Eye-witness eruption

September 29, 1995

There is now yet another book on volcanoes on the market. This latest offering is unusual in that it is written by a geographer rather than a geologist or volcanologist. The author is however well read and informed, and although scientific in approach and format, the book provides a refreshing, new perspective. The glossy cover shows a barren volcanic landscape, and it is principally as landscape features that volcanoes are treated here.

The book is divided into four logical sections. A brief poetic introduction is followed by a discussion of the causes of volcanoes and a description of the various types of activity. Technical terms are explained and the use of simple line diagrams as well as photographs of relevant features make this a comprehensive and informative text. Several specific case histories are presented and the cultural significance of historic eruptions (such as the Minoan eruption of Santorini) is discussed with the aid of archaeological evidence.

The section on volcanic landforms is what really makes this book different. The way that volcanoes and their eruptive products shape their environment and are weathered by it is discussed in detail. The huge variety of volcanic forms from ash cones just a few hundred metres high to calderas several kilometres across are put into context, and the amount of time taken to produce each feature is discussed. Some of the most devastating eruptions that covered the surrounding land with hundreds of metres of debris took just hours to form, while lava flows can run almost continuously for several years. Many of the examples are accompanied by sketch maps showing just enough features to convey the message with clarity. The final section on prediction is rather general, although it does contain some interesting anecdotes on recent eruptions at Mount Etna and the threatened eruption in Campi Flegrei (Naples).

Alwyn Scarth's approach has been to make this a personal perspective on volcanoes. His discussion of well-known historic eruptions provides a unique insight because he sees the events through the eyes of the witnesses rather than those of the latter-day volcanologist. His own translation of diaries and letters, including Pliny's account of the 79ad eruption of Vesuvius bring the events to life in a way that no straight description of the events can.

The book is aimed at students of geography, the earth and environmental sciences, but anyone with an interest in volcanoes would find this non- technical and informative text useful. The pictures and figures, though only in black and white are all of excellent quality and generous size.

Hazel Rymer is a Royal Society research fellow, department of earth sciences, Open University.


Author - Alwyn Scarth
ISBN - 1 85728 223 X and 224 8
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 259

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