Book review – Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond

6-minute read

If volcanoes make you giddy, then this is the book for you. Robin George Andrews is that rare hybrid of the scientist-journalist: a volcanologist who decided to focus on science communication after completing his PhD. Super Volcanoes combines scientific exactitude with engaging writing and is a tour of some exceptional volcanoes on Earth and elsewhere in the Solar System. Andrews starts it with an unabashedly enthusiastic mission statement: “I want you to feel unbridled glee as these stories sink in and an indelible grin flashes across your face as you think: holy crap, that’s crazy!” (p. xxi). For me, he nailed it and I found this an incredibly satisfying read.

Super Volcanoes

Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal about Earth and the Worlds Beyond, written by Robin George Andrews, published by W.W. Norton & Company in November 2021 (hardback, 312 pages)

Super Volcanoes breaks down into two parts. The first four chapters cover volcanoes on Earth, including Hawaii, Yellowstone National Park, the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in Tanzania, and underwater volcanoes and hydrothermal vents. The last four chapters go off-world to our Moon, Mars, Venus, and moons such as Io and Enceladus.

In several chapters, Andrews delves into the history of his discipline. He introduces Harvard geologist Thomas Jaggar (1871–1953) who dedicated his research to better understanding volcanoes after investigating the aftermath of the destructive 1902 Mount Pelée eruption. He founded the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory that to this day does important work and features prominently in Andrews’s lively reporting on the 2018 Kilauea eruption. And then there is Marie Tharp (1920–2006) who identified the mid-Atlantic ridge when collating oceanic depth readings obtained by the US Navy. Initially, she was belittled by her supervisor for “girl talk” that might support the then-still controversial idea of continental drift. However, when another student mapped seaquakes that overlapped perfectly with her proposed ridge, he had to concede that she was correct. Her map would grace the cover of National Geographic and she was awarded the Hubbard Medal in 1978, which can be considered the Nobel Prize of the earth sciences.

But next to historic figures, Andrews has also tapped into his network of colleagues and here features lively conversation drawn from his many interviews. The enthusiasm he shares with his fellow scientists is infectious, no matter whether he discusses the geologic riches of Yellowstone with the resident scientist Mike Poland, Kate Laxton’s mission impossible to retrieve samples of the unique, runny carbonatite lava from Ol Doinyo Lengai, or Linda Morabito’s investigation of photos taken by the Voyager probes that revealed ongoing volcanism on Jupiter’s moon Io. Next to giving a good idea of what these scientists do and how they got interested in their fields of study, he also touches on the many questions that remain regarding volcanoes on Earth, but especially in our Solar System.

“though we often imagine a magma chamber as “a hollow lithological cathedral“, the actual plumbing of volcanoes is far more complex”

Two things, in particular, stood out for me. One is that Andrews is interested in correcting misconceptions. This might be a popular science book, but as a volcanologist, he knows his subject. He abhors how it often gets misrepresented by the “unrelentingly enthusiastic screaming of tabloid newspapers and social media crystal-ball mystics“. No, Yellowstone’s volcano is not “Earth’s self-destruct button” (p. 35) and the widely-adopted phrase supervolcano* has a very specific meaning amongst volcanologists. And though we often imagine a magma chamber as “a hollow lithological cathedral“, the actual plumbing of volcanoes is far more complex. Better to imagine it as “a strange sponge, with the holes filled with a hellish gelatin” (p. 41).

The other stand-out of this book is the writing. In places, Andrews is concise, such as when describing the use of LiDAR to map lava flows obscured by vegetation as a technology “capable of virtual deforestation” (p. 15). Or how the study of extraterrestrial volcanoes “underscores a vital truth: that Earth may be normal to us, but the universe has other ideas” (p. 261). In other places, he is poetic, such as when depicting how microbial life survives at great depths, “dreaming in darkness within vaults of glass” (p. 137). Or how the tidal tug of gravity keeps the insides of extraterrestrial moons warm, long after primordial heat has dissipated and radioactive decay has slowed down. This allows for ocean worlds and cryovolcanism such as on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. “When it comes to keeping worlds alive, perhaps the tides of gravity are the only engines that transcend the tides of time” (p. 271). Foremost is his humour. Admittedly, pop-culture references to Star Wars and Game of Thrones might not amuse everyone, but I chortled when he described Venus “to be as habitable as the business end of a flamethrower” (p. 225). Or when he compares the two models of volcanism that might have created the enormous Tharsis rise on Mars; either as stack upon stack of erupted lava, “like hell’s idea of pancakes” (p. 184), or by the crust expanding as it is fed magma as if it were “a giant, Lovecraftian éclair” (p. 185).

” the study of extraterrestrial volcanoes “underscores a vital truth: that Earth may be normal to us, but the universe has other ideas“”

To conclude this review I have to make a quick comparison with Natalie Starkey’s Fire & Ice, which was published only a few months before Super Volcanoes. Both books cover very similar topics, including the same volcanoes, though Andrews includes much more detail on e.g. Ol Doinyo Lengai which Starkey mentions just once, or on the Martian Tharsis rise and the nearby Valles Marineris while Starkey focuses on Olympus Mons. Where Andrews has picked a select number of extraterrestrial locations, Starkey ranges wider in her Solar System tour. Super Volcanoes has a black-and-white illustration opening each chapter but could have used more – Fire & Ice at least had a colour plate section. It seems that the somewhat dated Alien Volcanoes is still the go-to book when it comes to pictures. In my opinion, Starkey puts the focus on education first with the entertainment factor a close second. She includes much about volcanism itself while telling the story in her own voice. Andrews puts entertainment first with the education factor a close second. He tells part of his story through the many scientists he interviewed. In my review of Fire & Ice, I mentioned the writing did not quite gel for me and this is where Super Volcanoes hit the sweet spot for me.

Overall, Super Volcanoes is a hugely entertaining book on a fascinating subject that met its goal of leaving this reader with a grin on his face. This is a great example of deeply informed popular science written by a knowledgeable author.

* I like to think that the insertion of a space between “super” and “volcanoes” in the title is a deliberate in-joke on Andrews’s part – this is not a book about supervolcanoes, but about how super volcanoes are.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Super Volcanoes

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:



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