Final competition results
What is the power of a volcano?
We’ve considered this question from a number of different subject perspectives throughout this year’s Year 11 course, and with the final competition we asked you to put together everything you’ve learned into one answer. This is a very open-ended question, and we were delighted to see all the different approaches that students took with this task. Below you can see the winning entries for this competition – congratulations!
1st place: Kitty P
The Power of a Volcano: More Than Just a Mountain
The Turkish writer Mehmet Murat Ildan said that “The power of nature can make fun of the power of man at any time!”. Certainly, if you asked anyone about a volcano, they would agree that they are extremely powerful, however quantifying this claim is more complicated. The idea of power is multifaceted: both definite and fluid, spanning many eras, genres and cultures. The power of a volcano is no exception. So how can we measure it? You could take a mathematical approach, such as the scaling analysis used in class 2, or look at its Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) by measuring the amount of tephra given off during an eruption. But clearly a volcano’s power is not solely dependent on its physical presence; throughout history, they have also had cultural significance, permeating literature, music and arts as symbols of majesty and destruction. In this essay, I will address some of the many aspects of a volcano’s power in order to better understand the scale of their ongoing impacts upon humanity and the wider world.
Firstly, it should be noted that even the physical power of a volcano extends further than the explosion itself. While lava and pyroclastic flow can cause damage in the short term, increased water acidity and large ash clouds can affect the balance of the local ecosystem and the actions of the greater human population for a significant period after the eruption. 1816 is considered the year of no summer, after ash clouds from Mount Tambora’s 1815 eruption caused widespread famine and a decrease in global temperatures. More recently, in 2010 the ash released from Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland caused airlines to cancel 95,000 flights. From this it is evident that volcanoes can cause international disruption not only environmentally but socially and economically; the 2010 suspension of air travel would have separated families, caused emotional distress and impacted the financial stability of airline companies in much the same way as the recent travel bans in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Secondly, the power of a volcano is incredibly dependent on where it is situated. Mount Etna in Catania, Italy is an active volcano, with regular eruptions of VEI 1-3, but since it is located in a relatively rural, sparsely populated area, its potential damage is limited. However, a similarly sized volcano in London would have far greater impacts, due to its substantial population density and that as our capital city, it is the epicentre of trade and business upon which our national economy relies. Whilst numerous towns in the US are located near volcanoes, many of these are dormant, hence have no effect on day-to-day life. Although, volcanoes can be extremely dangerous if presumed to be dormant: they could still erupt at any time, for example when El Chichón in Mexico erupted in 1982 after 600 years of dormancy, killing 1,900 people. Clearly, even dormant volcanoes pose a threat, meaning they hold significant psychological power over nearby inhabitants, even if they never erupt within their lifetimes.
Aside from real world consequences of eruptions, volcanoes have held strong prominence in the creative arts throughout history. In paintings alone volcanoes span numerous genres and media, from the tumultuous realism of Turner’s ‘Mount Vesuvius in Eruption’ to Warhol’s striking portrayal of that same volcano. In literature too, they are prevalent in many well known works, such as Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, often as ominous or malicious figures due to the link between lava and the fiery environment we associate with hell. Although that is not to say that volcanoes are purely used to represent evil: shifting away from the terrestrial, Venus is known for being an extremely volcanic body, however in Holst’s ‘The Planets’ suite, he refers to it as “The bringer of peace” and the music itself is less typical of a chaotic hellscape and more a calming yet epic orchestral ballad – a true testament to the beauty of a volcano. Clearly there is much scope for creative expression when volcanoes are considered: the many facets of their existence, from their violent birth, eruptions and striking beauty, lend themselves to a wide variety of concepts and there is still enormous scope for modern creators to exploit the full spectrum of a volcano’s inspirational nature.
Finally, as addressed in class 1, volcanoes have played a significant role in preserving archaeological sites and historical artefacts. The ash released from the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 has enabled us to explore well preserved skeletons, art and documents from Pompeii and Herculaneum, frozen in time by that fateful eruption. From these, historians and archaeologists can gain a better insight into life in Ancient Rome and learn more about the eruption itself. While Vesuvius is thought to have erupted on the 24th of August, recent discoveries such as dated inscriptions and the ashes of summer fruits suggest it may have been later, in October, thus demonstrating the continued potential for new advancements in our understanding of the event and highlighting the huge wealth of information available from a single volcanic eruption.
