Blame It On Volcanoes

Volcanoes! They’re responsible for so many things, like pumice, the spontaneous combustion of Bobby Jindal’s political career and that part of Disney’s Fantasia right before everything gets terrifying. Some say the hellish orange sky in Edvard Munch’s The Scream came courtesy of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. So what else can we blame on volcanoes?


The ruins of Pompeii lay undisturbed for centuries under a thick layer of ash, tephra and other volcanic output following the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius. They were unearthed in the mid-eighteenth century, and — this is the crazy part, for me — visited by Mozart. Thirteen-year-old Wolfgang, a tourist, visited the still-being-dusted-off ruins of Pompeii in 1769. Here’s another thing that happened in 1769: Daniel Boone first set foot in Kentucky. But Mozart! The Temple of Isis, one of the first discoveries to be unearthed, was repurposed by the composer as a setting in his final opera The Magic Flute, first performed over 20 years after his visit. Here, watch legendary basso René Pape nail “O Isis und Osiris” at the Met in 2007. Though the Met didn’t replicate the temple as a literal backdrop, don’t you feel like you’re at least a little bit there?


Do you remember when the hole in the ozone layer was the environmental problem? Early ’90s, right? The ozone layer, the future of the giant pandas, and also they counted the coelacanths? But for this thing here: the ozone layer. See, when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it sent a whole lot of material up into the atmosphere, which acted almost like a giant can of Aqua Net and tore a massive hole in the ozone layer. Sulfur dioxide (SO2), a product of volcanoes, accelerates the chemical reaction that depletes the ozone layer. And a volcano as explosive as Pinatubo releases a lot of SO2. Literally tons of it. Twenty million tons, actually. Consequently, the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica was at its largest in the early ’90s As a bonus, the amount of tephra in the atmosphere cooled global temperature for a couple of years. The 1993 “storm of the century” was connected to the eruption two years previous. So if you had a snow day (or several) that second week of March: thank a volcano!

(Irresistible digression: You know that you can LOOK AT A COELACANTH, like, the 1938 coelacanth, chilling in a jar at the Darwin Centre at the British Natural History Museum? It’s in the room with the colossal squid. It’s not even the focal point of the room. Just, like, oh by the way, that’s our coelacanth, nbd. Also nearby: Some of Darwin’s original specimens from the Galapagos Islands and sea life caught on James Cook’s voyages (who, as it happens, was first setting foot in New Zealand around the time that Mozart was exploring Pompeii!) It is truly an embarrassment of fishes. And non-fishes, but the pun doesn’t work that way.)


Indonesia’s Mount Tambora erupted in April 1815, the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. There’s a lot of recorded history, guys, and this one was the biggest! More explosive and deadly and damaging than Krakatoa, Pelee, Pinatubo, all of ’em. Only Lake Taupo in New Zealand, the year 186, was bigger. Here’s how terrible it was: the next year is known as the Year Without A Summer. The ash belched forth into the atmosphere put the entire planet into a volcanic winter. In New England, it snowed in June. In China, water buffalo froze to death. There were food riots in Switzerland. And on Lake Geneva, the summer vacation of the Shelleys and Lord Byron was a total bust as rain kept them indoors. Befitting the dismal conditions, the group told ghost stories — then had a contest to see who could produce the scariest story. John Polidori, Byron’s young doctor, ended up writing The Vampyre, inspired by a fragment of a story written by Byron. And Mary Shelley started work on what became Frankenstein. (Tambora can also be blamed for Byron’s apocalyptic poem “Darkness.”)


“Hawaii,” you are thinking, “yes, Hawaii has volcanoes. Everyone knows that.” And that’s true! But the Hawaiian Islands themselves are no more than volcano detritus, even though they’re hundreds of miles from any tectonic plate boundary along which you’d expect to find volcanic activity. The island chain was caused by a ‘hot spot,’ a hole in the Pacific plate. A plume of super-hot magma has poked a hole in the plate and surged to the surface, where the erupting lava cooled and solidified to form an island. At the same time, the Pacific plate itself was scooting and shifting over the plume. Voila: an island chain. On the image above (pilfered from an unrelated episode of “NOVA,” I just drew on it), trace the history of the hot spot along the floor of the Pacific as the Hawaiian Islands get smaller and smaller, then become little underwater mounds (called seamounts). Furthermore, the newest Hawaiian island is already forming just east of the Big Island. Lōʻihi Seamount is growing, but it’s still about a thousand kmmeters below the surface — and, as the plate is only moving at a rate of five inches per year, don’t count on the newest vacation destination being available within our lifetime.

Jimmy Buffet recorded “Fins,” a song about dudes trying to pick up a lady in a bar, in a studio at the foot of the Soufrière Hills volcano on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean. The volcano was not active at the time, but it was still impressive enough to inspire Buffet to title the album Volcano and write a song about it, too. The volcano hadn’t even done anything yet. The recording studio was blown apart by Hurricane Hugo a few years later, then the ground it stood on was buried in lava after the volcano erupted in 1995. One can only conclude that the island thought the same of Buffett’s album as did most critics, who generally agree that it was his worst.

In 2009, “Fins” was rewritten as a fight song and can be heard at Sun Life Stadium every time the Dolphins score a touchdown. Notably, the team hasn’t had a winning season since the song was instated.


Mount St. Helens, in western Washington State, sat dormant for about 150 years, then jolted back to active status as swarms of earthquakes led up to the infamous eruption in May of 1980. Since then, the mountain has been continuously monitored for the smallest gurgles — these measures includes a this Forest Service webcam, which is trained on the volcano day and night. Though you can’t see much at night, I guess. One unexpected result of having an eye on the cone at all times? An enormous mutant fly has been spotted prowling the slopes, triggering earthquakes with its mighty footsteps, waiting for Godzil….what? It’s just a bug on the webcam? Oh.

Victoria Johnson is a connoisseur of mundane webcams. She promises actual maps in the next column.