Notes from a small volcanic island

Early start from Gatwick to Tenerife, but greeted on lading with warm sun and blue skies. We are here for three days to film a documentary for the Weather Channel on volcanoes and their effects on the earths climate.

Overlooking the Eyjafjallajökull glacier and the ongoing volcano eruption from Hvolsvöllur on April 17th, 2010.

Overlooking the Eyjafjallajökull glacier and the ongoing volcano eruption from Hvolsvöllur on April 17th, 2010.

Apparently the US meteorological community and weather watchers in general have got a taste for volcanoes after the 2010 eruption of Eyafietlayorkell. This is most encouraging, but my first thought, since the show is aimed at our North American cousins, is that I will have to talk in miles and feet instead of kilometres and metres to explain how high an eruption cloud rises. To be frank, on four hours sleep converting 20 km to feet and inches is not an easy task (answer  = very high).

La Cantera schoolhouse quarry, in the Bandas del Sur.

La Cantera schoolhouse quarry, in the Bandas del Sur.

After checking in we were straight out to our first location just off the TF1- the mighty Granadilla Pumice for those who know the Island. The last time I was here was in 2005 and a lot of development has happened since then. Finding a suitable location to film the geology close to the road was harder than I remember due to the proliferation of swanky new apartments and wind turbines. As the Bandas del Sur Formation presents some of the most impressive air fall deposits and ignimbrites I have seen (ok maybe I need to get out more) it would be a travesty indeed if it all were to disappear under concrete.

The documentary is following broadly an idea put forward by one David Keys in a book published in 1999 called “Catastrophe: A Quest for the Origins of the Modern World”. The idea is that in 536 AD a global  climatic trauma caused loads of interrelated events including plagues, famine, pestilence and general unhappiness all round, to the fall of western civilisation and the beginning of the Dark Ages.

Actually, the science is clear that between 535 and 536 AD the Northern Hemisphere experienced perhaps the most severe short term cooling in several millennia.  Suplhate deposits from Ice cores in Antarctica  and Greenland, and analysis of tree rings from the same time record the presence of an atmospheric dust veil that can be due only to an impact event or volcanic eruption. Both are of course possible, but how to pick between them? Well, Keys thinks he has the answer – Krakatoa (famously east of Java) and a volcano with form to boot.

Krakatoa erupting in 2008

Krakatoa erupting in 2008

It all makes perfect sense, but for the small fact that there is no real evidence that Krakatoa actually erupted at this time. There are of course other potential culprits and there is no doubt some form of climatic trauma took place. But Keys’ thesis, taking a load of historical events that may or may not be causally related, chucking them into a pot and blaming it on a volcano that didn’t erupt makes East Enders scriptwriting look like an authentic masterclass in social psychology (leave it).

Talking of guilty pleasures on telly – Playa de Americias out of season is a bit surreal. Those who enjoy Benidorm  will get the picture. In fact Mel’s mobility scooter or something like it is heading straight at me. Looks like our transport has arrived…

Playa de Americias out of season (aka Benidorm)

Playa de Americias out of season (aka Benidorm)

About Nick

Nick Petford is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Northampton, and an expert in magmatic systems and volcanology. He has appeared in several documentaries on the BBC and Channel 4.
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3 Responses to Notes from a small volcanic island

  1. gravelinspector says:

    The wife and I enjoyed a week of volcanologising on Tenerife a couple of years ago in the Open University Geology Society’s continuing series of “Volcanos on a Shoestring”. Much recommended. The wife isn’t a geologist, but she enjoyed the hill-walking side of things, and some geology did settle in.

  2. jeffollerton says:

    Looking forward to getting back to Tenerife in April for the University of Northampton’s annual undergraduate field course. This will be our 11th visit to the island; we started in 2003. Wonderful place for ecologists as well as geologists, though your point about concrete is equally true, Nick. By the way, isn’t Krakatoa actually west of Java? :-)

    • gravelinspector says:

      By the way, isn’t Krakatoa actually west of Java?

      Only if you don’t consider Hollywood to be a paragon of meticulous research.

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