In conclusion, the sheer physical power of a volcano is undeniable: Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption was 10,000 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Although, it is evident that the impacts of volcanic eruptions are dependent on both their location and the economy of the nations they affect. Paradoxically, volcanoes can be forces for both good and evil. Whilst eruptions themselves can be devastating, with many famous explosions having thousands of casualties, the very soil around such volcanoes is known to be incredibly fertile, thus providing an ideal environment to grow food. This duality, the power over both life and death, is responsible for such a varied representation of volcanoes in the arts. Since they hold power over so many domains, it can be concluded that whilst in some cases, a volcano’s physical power is clear and definitive, there is always room for individual interpretation with regards to the more creative aspects of their existence.
2nd place: Leika B
What is the power of a volcano?
By using scientific methods to calculate the scale and force of an eruption, we can understand more about the physical power, and danger, of a volcano. However, whilst it is true that they are fatal amid an eruption, volcanoes also possess many other powers which we have, and are greatly benefiting from. This raises the question whether scientifically analysing the strength of a volcano really defines its power.
For millions of years volcanoes have existed on Earth, and aside from submarine volcanoes, about 500 of them have erupted, many more than once (according to the Volcano Hazards Program, 2011). Some eruptions are particularly famous for their devastating impact on people living in the surrounding area. Take, for example, the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. It generated a 30-metre-high tsunami which killed about 36,000 people. Another example is when Mount Skaptar, in Iceland, erupted in 1783. Fishing and farming were ravaged resulting in a famine that, according to research carried out by Oregon State University, killed a quarter of Iceland’s population.
There are also indirect effects of volcanic activity such as the adverse climatic impact it can have. For instance, volcanoes emit volcanic ash and sulphur dioxide which can reach the stratosphere. Sulphur dioxide turns into sulphate aerosols which, alongside ash particles, reflect incoming solar radiation and absorb outgoing land radiation. This results in the cooling of Earth’s temperature, which, in extreme cases, can affect weather patterns across the world. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora is linked with the average global temperature cooling by as much as 3° Celsius.
However, organisms may have benefited greatly from the destructive power of volcanoes. Many scientists believe that the Earth’s earliest volcanoes were partially responsible for creating the atmosphere as we know it. Ancient volcanoes spewed out gases from the Earth’s interior, water vapour and carbon dioxide being the most abundant. Carbon dioxide contributed to the greenhouse effect, making the Earth warm enough for life. And water vapour condensed into oceans, which became home to many species.
Volcanic activity could even have played a role in the origins of life through the formation of hydrothermal vents. These are fissures on the seafloor; sea water seeps through the fissures and is ejected at high temperatures with simple chemical compounds which have been linked to the creation of living matter. There are two types of hydrothermal vents: black smokers and white smokers. Many scientists believe that white smokers, which are in alkaline waters with a lower temperature than black smokers, met the conditions necessary for the emergence of life.
Volcanoes also have the power to preserve slices of history. Possibly the most famous case is Pompeii, which was buried under massive pyroclastic surges and ashfall deposits in 79AD. The ancient city remained untouched until the eighteenth century, when it was rediscovered. Buildings, clothes, artifacts and art uncovered at the once-buried sites have provided an insight to what life was like for the Romans. A less well-known example of the power to preserve is the conservation of our earliest ancestors’ footprints in the cement-like volcanic ash in Laetoli, Tanzania.
A change of perspective from the physical power of volcanoes is the ability to inspire the creation of many pieces of art, literature, poems, films and songs. For example, J.M.W Turner visualised what the eruption of Mount Vesuvius looked like through his painting in 1817. His artwork uses vivid red colours which evoke fear in the viewer. By contrast, Katsushika Hokusai, a Japanese artist best known for his depiction of ‘The Great Wave’, takes a more spiritual approach. His image of Mount Fuji as a sacred landmark of Japanese identity illustrates how volcanoes have also captured the curiosity of human minds through the creative arts.
