Standing at the stern of the ferry, I look out at the seemingly infinite depth of the Aegean. Taking cues from the wind, the invincible ocean dances calmly yet furiously beneath the boat. As though gasping for air, the waves rise and fall and crash into one another. When I first encountered this ferry, I remember thinking that it was the biggest thing I had ever seen. But as I watched the endless expanse of blue pass by, I couldn’t help but feel small and completely insignificant…
Before too long, I am torn away from my trance because all of the sudden there is more than just abstract blue before me. At last, I can see the famous Santorini caldera rim and Kameni domes protruding from the sea. This five-island archipelago is a work of art, painted with the many colors of desolation and transformation. As I looked out at the fragmented remnants of millions of years of history, I couldn’t keep a smile off my face or curiosity out of my head. The eight-hour ferry ride had instantly become 150% worth it.
Pointed out to me from the ferry (though I couldn’t really see it at the time), one of the old caldera rims is preserved in the present day rim. “Old caldera rim? The caldera rim is already old, what are you talking about?” I thought to myself as I squinted my (untrained) eyes and looked across the bay. Though the words were English, they might as well have been Greek; not completely foreign to me but I could only understand a handful of it.
I am not a geologist but during this class I’ve been nothing but. In my experience, the best characteristic to have as a geologist is astute observational skills. If you don’t look at everything, you will miss something vital to the story. For the past few weeks, our classroom has been quarries, capes, hiking trails, active volcanoes and boats where everything is significant and almost nothing is obvious to the untrained eye.
I came to Greece with very little knowledge of geology and even less of volcanology but three rocky weeks later I stand in the center of the caldera overwhelmed (in a good way) by the world surrounding me and am able tell you about the different colors and textures and what they mean. Similarly, Santorini began as just two little islands of limestone and metamorphic rock (called basement rock). Thrust up from the sea by normal faults 50 to 20 million years ago, these two islands evolved (with twelve major explosions and four caldera-forming eruptions) into today’s breathtaking Santorini. With extensive notes on all things volcanoes, sunscreen generously applied, and just a teaspoon of confidence (but an entire bucket full of excitement), my journey to the center of the caldera began.
The most beautiful town I’ve ever had the privilege of exploring is pure white save for the constellation of blue dome roofs that top Greek Orthodox churches. Oia sits on the edge of the world and paints the most colorful picture of the caldera as the sun sinks into the horizon. It’s wild to think that less than two miles to the east there lives a volcano that completely changed the shape of Santorini 67,000 years ago.
Skaros shield volcano is built from successive, layering lava flows. When you look at the northern part of today’s Santorini, you can see these lava flows in cross section. And then they just stop for no apparent reason. Unless you have a trained eye, that is. I think about it like this: when you pour water into a pot to boil your macaroni, does the water go through the sides of the pot? No, it stays in the pot because there are walls there to contain it. The fact that the lava flows stop so suddenly means that there was a wall there to keep the flows in – an old caldera rim (see figure 2).
As I hiked up Nea Kameni in the center of the caldera two days ago, I looked across the bay and saw the old rim. My (newly) trained eye can see into the past. I took a deep breath and let the epiphany, that I didn’t think I’d have just weeks earlier on the ferry, wash over me. I came to this island not as a tourist like most, but rather a student determined to learn the “how’s” and “why’s” of Santorini. I knew that many destructive processes built Santorini, but it hit me like a brick wall when I could see part of the world it once was. It made me realize that one day, the Santorini I’ve fallen madly in love with will be gone and a new one will rise out of its ashes (or on top of its ash?).
In two days when I’m flying back over the Aegean, I won’t look out the window of the plane and see just abstract blue anymore. I won’t feel small and insignificant in comparison. I’ve learned a lot about volcanology, Greek language and culture (I’ve studied their cuisine intensely), and a lot about myself in the last three weeks. But I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned here is that Santorini is the epitome of life. We start small, we grow, we break, and we build ourselves back up. Through all its destruction and tragedy, Santorini is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I feel so incredibly lucky to live in this time; a time when Santorini is built up and ready to face anything. And as you can see in figure 3, I am also ready to face anything.