NSS Convention ~ July 25-30, 2021

USGS Volcano Image

Volcanoes and People

  • By Robert I. Tilling, U.S. Geological Survey

Volcanoes both harass and help mankind. As dramatically demonstrated by the catastrophic eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 1980 and of Pinatubo in June 1991, volcanoes can wreak havoc and devastation in the short term. The types of volcanic and associated hazards are not described in this booklet but treated in several of the publications listed in Suggested Reading. However, it should be emphasized that the short-term hazards posed by volcanoes are balanced by benefits of volcanism and related processes over geologic time. Volcanic materials ultimately break down to form some of the most fertile soils on Earth, cultivation of which fostered and sustained civilizations. People use volcanic products as construction materials, as abrasive and cleaning agents, and as raw materials for many chemical and industrial uses. The internal heat associated with some young volcanic systems has been harnessed to produce geothermal energy. For example, the electrical energy generated from The Geysers geothermal field in northern California can meet the present power consumption of the city of San Francisco.

The challenge to scientists involved with volcano research is to mitigate the short-term adverse impacts of eruptions, so that society may continue to enjoy the long-term benefits of volcanism. They must continue to improve the capability for predicting eruptions and to provide decision makers and the general public with the best possible information on high-risk volcanoes for sound decisions on land-use planning and public safety. Geoscientists still do not fully understand how volcanoes really work, but considerable advances have been made in recent decades. An improved understanding of volcanic phenomena provides important clues to the Earth's past, present, and possibly its future.