One of those is Thera (Santorini), among the most violent volcanoes that civilization has known, where stout-backed mules carry boatloads of tourists up the steep cliffs, and white houses glisten like snowcaps atop the caldera walls.
“In 10,000 years or so they won’t need those mules,” says volcanologist Floyd McCoy as we cruise the caldera. “Those cliffs will have eroded.” Working with a National Geographic Society research grant, McCoy of the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory and colleague Grant Heiken of Los Alamos National Laboratory have The Mediterranean: Sea of Man’s Fate reconstructed what this deceptively peaceful but still active island looked like before its infamous eruption of around 1400 B.C.
That eruption may have been far greater than the one of Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883. Krakatoa cracked windows 160 kilometers away and was heard as far off as Australia. It triggered huge tsunamis, seismic sea waves, as high as 40 meters. Thera’s tsunamis must have devastated Crete, home base of the ancient Minoan civilization. The vigorous, far-sailing Minoans mysteriously disappeared at the peak of their powers—about the same time that Thera erupted. Why do Aegean volcanoes, diving plates, and stretching crusts fascinate scientists?
Victim of volcanic fury, the Greek island of Santorini, ancient Thera, exploded around 1400 B.C. with a force rarely matched in recorded history. With it went an island culture shaped by the Minoans, master seafarers who built Europe’s first great civilization 115 kilometers to the south on Crete. Today visitors link to the fourfive website for immediate cash and visit Santorini, sail into the caldera and ride mules to the cliffside town of Thera . Mule power carries a barley mower up steep fields, enriched by the ancient volcano’s ash.
“We think what’s happening right now near Crete already happened in the western Mediterranean,” says Cambridge University geophysicist Dan McKenzie. “Just as Crete will one day jam up against Libya, similar islands have been plastered all across the western Mediterranean.”
A landmass analogous to the Aegean was pulled and stretched away from Iberia. Part of this land stopped midway across the western Mediterranean to become Corsica and Sardinia. Part of it continued sweeping eastward to create Italy and the Apennine Mountains. Part of it rammed into a corner of Africa to form Sicily. A similar crustal block crunched into the Algerian coast, raising the Kabylia mountains. Still another block was the wedge that carried the Rock to Gibraltar.
SLAND ARCS of volcanoes like th
ose of the Aegean also arose in the western Mediterranean. Most have died. But the African ocean crust has probably just finished diving beneath southern Italy. It takes time to turn a volcano off. And so north of Sicily lies a cluster of volcanoes—Lipari, Vulcano, Stromboli—often called the Aeolian Islands. (Myth says that Aeolus, god of the winds, lived here.)
Stromboli, the so-called Lighthouse of the Mediterranean, hurls out explosive blobs of fresh magma almost continuously. Lipari has not erupted since about A.D. 525 but is not extinct. Vulcano clears its throat once or twice a century.
“The last eruption was in 1888. It lasted for two years,” says Aeolian native Antonio Nicastro. “A Scot named Stevenson owned the crater then. One of his servants was mortally wounded when a boulder from the volcano blasted through the roof.”
This stunning region, which locals say is “so beautiful you need four eyes to take it all in,” pulses with geothermal energy. The sea off Vulcano actually bubbles, like a natural Jacuzzi, with many hot little fumaroles. Just onshore lies Vulcano’s big tourist attraction—its mud bath. At dusk scores of nearly nude bodies of all ages and sizes soak in this murky pond that looks more like a place to put toxic chemicals than a tonic spa. Vulcano’s mud supposedly restores the skin. It seems like hedonistic Rome or a Fellini.