Changing Planet

Volcanoes are very misunderstood: here’s why

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “volcano”? Chances are it is an eruptive column grounding air traffic, or a lava flow destroying a Hawaiian village. That’s the kind of volcano-related news we usually hear from the media, and those events invariantly carry an aftermath of lost lives and financial loss.

Volcanoes do produce eruptive columns that occasionally ground air traffic, and lava flows that sometimes destroy Hawaiian villages. But that’s not all volcanoes do, and by only telling half of the tale we misrepresent them, promulgating a narrow, overly negative view of this natural feature.

I remember a conversation with a fellow plane passenger on my way to Mt. St. Helens last summer. “You are going there on vacation?! That’s crazy!” She proceeded to explain that volcanoes are dangerous, and that approaching them is reckless. “I’d never do that,” she concluded, disapprovingly.

When looking at a volcano, that woman sees the latest volcano-related news. She sees travel inconvenience and property loss. When looking at a volcano, I see the beauty of our living planet. I see new land and life-support.

Humans have explored the vast majority of the surface world, and there aren’t very many directions left for us to expand the frontier of exploration. But there are places that did not exist until the day before, plots of land newly created by active volcanoes, lava flow after lava flow. Exploring them is the ultimate frontier of human exploration on Earth.

I got the privilege to be the first person to stand on newly erupted land on Pacaya, Guatemala, in 2010. And to this day, that was one of the most emotional moments of my entire life. I could hear the glassy sound of fresh lava crunching underneath my boots, I could still fell the warmth of the volcano reaching my feet through the soles of my shoes. In that moment, I was walking across a frontier so new that only a handful of people even knew about it.

Volcanoes are mainly a creative force in our world, not a destructive one. They build new land, and fertilize the land we already have. It’s no coincidence that the best vineyards and coffee plantations are found on volcanic slopes.

Rewind a few billion years, and volcanoes were already at work building our atmosphere, making our planet suitable for life. We owe it to volcanoes for the life on Earth today. Conversely, volcanically inactive worlds are not good candidates to host life.

So the next time you hear the world “volcano”, don’t let images of destruction played up by the media invade your mind. Pour yourself a cup of volcano-sourced coffee, take a deep breath of volcano-emitted air, and contemplate the latest frontier of human exploration.

National Geographic Young Explorer Arianna Soldati currently works at the Department of Geological Sciences, University of Missouri, where she does research in Petrology and Volcanologyy.

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