What’s more, many ancient myths and beliefs have derived from volcanoes. For example, Hekla – a volcano in Iceland – was seen by early Christians on the island as a doorway to the underworld. When lava bombs and other projectiles flew from the volcano’s crater, they believed the fragments were spirits. Witches were also believed to gather by the volcano at Easter. Another religious view of volcanoes comes from Roman mythology, in which the God Vulcan was associated with volcanoes. Many poets from the time described the ‘smoke’ from volcanoes to have been produced in Vulcan’s forge. In such a way, humans have been captivated by the mysterious nature of volcanoes, especially when the technology to explore them did not yet exist. Such beliefs have influenced communities, some more than others.
But the power of volcanoes is not just restricted to Earth. Many planets, such as Venus, have volcanoes. By applying their knowledge of Earth’s volcanoes to ones in space, scientists can estimate the composition of those astronomical bodies. For example, the presence of these mountainous structures tells scientists that a planet’s interior is – or was – hot enough to form magma. However, volcanoes in space are usually made from different material to those on Earth and therefore, there is still little we know about them.
To conclude, it is a multifaceted question. Volcanoes have many powers, whether they be physical or conceptual. Perhaps it is possible to measure the scientific strength of a volcano. However, there are many types of volcanoes – from underwater ones to volcanoes in space – and hence, it becomes increasingly difficult to quantify the power of volcanoes as a whole. People also have a very varied perspective on the power of volcanoes as their location, beliefs and experiences of volcanoes will differ. Besides, there is still a lot unknown about volcanoes. But even though the true power of a volcano remains a mystery, one thing remains certain; without volcanoes, life on earth would not be the same – or even exist!
3rd place: Seren B
The Power of Volcanoes
The power volcanoes hold over the Earth is clear as we see how they have not only caused huge destruction, but helped shape our world into what it is today. The damage and devastation associated with volcanoes, especially when it comes to extinction events, has led to the idea that these eruptions have a purely negative effect, when in reality this is far from the truth. Whilst volcanic activity is thought to have caused, or at least partially caused some of the great extinction events in our history, they have also contributed to making life on Earth possible.
The early Earth had a huge number of highly active volcanoes which were vital in its development from a fiery, hostile environment into our world now. These frequent eruptions released large quantities of carbon dioxide as well as water vapour and other gases. Water vapour thus became present in amounts large enough to eventually condense into our oceans, which led to reduced levels of carbon dioxide as it reacted with the seawater to form carbon precipitates and sediment. The evolution of plants such as algae reduced these levels further, allowing oxygen to become present through photosynthesis, allowing complex life to begin to evolve. This shows how crucial volcanoes were as the beginning of a chain of events that led to our Earth’s oceans, abundance of plants and wildlife and then eventually, us.
However, volcanoes have also been responsible for huge destruction. The dinosaurs suddenly disappearing 66 million years ago is widely believed to be the result of a meteorite landing off the coast of Mexico, however there is evidence that a large amount of volcanic activity was also occurring at that time. Perhaps this activity was caused by the meteorite, or perhaps it was just coincidence that the events coincided, but nevertheless there is significant evidence that volcanoes contributed to the demise of the dinosaurs.
Mass extinctions not only wiped out a massive proportion of life on Earth, but also had consequences reaching far into the future that have impacted every species alive today. After the extinction of the dinosaurs, the species that survived became more diverse and adapted to the changed planet and their populations grew and thrived. For example, it’s thought that before the dinosaurs went extinct, mammals were primarily nocturnal. As they began to venture out in the daytime in the absence of carnivorous dinosaurs, they increased in diversity and number.
Volcanoes also help and affect us in the present day. For example, over 90% of housing in Iceland is heated by natural geothermal heat from volcanoes. This is a sustainable method of heating that doesn’t pollute and use fossil fuels. Using sustainable energy helps combat global warming and is not the only way that volcanoes can influence the environment. There may be less volcanic activity now than there was when the earth was forming, but recent large eruptions may have kept the earth cooler by about 2 degrees globally. This is due to sulphur dioxide emissions that react with water vapour in the atmosphere to form sulphuric acid, which can stay in the stratosphere for up to 3 years, reflecting solar radiation.
Volcanic activity can also impact our day to day lives. For example, in 2010 the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland and the resulting ash cloud led to disruption of over 100,000 flights and 10 million passenger journeys. This impacted the economy through the air industry, the sports and entertainment industries (teams being unable to travel to games) and sectors that relied on goods imported by air.
