Grand Tour of the volcanoes of Europe
Join us on an exhilarating journey across Europe's volcanoes, some of which are quite unknown but not as dormant as we believe, and have erupted in the past the way Tonga did almost a year ago. The stories of these volcanoes are intertwined with European myths, legends and history. But the most poignant question is, are the volcanoes of Europe active?
Text: Kathelijne Bonne
Three great volcanoes are located at the far edges of Europe: the Ararat, Teide and Beerenberg. The other volcanoes of Europe are located both on the mainland and in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean. Most are not active, but because they have been so in recent geological history, and their presence can still be recognized in the landscape, they cannot be considered completely extinct. Isn't it amazing that each volcano translates into unique landscapes of great cultural, geographical and tourist value?
Europe has a whole range of 'types' of volcanoes. As the late French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft once said, you can't really categorize volcanoes, each one has its own personality. This is more or less true, but in terms of shape and explosiveness, most volcanoes can be placed between two extremes of a continuous range: the tall conical stratovolcanoes versus large flat shield volcanoes. Stratovolcanoes like Vesuvius produce large mushroom-shaped ash clouds and lethal pyroclastic flows. Shield volcanoes like Cumbre Vieja on La Palma are flat and often dotted with many small craters. They produce liquid lava flows and cause a lot of damage to infrastructure.
Pope on vacation
The Italian volcanoes are the most famous in Europe. Vesuvius and Etna have attracted attention over the millennia. But next to Vesuvius is the lesser-known Campi Flegrei, a dangerous super-volcano à la Yellowstone, to which I dedicated this article. Let's leave these giants aside for now and focus on other European volcanoes.
Parallel to Italy's western coastline lie several ancient volcanic massifs. When the Pope goes on holiday, he traditionally stays in Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, located on crater lake Lago Albano. This lake is part of the ancient eroded volcano known as Colli Albani. It has supposedly been extinct for ten thousand years but recent analyses suggest it is not so dormant after all, and it may become active again. That's worrying, at just 25 to 30 km from the Eternal City.
God of the Wind
In the Tyrrhenian Sea, north of Sicily, lie the beautiful Aeolian Islands. They are tiny dots peeking out above the sea, but from the seafloor they rise to two to three thousand meters. Stromboli (926 m above sea level) is the most famous volcano and romanticized in a movie of Fellini. Stromboli's ever-present ash plume informed seafaring peoples in Antiquity about the mood of the god of wind, Aeolus.
Stromboli is continuously active and after a good climb you can see the lava fountains up close. Vulcano, the southernmost island, named after the god of fire, has been a resort since the time of the Romans thanks to its foul-smelling but beneficial sulfur mud baths. Under the sea other volcanoes are hidden, such as Marsili. If Marsili misbehaves a tsunami can be triggered.
Volcanoes of Spain
As Cumbre Vieja on La Palma wreaked havoc last year, it's now quite clear that the Canary Islands were created from fire. I dedicated two articles to La Palma:
Mount Teide on Tenerife is the highest volcano in Europe (3718 m), and if you include its base under the sea, it is the third highest volcanic structure in the world! It rises a staggering 7500 m above the sea floor!
On mainland Spain there are also volcanoes, although they seem to be extinct. Cabo de Gata in the south-east corner of Spain, is a protected volcanic nature reserve, still relatively untouched and free from predatory construction, unusual on the built-up Spanish shores. The volcanic coastline is modelled by wave action is jagged, and stunning. Some of Cabo de Gata's volcanoes are famous for the purple to wine-red garnet crystals that you can pick up as you walk, i.e., in the Hoyazo de Níjar volcano, which stands out in the relief thanks to fossil coral reefs fringing the rim of the crater. A excellent place for hiking.
In the interior of Spain, there are volcanoes in the province of Ciudad Real and in the region of Catalonia. Volcanism in Spain is caused by the same tectonic tensions as that in Italy and Greece, namely the northward drift of the African continent, which pushes against the Eurasian continent.
End of Minoan Civilization
Greece's most beautiful spots are in the wildest places, such as Santorini, also known as Thera. The extremely explosive volcanic eruption of Santorini, about 3600 years ago, marked the end of Minoan civilization, as the island where the volcano was located sank into the sea and sent a tsunami to Crete, completely destroying fleets and strategic ports.
There is evidence from around the world that something catastrophic happened during Minoan times. Tree ring readings, crop failures, and frost in summer in China, etc., all point towards a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. Large volcanic eruption can indeed cause a volcanic cold period. I wrote about this when pondering on the climate effects of Tonga.
After the eruption of Santorini, a ring of islands remained around the collapsed crater. Today, these lovely islands can barely endure the mass tourism.
Other volcanoes in Greece include Milos, an island, and Methana, a complex of some 30 volcanoes not far from Athens. Greek geographer Strabo described a volcanic eruption here two thousand years ago.
