Four massive caldera-forming eruptions and 200,000 years later, the island of Santorini takes its modern and familiar shape. The pioneers of NAU in Greece have had the opportunity to observe and research first hand the most recent of these eruptions, and possibly the most significant: the Minoan. We have scaled the caldera rim at Cape Plaka, trekked to the top of Mt. Profitias Illias, hiked the entire northern region of the island to Oia, and explored the Akrotiri ruins just to get a glimpse into the past. When the entire island of Thera had been diligently and meticulously observed, we left to Nea Kameni, the resurgent shield volcano in the center of the caldera to explore some more.
The Minoan eruption created geological hazards that robbed the preexisting island of its ancient inhabitants and their culture. Thera was crucial for the trade of goods from neighboring islands, and housed one of the most advanced civilizations in history. It is thought that the destructive properties of this super volcano wiped out the entire city in just 24 hours (Minoura et al, 2000). In just one day and one night of misfortune, over 80 meters of volcanic material was deposited, and a landscaped plummeted into the sea.
When the volcanoes within a volcanic complex (a group of volcanoes within close proximity to each other) simultaneously erupt, the result is usually devastating to the surrounding landscape and country rock. The magma chamber (location of magma below the earth’s surface) feeding the entirety of the complex empties, leaving behind nothing but a sink hole. It acts as a vacuum and sucks the landscape into the ground. The magma chamber abruptly fills with country rock and remnants of once active volcanoes, creating a depression on the earth’s surface. The Minoan eruption did just this after exhausting its magma chamber and dumping 30-60 cubic kilometers of material on the surrounding island.
I began to recreate the eruption in my mind. First I hear the rumble of seismic activity, I see the hot ash ejected from the vent begin to fall, and the pumice blankets the ground. Surges of ash then pumice then ash again violently intrude in the crevices of the ground. Pyroclastic flows (mixtures of gas, steam and rock) roll over the topography of the land dropping volcanic debris; heavier fragments first then lighter. Large boulders from the interior of the volcano’s vent ballistically fly through the sky and land in a bed of previously deposited material. Built into the historical outcrop I see a modern day church. I can’t help but be taken aback by the sight. An ancient catastrophe posing as a present day accommodation.
Understanding Santorini’s violent past and comparing it to its present day self, intrigues me and prompts me to think of the concept of progression. A once uninhabitable landscape, proceeding the Minoan eruption, is now known for its captivating appearance. What was once just a pile of volcanic rubble, is now one of the most beautiful and established islands in the world. I was fortunate enough to witness this progression first hand. With every bed we examined, at each location we explored, I mentally reassembled the destruction while physically touching its resurrection. The Minoan eruption created the island’s shape and gave it its pumice capped topography.
People from around the world flock to Santorini because of its unique wine, buildings perched on a 300 meter cliff over hanging the Aegean, the colorful cliff side view of the entire island and geologic excursions to the “volcano”. All of these attractions can be attributed to the Minoan eruption. The volcano that once destroyed an advanced culture, created a landscape susceptible to a new thriving society.
I reflected on the adventure that I and my fellow pioneers just participated in. As our time on the island came to an end, I reminisced on the first day we arrived. We looked up starry eyed at the caldera walls, knowing close to nothing about the island. We weren’t yet the pioneers, because we had conquered nothing. Friendships weren’t conceived yet and we were unsure of the outcome of this journey.
The ferry departs and I look up the caldera one last time. Our expectations of the knowledge we would gain from this trip were enhanced as waves of information exponentially grew taller, flooding our previous standards. What stunned us all was the realization that this cultivated, aggregated, touristed, established and thriving island we called home for three weeks was at one point a desolate bowl of ash. The juxtaposition of Santorini’s progression as an island, with the progression of the pioneers as a group is striking. The caldera and the class, seemingly random, pose as a reflection of each other.