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Living With Volcanoes

The Plus Side of Volcanoes
Fertile Soils

Image, Mount Jefferson, Oregon
Mount Jefferson, Oregon, as seen from the east.
USGS Photograph taken on October 5, 1984, by Lyn Topinka.
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Volcanic materials ultimately break down and weather to form some of the most fertile soils on Earth, cultivation of which has produced abundant food and fostered civilizations. -- Excerpt from: Tilling, 1985, Volcanoes: USGS General Interest Publication

Volcanoes can clearly cause much damage and destruction, but in the long term they also have benefited people. Over thousands to millions of years, the physical breakdown and chemical weathering of volcanic rocks have formed some of the most fertile soils on Earth. In tropical, rainy regions, such as the windward (northeastern) side of the Island of Hawaii, the formation of fertile soil and growth of lush vegetation following an eruption can be as fast as a few hundred years. Some of the earliest civilizations (for example, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman) settled on the rich, fertile volcanic soils in the Mediterranean-Aegean region. Some of the best rice-growing regions of Indonesia are in the shadow of active volcanoes. Similarly, many prime agricultural regions in the western United States have fertile soils wholly or largely of volcanic origin. -- Excerpt from: Kious and Tilling, 1996, This Dynamic Earth: The Story of Plate Tectonics: USGS General Interest Publication

The Earth's crust, on which we live and depend, is in large part the product of millions of once-active volcanoes and tremendous volumes of magma that did not erupt but instead cooled below the surface. Such persistent and widespread volcanism has resulted in many valuable natural resources throughout the world. For example, volcanic ash blows over thousands of square kilometers of land increases soil fertility for forests and agriculture by adding nutrients and acting as a mulch. -- Excerpt from: Brantley, 1994, Volcanoes of the United States: USGS General Interest Publication

Given enough rainfall, areas buried by new lava recover quickly; revegetation can begin less than one year after the eruption. Erosion and breakdown of the volcanic material can form fertile soils over periods of tens to thousands of years. These rich soils fostered the agricultural development of the Hawaiian Islands, as represented principally by the sugar, pineapple, coffee, and macadamia nut industries. -- Excerpt from: Tilling, Heliker, and Wright, 1987, Eruptions of Hawaiian Volcanoes: Past, Present, and Future: USGS General Interest Publication

Auckland's (New Zealand) Volcanoes are of special significance to the region. Auckland Volcanoes are places where Maori made their living spaces and used the steep sided cones as part of fortified sites or pa. Maori used the valuable rich volcanic soil to grow food producing vegetables for the early Auckland settlement. The fields surrounding Mt Wellington, the Panmure Basin and Mangere Mountain were important for food production until the 1960's when urban development saw most of the crops replaced by industrial and commercial uses. -- Excerpt from: The Volcanoes of Auckland Website, June 2001

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07/13/09, Lyn Topinka