Earth’s most furious mountains are also the most rewarding to visit.
Have you hugged a volcano lately? You should. Although we commonly perceive them as lava-spewing cones of doom, humans probably wouldn’t be here without them. Roughly 2.5 billion years ago, underwater volcanoes breached the ocean’s surface and began emitting gases like steam, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen into the air: These became the building blocks of a life-supporting atmosphere. When all that carbon dioxide dissolved into the oceans, simple cyanobacteria— which possibly evolved thanks to underwater volcanoes called black smokers—gobbled it up and released an important by-product: oxygen. So, it seems humanity owes volcanoes a debt of gratitude.
And in a way, we’ve already thanked them. Ancient cultures turned these mountains into gods and goddesses, like Vulcan, Hephaestus, and Pele. We still worship them today, but mainly by vacationing in their shadows. About 1,500 potentially active volcanoes dot the globe, each one a unique source of wonder.
(Image credit: Roger McLassus 1951)
Ash billows daily from Japan’s Sakurajima, which is so active that authorities prohibit anyone from climbing it. Sakurajima’s activity often causes “dirty thunderstorms.” When the mountain throws a tantrum, lava and rock fragments spew into the air, colliding and creating electric charges. The result? Lightning bolts streaking over an erupting cone.
(Image credit: Geoff Gallice)
Ecuador’s second highest peak hasn’t erupted for decades. That’s made Cotopaxi popular with a diverse set of adventurers, namely climbers, skiiers, and... bird-watchers. That’s partially the fault of the Ecuadorian Hillstar, a rugged species of hummingbird, that likes hanging out there.
(Image credit: Greg Willis)
Guatemala’s Pacaya is a popular tourist draw, despite the fact that it erupts with some frequency (it last blew its lid this past spring!). Volcano diehards can go on day hikes from nearby Antigua or Guatemala City and walk close enough to the lava to poke a stick in it.
(Image credit: idobi)
It takes about four hours to hike to the lip of Chile’s Villarrica, one of only five volcanoes worldwide with a lava lake in its crater. Adventurers enjoy the mountain shaking beneath their feet and can explore empty lava tubes, where molten rock left behind wormlike caves. Alternatively, you can bungee jump out of a helicopter straight into its caldera. Your choice!
5. MOUNT ETNA
(Image credit: Nikater)
Europe’s tallest active volcano, Mount Etna in Sicily is also the birthplace of volcanology. Etna inspired the Greek philosopher Empedocles to divide the world into four elements: earth, wind, water, and fire. Although Empedocles was the first person to study volcanoes, he met a rather unscientific end when he tested a weak hypothesis: He jumped into Etna’s fiery crater to prove his immortality.
6. MOUNT MAYON
(Image credit: Ghessica De Leon)
Mount Mayon is the Philippines’ most active volcano and probably the easiest to paint—the smoking cone is almost perfectly symmetrical. But good looks can be deceiving. In 1814, Mayon erupted, followed by Mount Tambora in Indonesia the next year. The two belched so much ash into the atmosphere that, in 1816, temperatures plummeted worldwide. In New England, snow fell as late as August, and people called it the Year Without a Summer.
7. CERRO NEGRO
(Image credit: Flickr user callandresponse)
The Nicaraguan city of León is surrounded by 11 volcanoes. Cerro Negro attracts the youngest crowd: It’s the world’s best place for volcano surfing. Riders coast down the black ash—which is actually sharp as nails—at speeds up to 50 mph!
(Image credit: Boaworm)
Remember when this geological boil halted air traffic over Europe in 2010? Well, today you can take helicopter rides over the scarred, blackened remains of Eyjafjal- lajökull [eye-a-fyat-la-jo-kuhl], Iceland.
The above article by Robin Escrock is reprinted with permission from the July 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine.