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Why So Many People Choose to Live Near Active Volcanoes

Earther logo Earther 2/18/2019 Robin George Andrews
PAHOA, HI - MAY 25:  Community members watch as a home is destroyed by lava from a Kilauea volcano fissure in Leilani Estates, on Hawaii's Big Island, on May 25, 2018 in Pahoa, Hawaii. Following a magnitude 4.4 earthquake today centered in the summit region of the Kilauea volcano, an ash plume was sent from the volcano at least 10,000 feet skyward, according to the National Weather Service.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images) © Getty PAHOA, HI - MAY 25: Community members watch as a home is destroyed by lava from a Kilauea volcano fissure in Leilani Estates, on Hawaii's Big Island, on May 25, 2018 in Pahoa, Hawaii. Following a magnitude 4.4 earthquake today centered in the summit region of the Kilauea volcano, an ash plume was sent from the volcano at least 10,000 feet skyward, according to the National Weather Service. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

If you’re watching newsreel footage of an eruption, and don’t live near a volcano yourself, you may find yourself wondering, “Why would anyone choose to live there?”

There is an assumption that living on volcanoes is wildly dangerous, and that people live there because they don’t have a choice. But while it certainly comes with risks, there are many reasons folks choose to live on volcanoes, from cultural to economic. The simplest reason is one most of us can relate to.

“Many were born there, and have always lived there,” Boris Behncke, a volcanologist at Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, told Earther. “It’s home.”

Volcanoes tend to turn up in the news only when they are annihilating people or their property. As such, “volcanoes have got a bad press,” said Amy Donovan, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge.

“We often think of them as the bad guys, but that’s not the correct way to look at them,” Sara McBride, a disaster researcher at the United States Geological Survey, told Earther. “Volcanoes are the great white sharks of geology.”

The stereotypical image many of us have of volcanoes—incessantly lava-spewing, ash-belching, bomb-throwing, death-dealing mountains—simply doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. “There are no more than a handful active at any one time, but that’s not what cartoons and movies have led us to believe,” Karen Holmberg, an archaeologist and volcano aficionado at New York University, told Earther.

Given the infrequency of extravagant eruptions—for most active volcanoes, the timescales of such events range from decades to centuries—it can be “perfectly rational” to live on them, Donovan told Earther. Dane DuPont, a resident of Leilani Estates and administrator of the hazard-focused Hawaii Tracker Facebook group, likens living in Kilauea volcano’s rift zone to gambling: You can roll the dice with a one-in-50-year event, or you can live on the coast in Florida and get pummeled by a hurricane every year.

“There’s so much hype behind lava. It’s this slow-moving, sexy disaster that attracts a bunch of eyes,” DuPont said. But despite being forced to evacuate during Kilauea’s recent, unprecedented eruption—one in which 320,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of lava barreled through the landscape and destroyed 700 homes—he remains sanguine. That eruption, traumatizing to many though it was, ultimately claimed no lives.

Jenni Barclay, a volcanologist at the University of East Anglia, told Earther that the question of why people live near volcanoes could just as easily be posed to city dwellers, who face more crime and often, worse pollution. In both cases, residents are likely to respond that the benefits outweigh the risks.

“[P]eople live near volcanoes not just ‘by accident’ but because of the resources near those volcanoes that were historically important for transit, trade, and farming,” Sarah DeYoung, an assistant professor at the Institute for Disaster Management of the University of Georgia, told Earther.

Take Sicily’s Mount Etna. Despite being one of Europe’s most active and hazardous volcanoes, a million people living on its slopes. Some of them, like Marco de Grazia, run wineries. His, the Tenuta delle Terre Nere, benefits not just from the unique soil, but from the microclimates created by the volcano’s high elevation.

“It is easy to make a big wine, but very difficult to make a fine wine,” he told Earther. “Well, much like Burgundy, Etna extends to the respectful winemaker the privilege of producing outstandingly fine wines.”

Lava flows and the potential future flank collapse at Etna don’t seem to concern him: Such infrequent risks are “part of the package” he said. Antonio Benanti, of the Benanti winery on Etna’s slopes and president of the Etna Denominazione di Origine Controllata Consortium, agrees. “The risks and the danger are always in the back of our minds somewhere,” he told Earther. But, Benanti continued, the volcano’s benefits “clearly outnumber the risks.”

