Ring of fire

Superstition to science: the volatile history of volcanoes and man

By: Laura J Snook - Posted on: February 9, 2011 | Society

Mankind has a long history with volcanoes. From reverence to fear to curiosity, these monsters of nature have proven to be a constant source of fascination. Southeast Asia Globe investigates how mankind’s relationship with volcanoes has evolved over the centuries, from ancient Greco-Roman mythology to the harnessing of geothermal energy

The Pacific Ring of Fire is the most volcanically active region on the planet – home to the majority of the 100 most dangerous volcanoes in the world, according to UNESCO. This potentially explosive semi-circle of grinding tectonic plates has spawned everything from ancient mythology to geothermal engineering – and mankind’s relationship with it remains as volatile as ever.

Robert Tilling, of the US Geological Survey (USGS), believes man’s understanding of volcanoes has evolved significantly over time – in some places faster than others. “In ancient times, for every volcanic region on Earth, legends and superstitions existed about gods, goddesses and mythical creatures causing volcanic eruptions,” he said. “Nowadays, with increased scientific understanding, the vast majority of people worldwide now know volcanic eruptions are natural phenomena. With sufficient scientific data, volcanologists are beginning to make successful forecasts of eruptive activity. Yet a few people still believe that eruptions are the work of supernatural beings or forces.”

The word volcano, as defined by the USGS, originates from the tiny island of Vulcano in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Sicily. “Centuries ago, the people living in this area believed Vulcano was the chimney of the forge of Vulcan – the blacksmith of the Roman gods,” said Tilling. “They thought the hot lava fragments and clouds of dust erupting from Vulcano came from Vulcan’s forge as he beat out thunderbolts for Jupiter, king of the gods, and weapons for Mars, the god of war.

“In Polynesia, the people attributed eruptive activity to the beautiful but wrathful Pele, Goddess of Volcanoes, whenever she was angry or spiteful. Pele was both revered and feared; her immense power and many adventures figured prominently in ancient Hawaiian songs and chants. She could cause earthquakes by stamping her feet and volcanic eruptions and fiery devastations by digging with the Pa’oe, her magic stick. An oft-told legend describes the long and bitter quarrel between Pele and her older sister Namakaokahai that led to the creation of the chain of volcanoes that form the islands. Today we know volcanic eruptions aren’t supernatural, but can be studied and interpreted by scientists.”

A map showing the ‘ring of fire’ Photo: USGS

Acquiring that knowledge has taken millennia. The earliest known recording of a volcanic eruption is believed by some to be a cave painting dating back to about 7,000BC at a Neolithic site now known as Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, Turkey. Almost 6,000 years later, in around 1620BC, a series of spectacular eruptions spawned a series of myths when it sent 100ft tsunamis racing across the Aegean Sea – believed by the Greeks to be the wrath of sea god Poseidon. As recently as the seventh century, German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler declared that volcanoes were in fact ducts for the Earth’s tears. Moving from the realm of poetic license to that of scientific observation would take a further 1,200 years.

“It has been said the science of volcanology originated with the accurate descriptions of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, contained in two letters from Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian Tacitus,” Tilling said. “[But] it was not until the 19th century that serious scientific inquiry into volcanic phenomena flourished as part of the general revolution in the physical and life sciences, including the new science of geology,” he added.

In 1847, an observatory was established on the flanks of Mount Vesuvius in Naples, Italy, upslope from the site of Herculaneum, for the more or less continuous recording of the activity of the volcano that destroyed the ancient Roman city in AD79. Still, it was not until the 20th century that the scientific study of volcanoes evolved into something more sophisticated. In 1912, Thomas A Jaggar, head of the Geology Department at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded – with the help of an association of Honolulu businessmen – the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO). Perched on the rim of Kilauea’s caldera, it has allowed scientists to continuously monitor seismic activity before, during and after eruptions at two of the world’s most active volcanoes for almost a century. As a result, the HVO has pioneered most of the techniques used to monitor active volcanoes around the world today, including in Indonesia and the Philippines.

Mount Vesuvius looms in the background of of the devastated town Pompeii Photo: Lesly Lotha

Yet despite the quantum leaps in science, certain beliefs have survived to this day. “Volcanoes have been the object of curiosity and fear throughout history and people affected have often attempted to understand these events in cultural and religious contexts,” said Lee Seibert of the Smithsonian Institute’s Global Volcanism Programme. “Volcanoes in many regions were considered to be inhabited by demons or deities that required human sacrifices to appease. Even as scientific knowledge has increased the understanding of how volcanoes function, allowing the harnessing of geothermal energy and the use of geophysical and other monitoring techniques to anticipate when eruptions might occur, many people filter their response to volcanic events through the lens of their own experience.”

