Volcanoes are some of the most awe-inspiring natural spectacles on our planet. There is much more to them, though, than the stereotypical image of a conical fire-spitting mountain, and I have been keen to learn more. As I searched for serious introductory books on volcanology, this was one title that kept coming up. But wait, why is a biologist reviewing geology textbooks?
A short preamble seems in place. My choice to study biology went at the expense of geology, although the latter topic continued to fascinate me. Two decades later, my job exposes me to many fascinating-sounding but advanced-level earth science books. I have since started to make inroads into this field for the sheer joy of expanding my knowledge. And thus I found myself eyeing up the new book Volcanotectonics. Yet, as I recently rediscovered, there is still a gap between having covered the essentials of geology and diving headlong into an advanced topic. Hoping to bridge that gap, I turned to Francis & Oppenheimer’s Volcanoes.
The first edition of this book was published in 1993 and authored by volcanology professor Peter Francis. When he passed away in 1999, his former PhD student Clive Oppenheimer, now a professor of volcanology in his own right, took it upon him to revise the text and bring it up to date for this second edition, published in 2003. Francis’s desire was to write a book to be read rather than consulted. Volcanoes is thus less of a textbook than you might think: there are no chapter summaries or student exercises. What you will find is a logical flow of chapters detailing the inner workings of volcanoes, glued together by the fascinating stories of past eruptions and, occasionally, Francis’s trademark humour, lampooning the field of volcanology.
“Volcanoes is […] less of a textbook than you might think: there are no chapter summaries or student exercises. What you will find is a logical flow of chapters detailing the inner workings of volcanoes, glued together by the fascinating stories of past eruptions […]”
Volcanoes starts with very primordial questions. Where do the heat and the rocks that drive volcanism come from? This introduces you to planetary formation and the radioactive decay of isotopes. In case you were expecting to start with plate tectonics, that is the next subject to be tackled. This explains the difference between volcanoes at plate margins where the oceanic crust is either formed or destroyed, and the minority occurring far from margins, such as the volcanic islands of Hawai’i.
Chapters four to twelve form, to my mind, the nuts-and-bolts section of this book, going into all the glorious and gory details of an eruption from beginning to end. This covers everything from formation and movement of magma; different eruption styles; types of lava; eruption columns and the deposits of ash and pyroclastic rocks they leave behind; pyroclastic density currents, debris avalanches, and mudflows or lahars—and their deposits; the different landscape forms left after eruptions, including types of volcanoes and how they erode, and the landscape depressions known as calderas; super-eruptions; and, finally, the common but hard-to-observe phenomenon of underwater volcanism.
The last four chapters cover closely allied topics: volcanoes in the solar system; the effects of recent eruptions on climate and the palaeoclimatological evidence of older ones; and, new to this edition, two chapters on monitoring of volcanoes, and assessing and managing the risks they pose.
“I was fascinated by some of the technicalities. For example by […] the physics behind eruption columns and the interplay with the wind, and how to deduce eruption intensity from them […]”
Two aspects, I thought, make this book very enjoyable to read. First, it broaches subjects without overwhelming you. When it talks of magma, it mentions the physics of gas bubble formation and growth (vesiculation), and the flow of liquid rock (rheology) without smothering you in detail. It will list different eruption styles (Hawaiian, Strombolian, Vulcanian, Plinian, etc.) and lavas (andesitic, dacitic, rhyolitic, etc.) while highlighting the arbitrary nature of such classifications, as these things exist on a continuum. And where formulas are given, for instance in the chapter on eruption columns, it is to demonstrate principles rather than go deep into the mathematics. If you are so inclined, each chapter comes with recommended sources and literature references for further research.
The authors explain terminology as they go, supported by many photos and diagrams. I would have liked a glossary—lacking that, I occasionally had to grab my dictionary to jog my mind. Even so, I was fascinated by some of the technicalities. For example by the distinction between central vent and large-scale fissure eruptions. By the underground movement of magma and intrusion of dikes. By the physics behind eruption columns and the interplay with the wind, and how to deduce eruption intensity from them. By the detective work that uses palaeoenvironmental records such as tree rings, and the extent and thickness of deposits to reconstruct eruptions for which there is no eyewitness testimony. Or by what makes pyroclastic density currents so terrifyingly destructive.
The second aspect that makes Volcanoes very readable is that this is not a theoretical treatise with hypothetical scenarios. Explanations are given by means of real-world examples of past eruptions. Four classic ones are introduced early on (Vesuvius, Krakatau, Mount Pelée, and Mount St. Helens), but plenty of others are recounted throughout. This includes those familiar from popular accounts (e.g. Tambora, Laki, and Toba), technical books (e.g. Pinatubo and the Soufrière Hills volcano), and those only known to volcanologists and victims (e.g. El Chichón and Nevado del Ruiz). You will learn as much about these eruptions as about what we learned from them.
“Having read the book cover to cover, there remains one important question that is difficult for me to answer. Given its publication date, how up to date is it? And is it time for a new edition?”
Having read the book cover to cover, there remains one important question that is difficult for me to answer. Given its publication date, how up to date is it? And is it time for a new edition? Technological advances and new space missions have revealed much more about extraterrestrial volcanoes—this book was published before the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers started trundling over the surface of Mars, for example. But what about volcanism here on earth? Recent eruptions have probably taught us new lessons (2010 tongue-twister Eyjafjallajökull no doubt revealing more about ash clouds), but not being a student of earth sciences, this is a hard question for me to answer. The only other more recent book I could think of was The Encyclopedia of Volcanoes, published in a second edition in 2015. But at over 1400 pages this can hardly be called an introductory textbook.
I decided to contact Clive Oppenheimer who kindly replied that there have not been any paradigmatic shifts in volcanology since then, but he did mention, in addition, the 2010 Merapi eruption, and highlighted new technology such as synchrotron radiation sources for fine-scale chemical analysis of volcanic rocks. Additionally, he pointed out Volcanoes: Global Perspectives (2022) as a recent textbook. And a third edition? It is not yet in the making, though he hopes to get around to it when time allows.
So, in sum, if you are looking for a good introductory volcanology textbook, I found this one both enjoyable and accessible. I came away feeling I understood much more about volcanoes. Bring on Volcanotectonics.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
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