When I was an undergraduate I had atypical habits. I didn't just buy the books on the geology course reading list, but I also enjoyed browsing in the library and bookshop for related (and unrelated) titles that might be of interest. One of the volumes not on my reading list that I bought and enjoyed was Volcanoes (Francis, 1976), which is still on my bookshelf and cost only £2.00, although that was 35 years ago. Now, Rosaly Lopes has written a new, inexpensive guide to volcanoes for a modern audience.

A comparison of Lopes and Francis is relevant. Both entice the potential reader with lurid cover photographs of volcanic eruptions. Francis's book is easily the heavyweight; it is over twice as long as Lopes and also being produced on higher quality paper (they are almost of equal thickness). But I value Lopes's book as a way for the non-expert like myself to get up to speed on modern concepts of volcanology. It is readable, well-illustrated, covers the meat of the subject without recourse to excessive jargon and slips neatly into a jacket pocket for reading on the train to work; I am sure a book that is easy to carry will be read by many.

In the years since I read Francis's book, much has happened. A large part of Lopes's book is devoted to extra-terrestrial volcanism, black and white smokers are discussed and it provided my first exposure to the Volcano Explosivity Index. But much of the fascination, for this reviewer, is the explanations of historic terrestrial eruptions to which, I am pleased to say, about a third of the book is devoted. A brief bibliography for each of these occurrences would have been welcomed by interested readers like me; the bibliography is too short and top-heavy with general volumes on volcanoes. For example, what of the two readable accounts of the Mont Pelée published for the centenary of the 1902 eruption (Scarth, 2002; Zebrowski, 2002)?

Some of my own confusion at some places in the text could have been prevented by a little more light editing. For example, when discussing volcanism of the outer solar system, the size of Ganymede is quoted as a radius (p. 129), Titan as a diameter (p. 130) and Triton as a radius (p. 136). I had to keep leafing back and forth to compare sizes. And the text doesn't quite make sense in places, such as ‘Titan's atmosphere may have begun as ammonia (NH3)…. The ammonia was later converted to nitrogen (N2) by ultraviolet photolysis and escaped as hydrogen to space’ (p. 132). Perhaps wistfully, I read that ‘… the Moon, Mars and some asteroids are the only extra-terrestrial bodies where human exploration [of space] is likely to happen, at least for the next few decades’ (p. 143); that sentence could have been written 40 years ago, since which time man hasn't even been back to the Moon.

Almost anyone can enjoy reading Lopes's fine book. I particularly recommend it for first year undergraduates who will appreciate discovering something of frontiers of geology that usually are saved for the final year. But anyone can find something of interest in Lopes. Just slip it into your pocket for you next train journey.


  1. Top of page
  • Francis, P. 1976. Volcanoes. Penguin: Harmondsworth, Middlesex; 368.
  • Scarth, A. 2002. La Catastrophe: Mount Pelée and the Destruction of Saint-Pierre, Martinique. Terra Publishing: Harpenden; x+246.
  • Zebrowski, E., Jr. 2002. The Last Days of St. Pierre: the Volcanic Disaster that claimed Thirty Thousand Lives. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick; x+291.