Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond by Robin George Andrews

Volcanoes need a new agent.

Whenever an eruption starts somewhere on Earth, we’re barraged with news of destroyed buildings, closed airspace, evacuated people and, at worst, injuries and deaths. These extreme impacts do happen during some eruptions, but as any volcanologist would remind you, volcanoes spend most of their lives not erupting. Yet these geologic wonders are still painted as villains in the media, in movies and in books. Robin George Andrews might be that agent volcanoes need to change their public persona, as his new book, “Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal About Earth and the Worlds Beyond,” tries to rehabilitate their image and set them as vital features on and off the Earth.

Even the term “super volcano” was created for the Hollywood ideal of a giant, deadly eruption. There is no technical definition of when a run-of-the-mill volcano upgrades to a super volcano; the term is used to refer to the massive, apocalyptic eruptions that many fear could happen in places like the Yellowstone Caldera in Wyoming. The sorts of eruptions that would fit into the notional definition of “super” haven’t happened for thousands of years, yet even volcanologists have conceded that the term is here to stay.

Andrews’s stated goal is to use his enthusiasm for volcanoes to reboot how we think about these fiery forges. A scientist turned science writer, Andrews realized that the world of academic research on volcanoes wasn’t why he pursued deeper volcanic knowledge while getting his PhD from the University of Otago in New Zealand. Instead, he wanted to spread the gospel of volcanism to the masses that think of them only as portents of doom. In “Super Volcanoes,” he weaves a path through some of the most important recent eruptions and discoveries.

Starting with the 2018 eruption of Kilauea in Hawaii, Andrews jumps back and forth from the past to the present to reveal the history of modern volcanology. Thomas Jaggar’s first attempts to take the temperature of lava in the early 20th century are woven into stories of the start of the 2018 lava flows that buried multiple communities on the slopes of Kilauea. The frantic response to the 2018 eruption is recounted through the eyes of U.S. Geological Survey geologists such as Christina Neal and Wendy Stovall, who put us in their boots as lava fountains are pouring molten rock onto houses and roads.

Our current understanding of volcanic processes is the thread that connects the chapters. It is surprising to realize that it has been less than 100 years since we recognized the Yellowstone Caldera and its history of enormous eruptions that Andrews calls “Mephistophelian paroxysms.” Yet, even as we learn about these cataclysmic eruptions from Yellowstone that blanketed ash across territory from Montana to Louisiana, it is really the science of volcanoes that drives Andrews’s prose: “But the world won’t end. It would not even come close to bringing civilization crashing down. We know this, because this experiment has already been run.”

In the first half of the book, Andrews takes us on a whirlwind tour of volcanoes in all corners of the globe. We join the scientists who study volcanoes and volcanic processes and learn how these processes affect people and life. Andrews has a tendency to introduce us to new characters with a Dickensian rapidity that lessens the impact of all these amazing scientists, but he does show us that the world of volcanology is a broad, diverse community.

In its second half, the book dives deep into the nature of extraterrestrial volcanism. Andrews takes us to Mars, the moon, Venus and the outer planets, mostly on a hunt for how volcanoes are linked to the potential for life on other worlds. At times you do feel like you’ve wandered into a different book. But no matter — Andrews creates a sense of wonder in the reader over the detection in September 2020 of a gas most people have never heard of, phosphine, a chemical compound that’s one part phosphorus and three parts hydrogen. “And the world went bananas,” Andrews writes of that observation, because phosphine has been suggested to be a chemical sign of life. In this case, it would be life in the clouds of our sister planet Venus.

Andrews is gifted in describing volcanic processes in ways that most people can comprehend. When discussing the extremely unusual carbon-rich lavas from Oldoinyo Lengai in Tanzania, he notes that nearby “there is a big chunk of mangled up continental rocks, a 3-billion-year-old or older lump named the Tanzanian craton. Over its lengthy history, mantle plumes have risen ... tickling the underbelly of the craton and supplying it with plenty of carbon.”

Andrews provides illuminating analogies that capture the uncertainty and unknowns of volcanology. In describing how we don’t know the relationship between big asteroid impacts on the moon and the massive lava flow fields that mark the dark areas on its near side, he writes, “It’s a bit like coming home to find your dog destroyed the pillows on the couch, the toilet paper, the television remote and a few books: you don’t really know which of these fundamental acts of destruction happened first, or last.”

Andrews admits that what he really wants to be is a time traveler. This is clear from “Super Volcanoes.” The book excels when he drops us into a foreign location or time, like a devastating eruption of Yellowstone or in the atmosphere of Venus and paints us a picture of actually being there. Yet, as we all know, we’re not time travelers. Volcanoes can help record times past, and Andrews reminds us that there is a reason we’ve been writing about them since the time of Pliny: “Time moves on. But volcanoes and eruptions have a timeless effect on our minds, whether we are watching their embers on land, underwater, or in space.”

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