Super-Volcanoes Will Kill Us All Soon!
Of all the stuff that scares the shit out of me (flying, hunger, fat arms) volcanoes don’t even rank. All respect to Pompeii, but it’s not like E3 is on a divergent plate boundary or anything.
Then I met Dr Clive Oppenheimer. Dr Clive is based at Cambridge University and is one of the world’s leading volcanologists. His main research interests are the environmental, climatic and human impacts of volcanism in antiquity and development of environmental sensing techniques. Amazingly, that didn't make him famous. It was working with Werner Herzog in Antarctica and writing his book that did that. Eruptions That Shook The World sounds like paranoid tat but is actually great. He's about to become the latest TV science sensation, which is good because Brian Cox is a coy weirdo from a D:Ream.
Here he is, the fearless volcano hunter
Over coffee at the British Library, Dr Clive explained that statistically, there’s the same chance a super volcano will erupt in the next 100 years as there is that I will catch AIDS from having unprotected sex with a stranger. Basically, divergent plate boundaries are irrelevant: volcanoes can and will fuck us up.
VICE: Hi Dr Clive. You’re one of the world’s leading volcanologists. Have you always liked volcanoes?
Clive: Pretty much. I was that kid who was into rocks and dinosaurs at a really young age.
Like Ross from Friends.
Yes. But I preferred to study things happening now rather than in the past, such as fossils. What I do is field-based.
What does that mean?
I like to go up volcanoes to do my research rather than study them in a lab.
Ross sits in a lab.
Sometimes. Have you not seen Friends?
I’ve seen it, yes.
More comparisons: Ross wrote a book on sediment flow rates. And you’ve just written a book about super volcanoes called Eruptions that Shook the World. Did you write it now because one’s about to blow?
I’ve been writing it for ten years but it only came out in May. I was annoyed I was still writing it in Orléans [France] when Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland erupted last year but then quite happy when Grimsvotn, also in Iceland, erupted this year.
Good for you. What’s the difference between normal volcanoes and super volcanoes?
We have a Richter scale in volcanology and if it’s above eight or nine in magnitude, it’s super. It’s also a measure of how much rock, pumice and lava will come out. Your average super volcano will spew out around one thousand cubic km worth.
How big is that?
10km x 10km. A lot of central London piled to a height of 10km.
Jesus. How many super volcanoes are there?
We haven’t got all of them mapped but I’d say several dozen. They are clustered in space and time. New Zealand, Indonesia, the Andes, Argentina, Mexico, places like that.
So they tend to cluster around gap year hot spots?
Yes. You can’t predict eruptions accurately but there certainly will be one in the not too distant future.
What’s the likelihood one of them will erupt?
It’s more likely than an asteroid hitting the earth. Roughly speaking, there’s a one in 500 chance of one erupting in the next century.
Shit. How can you be sure?
We can’t but there’s no reason why it wouldn’t happen sooner than that. The last one happened 25 or 26 thousand years ago.
How bad would it be if one did erupt?
Pretty bad. Volcanoes can blast ash and pumice into the sky and produce pyroclastic flows which are one of the deadliest things to come from an eruption. It's like a hurricane of burning hot rock, dust and gas. Then there's the fine ash which goes into the atmosphere and travels around the world and comes down on an area the size of a continent. Then there’s sulphur which is emitted in really big eruptions. It creates tiny particles of sulphuric acid which means you could be on another side of the world from the eruption but experience a completely different weather system. This can be a massive threat to food security as it could, for example, alter a monsoon pattern.
Shouldn’t we be stockpiling food and taping our windows?
Yes, stockpiling is one safeguard.
Anything else we can fight the volcano with?
There’s no systematic study about prevention but, like climate change, it’s worth doing because if they erupt, they are a real danger.
Seeing as you climb up volcanoes, how dangerous would you say your job is?
To be honest, I feel more danger when I go to research in Ethiopia. There’s a very real political threat and when you see guys with guns wandering the streets, the volcanoes seem friendlier. But there are actual eruptions which are, of course, dangerous.
When one erupts do you shout, “fire in the hole”?
No, because we’re not in the army. There is shouting though.
'Fire in the hole' is an apt description of a volcano though. Have you been around many actual eruptions?
Aside from the minor eruptions, I was right next to Montserrat in the West Indies when it erupted in 1995. There was a large explosion, an ash cloud and then everything went very dark. It was so dark, darker than night. It lasted about 15 minutes.
Sounds pretty dangerous to me. Do many volcanologists die in the field?
