1. Explosive Stuff Happens When a Filmmaker Goes "Into the Inferno"
For his documentary Into the Inferno, legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog teamed up with volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, who has spent much of his time doing field work on the volcano Mount Erebus in Antarctica. Together they traveled the world visiting volcanoes and meeting the scientists who study them. The resulting film has some pretty stunning pyrotechnics, just great shots of rolling and exploding lava lakes, while Herzog and Oppenheimer give audiences a peek at the cultures that have grown up around volcanic myths and lore—from a choreographed North Korean military parade to the rituals of small villages whose gods are said to inhabit nearby volcano craters. It's a poetic love letter to the pure savagery of volcanoes and the mythology they inspire.
2. The Biggest Eruption of the Millennium Would Have Wiped Out a Major City
In the year 946 A.D., Mount Paektu, which lies on what is now the border between North Korea and China, erupted with such intensity and at such a volume that, as Oppenheimer estimates in Into the Inferno, the amount of debris from the explosion would have been able to bury Manhattan. Only the tippy tops of the tallest skyscrapers would have been visible underneath all the ash and pumice. The force of the eruption blanketed Japan in about three inches of ash.
3. But the Craziest Eruption *Ever* Was Much Worse
The most violent eruption perhaps in the history of the world occurred about 75,000 years ago in Indonesia, from what is now known as the "Toba supervolcano." This was, according to Oppenheimer, 100,000 times larger than the 2011 volcanic eruption in Iceland. Scientists estimate that Toba ejected 2,800 cubic kilometers (about 700 cubic miles) of ash into the atmosphere, triggering a volcanic winter. (By comparison, Mount St. Helens ejected one cubic kilometer of ash in 1980!)
Scientists all agree that the human population dwindled as a result of the global climate change caused by this eruption. Some estimate that about 15,000 humans were left, but a controversial theory, outlined in Into the Inferno, estimates that only 600 survived. That's a small enough number to classify the human species as endangered!
4. Some Scientists Risk It All to Get Within a Few Feet of Lava
There are scientists out there who will do anything to get the most accurate measurements and the most compelling images of whatever they're studying—even if it means standing next to a roaring river of magma. Katia and Maurice Krafft were French volcanologists who shot what is still some of the most exciting footage of volcanic eruptions ever.
One island cult worships a god named John Frum, who is said to take the form of an American G.I. and live inside the island's volcano.
Yes, it seems crazy to climb into the craters of active volcanoes, but the Kraffts knew the risks and decided they weren't going to lead boring lives. In the end, tragically, they were killed instantly by a pyroclastic flow (basically an avalanche of hot gases) while studying a volcanic eruption in Japan in 1991.
5. A Volcano Is Supposedly the Divine Seat of an American G.I. God
The communities around Mount Yasur, a volcano on Tanna in the island nation of Vanuatu, have several "cargo cults" whose deities will supposedly one day return to the island bearing material gifts from the Western world (i.e., cargo). One such cult worships a god named John Frum: the god is said to take the form of an American G.I. and to live inside the island's volcano, Mount Yasur, which he also uses as a portal between worlds.
6. Living on a Frozen-Over Volcano Can Be...Gross
For several years, Oppenheimer made annual two-month trips to Antarctica to do field work at the volcano Mount Erebus. There he and his colleagues would sleep in tents and gather in communal cabins to eat and hang out. In 2011, Oppenheimer wrote a blog post called "A Day in the Life on Erebus Volcano, Antarctica." Some of the weirder bits about icy volcano living include having to "remember to extricate one's 'pee bottle' from the depths of the sleeping bag (so it doesn't freeze solid)."
The week before the Axial Seamount eruption, scientists registered 8,000 earthquakes in a single day.
Also, this is gross: "Drama! Someone discovers the urinal pipe has frozen! We pull out the hosing that connects to a big fuel drum outside and hang it over the stove. This turns out to be a VERY bad idea! I might spend hours breathing in acid and toxic volcanic gases up on the crater rim without any evident side effects, but urine fizzing off the Preway stove proves totally insufferable…."
7. Exposed Lakes of Lava Are Real, and You Can Visit Them
While most volcanoes have an internal reservoir of molten rock, a handful of volcanoes actually have exposed lava lakes in their craters. These can be found on Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Erta Ale volcano in Ethiopia, the Ambrym volcano in the archipelago Vanuatu, Mount Erebus in Antarctica, and Hawaii's Kilauea volcano.
8. This Volcano Caused Thousands of Earthquakes in a Single Day
It's called Axial Seamount, and it's a "submarine volcano" located 300 miles off the coast of Oregon, a mile under the sea. Scientists installed a set of instruments on the ocean floor and were able to predict and monitor the eruption. The week before the eruption, the center of the underwater volcano dropped about 6½ feet over 12 hours, and the scientists registered 8,000 earthquakes in a single day.
9. A Piece of Volcanic Literature Is Iceland's Most Important Text
In the 17th century, an Icelandic bishop gave the king of Denmark an old book of poems, known as the Codex Regius, written down by Norsemen who came to Iceland hundreds of years prior. As Herzog notes in Into the Inferno, one of those poems details an apocalyptic vision of the end of the Pagan gods, who are destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Recognizing the book as a national treasure, Denmark gave the Codex back to Iceland in the 1970s. It was returned to its home country on Denmark's largest battleship, escorted by a fleet of ships.