Review: Eruption, Steve Olson

Rating: 5 out of 5

High praise for this! Not only did Mr Olson give a thorough overview of the story of (European) human population in the Northwest, but there was a solid coverage of the geologic, economic and environmental history as well. Now, one might wonder why I am emphasising the non-geological aspects here as a volcanic eruption is primarily of course a natural disaster and associated with this discipline. I assure you, however, that I have good reason to do so!

Firstly, the primary interest to many reading will be the human loss of life incurred during the eruption and this needs explaining in both why the economic interest existed to reduce the forests to nothing and in why the time of the eruption on Sunday was instrumental in ensuring a low body count.

Secondly, the geologic — though of paramount interest to some, including myself — will make in itself a worse story. This is especially because nearly always, everything we know or able to describe about the past is based on incomplete models. There are no direct observations and everything — the thickness of the ash layers, the distance from the volcano to which these are noted — can be realised as facts and yet their importance disagreed on by the various scientists.

The environmental or conservationist history was compelling as it stemmed from John Muir and other people whose works I have investigated in more depth recently. It is also true that other than some very basic goals, different people support conserving areas for different reasons.

What, however, hit the nail on the head was the epilogue — Cascadia is at a danger, both from volcanoes and earthquakes, and the area is unprepared. It is of little use to have a tsunami warning system if the major population centres are built to standards that the earthquake would demolish. I wish, indeed, that the book had harped on about this a bit more. A predicted death toll of 1600 people in Seattle doesn’t sound realistic in case of a magnitude 9 earthquake though of course that doesn’t take into account Oregon. BC, Washington and Oregon have some work to do, to guarantee that their populations could sleep in peace.

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