My head of department was killed by a volcano he was researching when I was at university. It does happen.
Killed by what he loved, like Grizzly Man. That’s sad.
It was. Oddly enough I know Werner Herzog quite well. He came to stay in our cabin for a week in Antarctica while he was making Encounters at the End of the World in 2007. I was a contributor on the film. We got on very well and in fact, we’re still in touch. We did a preview of his last film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in the archaeology department at Cambridge and I was a guest speaker. What he did with the caves? He’s a genius and a beautiful filmmaker. I’d love to do a 3D volcano film. I’m trying to persuade him.
Amazing. Do you think he will?
I don’t see why not.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams was cool. You’d think 90 minutes of cave footage would be dull as shit but it’s actually awesome. I like the albino crocodiles at the end.
Yes. He’s got a thing about reptiles. We’ll have to work that into the volcanoes somehow to get him on board.
That probably wouldn’t work if you were filming in Antarctica.
No, he’d have to switch to polar bears.
What were you doing in Antarctica anyway?
I was researching a volcano called Erebus.
What’s the deal with Erebus?
Erebus is great because it has a huge lava lake so you can observe how fast the lava moves and track how it explodes if and when it does. It is one of three active volcanoes which allows you to see the inner workings of a volcano.
Oh Erebus, Clive's one true love
How long will you spend on a volcano like Erebus?
I’ll go to Erebus for about two months at a time, usually November to January, and stay in a field camp, 3,500m up the volcano with a team of about 12 people, mix of students and safety experts. We sleep in tents and work and hang out in cabins. It’s like being in halls. You also get to wear these space suits. If it’s a quiet day, you go recreational caving in ice caves.
Sounds fun. Like PGL.
It is. But as we’re only there for a short period it’s quite hard work. It also tends to erupt quite a lot which means you have to be on your guard.
That sounds less fun.
It doesn’t explode badly but yes, you could get squashed by lava. You’ll usually hear a big bang and then you just have to see where it’s moving. It’s like catching a ball except you don’t catch it because it’s molten inside. If you break it open, it’s like red-hot toffee.
Is it possible that erupting volcanoes can trigger other volcanoes to erupt?
There was a study a few years ago where they looked at big earthquakes, like the Boxing Day eruption and subsequent tsunami. There were more eruptions in those six months than in the three years before so yes, there seems to be a link.
Is that why there have been so many natural disasters of late?
Not necessarily, but remember there are more people exposed and at risk of being affected so they seem worse. Nuclear power stations and aviation also mean we are more at risk. We also live in an age of global media where every disaster is reported.
So the media are fear mongering? Typical.
No, just reporting every eruption or incident.
So with the closure of the News Of The World, there’s a chance we’ll read less about volcanoes?
I wouldn’t say that.
The ones under the sea are worse though right? Because they cause tsunamis?
There are two kinds – ones like Krakatoa in shallow water, which are bad news because they cause tsunamis. Then there are those in deep sea. As they are under water pressure, they erupt comparatively gently.
Like a fart?
Sort of. More like toothpaste squirting out.
Have you been down?
No but I’d love to.
You’re quite extreme for a scientist.
Ha. I’d sooner go underwater than go bungee jumping.
Do you like disaster films?
As much as the next person.
What’s your favourite volcano film?
Probably Volcano. I like how the lava runs through the subways, it’s amazingly absurd. And Tommy Lee Jones is great. Dante’s Peak is more realistic but I’m less of a fan of Pierce Brosnan.
Tommy beating a volcano
Me too. But it’s quite cool when he hotwires the car and saves the family from the lava slide.
Yeah, that bit’s OK.
So let’s talk about ash clouds. Were the Powers That Be right to stop flights?
There isn’t a right or wrong, but someone had to make a decision. I think they were right.
In the 1980s there were several very near misses where jumbo jets almost fell out of the sky due to ash clouds. One over Alaska, a KLM, and another over Indonesia. That was British Airways. Both lost all power in the engines but somehow the pilots regained power at the last minute and landed safely. Ash sandblasts the windows and fuselage and once inside the engine, can re-melt and damage the turbine.
Sweet lord, that’s reason enough.
That was what annoyed me with these airlines rallying against the MET office. The decision was based on truth.
I think they’ve learned their lesson now.
Sure. Knowing all this, you must get scared when you fly in planes or climb up volcanoes?
Only sometimes, when we’re right up a volcano looking down. I have mild vertigo.
Ross didn’t get vertigo.
I expect anyone would 3,500m up a volcano.
Fair. Lovely to meet you!