How volcanic eruptions help nourish the world

While their blasts can no doubt wreak devastation, they also create a fresh canvas that fosters life of every hue.

Stephen Wilkes documented an eruption in Iceland for 21 hours straight, making images of the fiery scene as day turned to night.
Composite image by Stephen Wilkes

Solange Duhamel turned her back to the wind as it whipped nearly sideways across the rocky Icelandic landscape this past April. She shielded her face from pellets of hail, waiting for the storm to end. Yet Duhamel couldn’t help but stare in awe at the scene unfolding before her.

A stream of incandescent lava poured from the mouth of the nearby Fagradalsfjall volcano, which had been erupting for weeks, nearly filling the valley where Duhamel stood with jet-black rock. As hail collided with the lava field’s still sizzling surface, it instantly vaporized, rising in wisps of fog.

The hazy cloak that covered the landscape only enhanced the otherworldly feel of the process that Duhamel, an environmental microbiologist and biogeochemist at the University of Arizona, came to study: the birth of new land. Many people see volcanic eruptions solely as forces of death and destruction, and their capricious blasts certainly can wreak havoc. But eruptions also create a blank canvas that gives way to a rainbow of life.

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