Yesterday, I had the opportunity to do something so unique that I hope to never forget. I have spent these past three weeks on the most beautiful volcanic island wondering how the active part of the volcano, Nea Kameni, was formed. My journey to learn more about Nea Kameni began at 9 in the morning when the class met outside of Lisa’s room to drive to Oia. Everyone was slightly grumpy from the early time but there was a buzz in the air from everyone’s excitement. It was FINALLY boat day. Boat day, in my opinion, is the most hyped up and exciting day of the whole trip. From getting to spend 6 hours on a boat on the open water, to walking on an active volcano, it was easily the best and most eye opening day of the trip.
We got to the port after about 25 minutes of driving on the narrow roads with busses screaming past us with inches to spare. Lisa parked the van far up on the hill and we all piled out onto the road. People grumbled quietly to themselves about how we would have to walk up the hill at the end of the day, but I didn’t care. I was ready to get on that boat and get out on the open water.
The walk down to the port was long but the brilliant blue water crashing against the rocks and boats was a soothing sound. Once we all made it down the hill and met at the port, dramamine was passed around and almost everyone took some. I don’t get seasick but the water was so choppy that I decided to take some in order to not test my fate of getting sick.
The only thing we knew about our boat was that it was small. Some of the students were hoping we would be on one of the yachts that was pulling up to the dock. Eventually, at around 10:15 am, our boat docks at the port. It is a cute little wooden boat that is being flung around in the choppy water. Lisa looked back at us with a huge smile on her face and instantly I knew that it would be a great boat ride and fantastic day.
We got out on the water and started heading south towards the north side of Nea Kameni. The boat was rocking in the waves and as we got about half way to the volcano everyone on board had been splashed by the ice cold water. There wasn’t much talking as the 15 of us stared out across the open water at the islands looming closer in front of us. The salty spray from the sea and the excited beating of my heart, as we sailed closer to Nea Kameni, made it all so much more real. We were going to be walking up an active volcano, something I had been looking forward to for months.
As we sailed across the water between Oia and Nea Kameni, I marveled in the wonder that rose out of the sea so long ago. At some point during the course of the class I learned that Nea Kameni began forming in 197 BC. We sailed closer and I saw the jagged black rocks covering almost every surface I could see, beginning to tower above us with steep sides. While all the rocks were jagged, the larger black rocks were more jagged and the smaller, lighter rocks were less jagged. As we pulled in closer I could see that there were plants in some places but not others but I did not know why. I wasn’t sure why the rocks were different colors and sized in certain places and why plants were only growing in some places because I thought Nea Kameni formed in one eruption.
As we pulled up to the dock on Nea Kameni, there were already at least 4 boats there. Since there was no room for us to come up right along the crowded dock, we stopped by another boat and had to climb up and across that boat to get onto the island. Once on the island we walked up the stairs from the small port and stood in line to pay our 2.50 euro to get into the park.
Immediately from the moment we stepped on the volcano I could tell that my previous idea of the island was not correct. I stood there for a minute and remembered the class the night before when Lisa had us count how many lava flows it looked like made up Nea Kameni. We had counted 9 or 10 different lava flows on the Google map, but I was skeptical that it would look different in person. From up close I could see that some areas of the island were different colors than others and had different rocks and plants than others.
Going into this, I knew Nea Kameni was a dome volcano. Domes are formed when the magma has been sitting under the earth’s crust in the magma chamber for a long time. The magma begins to change chemically in composition the longer it sits. When the pressure builds up enough, a crack opens in the crust and the magma begins to squeeze out through it creating a dome like shape. In the flows the outside cools faster than the inside.
Lisa pulled out her geologic map of the island and began pointing out where we were relative to the different eruptions of the volcano. Standing in the hot sun with a wonderful breeze providing some level of comfort, I learned that the older lava flow deposits were not only lighter in color from weathering but plants and grasses were able to grow on them which was not the case of the younger flows. With this little sliver of information, I was instantly able to put the area around me in chronological order, without actual dates of course. It helped me piece together in my mind how Nea Kameni formed. Another neat thing I learned from looking at all of the different lava flows, was that Nea Kameni was not a single dome or lava flow. It is made up from many domes and lava flows, making it a dome complex.
As we walked along the trail it became more and more apparent to me which parts of the island were newer and which were older. By looking at the geologic map, I was able to orient myself on the island and in the different eruptions. The first eruption was in 197 BC with eruptions continuing through 1950, just 66 years ago. In the image below you can see the different eruptions labeled and where they are oriented on the island.
We continued to walk up the steep trail, loose pieces of rock under our feet, eyes down on the ground in an attempt to not trip. Once we finally stopped and looked up at this new area, the smell of rotten eggs suddenly washed over us. Lisa began talking but it took a few seconds for my body to adjust to the lack of clean air around me. She was pointing down at the ground a few meters below us where gas was coming up out of a small crack in the ground.
Finally adjusting to the smell, the class was able to discuss and come up with the answer that what we were smelling was sulfur. I remember standing there thinking back to class the night before when we learned that H2S, or Hydrogen sulfide, was one of the gases that comes up out of fumaroles. Fumaroles are the holes that open up in the ground at or around volcanoes and the gases that escape from those holes. In the case of this volcano, the vent we happened to be standing by was in a crater.
Hold up. A crater? Why would there be a crater if it was just lava flows and domes being formed? In Geologic Disasters I learned that domes don’t even have explosions let alone craters. This new idea that dome volcanoes could have craters was completely challenging my prior knowledge. Lisa proceeded to explain how there was an eruption in 1925 that was an explosion and it created a crater created by a buildup of gases from the hydrothermal system that built up and caused an explosion. The explosion created ash, lots of steam, and ballistically threw blocks of rock outward in every direction.
After taking in the views and eating lunch on top of the active volcano, (which was definitely something to check off my bucket list), we fought the crowds to get back down to the port. While we were at the center of the island, many more boats had come in and there were hoards of people wandering around in tour groups. A couple passed me discussing the mining of the volcano, which is not true at all, but it made me think how uninformed the majority of the people walking around Nea Kameni were. After taking Geologic disasters, I am able to see past the uninformed assumptions people make about their surroundings in nature and know the science behind the event that happened.
We eventually made it back to the boat after slipping and sliding down the steep sides of the volcano. After climbing back across boats (three this time), we made it to our little wooden boat. As we sailed away from the port and around to the other side of the island, I found myself marveling in the wonder that is Nea Kameni. With my new knowledge I was able to picture the forming of Nea Kameni and how each of the flows that made it up was similar but different through time. When we sailed in to the port in Oia, burned from the hot sun and covered in salt, I took one look back at Nea Kameni and wished that I could one day see it erupt once more.