Dr. John Savino and Marie D. Jones
the catastrophic event that changed the course of human history
published 2007 by New Page Books (a division of The Career Press,
Franklin Lakes, NJ, USA
288 pages, 15 x 22.8 cm (6 x 9 in.)
Supervolcano? The mighty Krakatoa eruption was one, surely, wasn't it? Wrong. Krakatoa was much too small to qualify.
Not many people have heard of Supervolcanos. This is not surprising since the last one on earth went off around 70,000 years ago. Only the impact of a really large asteroid could come close in its effects to such a supereruption. Krakatoa was a famously cataclysmic volcanic eruption in 1883, as were Tambora in 1815, Pinatubo in 1991 and others of the relatively recent past. But all of these were as the crackle of a popcorn compared to a supervolcano eruption. Mercifully, supereruptions are extremely rare.
Savino and Jones have written the first popular science book on the subject and, by golly, they have produced food for thought as well as a good, spine-tingling read! One can only hope that humanity will not have to go through a supervolcano eruption ever again as we did 70,000 years ago. Unfortunately, that wish is unlikely to be fulfilled. It will not happen next Tuesday but it will happen sometime in the future, distant or not.
The detailed description in this book of what one good candidate for future supervolcanodom, Yellowstone in the USA, would be like if it went off today, is only too clear. The authors' tips on precautions for such an event make it only too obvious that with a supervolcano clearing its throat within a few hundred miles of you, there is not much you can reasonably do except pray. In fact, you are lucky if the volcano kills you quickly. For if you miraculously survive the tons of ash and rock raining down on you and your home, the giant streams of red-hot lava and fire roaring all over the countryside, the vast clouds of poisonous and/or red-hot gases blown around by hurricane-force winds, if you miraculously survive all that, then the following climate change with the ozone layer above you gone and billowing clouds of ash covering the sun for years, you will then face a volcanic winter lasting many centuries. You do not need much maths to calculate your chances of survival.
There is some hope, however. As some scientists and this book argue, the human race seems to have come through just such a supereruption in the distant past, coming possibly within a few hundred people to being exterminated as a species. It is a well-known (but scientifically ill-explained) fact that a single troop of chimpanzees has more genetic variety in it today than all humans alive today. Genetically we are all practically identical twins when compared to the variety of other earthly life forms. This book will tell you how this could have come about. That such a situation should have received so little scientific attention and support until recently is more than a little odd. Catastrophe theory is rather discredited through overuse but that does not make the occasional major catastrophe impossible per se.
It was this odd reluctance to face some facts and dig deeper that drove me to research and write the article Toba and its critical supervolcano eruption in 2004/5. Savino and Jones quote from my article (thanks for the credit!) but their book ranges much further than Toba and gives much more information on other potential future and past super-eruptions. There is even a chapter on the possible traumatic effects on a brand-new human race that was on its way out of Africa precisely when when Toba blew its top.
If you are interested in a number of fields and their interactions, from mass extinctions, climatology, volcanology to the early human race, and many others, you will need to read this book. It would not be a chore either. The text brims over with new ideas, new aspects of older ideas, and lots of fascinating facts. Despite the complexities described, this is not a punishment read! "Unputdownable" would be the wrong word here, not because the book is boring but because you will have to put it down many times, to think about what you have just read. Then you will rapidly pick it up to find out what comes next. Not many books on science have that effect on their readers.
Why should we pay attention to a phenomenon that may not bother us for many tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years? One reason is the past. We can only speculate intelligently on our future if we have a solid understanding of our past. Supervolcanos have certainly and decisively influenced the course of life on earth, including that of a still very young humanity. Without volcanos and supervolcanos, earth would be a totally different planet and humanity may well never have developed - and would never have had to go through the experience of being on the edge of extinction, either.
The many good and very useful illlustrations would have been better printed in colour on art paper. On the text paper in black and white they do not come out as well as they should and could. The typography of the book in general is a bit odd but one gets used to it. What has remained irritating, at least to this reviewer right to the end of the book, is the way captions to illustrations have been mistreated. A strange italic pseudo-handwriting underlaid by a line grid makes these captions a real pain to read. This book deserves many readers and reprints, and one hopes that this last fault will be rectified in the second edition.
The Andaman Association
Last changed 30 September 2007