Like in Hawaii, tourism plays a big role for Etna. As Donovan pointed out, that industry is doing well enough that every time an eruption destroys the cable car to the summit, it’s simply rebuilt, with the wreckage of the old one left in place for passers-by to see on the way up.

Tourism is also big business at Kawah Ijen volcano, in East Java, Indonesia, notes Drexel University volcanologist Loÿc Vanderkluysen. The volcano is famous for the blue flames that emerge from its sulfur-burning lava. Locals have traditionally mined the volcano’s sulfur deposits at a huge detriment to their health, but in recent years, Vanderkluysen has seen the region turned into a national park, full of tourists going to see the incandescent flames.

“The miners have become guides and porters. For a fee, they’ll still briefly put their heavy sulfur-loaded baskets on their shoulders, just long enough for you to snap a picture,” he explained. “I can’t blame them; it’s a much healthier lifestyle than sulfur-mining, and pays much better too.”

Indonesia is, sadly, no stranger to volcanically-induced tragedies. Gayatri Indah Marliyani, an assistant professor of geology at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, is acutely aware of this fact, living fairly close to the active Merapi volcano, whose eruptions can threaten lives and property.

But that doesn’t mean the volcano is solely feared. “I always have this feeling of loving the volcano instead of looking at it as a threat,” Marliyani told Earther.

Suggesting that perhaps she is biased because of her scientific interest in them, she noted that for others, Indonesia’s volcanoes provide fertile land to grow crops, fresh water channels, wild grasses to feed livestock, and of course, “fresh air and beautiful scenery.”

Vanderkluysen of Drexel University noted that for some communities in Indonesia, there’s a strong cultural connection with volcanoes. The Tenggerese people, for instance, leave offerings to mountain gods at the crater’s edge of a volcano named Bromo during their annual Yadnya Kasada ceremony.

For those who live near Kilauea, there’s often a spiritual element at play, too: the volcano goddess Pele, said to dwell within Kilauea’s crater, is deeply revered by many. And while it may be hard for outsiders to understand, that reverence can play an important role in how residents feel about eruptions. Remember that car that was swallowed by lava during Kilauea’s most recent fireworks? According to Holmberg, the owner accepted the loss quite readily.

“That’s such a uniquely Hawai‘ian perspective,” she said.

Saying that, similar attitudes can be found across the Pacific. Nico Fournier, a senior volcano geophysicist at New Zealand’s GNS, said that Māori tribes don’t consider volcanoes a threat. “Considering the maunga [the mountain] as hazardous is pretty much an insult” to New Zealanders in general, he said.

Of course, there are many people who live on volcanoes less out of reverence for them and more out of necessity. Bruce Houghton, a professor of volcanology at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, told Earther that the land in the Puna district on Kilauea’s slopes is very cheap because it’s at a higher risk of being affected by an eruption. “It is often the only affordable option,” he said.

Others have been forced to live near volcanoes with tragic consequences. Jazmin Scarlett, a historical and social volcanology student at the University of Hull, studies the West Indies’ St. Vincent and its Soufrière Volcano. Prior to European contact, the island’s indigenous populations lived along the coast, but when the island became a British colony in the 1760s, they were enslaved and pushed nearer to the volcano. In 1812, many slaves working on plantations near the volcano died during a powerful eruption.

After another devastating from 1902-3, subsistence farmers–often the freed descendants of former slaves–were given little to no financial help to rebuild their lives, unlike their white counterparts. Even today, those living nearest the volcano in the north are still the poorest and most vulnerable on the island.

Financials aside, there are some who might move away from hazardous volcanoes were it not for the social blowback. “People have extended family, friends, jobs, and a sense of attachment to their communities there, so leaving is not always a simple solution,” DeYoung of the University of Georgia said.

Laure Fallou, a seismological sociologist at the European-Mediterranean Seismological Center, agreed. Hazardous eruptions don’t push most people into thinking about leaving, she said. Instead, they wonder how they will cope with such events, and what the government will do to help.

To millions of people all over the planet, active volcanoes are simply where they live, and abandoning their home in the face of tragedy is only one half of the equation. Where we live and grow up shapes us into the adults we become, and volcanoes are powerful agents in this regard. Leaving them behind isn’t easy.

“If you grow up near a volcano then move away, a part of yourself goes missing, I think,” Fallou said.

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