The Character of the Caldera

Greek literature is full of heroes: Achilles, Odysseus, and Zorba, just to name a few. I must admit that I initially signed up for NAU in Greece not for the opportunity to study geology, but for the chance to see and live in the land that these heroes call home. More than anything though, I came for the stories I would one day tell; I promised myself to find my muse, seize every adventure, and write every bit of it down in my travel journal. After three weeks here though, the pages of my travel journal are sparse, and instead my geological field notebook lays filled to the brim with discoveries.

I have grown so attached to my field notebook that I am spending my last night in Santorini flipping through its meticulously organized pages. Overcome with nostalgia, I cling to it, holding on to the remnants of my journey which is not yet entirely over. I stare at my stratigraphic columns, outcrop sketches, and hastily scribbled notes when a pattern emerges: foreshadowing, conflict, and climax. A narrative arc outlined in layers of pumice and ash. Suddenly, the character of the caldera emerges from the crumpled pages of my Moleskine notebook.

Title page of my field notebook.
Title page of my field notebook.

“7 June 2014
South West end of the island.
Warning layer present as well as other four phases of the Minoan eruption.”

Foreshadowing in the shape of a thin layer of tan ash fall, seven centimeters thick. Further foreshadowing comes in the form of cracked staircases at Ancient Akrotiri, likely from volcanic tremors (1). The plot emerges here, as signs of an eruption present themselves.

“10 June 2014
Pre-Departure Meeting for Ancient Akrotiri
Pots pushed up against walls to protect them, debris piled up to be removed, zero layer was not disturbed at all–people left and never returned.”

Evidence of conflict. The people of ancient Akrotiri appear to have understood the caldera’s warning. There were no human skeletons found at Akrotiri, and all evidence suggests that they left their homes in search of safer territory, never to return (1).

“14 June 2014

Santorini Eruption and its Consequences
The entire Minoan eruption likely happened in 24 hours.”

Climax. An entire island destroyed in one day. Homes, plants, bedrock, all destroyed by the awesome power of an Ultra-Plinian eruption (1).

“9 June 2014
Rough map of Santorini and Phase deposits.”
See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Rough. Map of the Minoan Eruption deposits.
Figure 1. Rough. Map of the Minoan Eruption deposits.

The aftermath and falling action of the story. While the previous morphology of the island was destroyed, a new morphology emerged. The crescent island that we know today–with steep walls of country rock topped with white volcanic deposits–literally rose out of the ashes of the former island.

“14 June 2014
Active Volcanism, Volcano Monitoring, Seismic Activity
2011-2012 Crisis
Kameni fault line experiences 50 earthquakes under 3.5 magnitude per day.
Caldera floor inflates 150 mm.
New activity suggests magma chamber is growing.”

The cliff hanger before the sequel. This new activity proves that the story of the Santorini caldera is not yet over, and the narrative is building again. Like with any good cliffhanger, it is unclear what the next eruption will look like. Volcanologists posit that the probability of an Ultra-Plinian eruption is 1/30,000 annually, while the probability of a much less devastating Sub-Plinian eruption is 1/500 annually. Unfortunately, long term forecasting is impossible, but short term forecasting promises at least some notice before another eruption.

It is here that I find my most unlikely of heroes: the caldera herself. With such capacity for destruction, some may call the caldera a villain. I, however, stand by my hero, citing her past warnings of impending doom as her redeeming quality. To me, the caldera’s destructive capabilities are her tragic flaw, like the hubris so common of characters of Greek literature.

Regardless of whether or not the caldera is a villain or a hero, her dynamic character has captivated me in a way that only the greatest heroes of literature have done before her. While I know the caldera so well–have climbed her walls, analyzed her composition, and lived with her for three weeks–I am still left guessing her next move. In the words of Sophocles though, “We will soon know better than predictions.”

Rough map of Santorini and the places our class studied during our three week stay.
Rough map of Santorini and the places our class studied during our three week stay.

Friedrich W.L., 2009, Santorini: Volcano, Natural History, & Mythology, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 312 P.

One thought on “The Character of the Caldera

  1. As always, I so enjoy your writing! A creative presentation of our 3-week studies, written with suspense, resolution, and wonder. Enjoy the rest of your travels and be safe!

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