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Eruptions that shook the world

Book cover

Eruptions that shook the world, by Clive Oppenheimer

Cambridge University Press, 2011

“I have to thank God on my knees that Oppenheimer’s book did not exist at the time I made my decision to become a filmmaker. I might have become a volcanologist instead.”

    — Werner Herzog, film director and producer

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From the preface:

The largest volcanic salvo of the last century took place in a remote part of the Alaska Peninsula in 1912. The eruption of Mount Katmai expelled around 28 cubic kilometres (nearly seven cubic miles) of ash and pumice, projecting roughly two-thirds of it into the air and the remaining third as ground-hugging hurricanes of dust and rock. The only event to have come close to it in more recent times is the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. Had an eruption the size of Katmai’s 1912 outburst occurred in more densely populated regions of the ‘lower 48’ or, say, in Italy, Indonesia or the Caribbean, the event would be much better known outside of the volcanological coterie. In case you are wondering how to envisage 28 cubic kilometres of volcanic rock, it is sufficient to form a blanket seven centimetres thick (nearly three inches) over California, or 11 centimetres across the UK!

However, the Katmai eruption was a fairly trivial demonstration of volcanic fury viewed from either geological or human evolutionary perspectives. Around 7700 years ago, an eruption twice the size did strike the conterminous USA (in Oregon). Remarkably, the memory of the eruption, which formed the magnificent landform known as Crater Lake, lingers in the oral traditions of the Klamath Native American tribe. Another eruption, more than twice as large again struck the eastern Mediterranean only 3600 years ago. It may have had a devastating ‘slow fuse’ impact on the Minoans, one of the great early civilisations. Stretching back seventy-four thousand years ago, a volcanic cataclysm more than 200 times larger than Katmai’s blast left a hole up to 80 kilometres across, in northern Sumatra. Some claims suggest that the event almost exterminated our ancestors! These comparisons demonstrate why we need to examine the records of much larger historic and prehistoric eruptions, if we wish to anticipate the full spectrum of possible future volcanic activity. What is more, the deep time perspective sheds light on the gamut of societal responses to volcanic disasters, again providing vital clues to assist preparation for future volcanic catastrophes. It also reveals the creative responses to both the resources and threats associated with volcanism, which have promoted positive developments in human society and culture.

A primary aim of this book therefore is to examine the claims that volcanism shaped prehistoric and historic social trajectories. To do this, we need to look at how volcanoes act on a very large scale, and how often do they do it. Lifespans of volcanoes are variable but can exceed a million years, far in excess of the time that Homo sapiens has lived on Earth. Even an individual volcano might exert an intermittent influence on human ecology, demography and migration. Such enquiry into the record of past volcanism and its impact is not only of interest to understanding archaeology and ancient environmental change. In considering the full range of risks posed by future volcanic activity it is vital to recognise that volcanoes can unleash disasters of a scale not seen for generations.

  • What are the chances of a ‘super-volcano’ such as Yellowstone in the USA producing another ‘super-eruption’ in the next decades, and what would its impacts be?
  • Might global climate change actually trigger volcanic eruptions?
  • Could artificial volcanoes be used to control climate change?

As well as considering these questions, this book also delves into the deeper geological record to explore the links between volcanism and mass extinctions identified in the fossil record.

Overview of Chapters

An overview of the chapters in the book is available.


Have a look at the reviews of the book.