who still live at the foot of the restless volcano, Nevado del Ruiz?

Over the past year, researchers from the University of East Anglia and the ‘STREVA‘ project have been working with the SGC and a filmmaker, Lambda films, to collect oral histories, to explore what people recall from that fateful day, and to learn more about how people live with the volcano today. The result is three short films: beautifully shot, tremendously moving, and well worth a few minutes of your time.


The first volcanic eruption to be photographed?

The first volcanic eruption to be photographed?

In the digital era of instant communication, breaking news of volcanic eruptions usually arrive image-first. This year, spectacular eruptions of Calbuco (Chile), Fuego (Guatemala) and Etna (Italy) have all made it into the end-of-year ‘top tens‘, in glorious multicolour detail. But when was the first photograph taken that captured one instant during a volcanic eruption? And which was the first such photograph to make it into print?

One example may be the April 1872 eruption of Vesuvius, Italy. This short and destructive eruption was one of the most violent paroxysms at Vesuvius during the 19th century. The eruption was quickly documented by Luigi Palmieri – Director of the Vesuvius Observatory from 1852 – 1896. His report of the eruption contains a dramatic line drawing of Vesuvius in eruption on 26th April, which the caption implied was a sketch based on a photograph taken from Naples.

Vesuvius in eruption, April 26, 1872.

Vesuvius in eruption, April 26, 1872. Original caption ‘from a photograph taken in the neighbourhood of Naples”. (Palmieri and Mallet, 1873).

Some years later, John Wesley Judd (1881) noted that ‘on the occasion of this outburst [the 1872 eruption], the aid of instantaneous photography was first made available for obtaining a permanent record of the appearances displayed at volcanic eruptions‘. Judd published a woodcut of a photograph as Figure 5, with no further details relating to its origin; but the image is clearly of the same event and from a fairly similar location to that depicted by Palmieri.

Vesuvius, April 1872. Woodcut image.

Vesuvius, April 1872. Woodcut image, originally published as Fig. 5 in Judd (1881).

A very similar image – most likely a photograph from the same sequence seems to have later become a ‘stock’ volcano photograph; appearing as the frontispiece to Edward Hull‘s ‘Volcanoes past and present’ (1892), as Plate 1 in Bonney‘s ‘Volcanoes’ (1899), and even later as a repainted, colour plate in a popular science magazine (Thomson, 1921). 

Eruption of Vesuvius, 1872-3. Frontispiece in Hull (1892).

Eruption of Vesuvius, 1872-3. Frontispiece in Hull (1892). Original caption ‘From a photograph by Negrettti and Zambra’.

Vesuvius 1872 from 'The outline of science', Thomson (1921). Original caption

Vesuvius 1872 from ‘The outline of science’, Thomson (1921). Original caption ‘from a photograph by Negretti and Zambra’.

Both Hull and Thomson credited the photograph to ‘Negretti and Zambra‘, a company specialising in optical, photographic and meteorological instruments, and photographic materials – including lantern slides. A plausible candidate for the original photographer could be Giorgio Sommer, who ran a studio in Naples. Some of his collections of photographs of Vesuvius from this eruption can be found in archives including Luminous Lint and elsewhere. As an indication of the wider circulation of these images at the time, another similar image can be found as a glass plate in the archives of Tempest Anderson; a British opthalmologist and inveterate traveller and photographer of volcanoes in the late 19th Century. Anderson’s scientific volcano photography included documenting the aftermath of the devastating eruptions of the Soufriere, St Vincent, in 1902, some images of which were published in his 1903 illustrated book ‘Volcanic Studies’.

But are these action shots the first ‘instantaneous’ images of an explosive eruption? A quick search reveals a few albumen prints of steaming volcanoes from the latter parts of the 1860’s (including Etna in 1865, by Sommer; Nea Kameni, Santorini, Greece in 1866; and an image of Kilauea that perhaps dates from 1865). There are also other images of the April 1872 eruption, although taken from a rather different and less revealing location. So perhaps Judd was right – or do any readers have any other suggestions?

