Picture Disaster

The Stromboli volcano, off the north coast of Sicily, which has been almost continually erupting for 20,000 years

We’re all glued to the television in voyeuristic horror when disaster strikes, and there’s been plenty of incidents already this year to strike our imagination: a volcano in Iceland, an earthquake in Haiti, and the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history with the BP oil spill.

You know what I’m talking about. Doesn’t this do something to you? The oil slick is headed right into a wildlife refuge.

Well, how did past generations who didn’t have television or a camera depict those dramatic moments in living geologic history? Through art, of course.

I don’t normally do book reviews, but since this is topical, it’s worth a mention. The Illustrated History of Natural Disasters was released recently, a book cataloging depictions of famous disasters from the antiquity to modern times. The images are largely from private collections, gathered by a pair of senior research scientists at the Geophysical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Jan Kozák and Vladimír Čermák.

Oil on water has many appearances. In this photo-image, acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite on June 7, 2010, at least part of the oil slick is pale gray. A large area of oil is southeast of the Mississippi Delta, at the site of the leaking British Petroleum well. Traces of thick oil are also visible farther north. Not all of the oil that is in the Gulf is visible here. The image shows regions of heavy oil where the oil smooths the surface and reflects more light than the surrounding water. Lighter concentrations and streamers are not visible. Credit: NASA Goddard MODIS Rapid Response/Holli Riebeek

According to the authors, the paintings and drawings have played an influential role in shaping the field of geology and introduce the reader to the development of a modern view on the Earth’s processes. The book includes views of earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, avalanches, landslides, and rock falls, with explanations about the historical background of the disasters and the geophysical processes at play.

With climate change imparting the potential for future natural disasters, it’s worth considering how disasters of the past affected the people who lived through them and their view of the world. The mega volcano in Indonesia 74,000 years ago supposedly wiped out nearly the entire human population at the time. In those days, humans were at the whim of natural forces, rather than the notable cause of change.

In more recent history, people were able to describe and document through written words and images their accounts of disaster, starting with the ancient Greek philosophers who came up with the theory that the universe was composed of four primary elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Volcanic catastrophes at Mout Etna, Vesuvius, and underwater eruption near Sumatra in the 6th Century, which caused a huge tsunami wave, all contributed to an early understanding of the natural world. The authors write:

“It is necessary to stress that all ancient and early medieval reports had a strictly descriptive character, mostly based on subjective speculation. Nevertheless, one has to appreciate these attempts, at least for the fact that for their explanation the interpreters had to look below the Earth’s surface no matter how much their accessibility was limited.”

The images are startling, and provoke a sense of compassion for what earlier generations have gone through. Yet they are also a reminder that disaster is not over, and our place on the planet is still precarious.