I grew up on the slopes of a volcano. Well, OK, it wasn’t very exciting; a long-extinct volcano, and I only found out about it in geography class in my primary school, which nestled in the foothills. But I was fascinated by the idea. It answered the childish question of “why?” about the hill’s shape. The column of basaltic rock which was the solidified lava in the volcano’s core was hard enough to resist the scouring of glaciers and protect the softer rock behind, leaving steep cliffs on one side and a gentle slope on the other.
When I went away to university, there was another, similar volcano, this time with a castle on the top. But again, long past its fire-belching days. Of course, live volcanoes can only exist when the conditions are right: at the edges of tectonic plates, or occasionally where a bubble of the Earth’s mantle is oozing upwards like a lava lamp.
About three-quarters of the world’s active volcanoes lie on a ring around the edges of the Pacific — the Ring of Fire — where gigantic plates in the planet’s crust duck and dive. In Indonesia, where the Australian Plate, cruising Northwards at a stately 67mm per year, meets and nudges underneath the Eurasian Plate, the volcanoes are particularly large and active.
Some of the the biggest bangs in history occurred in 1883, when the island of Krakatoa blew itself to pieces with four huge explosions; and in 1815 when Tambora had gone off with a power estimated to have been four times greater still. I suppose Krakatoa is the more famous simply because area had come much more into the European sphere of activity in the intervening years. Curiously, Krakatoa is West of Java, not East (Tambora is). I have no idea why the sixties film misplaced the volcano. The idea that “East of Java” sounded better doesn’t convince me at all.
I have to confess that I’ve never actually seen a working volcano, which is clearly a gap in my life experiences. A trip to Naples and Pompeii is high on my list of things to do, but I just haven’t got round to it yet. I’m not at all deterred by the possibility of an eruption, even though a moderately large one is overdue. I wouldn’t want to live there though.