Yes Volcanos Are Still Evil

devil_vol3.jpgMaria over at Green Gabbro feels that I have printed a false and malicious post for the purpose of defaming volcanoes. I cannot be held liable if the accusations are true. Maria thinks that printing a list of “all the good things volcanoes do” will be more than sufficient to make up for their previous indiscretions. But perhaps we need a bit of perspective on the role of volcanoes in the history of life.

According toWignall’s excellent review in 2001 on why and how volcanoes are evil, 6 of the 15 major extinctions in the history of life coincide with major episodes of volcanicity. In the last 300 Ma, all extinctions coincide with large igneous deposits.

How did volcanoes do it? Wignall provides this wonderful diagram (click for larger) based on the chain of events occurring in conjunction with the Siberian Traps (a large eruption event ~250Mya).


Of course some of Maria’s list is also suspect.

  1. Volcanoes also flux out CO2, which keeps us warm and cozy. Or they cause considerable global warming which leads to oceanic stagnation and marine anoxia that ultimately kills everything. But let’s not dwell on the negatives.
  2. Ditto other volatiles. Do you want to try life without volcanic sulfur? I don’t either.Sure sulfur can come from volcanoes. But anaerobic bacteria can produce the same from sulfate minerals. These deposits are so large they are good enough for commercial sulfur production in US, Poland, Russia, Turkmenistan, and the Ukraine. I’m no geologist but I am also pretty sure that sulfate, the major form of sulfur in the oceans, can also come from the weathering of continental rocks.
  3. Volcanoes created the continents (and islands). Without continents, there would be no primeval life-cradling tide pools. Also, we would be mermaids.With no volcanoes the whole world would be an ocean. Sounds good to me! What makes you think the primordial ooze was so close to land?
  4. Submarine volcanoes provide a source of energy for all manner of exotic salty friends.Sure there a few hydrothermal vent organisms scatter along the ocean bottom. But there are far more who don’t need the vents. Helping a few species will not mitigate killing off millions!
Dr. M (1605 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Assistant Director of Science for the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, created to facilitate research to address fundamental questions in evolutionary science. He has conducted deep-sea research for 11 years and published over 40 papers in the area. He has participated in dozens of expeditions taking him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses mainly on marine systems and particularly the biology of body size, biodiversity, and energy flow. He focuses often on deep-sea systems as a natural test of the consequences of energy limitation on biological systems. He is the author and chief editor of Deep-Sea News, a popular deep-sea themed blog, rated the number one ocean blog on the web and winner of numerous awards. Craig’s popular writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.

15 comments on “Yes Volcanos Are Still Evil
  1. Ha! I saw that and put a post on that blog, defending that volcano’s are evil! Of course I used absolutely no science (nor was I trying to be serious) what so ever, as all I commented on where to horrible Hollywood films from 1997, the post hasn’t been added yet, though.

  2. Saying volcanoes are evil would implicate that the fundamental mechanism for volcanism, plate tectonics, is also evil. Without plate tectonics, there would be no production of oceanic crust, which is relatively thin and dense, which creates deep oceans. So without volcanoes there would be no deep sea … and with no deep sea, there would be no Deep Sea News! :)

  3. Sulphates are one of the side effects of an ocean that contains excess oxygen due to an overabundance of photosynthesizers.

    What you don’t appreciate is that anoxic is the ocean’s default state. Back in the good old days, there was no dissolved O2 at all, and it is only recently that uppity phanerozoic scunge has brought deep ocean oxygen levels up.

    So the volcanoes are just resetting the system to they way things were back in htr egood old days. In that way they are just like Samuel Alito.

  4. “I’m no geologist…”


    Volcanoes have added to the fertility of soils around the world (while also killing off some of the inhabitants trying to exploit – live off the land).Good + bad = ho hum, does not equal evil. That’s a human term.

    Volcanoes just are. Deal.

  5. Lots of bitter animosity amongst blog posters. Let me solve this dispute.

    If volcanoes were animate (i.e. conscious beings), and expressed malicious intent, then they would be evil.

    Since volcanoes are inanimate (in the sense that they are NOT conscious beings) then they can’t be evil. It’d be like calling a tree good, since trees release oxygen after photosynthesis which we use to breathe.
    Sliver fox put it best… volcanoes just are! They are non-condusive to carbon based life, but so is carbon monoxide, space, Venus (the planet), knives, guns, and John McCain. But that doesn’t mean Craig’s article wasn’t amusing.

  6. Hmmmm. Sulfur isn’t a very common element in the crust, and sulfates come from the weathering of sulfur-bearing minerals in contact with an oxygen-rich atmosphere. And most of the sulfur-bearing minerals come from hot water circulating around magma. From volcanoes.

    Volcanoes give Earth’s surface lots of stuff that would otherwise be locked away. They’re a critical part of the biogeochemical cycles that include life. Break one part, and we (and our squishy deep-sea friends) are lost.

    Besides, deep-sea life evolved on a tectonically active planet. We need our earthquakes and volcanoes, even if they can also kill.

  7. This is trying to making a science out of comparing apples and oranges…and that is exactly what is wrong with theology POV’s. They categorize all things to fit under one of two labels; Good or Bad, so if something in nature isn’t deemed “good” for humans then it automatically assumes the alternative label of “bad/evil” in nature. And based on this assumption one would presume that all things, including those that occur naturally in nature, are either “Good” or “bad”… since humans did (at one point in time) form naturally out of nature… BUT seeing how “good and bad” are man made terms established by humans to explain natural man made behaviors; the labels just don’t form a relevant description of naturally occurring phenomena of this planet… AKA it’s like comparing apple and oranges.
    … However, if you want to dig deeper, one could say that the root of all “Evil” is mankind’s need to control. Meaning, subconsciously humans determine phenomena to be “good” if it understood to be within their realm of control, therefore what is perceived to be “bad/evil” is that which man cannot actually control…
    If you look at it that way, then one could explain what possessed the author to try to make a science out of comparing apples and oranges. :)

  8. I really don’t see why everyone is getting into such a lava about this. I know that the coneheads need to vent and the marines need to semper fish, and I hate to pour cold water on a good discussion, but let’s not descend into flaming one another….

  9. Mt Rainier (Tahoma to his friends) is talking to me…telling me all the bad things humans are doing that are causing His stomach to rumble….He says he feels kind of shaky on the Seattle side (that would be the side that blew out last time, ca 1300 AD).

    …Now he’s not talking for a little bit…oops.a burp…

    I’m outta here if he tells me he feels like throwing up!

    Is Mt Rainier evil?

    I think not…just a misunderstood monster, like Godzilla.

    At least He hasn’t asked me to throw any virgins in…yet!

  10. I’m no geologist either, but isn’t all that sulfur from the metabolism and weathering ultimately coming from volcanic activity in the first place?

  11. CR, thanks for initiating one of the most amusing — and informative — exchanges I’ve read in quite a while. and thanks to Maria, et al. for the equally informative comebacks. Had only been aware of just the tip of the iceberg (or volcano) in terms of the various impacts of volcanos on life and life conditions before this. :)

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