Geologic Column

A Soft Rock Tourist at the Gates of Hell
Fred Schwab

I recently designed a recovery program for disillusioned sedimentary geologists that would help them feel more positive about themselves and less stressed. I undertook this endeavor to convince myself that I had made the right professional choices.

Modest health and IRS problems, together with an inability to easily and happily adjust to the sudden irrelevance that early retirement brings, generated a lot of self-doubt. So, I pretended my career had taken a different turn and, at least vicariously, became a daredevil volcanologist. I traded places with colleagues obsessed with lava, volcanic bombs and fiery death by immersing myself for an entire, very intense week in four recent, quite popular fiery volumes. What did this August 2003 visit to Dante’s Inferno (heretofore, just a modest pizza place down the road) reveal?

Two books dealt with the 1993 eruption of Galeras, an Andean volcano in southern Columbia. The first I read, Surviving Galeras by Stanley Williams and Fen Montaigne, is downright scary. Its principal author stood in the crater of this 15,000-foot peak when it blew (killing nine people, including six members of the geology field trip he was leading). Williams passionately argues that he wrote this book to explain and expand upon what a high-risk realm volcanology is, and the profound impact volcanoes have on Earth’s landscapes and civilization.

It’s a poignant and pretty egocentric book by a guy who obviously continues to grieve over colleagues, who perhaps wouldn’t have been in that crater without his say-so. Nevertheless, it troubled me that he dismissed “normal” geologists (like me!) who stay away from volcanoes as akin to pathologists studying dead tissue or physicians working with healthy people! Volcanologists ride the bucking bronco, while sedimentologists and other rock hounds are mere spectators in the rodeo stand. If Donald Trump had been a volcanologist, he would have written this book!

No Apparent Danger by Victoria Bruce takes a far more critical look at Williams and the excursion he led to Galeras. Bruce delivers some pretty specific finger-pointing. It gives sort of an Oprah Winfrey-Jerry Springer view of volcanologists: scientists who deliberately but thoughtlessly place themselves in harm’s way, despite reasonably clear indications of danger. (Screw-shaped seismograph imprints called tornillos, which are generated from steam cracks and expanded rocks around magma chambers prior to eruption, were recorded at Galeras in the days prior to the disastrous fieldtrip.)

For a little respite, I turned to Simon Winchester’s, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883. This is a volcanic disaster reported in the style of National Public Radio. A long, deliberate and sober march through history leads to the fateful day in August 1883, when that Indonesian island lost its head. Winchester’s book keeps its distance from Krakatoa, but is nevertheless remarkably chilling.

Finally, I sought an arguably positive side of volcanic eruptions by reading Gabrielle Walker’s Snowball Earth. This volume details the winding road Paul Hoffman and friends (and enemies) traveled while developing their controversial theory that Earth has repetitiously oscillated between a cold snowball world (frozen seas with most of primitive life extinguished) and a warm greenhouse Earth that was almost magically reheated by submarine volcanics. This book personalizes the story and combines the styles of Gone with the Wind and Peyton Place. I envy Hoffman’s intelligence and determination, but his drive and confidence terrified me as he virtually leapt from the book’s pages to argue his case.

So what have I concluded by briefly trading places with “action geologists”? I now realize that we humans might be around only as a consequence of evolutionary leaps triggered by exploding volcanoes. I’m sobered by the fact that one in 10 of us are at risk from a volcanic disaster (500 million of the world’s 5 billion are within range, including all those who attended Seattle’s Geological Society of America meeting in November). And I’m surprised that most volcanoes kill not by suffocation or incineration, but by burying victims alive beneath mudflows, washing them away with gigantic sea waves or starving them in the chaotic aftermath of eruption.

One intriguing question: Can volcanologists soon help to make our world a better or at least a safer place? Predicting eruptions is difficult, requiring geologists to look ahead rather than behind. Most geologists are better at reconstructing long-term historical events. Using observations about ancient phenomena to infer future geological events on a time scale that is humanly meaningful is markedly different. Nevertheless, society, and especially the various governmental and academic institutions for which we work, will ask this of us with increasing frequency.

Volcanoes did hook me. I wound up my summer of discontent with a two-day family backpacking trip to view the almost 11,000-foot-high summit of Glacier Peak, one of the most remote volcanoes in the Washington Cascades. And I’ve booked airline tickets for a spring trip to the Big Island of Hawaii to deliberately see these beasts in action.

Most importantly, my temporary role-playing worked. I made the right, albeit tame, career choices. I’m content to be a soft-rocker. Hold the lava, bombs, and steam. Point counting Cambrian sandstones and fathering four kids are thrilling enough for timid me.

Schwab is a professor of geology at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and a corresponding editor for Geotimes. E-mail:

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