Wa wa Wowzer! Top 5 Volcanoes that make you go woooo!


Is it  ever right to subject volcanoes to an ‘X-Factor’ style beauty contest? Is classifying volcanic charisma mindlessly pandering to celebrity culture or a cunning means to excite interest in volcanoes and volcanology?

This is the kind of philosophical conundrum we have to grapple with at Volcanoes Top Trumps HQ.

We’re currently working with the talented but playful minds at Winning Moves Ltd to devise a new Volcanoes Top Trumps Cards and Online Game. They’re pretty happy to put up with our relentless desire to pass on exciting and interesting facts about volcanic eruptions …….

but their no.1 ‘Top Tip’ however is MAKE IT FUN! Thus the Category ‘Wow’ Factor came into existence.


So, just what is ‘Wow’ Factor? Hmmmmm….. not sure.

Largely, we found this category was a giant excuse for some really interesting arguements among scientists. It is transparently subjective and requires an instinctive response. As scientists, we like to think we don’t do that (actually we do, all the time, even at work, if you don’t believe me read this book). In the end, to make things easier and stop the squabbling about mixing numbers up with opinions we set this up as a ranking exercise for our forty-odd chosen volcanoes, using something called ‘a paired comparison’. This type of unbounded comparison was easier for some types of minds more than others. But, we made them do it anyway; that was the fun bit!

I’m not going to spoil the surprise by revealing our Top 5 Wow! Volcanoes now – nor even all of mine but it’s interesting to think about wowee zowee moments and if having those has any kind of educational or communicative value.  Here were my instinctive criteria, would they be the same as yours?

(1) Size Matters Yup. One criteria in and it’s already gone a bit tee hee. My list topper was Crater Lake.  This was caused by an eruption around 7,700 years ago that produced about 50 cubic kilometres of material. Or fifty thousand million fridges worth of magma. That is almost too big to contemplate, almost – and that’s the key with Crater Lake and it’s caldera. It’s huge but you can get your head round it when standing on the crater rim once something gives you a sense of scale. In the photo the small island is about 225 metres above the lake, that’s about the same prominence as Arthur’s Seat above Edinburgh. As one of my colleagues said ‘some of those others are just so big they blew all their wowness away…’

A picture of part of the Crater Lake caldera from the National Park. Measuring about 8km by 10km the lake reaches a max. measured depth of 594m

(2) Guaranteed Fireworks Count. Actual erupting volcano counts for a lot. It’s all very well imagining really big eruptions or watching Dante’s Peak but there is no substitute for the real thing, and close. For example: Kilauea,Etna, Yasur, Stromboli all score well here. Check out another expert’s choice  in this group of volcanoes here. However, would you rank them more WoW! (almostTM now) than the VEI7 Tambora volcano, just for that?

(3) You can’t separate out experience. One of our most logical, objective VTTers particularly hated the fact that you just can’t help scoring places you’ve actually been higher than those you haven’t. Fair enough, except I think at least 80%of us had never been to the No. 1 WOW!(nearlyTM) volcano(**) before. Explain that, Captain Logic. It was mainly true though *small voice*.

(4) Some things about volcano are absolutely not WOW!(practicallyTM). I ranked the rather lovely mountain that is Nevado del Ruiz very low in this category.; that’s not because I think its ugly, just what it did one night was. I’d just turned 16 when the 1985 eruption killed thousands of people and, like many others, the images of 13 year old Omayra Sanchez dying in front of the world’s cameras had a profound impact on me.  A photograph taken of her shortly before she died won the World Press Photo of the Year. How could we fly helicopters to cover the disaster almost instantly around the world, and yet not be able to rescue this little girl? Horrible.  We should remember in order to do better.

This also touches on something we all have to deal with as volcanologists, making sure we do science that has some impact (in even a small way), without letting our emotions (positive and negative) run away with us.

(*)A fun, interactive, mobile based game, where the player is dealt a number of volcanoes, before pitting them against an opponent – choosing a numerical stat about their volcano that they think will win.

(**) not telling

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