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Living on Volcanoes: High Risk, High Reward

Pompei might be the most widely known example: people that lived on the sides of a volcano and were surprised by a sudden eruption with death and destruction as a result. Nevertheless, this still happens nowadays around the world. Why would people still choose to live on a volcano?

The main answer lies buried below the surface – literally. The soils on and nearby volcanoes are full of volcanic deposits. These deposits are rich in minerals like magnesium and potassium. These minerals are natural fertilisers, which makes them very fertile grounds to farm (and live) on. Although this effect is the strongest in the years after an eruption, another – but lasting – benefit is the porous characteristics of the deposits forming the soil. As a result of this structure, the soils can stay moist for much longer than other soils. These combined effects make agriculture on the slopes and nearby areas of volcanoes very profitable.

However, farming is certainly not the only reason for people to live close to a volcano and its potential horrors. Since ancient times, volcanoes have had a special place in culture and religion; religious and sacrificial ceremonies were conducted, and the local inhabitants often had a strong bond with the volcano and the nature surrounding it.

Fast forward to current times, volcanoes are attractive areas to live in for additional reasons. The first is geothermal energy: the heat produced by the magma below the ground surface can be used directly or converted into energy, which happens on a large scale in Iceland, for example. Then, volcanoes and places with volcanic activity, like Hawaii and the Yellowstone caldera in the USA, are, although not without any risks, exciting destinations for tourists, which offer the local population a significant source of income. And often, minerals such as diamonds or ore deposits like copper can be found in the vicinity of volcanoes.

Nevertheless, it seems almost unnecessary to emphasise the dangers of living around volcanoes. One of the most recent examples is the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma, which is part of the Spanish Canary Islands off the coast of Marocco. After 86 days of activity, the volcano finally stopped spitting out lava, gases and ashes. During these three months, thousands of hectares, including many homes and other buildings, were destroyed. However, the economic consequences will be felt for much longer than just a few months. A significant part of the banana plantations on the island have been destroyed, large parts of the island are dangerous due to the sulfur dioxide fumes that still arise from the solidified lava, and airlines cancelled most or all flights to the island, leading to a decreased income from tourism. Examples like this keep you wondering why people still choose an uncertain life around a volcano. Of course, nowadays, people can be warned of eruptions earlier and with much more certainty than thousands of years ago, so a tragedy like the one in Pompei isn’t likely to occur again. Regardless, as demonstrated by the comparison between the disasters unleashed by volcanoes and the potential benefits they bring, living in the shadow of volcanoes is a dangerous game of risk versus reward.

Thijs van Soest
Thijs van Soest
Hi, I am Thijs! Since September 2018, I have been part of Girugten, and I am the current Chairman of the Editorial Team. I am following the MSc Real Estate Studies. My main interests are infrastructure, transport planning and real estate, but I also write about other subjects.
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