Read an Excerpt from “Mountains of Fire” by Clive Oppenheimer

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In Mountains of Fire: The Menace, Meaning, and Magic of Volcanoes, Clive Oppenheimer invites readers to stand with him in the shadow of an active volcano. Whether he is scaling majestic summits, listening to hissing lava at the crater’s edge, or hunting for the far-flung ashes from Earth’s greatest eruptions, Oppenheimer is an ideal guide, offering readers the chance to tag along on the daring, seemingly impossible journeys of a volcanologist. Mountains of Fire reveals how volcanic activity is entangled with our climate and environment, as well as our economy, politics, culture, and beliefs. These adventures and investigations make clear the dual purpose of volcanology—both to understand volcanoes for science’s sake and to serve the communities endangered and entranced by these mountains of fire. 

In this excerpt and video clip, Clive Oppenheimer speaks about what draws him to the field of volcanology.

Volcanoes get a bad press. They are most in the public eye when tourists have been assailed by lava projectiles, neighbourhoods buried beneath pyroclastic flows, populous shorelines ravaged by tsunamis, or planes grounded owing to the ash forecast. But volcanoes mean more than menace and calamity. Dramatic and traumatic as their outbursts can be, most volcanoes, most of the time, are tranquil mountains with diverse microclimates and habitats, and valuable mineral and geothermal resources. If we think of the places where humans have long lived in the shadows of volcanoes, the volcanoes were almost invariably there first. Like our parents, they’ve led whole lives before we get to know them. They are visual anchors in our landscapes and paint the sky with their plumage; they are supernatural realms; and they can turn the world’s weather on its head. Even when their wild days are long past and their flames forever extinguished, their eroded landforms still enliven our skylines and invite outdoor adventure. Wherever we live on the planet, they are more a part of our lives than most people realise.

Volcanoes loom at a thrilling crossroads of nature, spirit, climate, geology, technology, society and culture. They play with time – stretching it over a geological epoch, yet able to shapeshift and change everything in the blink of an eye. As portals, they allow us to trace story and memory through deep time and back again.

As a volcanologist, I have dedicated my career to observing simmering craters, often at very close quarters, with a view to revealing their secrets. I’ve followed in the footsteps of pioneers like the American geologist, Thomas Jaggar, who established the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1912. I love his description of geology being the ‘science of the dreamland of the earth’s interior’, and much of my work has involved recording phenomena at the mouths of volcanoes to help us understand their anatomy and physiology, to visualise their unseen lungs and alimentary tracts. The truth is, I spend a lot of my time imagining the underworld, and comparing the quirks and frolics of different volcanoes. They never asked for an advocate but I am not alone in seeking to translate the language of these sonorous mountains for a wider audience.

Volcanoes are hard to ignore, especially if you live near one. We have probably admired and feared them ever since our species evolved in the shadows of Kilimanjaro and other fire mountains of eastern Africa, a few hundred thousand years ago. Given their sonic and visual spectacle, even between eruptions, it seems certain the ancestors would have sought to interpret their omens. But when did the more systematic study of volcanoes begin? Whose shoulders have I stood on in hope of seeing further?

. . .

Making observations is where my abilities and proclivities lie, and much of my research has involved expeditions, a word that originates from Latin, for ‘to free the feet from fetters’. I am a great believer in experience, experiments and experts (the roots of these three words also derived from Latin, for ‘to try’ or ‘to put to the test’). Models and projections are beguiling – they readily spawn striking graphics purporting to tell us what the future holds. But without grounding in real-world observations, their value as tools for forecasting – whether it be of economic efficiency, a pathogen’s progress, or a volcano’s vivacity – is questionable. This isn’t to say that making observations is the only way to do science – reason and experience should go hand in hand. I try then, while on fieldwork, to unencumber both feet and mind, and to do all possible to come home with good data. I’ve often found that putting in the groundwork is the best way to give serendipity a chance to play its hand and thereby learn things beyond my imagination.

Until recently, scientific knowledge of volcanoes was almost exclusively the domain of geologists, geophysicists and geochemists. Today, some of the most exciting research is being done at the edges of the discipline – where it meets anthropology, history, climatology, ecology and glaciology, to name a few. Volcanology is also an applied science – dedicated observers around the world keep a watchful eye on restless craters to protect their communities. During my career, I’ve watched the field broaden immensely in scope, gain confidence, lead the way in addressing wider challenges such as climatic change and disaster risk reduction, and make positive steps towards empowering the people it touches.

But academic scholarship is not the only way to make sense of volcanic activity. Geologists now widely accept that knowledge accumulated through experience, wisdom, ancestral culture and spirituality matters. Not only can it convey information on the nature and consequences of eruptions of the distant past it also conditions how people respond to volcanic crises. Imagine if unknown scientific experts suddenly show up in a neighbourhood, try to explain that their seismometers indicate an impending eruption, and ask everyone to abandon their homes and land. It would not be a recipe for successful risk mitigation. And this is why volcanologists increasingly interact with society, so that all sides are understood when the pot starts bubbling.

Volcanoes shaped my perspectives on causality, agency, risk and how knowledge is built. They taught me to listen: to indigenous tribal elders living close to restive craters; to experts in different branches of learning; to the lava breathing within our lively Earth; and to the messages, not meant for me, that make their way to the sky. Volcanoes changed me, and I believe strongly that they offer us all a different and unexpectedly humanizing way of seeing the world.

Adapted and excerpted from Mountains of Fire: The Menace, Meaning, and Magic of Volcanoes by Clive Oppenheimer, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2023 by Clive Oppenheimer. All rights reserved.

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Clive Oppenheimer is a volcanologist and filmmaker who has conducted fieldwork around the world. He is professor of volcanology at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Eruptions That Shook the World, and he has made two documentary features with Werner Herzog, Into the Inferno and Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds.

Mountains of Fire is available now from our website or from your favorite bookseller.

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