However, volcanoes can also have positive impacts on economies, as they are very attractive tourist destinations. The Yellowstone supervolcano and national park brought around four million tourists to the US in 2019, bringing in over half a billion dollars to communities nearby. Volcanoes are also surrounded by extremely fertile soil due to the minerals in ash, which benefits the agricultural industry by producing an abundance of crops.
Volcanoes have also helped us to understand more about our world through our past. For example, tephrachronology uses the age of the tephra from eruptions to provide a time marker for sedimentary sequences. Tephrachronology could help us date the extinction of the dinosaurs, measuring how long it took for ecosystems to recover – vital information in a world where climate change, global warming and deforestation is causing catastrophic damage to the ecosystems.
Tephrachronology is also useful in helping us to learn how plants and animals of the past have adapted to changes in global temperatures, which can help us to understand how species today need to evolve to cope with the effects of global warming, or even if they are capable of evolving fast enough to keep up with the drastic changes.
Volcanoes also helps us understand the past through the pyroclastic flows from Mount Vesuvius’ famous eruption in 79 AD, which preserved human remains and many items that became a snapshot of historic culture. It was a cataclysmic tragedy, the devastation captured by the bodies preserved, but it also gives us an opportunity to learn about history and the ways in which our ancestors lived. This eruption and the horrors preserved also serves as a warning – showing us just how vital it is to be able to protect those living in the vicinity of volcano and to be able to evacuate them in the event of an eruption.
In conclusion, whilst the damage and destruction associated with volcanoes is accurate, it can also be misleading. Their power lies not only in what they can destroy, but what they can create. If it wasn’t for volcanoes, it is very unlikely that humans would exist today. They have given us oceans, through which both animal and plant life has evolved. They have not only enabled us to live, but through their ability to preserve the past they are able to give us important lessons that can help us protect and understand our environment.
4th place: Jessie D
What is the power of a volcano?
From geochronology to destroyed civilisations, mass extinctions and celebrated literature; volcanoes are incredibly influential in the shaping of civilization, Earth and the Solar System.
Inside Earth’s mantle, geologists have found two enormous structures called Large Low Shear Velocity Provinces (LLSVPs). One hundred times higher than Mount Everest in places, they lie under the Pacific and Africa. Many supervolcanoes in Earth’s history originate from LLSVP regions but uncertainty remains about their origins. They may be a new, different structure in the mantle or hot regions forming ‘superplumes’ or convecting mantle regions. One thing is certain, enormous structures lie inside Earth, causing supervolcanoes and nobody knows why.
Volcanoes play integral roles in geological measurements. In the book ‘Universal’, Brian Cox explores how isochron plots from igneous rocks are used in radiometry on Earth and in space. The Apollo programme measured lunar evolution and composition using rubidium-strontium dating to show that volcanic rock formed the dark ‘Maria’ basaltic patches. This proved the existence of previous magma oceans and volcanism on the Moon. Spacecrafts use similar methods to examine everything from cosmic dust, to volcanism on planetary surfaces, to geysers and hydrothermal vents, giving closer estimates of planetary core composition, stages of the Late Heavy Bombardment, protoplanetary disk, and solar system evolution.
The study of the spread of volcanic ash to build a ‘tephra horizon’ using the unique chemistry of ash is called ‘tephrochronology’. In Iceland, geologists map volcanic, geological and archaeological activity from volcanism, to illustrate climate change and the effects on Icelandic ecosystems. Using tephrochronology, geologists can calculate spread, impact and timing of supervolcano eruptions, giving understanding of the aftermath of eruptions like Toba or Yellowstone. Using rock cores found worldwide, and dating methods, we can understand the potential impact if a supervolcano was to erupt again. Tephra horizons from ash clouds allow scientists to predict their frequencies, a vital measurement in the modern world. Recent estimates put c.44 years between each ash cloud. As ash clouds pose massive risks to health, infrastructure of countries and disruption to airlines, the ability to expect them allows governments, airlines and the public to make preparations, reducing economic loss and assisting public health.