Even today, people living on the flanks of Italy’s Mount Etna appeal to patron saints to halt the progress of lava flowing towards their towns and farmland. It is believed only saintly miracles can avert the volcano’s wrath. In AD253, the relics of St Agatha were paraded in front of lava advancing on Catania. Miraculously, the river of fire split in half, flowing down two valleys and sparing the town (it didn’t work in 1669, though, and much of Catania was lost).

Failure to take heed of advancing danger can have tragic consequences, as evidenced on 26 October 2010 when Mount Merapi in Central Java, Indonesia blew its top in a series of increasingly violent explosions that would rock the archipelago for almost a month. The worst eruption in Indonesia in 140 years, it sent searing lava, gas, ash and boulders the size of houses hurtling down the mountain at 724km/h, the speed of a jet aircraft. More than 350,000 people were forced to flee their homes and a further 353 perished. Java, along with Sumatra, was referred to by Krakatoa author Simon Winchester at the time as “a test bed for the horror show that volcanoes can be.”

“A respected religious leader and some of his followers lost their lives on Merapi volcano in Indonesia this past year when he advised against following government volcanologists’ warnings to evacuate,” said Seibert. “The risks posed by volcanoes are now well understood and a challenge scientists face is effectively conveying those risks to those potentially affected.”

Much of the loss of life could have been reduced if there had been earlier evacuations, but in both cases the decision-makers were not sufficiently convinced of the need to evacuate

Spiritual guardian Mbah Marijan insisted there was no danger, having successfully defied an eruption prediction in 2006. As so-called gatekeeper of the volcano, his words carried considerable weight. According to Javanese mysticism, the gatekeeper protects the people of Yogyakarta by communicating with the spirit of the volcano, a powerful deity referred to as Grandfather Merapi and credited with the land’s fertility. Professor Bernard Adeney-Risakotta, an expert in the religion of Yogyakarta from Gadjah Mada University, has described Merapi as the “the most holy place” for Javanese, “like the centre of the universe.”

Such beliefs can jeopardise attempts to mitigate disaster in the event of an eruption, but resistance to hard, scientific evidence is far from rare, even in the 21st century. “Scientists and public officials with responsibility for volcanic hazards often face resistance to warnings of potential volcanic activity,” said Seibert. “Volcanologists in Ecuador preparing hazard maps for Cotopaxi volcano [in the Andes, South America] were publicly referred to as volcano terrorists by business interests. Evacuations can have long-term economic consequences and people are understandably reluctant to leave homes, croplands and livestock even during potentially hazardous eruptive activity.”

Mount Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatoa) volcano spews volcanic materials during an eruption as seen from Rakata island in Lampung province, Indonesia Photo: Ghazali / EPA / EFE

Perhaps the most important example is that of the indigenous Aeta, who lived on the forested slopes of Mount Pinatubo on the island of Luzon in the Philippines before it erupted on 15 June 1991, just 90km from the capital, Manila. “The Aetas were the first to spot the signs of volcanic unrest when it began in April 1991 because, at that time, there was no scientific instrumentation on the volcano,” said Professor David Pyle, of Oxford University’s School of Earth Sciences in the UK. “Some Aeta villages were fully evacuated prior to the catastrophic eruption, having taken on board the public briefings on what might happen, but there were other cases where individuals or groups were reluctant to evacuate, in the belief that Apo na Malyari – the volcano creator – would protect them. In the event, there were few survivors among those who did not evacuate the slopes of the volcano.”

The impact of such eruptions is often exacerbated by the authorities, the professor said. One of the main challenges is “when the immediate scientific advice – for example, for a large scale evacuation in response to an eruption which doesn’t yet seem to have started – seems unpalatable to politicians either because of the location, or likely timing of the event.”

Citing two of the most significant volcanic disasters of the last century – the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique, which killed about 30,000, and fatal mudflows following the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia, which left 23,000 dead – Professor Pyle said “much of the loss of life could have been reduced if there had been earlier evacuations, but in both cases the decision-makers were not sufficiently convinced of the need to evacuate.”

Today, as the volcanic soils and inviting terrains continue to attract people to live along the Ring of Fire, experts caution that man must learn not to crowd the volcanoes. “Volcanoes both harass and help mankind,” said Tilling. “The challenge to scientists involved with volcano research is to mitigate the short-term adverse impacts of eruptions, so that society may continue to enjoy the long-term benefits of volcanism. They must continue to improve the capability for predicting eruptions and to provide decision-makers and the general public with the best possible information on high-risk volcanoes for sound decisions on land-use planning and public safety. Geoscientists still don’t fully understand how volcanoes really work, but considerable advances have been made in recent decades. An improved understanding of volcanic phenomena provides important clues to the Earth’s past, present and possibly its future.”

This article was published in the February 2011 edition of Southeast Asia Globe magazine. For full access, subscribe here.