Europe's eastern frontiers
On the borders of Europe, wherever they lie, are a couple of giant volcanoes. Mount Elbrus (5642 m) in the Russian Caucasus is Europe's largest volcano. Elbrus was last active two thousand years ago, when it produced a 24-km-long lava flow. Today, activity is limited to some bubbling in hot sulphur springs. In eastern Turkey, strictly speaking no longer Europe (but geologists don't care much about political boundaries) lie the Nemrut (2948 m) and the Ararat (5137 m). Turkey's great Lake Van was created because a lava flow from Nemrut blocked outward water flow.
Ararat in the Armenian Highlands rises a staggering 3,500 meters above the surrounding high plateau. By comparison, Mount Vesuvius is 'only' 1281 meters high. Ararat is said to be the place where Noah's Ark came ashore after the Biblical Flood. Religious people may even attribute boat-like shapes, observed in the volcanic slopes and on satellite images, to this ancient story. The boat-shapes are known as the Ararat-anomaly. Ararat has not erupted in the past millennia but it may do so again.
Volcanoes of France
France's Massif Central is home to the Chaîne des Puys, a beautiful green hilly landscape. Puy de Dôme is the highest crater (1464 m). The last eruptions were six to seven thousand years ago, but a renewal of volcanic activity cannot be ruled out.
Eifel volcano, a silent giant
There is another giant where you would not immediately expect it. It's hiding in the Eifel region in Germany, close to the borders with Belgium and the Netherlands. It's a well-known wine region. It actually consists of many little volcanoes, of height ranging from 300 to 700 meters above sea level. There are several crater lakes called 'maars', including the Laacher See. The Eifel is similar to Yellowstone, but currently less active, although some gas is escaping from the Laacher See. The last eruption was 12,900 years ago, and it was massive, perhaps even bigger than Tonga in early 2022, or not unlike the Minoan eruption of Santorini. The Eifel volcano indeed needs close monitoring.
Volcanoes in the Czech Republic?
For those not expecting a volcano in the Czech Republic, just ask yourself where the heat from Karlovy Vary's world-famous hot springs is coming from. The bathing complex where aristocrats of the 18th and 19th centuries loved to hang out even boasts a geyser! The last eruptions in the Czech Republic date from prehistoric times, but volcanic rocks can still be recognized and there is clearly some residual heat.
In the Cheb Basin, two cinder cones (small volcanoes) and a 'maar' (volcanic lake) have been identified, and carbon dioxide seeps out of the soil, probably via a fault. The Doupov Mountains are a volcanic massif, but they have long been extinct. Frustratingly, detailed information about recent volcanism in the Czech Republic is difficult to find in the international research papers, but a German source (see bibliography below) does report that a volcano may be in the making in the Eger Graben, a geological structure. It would be good idea for a volcanologist or geothermal specialist to look into it.
- More on the amazing geology of the Czech Republic: The realms of Narnia: the geology of a film location.
The offshore European volcanoes are located on the Canary Islands, Azores, Madera, Iceland and a Norwegian island: Jan Mayen.
The Azores, Iceland and Jan Mayen lie on the mid-oceanic ridge of the Atlantic Ocean, the place where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates diverge and where magma rises from the Earth's mantle, deep below. In some places, so much lava is extruded that it rises above sea level, creating the above mid-ocean islands.
In Iceland, volcano land par excellence, the most notorious volcanoes are Hekla, Katla, Vatnajokkul and Laki. Some of these volcanoes had an impact on events in Antiquity and on Europe's more recent history. Laki caused a heavy blow to the Norse (Viking) civilization in Iceland, and had a far reaching impact. Perhaps the poverty and peasant uprisings in France in the 18th century were due to climate change caused by Laki's eruption. The French Revolution was the outcome.
World's northernmost volcano
The world's northernmost active volcano is Beerenberg (bear mountain) (2277 m) on the weather-beaten island of Jan Mayen, near Greenland. It erupted as recently as the 1980s. The island has been used as a whaling base for hundreds of years, and polar bear and polar fox population were also depleted for their fur. Today Norwegians still massacre 250 whales a year near this volcanic island.
Voilà, we are done with our Grand Tour of Europe's volcanoes, although this trip is far from complete as we left many volcanoes uncovered. There are many older volcanic deposits across Europe such as the Giant's Causeway in Ireland that we have not discussed, but which does provide outstanding landscapes. Even older deposits are also hidden in European rocks in several places. As you can see, volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, who died in a pyroclastic flow, are right after all: each volcano has a very different story to tell, and wild nature won't be cataloged or tamed.
Francis, P., and Oppenheimer, C. (1993) Volcanoes. Oxford University Press. 521 p.
Volcanodiscovery website. https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/
Global Volcanism Program website: https://volcano.si.edu/
Italy volcanoes website. https://www.italysvolcanoes.com/ALBANI.html
Wetenschap info nu website. https://wetenschap.infonu.nl/natuurverschijnselen/73317-vulkanen-en-aardbevingen-in-turkije.html
Parque Natural: Visita al Hoyazo de Nijar. https://www.parquenatural.com/en/visita-al-hoyazo-de-nijar/
Wikipedia volcano pages.
Article written by Kathelijne Bonne, geologist and soil scientist. I also write on Good Climate News.
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