Cited references and further reading. 

Anderson, T (1903) Volcanic Studies. John Murray, London.

Bonney, TG (1899) Volcanoes: their structure and significance. John Murray, London.

Hull, E (1892) Volcanoes: past and present. Walter Scott, London.

Judd, JW (1881) Volcanoes: what they are and what they teach. Kegan Paul, London.

Palmieri, L (1873) The eruption of Vesuvius in 1872. With notes, and an introductory sketch .. by  R. Mallet. Asher and Co., London.

Thomson, JA (1921) The outline of science, George Newnes Ltd., London.

The eruptive history of Vesuvius is documented in Scandone et al., 2008, and listed in the Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Programme pages.

About this blog.

I am a volcanologist based in Oxford, UK, with an interest in the stories of past eruptions. My blogs tend to focus on volcanoes – contemporary, recent or ancient. There will be quite a lot of ‘historical volcanology’ in my posts over the next few months, as I am curating an exhibition on volcanoes with Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, which will open in Spring 2017. I am delighted to have joined EGU blogs, and hope that my posts may find some interested readers!


Volcanoes of the Ethiopian Rift Valley

The great Rift Valley of Ethiopia is not only the cradle of humankind, but also the place on Earth where humans have lived with volcanoes, and exploited their resources, for the longest period of time. Perhaps as long ago as 3 Million years, early hominids began to fashion tools from the volcanic rocks from which the Rift Valley was floored, including basalt and obsidian.

IMG_7747_stitch Riftview

View into the Main Ethiopian Rift Valley, on the descent from Butajira to Ziway. Aluto volcano in the centre distance.

The Ethiopian Rift Valley is just one part of the East African Rift system – the largest active continental rift on Earth. While the Ethiopian rift hosts nearly 60 volcanoes that are thought to have erupted in the past 10,000 years, there is only very sparse information about the current status of any of its ‘active’ volcanoes. There are historical records for just two or three eruptions along the MER: 1631 (Dama Ali), and ca. 1820 (Fantale) and (Kone). In contrast, the Afar segment of the rift includes one volcano known to have been in eruption almost continuously since 1873 (Erta Ale), and several other volcanoes that have had major recent or historical eruptions (Dubbi 1400 and 1861; Dabbahu, 2005; the Manda Hararo Rift, 2007, 2009; Dallafilla, 2008, and Nabro, 2011). So are the volcanoes of the MER simply declining into old age and senescence? Or do they continue to pose a threat to the tens of millions of people who live and work the land across this vast region?

IMG_7836_stitch Shalla

Panorama of Lake Shala, part of which fills the huge caldera of O’a volcano.

To address this question, and others, the NERC funded RiftVolc consortium is carrying out a broad-scale investigation of the past eruptive histories, present status and potential for future activity of the volcanoes of the Central Main Ethiopian Rift. This spans eleven known or suspected centres, several of which have suffered major convulsions of caldera-collapse and eruption of great sheets of ignimbrite across the rift floor in the distant past. The first challenge is to piece together the eruptive histories of these volcanoes over the past few tens of thousands of years, and this is something that starts with fieldwork designed to detect the traces of these past events in the rock record. The RiftVolc field team, led by post-doctoral researcher Karen Fontijn, and with doctoral students Keri McNamara (Bristol) and Ben Clarke (Edinburgh) and masters students Amde and Firawalin (AAU) are spending the next five weeks completing a rapid survey of the volcanic ash and pumice deposits preserved within the rift.

IMG_8378_stitch CorbettiEast

Panorama of the eastern caldera of Corbetti volcano.

The first challenge is to identify the tell-tale clues that the sequences of young rocks, soils and sediments contain volcanic deposits. Close to the volcano, we might expect an individual large explosive eruption to leave both thick and coarse deposits; but go too close to the volcano, and there may be so much volcanic material that it can become hard to identify the products of single significant eruptions, as opposed to the ‘background noise’ of smaller but more frequent eruptions.


