What is the power of a volcano?

Volcanoes aren’t always about eruptions and the catastrophic natural disasters we often see in the news. Many people live close to volcanoes and face other hardships and issues even aside from the possibility of an eruption – so what is life like for them? 


Think for a moment about a volcanic eruption you have studied in school. Chances are you are imagining a large explosion and a sudden event that humans have little chance of surviving.

Case studies that you might have come across in Geography of volcanic eruptions tend to reinforce these ideas. The major eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 is often described as one of the most disastrous volcanic events in the recent history of the United States. Other examples of eruptions that might come to mind could include Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano which erupted in 2010 causing an ash cloud which extended over parts of Northern Europe and halted flights.

shutterstock_1363347518.jpgThe types of volcanic hazards that geographers tend to focus on however might not tell the full story of the ways that volcanoes and human communities interact. Archaeologists John Grattan and Robin Thomas argue that our current way of thinking about volcanic eruptions plays into an ‘obsession with death and destruction’ rather than accurately describing the complex ways people have experienced volcanic eruptions in different parts of the world through history.

One reason why we have developed a focus on the deathly aspects of volcanoes is the way in which volcanoes are represented in films. Another reason is to do with the ways that governments have come to understand and respond to volcanic eruptions since the Second World War.

For example, in the United States, natural hazard events such as volcanic eruptions were used to study the ways that populations might respond to nuclear bombing. Government departments came to pay less attention to the complex ways that volcanoes effect populations and instead concentrated their concerns on the most spectacular moments when volcanoes were erupting. This was so they could use volcanoes to better understand how populations respond to mass panic, death and destruction from nuclear bombs.

shutterstock_1212631678.jpgWhile volcanoes can and do kill people, we have risked spending too much time on thinking of volcanoes in terms of death and wide-spread destruction. We consequently know much less about the ways that communities live with volcanoes when there is no spectacular eruption event. What are the hardships they face? How might we go about finding this out? How might this draw attention to volcanoes in Europe rather than the types of dramatic eruptions we see in places like Indonesia and Chile?

As geographers, it is important for us to think about the different factors that have come to shape the way we think about volcanic eruptions and their impacts. Not only can this help to bring ideas from human geography into conversation with physical geography but also help us to open up new questions around the ways people live in volcanic landscapes and the everyday struggles they face.

Going forward, we should be more inclined to question why we have come to think about volcanic eruptions in the way we do and what aspects of life in hazardous environments are being overlooked as a result. This offers exciting new ways of thinking about natural hazards and plays to the strengths of interdisciplinary geographical thinking.

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Cyrus NayeriCyrus Nayeri, current DPhil student
My research explores the ways that communities live with geophysical hazards in Iceland. I am interested in how our ideas of what geophysical hazards are come to mean that the complex ways that communities are affected by hazards are overlooked both by state hazard management programmes and geographical scholarship. I am also interested in questions of how communities live with hazards and what role geographers should play in addressing issues of social justice and inequality through hazards research.

[main image source: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/2674081008011292/%5D