Living near the fire

November 3, 2023

Perspective

Five hundred million people worldwide have active volcanoes as neighbors. Geology professor David Kitchen explores the reasons.
By David Kitchen
A wood-block style illustration of a volcano with a person farming in the foreground
Illustration by Katie McBride

The thought of living near an active volcano probably sounds like an unimaginable risk to you — and rightly so. An active volcano is never safe and can turn a forested hillside into a lifeless wasteland in seconds.

Yet 500 million people worldwide live and work under the shadow of active volcanoes. As a geologist who’s studied many volcanoes, I’ve come to realize it’s naive to ask, “Why don’t people just move to less risky places?” Their motivations range widely.

CENTERS OF IDENTITY

People in many cultures revere volcanoes as places of worship, ritual, and tradition that are celebrated for their power over fertility, life, and sustenance.

For a number of religious traditions, Mount Fuji in Japan is a place where ancestral spirits congregate. It has been a symbolic and sacred site of pilgrimage for centuries. Every summer, thousands of people ascend through the clouds to reach the summit.

For the Tenggerese people on Java, Mount Bromo is a deeply sacred site — the abode of gods. Every year they hike up the volcano carrying agricultural products and livestock to be sacrificed during the Yadnya Kasada festival. Pilgrims gather at the rim to express gratitude and seek blessings with prayer, chanting, and sacred offerings.

ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY

The land surrounding volcanoes often offers significant economic opportunity.

Volcanic soils are among the most fertile in the world. They contain minerals and nutrients that are essential for plant growth. They also have good pH balance, high porosity, and strong water retention, making them ideal for agriculture. In addition, volcanic terrains often create unique microclimates that are ideal for high-value crops such as grapes, coffee, and bananas.

Striking landscapes, unique geological features, and the thrill of proximity draw tourists to active volcanoes worldwide. Visitors to sites like the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park on Java, Mount Kilauea in Hawaii, and Mount Etna on Sicily can boost local economies and enhance the livelihoods of residents.

Volcanic landscapes can also offer rich mineral resources such as gold, silver, and amethyst. For example, the rich volcanic landscape around El Misti in southern Peru is valued for its copper and other metals.

On Java, in Indonesia, miners still excavate bright yellow sulfur deposits from the active Kawah Ijen volcano crater floor using hand tools and then carry the heavy blocks up the volcano’s steep walls to its rim.

Such extraction can stimulate economic growth and create jobs, but often the wealth is exported and lost to local communities that struggle financially.

LOW-COST LAND

Not everyone who lives next to a volcano does so by choice.

At Mount Merapi in Indonesia and Mount Mayon in the Philippines, two of the world’s most active volcanoes, subsistence farmers live and work on the steep slopes. Because they live closest to the eruption sites, these communities are particularly vulnerable, making rapid evacuation unlikely.

In 2010, 250 people were killed by searing gas clouds during an eruption of Mount Merapi. Despite the tragedy, many survivors stayed put because leaving their crops behind would mean financial ruin.

As scientists get better at predicting eruptions and likely paths of destruction, sometimes the danger of volcanoes can be mitigated with good communication and solid evacuation plans. Even so, life beside a volcano is a complex interplay of risk and reward — and one many cannot avoid.