Karen and Keri examining the young pyroclastic rocks of Corbetti volcano

Out on the flanks of the volcano and beyond, we have the vagaries of geological preservation (did the pumice or ash land somewhere where it would then stay unmodified?) and erosion and weathering (removing or modifying the evidence) to contend with. Each of these factors will depend not only on the nature of the original deposit (how thick it was; what it was made from); but also on the environment in which the deposit formed (on a lake bed? the open savannah?  a forest? On a slope, or not?), and on the subsequent history of that environment (did the lake dry out, or continue to fill with sediment? Did the pumice become stabilised in the grass land; or did it get blown or washed away? How quickly did the soil and vegetation recover after the eruption? How deeply has weathering penetrated in the intervening millennia since the eruption?). Lots of questions to ponder!


Shelly fossils from an ancient lake deposit, interbedded with pumice layers from Aluto volcano

Our long-term goal is to better understand what sort of hazards the Rift’s volcanoes pose to those who live on and around them. There are, of course, much greater immediate challenges to communities in the region linked to the competition for the natural resources (water, land) in this region; but the rapid development of geothermal prospects in the Rift does mean that we need to pay closer attention to the state of the volcanoes that are the source of the geothermal heat.


Fresh road cut section through an obsidian lava dome and drape of pyroclastic rocks, on the way to Urji volcano and Corbetti’s new geothermal power plant

Aside from the volcanoes, the main Ethiopian Rift and its lakes make for a spectacular environment to work in. Despite receding lake levels and failing rains this year, there are vibrant patches of forest and a host of exotic birds and animals to enjoy.


Pair of little bee eaters, Lake Awassa


Flock of flamingo, Lake Chitu


Marabou stork, Lake Ziway





Camels eating Prickly Pear cactus, Corbetti


Ethiopian Fish Eagle, Lake Ziway

Acknowledgements. RiftVolc is a NERC-funded collaborative research project. Many thanks to our Ethiopian collaborators at the Addis Ababa University School of Earth Sciences and the Institute of Geophysics, Space Science and Astronomy (IGSSA) for hosting us and facilitating the joint field campaign; and to Ethioder for providing field vehicles and excellent drivers.

The Mexico City earthquake, 19 September 1985

As a volcanologist based in the UK, I am in the privileged position of rarely being affected by the natural events that I study. And, although I have worked for extended periods of time in earthquake-prone regions, I have never experienced anything more than the gentle nudge of a small tremor.

Thirty years ago, shortly after 7 am local time on 19 September 1985, Mexico City was struck by a large earthquake. The epicentre was near the Pacific coast, and the main event had a magnitude of 8 – just a little less than the September 2015 Illapel earthquake in Chile. Listening in the UK to BBC reports, it soon became clear that there was a terrible disaster unfolding – even though the conurbation was hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre, there was considerable damage to hundreds of buildings across the city. Later analysis revealed an unusual feature of the damage – most of the buildings that collapsed were 5 – 20 stories high; while the majority of both shorter, and taller, buildings were undamaged. This feature arose from the local geology – much of the city is built across old lake deposits. The layer of lake sediments acted to amplify the ground motion as the seismic waves passed by, leading to strong accelerations, and a characteristic period of around 2 seconds. Buildings with a natural period of vibration close to 2 seconds would have begun to resonate, and eventually fail catastrophically, as the strong shaking continued for several minutes. The result of this was a shocking pattern across the city of collapsed buildings cheek by jowl with others that showed no signs of damage.

Among the many thousands who lost their lives were several British language students, who had just arrived in Mexico City on their way to their ‘year abroad’ teaching assignments across Latin America. One, Helen Cawthray, was a linguist at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge; a contemporary and friend of mine. Another, Susan Mell, was a linguist at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where I now teach Earth Sciences. A poignant reminder not only of the random element of disasters, but also of their global reach. As we look back on the thirty years that have passed, the question remains: have the lessons been learned? Or might it all happen again?

Simple memorial to Sue Mell, undergraduate at St Anne's College, Oxford.