66 million years ago: an unknown source caused dinosaur extinction. A common belief about this extinction is that it was caused by a meteorite, ejected from the asteroid belt by Jupiter’s gravity. Yet palaeontologists are uncovering overwhelming evidence that volcanism in the Deccan traps was to blame. Fossil records reveal that during this period 90% of species became extinct, due to lava and ash causing increased carbon dioxide levels, acid rain and noxious atmospheric gases. This is crucial; volcanoes played an enormous role in the end-Permian mass extinction, killing billions of organisms. History could easily repeat itself. This was not the last time volcanoes would cause extreme devastation to life and we can trace the path of volcanic disruption through history.
75,000 years ago: the supervolcano ‘Toba’ erupted, wreaking immeasurable havoc on life, causing a volcanic winter for a decade. Global temperatures plummeted by 3-5 o C. Devastation was so great that it led to the ‘Genetic Bottleneck’ Theory, stating that as so many of our ancestors died from the eruption and the following harsh conditions, the pool of existing Homo subspecies depleted enormously. Only a tiny pool remained, from which all humanity descended. Similar theories exist around chimpanzee, cheetah and tiger ancestral populations.
79AD: Mount Vesuvius erupted, wiping out the flourishing Pompeii. Mention ‘Vesuvius’ to any adult, and they may well respond with the infamous ‘Caecilius est in horto’, or a quote from Pliny, a writer who recorded the explosion. Alongside having critical influences on trading relations, the collapse of the Roman empire and the lives of the citizens of Pompeii, this eruption has provided incredible insights into the Roman civilisation. We have created casts of citizens, excavated artefacts, learned about the destruction from Pliny, and used it to educate millions of children about the Romans.
536AD: volcanic ash rained down on the Middle East and Asia, causing deep fogs, as three cataclysmic eruptions spewed ash across the globe, causing plagues, death, and starvation. Crops, animals and people died; spring growth was stunted for 12 years and global population decreased. It may have worsened the Justinian plague. Excess volcanic sulphur caused temperature declines, reflected in the frost rings of trees. Frost ring sequences allow archaeologists to correlate volcanic activity with human history, creating patterns between environmental conditions and events like the Mount Tambora or Krakatoa eruptions or even the Shang Dynasty. Thus, we can uncover reasons for wars, plague, violence and mass migration in our history. Data from Siberian pines in Mongolia shows global temperatures dropping by 1°C, causing the coldest decade in 2,300 years. This period of intense cold damaged the harvests, meaning that civilisations travelled further to grow crops and animals, leading to mass migration, which we can even map using the DNA of people today.
1610: Galileo observed Jupiter’s four main satellites. 369 years later, in 1979, Voyager 1 flew by Io, leading to a phenomenal discovery about volcanism. Io is the most volcanically active body in our solar system with over 400 active volcanoes – described as a ‘Volcanologist’s paradise’ by NASA’s Ashley Davies. Lava lakes cause the surface to undergo constant, extensive resurfacing but, unlike Earth, Io’s volcanism is caused by tidal locking to Jupiter, and orbital resonance with Ganymede and Europa, causing tidal bulges of 100m. Voyager unlocked a chain of unprecedented revelations about volcanic nature, advancing human knowledge, and showing how forceful volcanoes are to cause such devastation.
Volcanoes created our atmosphere, fostered and destroyed life, influenced DNA, literature and education, killed an incalculable number of people, dinosaurs and plants but provided countless pathways for scientific discovery. This is still only the very start of their true power. How can modelling volcanoes predict another mass extinction? What are LLSVPs? The power and influence of a volcano is astounding: from Earth’s core to far-flung moons, volcanoes influence all aspects of life, science and culture.
5th place: Eloise P
How did Thera change the course of history?
- Netanya A: “What is the power of a volcano? An exploration through different perspectives”
- Samuel N: “What is the power of a volcano?”
- Leonardo Z: “The three powers of a volcano”
- Adriana A: “What is the power of a volcano?”
- Katherine D: “What is the power of a volcano?”
Congratulations to all our winners, and thank you very much to everyone who participated in the Year 11 online course this year – we hope you had as much fun exploring the classes and participating in the competitions as we did in seeing your work!
As promised, everyone who participated in a competition throughout the course will be receiving a PDF certificate of participation via email today.
As the Year 11 Inspire Programme ends and you begin Year 12, we have a number of online resources, events and programmes to support you at St John’s and at Oxford: