My first view of Santorini was from a crowded ferry deck. I had seen pictures of this place but pictures simply could not do this justice. I stood in awestruck silence taking in the scenes while enjoying the salty breeze, which was much welcomed on this scorching day. The towering cliffs of brown hues are peppered with perfectly contrasting white buildings. As I watched the scenery pass me by, I began to wonder what I would be learning in the next three weeks. I started thinking about the volcanic activity that created this island, as well as what would happen to it should there be another eruption. Would everything I see be destroyed? We sail past the old port with its winding switchbacks that make my legs tired just thinking about carrying my luggage. Thankfully our ship keeps moving toward a modern port where an air-conditioned car will be waiting to carry me, and my luggage, to the top of this steep sided caldera.
As the car slowly climbed up and up toward our home for the next three weeks, I was glued to my window trying to absorb every sound, smell, and sight around me. The sound of people honking and cars racing past, the smell of foreign food my taste buds had never experienced, and the view of the tropical blue water below us. Suddenly I came to the realization that this island of paradise would not look like this forever.
The five-island archipelago of Santorini brings in 500,000 tourists each year. The very thing, which created this mesmerizing destination spot, will inevitably change Santorini again. Volcanic activity, more specifically cataclysmic caldera-forming eruptions, created the landscape of Santorini that I am standing on right now. As I sit here and think about the island being anything other than what it is now, it makes me feel sentimental. I want to keep it this way forever so other people can come and share my experiences and memories.
In just three weeks I have fallen in love with Santorini. I have made friends here, I have a favorite beach, and I know my favorite dinner spot. One day the people who come to this island might see none of those places because any part of the island could potentially be destroyed by another eruption. It makes it feel like I need to cherish my time here even more, enjoying the island the way it is while I still can.
The best view for the sunset is an open space in the heart of the town, surrounded by shops and lively street performers, where I can sit on a bench and watch the sun turn the clouds pink as it dips below the horizon. Watching the sun sink behind the small, yet powerful new volcano, Nea Kameni, reminds me that this beautiful place is also capable of complete destruction. Nea Kameni is an active dome complex to the west of the main island of Thera that began to form in 197 BC.
Figure 1: The view from Fira of Nea Kameni (left) and Therasia (right). Taken from a spot where one could sit, out of danger, and potentially watch a lava flow happening on Nea Kameni.
Scientists know Nea Kameni is still active because from January of 2011 to May of 2012 they saw signs of activity, leading to a crisis period for Santorini. They detected up to 50 small earthquakes a day, ground inflation (meaning there was magma coming toward to surface), and highly spiked sea surface temperatures (meaning there was a heat source changing the water temperature that was not present before). Since the volcano is active, there is bound to be another eruption. We need only wonder when, and how big it will be. In the event of volcanic activity, many associated hazards will destroy the way the island looks now. These hazards include tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, and eruptions on Nea Kameni .
The first beach we went to, and also my favorite, was Kamari. The shore is made up of a shallow gradient, allowing beach goers to wade into the water. Off to the right are towering cliffs that hold Ancient Thira high above the water. The black sand warmed by the sun that is so welcoming to me after a dip in the chilly water, will surely be washed away should a tsunami occur in the future. Unfortunately, the beach is not protected at all because it is so close to sea level. This makes it great for swimming, but is a recipe for disaster during tsunami activity. The only protection offered is the cliff toward the edge of the beach, but even still the defense is very minimal. The only thing the cliffs are good for as far as Kamari is concerned, is providing a place for daring vacationers to jump into the water.
Kamari’s location on the island makes it extremely susceptible to tsunamis, which is disappointing because I had the time of my life spending all day getting sunburnt, making new friends and drifting off to sleep surrounded by the sound of laughter and waves crashing. These are the memories I will cherish and the ones that generations after me will not be so lucky to experience when the island goes through another landscape change.
Figure 2: Kamari beach is defenseless against a tsunami because of how close to sea level it is and the lack of any sort of barrier to protect it.
Another location threatened by a tsunamis is the tavern where my classmates and I went for dinner late one night on the southern tip of the island near ancient Akrotiri. This tavern holds one of my most favorite memories from this trip. Shortly after a spectacular dinner filled with new foods and good wine, the chef started moving tables out the way to create a space to dance. The night was spent laughing and clapping along to Greek music while watching people dance, and even trying some moves ourselves. Nothing but smiles all night from everyone, a night where we truly felt alive and happy.
Nestled into a cave right along the shore, this spot is locals only, no tourist would ever be able to find it on their own. Its location is a blessing a curse, we had a secluded dinner, but a tsunami generated by volcanic or seismic activity would send a wave crashing against the shore and engulfing this perfect dinner spot. The memory of that night will last forever in my mind, but the tavern won’t.
I remember one day we were going on a hike for our time in the field. On our trek we walked past a gorgeous bed and breakfast called the Architects Villa. I admired the perfectly blue swimming pool, where guests could practically swim up to the edge of the caldera rim. I would not mind waking up in the morning and walking out of my hotel room to be greeted by a gentle breeze and a view of the Aegean.
The serene feeling makes you believe nothing bad could ever happen here, but this charming Villa is built on the Coloumbos line. I stood above this huge gash in the rock, picking out the features that made it clear that this was a fault. The offset in the rocks, meaning matching layers of rock that were once a continuous band, had shifted up or down by normal faulting. To me this was an obvious fault, I stood there imagining the destruction it could cause, but the architect never stopped to think about why the ground looked like this. He just built his Villa there anyway. Building on a fault line means that seismic activity would trigger landslides that crumble the picturesque bed and breakfast and send it tumbling a couple hundred meters down the side of the caldera rim.
Some of the beaches we visited on the southern part of the island are composed of considerably loose material like ash and pumice. We went to red beach, which is the exposed inside of a cinder cone. The material here because it is all cinders, is so unconsolidated that an earthquake, a large storm, or even normal conditions like wind and gravity driven rock fall would cause landslides that bury beaches and property. Vlychada is another beach that we went to where the composition of ash and pumice is loose and the danger of landslides is considerably higher. These places could be destroyed forever by even minimal activity from Nea Kameni.
My classmates and I spent a few hours walking around Nea Kameni toward the end of our trip. I spent a large portion of our time on this day trying to fully grasp the concept that I was standing on an active volcano. One day this dome will erupt again. Whether it be a slow lava flow that one could watch calmly from Thera with no threat, or Vulcanian eruptions (steam eruptions) that can cause a need for evacuations. One day my footsteps on Nea Kameni will be buried by new lava flows.
Figure 3: Our group walking around the active Nea Kameni dome complex, distinguishing between new(the darker material in the upper left) and old (the surface we were walking on) lava flows and looking for evidence that it is still active.
It’s an ominous feeling knowing that the places I went on this island could be wiped away so easily. It’s upsetting to think that one day the tavern we danced at, where everyone was so happy and full of life could be washed into the ocean. The beach I spent day after day tanning and studying on could be buried by a wave. The beautiful Villa that I admired could be crumbled to pieces. But along with feeling downhearted, I feel lucky. I am lucky that I was chosen to come on this trip and I am lucky that I got to experience all those places on the island while I still could. So the island will continue to change, the way it always has and new people will come and go. Its even possible that a thousand years in the future, a geology class will be on a field trip to a completely different Santorini learning about what it looked like in 2016.