Wednesday, December 19, 2007

John McPhee on Stopping Volcanic Lava

In 1988, McPhee published a two-part essay on what was the only successful human intervention to divert flowing volcanic lava (to that date, at least - don't know if this has changed): a battle waged in 1973 by Icelanders to keep lava flowing out of a new volcano from filling up a key harbor. They did this by spraying the flowing lava with water. Cooled lava formed hard walls, which would direct, to some extent, new lava flows.

And if that sounds easy, it wasn't. McPhee is clear that the victory was equivocal -- though they saved the harbor, they lost much of the town (buried under many feet of new, cooling rock); many inhabitants fled the island, never to return; and in many ways they were just plain lucky.

There are some amazing descriptions though, of what it was like to be up on top of the flow, working on a thin skin of barely-cooled lava with pipes, hoses, and bulldozers amid clouds of steam-fog, while being pelted with falling ash (think hot pea gravel that can cut skin and leave burns) and lava "bombs" -- just-solidified rock with molten cores that often exploded -- falling around them that sometimes weighed as much as a third of a ton.

A large part of these operations -- including, eventually, the coordination of the pumping crews -- was directed by the Icelandic fire chief of the American base at Keflavik ... This was a slender man of deceptively mild aspect, vaguely professorial, appearing like a genie through his own pipe smoke. He sometimes wore a uniform, with stripes that suggested military rank, but he was an Icelander, not a soldier, and in any case, no width or number of stripes could ever have conveyed the status he acquired on the island. Sent by the Civil Defense to help in the emergency, he quickly assumed command of one unit after another, until his de-facto rank had outflown eagles and was far into the stars. His name was Sveinn Eiriksson, but no one much used it. On Heimaey, in the battle, he was known universally as Patton.
--From John McPhee's "The Control of Nature: Cooling the Lava." The New Yorker, February 22, 1988, p. 51, later collected in The Control of Nature.

The essay was originally published in two parts, in the February 22nd and February 29th issues of The New Yorker. The second half is much weaker than the first, as the narrative falters and McPhee includes random anecdotes that appear to be taken straight from his unedited notes. (Hard as it is to imagine, somebody at The New Yorker fell asleep at the wheel.) Reading this piece reminded me that as much as I admire McPhee for his restless curiosity, and the way in which he's able to make the unusual, obscure, and mundane interesting and educational, he's not a very good editor of his own work. The guy blurts it onto the page, shapes some of it, and then he's off to the next assignment. That said, I'll keep reading him -- I rather welcome his periodic eruptions.

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