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1 May 2000 Vulcan's Fury: Man Against the Volcano
Simon Carn
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Vulcan's Fury: Man Against the Volcano by Alwyn Scarth. Yale University Press, 1999. xi + 300 pp. $29.95. ISBN 0-300-07541-3.

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In Vulcan's Fury, Alwyn Scarth presents a readable and often enthralling account of the human dramas played out around active volcanoes during 15 significant eruptions of the last 2000 or so years. Much of the material in this well-illustrated book is derived from the original sources and testimonies of eyewitnesses, in a bid to avoid the propagation of myths and errors resulting from continual reinterpretation. The dramatis personae span 5 continents, although the book is somewhat biased toward eruptions in Europe and the Americas, and the examples chosen exhibit the diversity of volcanic phenomena observed on Earth very well indeed.

Each chapter covers a single eruption, and most begin with a short preamble introducing the historical, geographical, and geological context of the volcano in question. The subtitle of the book, ‘Man Against the Volcano,’ is a fair indication of its general theme, which endeavors to describe the volcanic events as seen through the invariably untrained eyes of contemporary observers while eschewing excessive scientific explanation. As a result, particularly in the chapters covering eruptions prior to that of Mount St Helens in 1980, the narrative is strewn with colorful and entertaining prose, credited to writers attempting to describe awesome sights without the benefits of modern volcanological knowledge and terminology. However, readers expecting a detailed sociological or psychological analysis of the people that choose to live in the shadow of volcanoes may be disappointed, as the author often resorts to a straightforward chronological description of events.

The book kicks off with a brief visitor's guide to the Aeolian Island of Stromboli, which also graces the front cover. This chapter seems to have been included essentially out of reverence for the world's most persistently active volcano, and it is probably right that the story should commence in Italy, the acknowledged ‘cradle of volcanology,’ although there is no discussion of what first brought people to settle on the island. We remain in Italy for the subsequent 3 chapters, covering the infamous eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 that obliterated what is now downtown Naples; the birth in 1538 of a new volcano, Monte Nuovo in the Phlegraean Fields; and the 1669 eruption of Mount Etna, during which the resilient inhabitants of Catania employed a mixture of religious fervor and inventive engineering in an attempt to divert advancing lava flows.

We then move further afield to Öraefajökull in Iceland, where subglacial eruptions have produced catastrophic meltwater floods (jökulhlaups) that inundate the surrounding coastal lowlands every few hundred years. Unfortunately, the jökulhlaup that followed the Grimsvötn caldera eruption in 1996 was probably too recent for inclusion in the book, as it would have made an interesting comparative study. Potentially the most interesting chapter is also based in southern Iceland and concerns the 1783 Laki fissure eruption. The 15 km3 of lava that spewed from Laki in that year constitute the most voluminous eruption of lava of the millennium, but the somewhat muted written response of the Icelanders precludes an accurate gauging of the human reaction to such a unique spectacle. More of the discussion is devoted to the wider climatic effects of the eruption and possible links to famine and abnormally cold winters in Europe in the mid-1780s that are still hotly debated.

Several recurrent themes common to many of the eruptions are evident from this peripatetic volcano tour. The great suffering and resilience of indigenous populations, such as the Aetas at Pinatubo or the Tarascans at Parícutin, are clear, as is the stubborn attachment to their volcanic homelands that invariably results in the posteruption resettlement of the devastated area. This latter trait can also be attributed to other factors, such as the increased fertility imparted to the land by nutrient-rich volcanic ash (eg, on Lanzarote after the 1730–1736 eruption), the provision of financial incentives such as exemption from taxes (eg, in Pozzuoli after the Monte Nuovo eruption), or the economic exploitation of volcanic deposits (eg, pozzuolana in Pozzuoli). Redevelopment such as this is epitomized by comparing the photograph of modern-day Saint-Pierre (p 156), in the shadow of Mont Pelée on Martinique, with its pre-1902 incarnation (p 179); they are remarkably similar, bar the additional dome atop today's volcano, although the town's population is now significantly lower.

Other common threads include the effects of earthquakes that commonly precede volcanic eruptions, which are often more damaging and distressing than subsequent events; the frequent incidence of looting in deserted towns beset by volcanic outbursts; and the increasing role of the media in 20th Century volcanic crises, from posters in Saint-Pierre in 1902 to the spread of misinformation in the Colombian national press during the Nevado del Ruiz crisis in 1985. There is also a clear distinction between the build-up to a major eruption (a time of uncertainty, panic, skepticism, fear, political wrangling, and scientific debate that may last months or even years, and the key period regarding observations and reactions of the people) and the paroxysm itself, which may be so destructive, violent, and short-lived as to prohibit any reasoned response.

The book is well written and beautifully illustrated with clearly reproduced photographs and prints, although some of these would have been better placed in chronological order to complement the progression of the narrative. Many of the photos would also have benefited from more detailed captions and an idea of scale. The maps are useful but occasionally look rough and lacking in detail, detracting from the overall quality of the book. I would also have welcomed a chapter on a Japanese eruption, such as Asama in 1783, although the author was evidently limited by the availability of detailed records. However, these are relatively minor criticisms of a book that fills a significant niche in the literature and will appeal to anyone with an interest in natural hazards or their consequences. It is a fine tribute to the observational side of volcanology, demonstrating that, while observations of volcanic phenomena have been generally good through the ages, our interpretations have necessarily evolved with the science. It also serves as a good potted history of volcanology since many of the eruptions discussed were the first of their genre in historic time and thus became paradigmatic examples that advanced the science a little further. History shows that people will always be willing to take a chance with volcanoes in return for the riches they can provide but, as the author states in his conclusion, ultimately the volcano always wins, which is why we can expect many more books of this ilk in the future.

Simon Carn "Vulcan's Fury: Man Against the Volcano," Mountain Research and Development 20(2), 202-203, (1 May 2000). https://doi.org/10.1659/0276-4741(2000)020[0202:VSFMAT]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 May 2000
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