Nova: Killer Volcanoes. Wednesday, October 25, 9 p.m.
After two wretchedly solid months of hurricanes, everybody who lives on the U.S. coast anywhere east of New Mexico will welcome a chance to wallow in somebody else's misery at the hands of nature. Which makes Killer Volcanoes, an episode of the PBS science series Nova, perfectly timed. The hell with tropical depressions and vortex fixes! We salute you, magma chambers and explosive caldera eruptions!
Admittedly, I may be showing signs of post-Irma stress disorder. But Killer Volcanoes is an interesting piece of work, the tale of a hunt for the source of a monstrous 13th-century eruption so cataclysmic it would eventually claim the lives of about a fifth the population of a European capital half a world away.
The story begins in the 1980s, when British archeologists excavating what they thought was an ancient Roman cemetery—Brit fascination with Roman mortuary science is as endless and inexplicable as their conviction that offal is the foundation of gourmet cuisine—discovered mass, unmarked graves containing 4,000 or so skeletons. Radiocarbon dating placed their deaths around 1250 AD, several hundred years past the Romans, but also a hundred or so years before the next most logical suspect, the black plague.
From there, Killer Volcanoes assumes the trappings of a noir-tinged CSI episode. Somebody remembers an ancient British monk's description—not on his deathbed, unfortunately; nobody was reading Agatha Christie yet—of a frigid summer around that time that triggered a famine that killed 15,000 people in London, something like a fifth of the city. Other reports surface of lethally cold weather across Europe and even into Japan.
The most likely culprit for anything like that is a volcanic eruption, which spews ashes and gases into the air, blocking sunlight for days, weeks, and even months at a time. The 2010 eruption of a volcano in Iceland with an unpronounceable (and, more importantly for the purposes of this review, unspellable) name spewed so much subterranean crud that some people seriously wondered if it might lead to global cooling. (No word on what that would have meant for Al Gore's Nobel Prize.) And an earlier Icelandic volcano's temperature is said to have touched off the French Revolution and frozen part of the Mississippi River.
Great as it might be to declare Iceland a geologic war criminal and impose U.N. sanctions on reindeer poop or whatever it is they export, it turns out the earth is riddled with sociopathic volcanoes, some 1,500 of them, going off 50 times a year, according to Killer Volcanoes. Consider Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, whose 1991 eruption sent a plume of gas 22 miles into the air and dropped the entire planet's average temperature one degree Fahrenheit for two years.
Or Indonesia's Mount Tambora, whose eruption so befogged the earth with sulfurous clouds that 1815 would be remembered as The Year Without Summer, with 200,000 dead of famine. Or even Italy's Mount Vesuvius, which not only obliterated the city of Pompeii in 79 AD but saddled us for all eternity with the literary works of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose very name has become synonymous with barbaric hackdom.
The indefatigable volcano nerds of Killer Volcanoes work through all these suspects and more by, among other things, digging into the polar ice caps in search of frozen atmosphere samples that contain volcanic gases and ash. Comparing its location to known wind patterns establishes that the guilty volcano must be located along the equator, and the sulfur content provides a sort of fingerprint that will identify the volcano positively when it's found.
No spoilers here, just my assurance that there's lots of fun faux-tabloid narration ("it seemed the trail had gone cold until a clue appeared in the frozen polar ice") and even what passes for PBS dirty talk: The description of the earth's tectonic plates mounting one another and spewing magma is beyond, well, description. And stay tuned next year for the sequel, in which Nova reports on how Donald Trump is demanding money to build a big beautiful wall around Mount Vesuvius, while Elizabeth Warren calls for federal subsidies for volcano farms to fight global warming.
This review has been updated to correct the year Mount Tambora erupted.