Mountains of Fire

The Menace, Meaning, and Magic of Volcanoes

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Pub Date 27 Sep 2023 | Archive Date 25 Aug 2023

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Meeting with volcanoes around the world, a volcanologist interprets their messages for humankind.
In Mountains of Fire, Clive Oppenheimer invites readers to stand with him in the shadow of an active volcano. Whether he is scaling majestic summits, listening to hissing lava at the crater’s edge, or hunting for the far-flung ashes from Earth’s greatest eruptions, Oppenheimer is an ideal guide, offering readers the chance to tag along on the daring, seemingly-impossible journeys of a volcanologist.

In his eventful career as a volcanologist and filmmaker, Oppenheimer has studied volcanoes around the world. He has worked with scientists in North Korea to study Mount Paektu, a volcano name sung in national anthems on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone. He has crossed the Sahara to reach the fabled Tiéroko volcano in the Tibesti Mountains of Chad. He spent months camped atop Antarctica’s most active volcano, Mount Erebus, to record the pulse of its lava lake.

Mountains of Fire reveals how volcanic activity is entangled with our climate and environment, as well as our economy, politics, culture, and beliefs. These adventures and investigations make clear the dual purpose of volcanology—both to understand volcanoes for science’s sake and to serve the communities endangered and entranced by these mountains of fire. 
Meeting with volcanoes around the world, a volcanologist interprets their messages for humankind.
In Mountains of Fire, Clive Oppenheimer invites readers to stand with him in the shadow of an...

Advance Praise

Praise for Eruptions that Shook the World:
"I have to thank God on my knees that Oppenheimer's book did not exist at the time I made my decision to become a filmmaker. I might have become a volcanologist instead." Werner Herzog, film director and producer

Praise for Eruptions that Shook the World:
"I have to thank God on my knees that Oppenheimer's book did not exist at the time I made my decision to become a filmmaker. I might have become a...

Available Editions

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ISBN 9780226826349
PRICE $27.50 (USD)

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Average rating from 11 members

Featured Reviews

Such a great and informative read if you are looking to find out more about volcanoes and volcanic activity. I found the writing to be way less dry than a lot of textbooks on the subject and it almost reads like a thrilling fiction novel. Definitely pick this one up if you are interested in the subject and the history of it all!

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“Grains of ash are dropping from the sky after a piercing detonation; they tinkle on my rucksack.” What a great opening to “Mountains of Fire: The Menace, Meaning, and Magic of Volcanoes” by volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer! I was instantly hooked.

Mountains of Fire is part history and science of volcanoes, and part travelogue as Oppenheimer takes us to volcanic sites around the world: Mt. Erebus in Antarctica, Mt. Paektu in North Korea, Mt. Stromboli in Italy, Lascar in Chile, and others, vividly describing what it’s like to be near an active volcano, so you can almost smell the sulphur fumes, hear the explosions as lava bursts from a vent, and feel the heat on your face and the vibrations deep in your chest!

Recommended at 5 out of 5 stars.

Disclaimer: This book is an advance review copy (ARC) that I was given by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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The best praise that I can give this book is that I read all the footnotes. You can't really get much better than that. Clive Oppenheimer is a big name in volcanology - even though I've only taken a few geology courses, I've certainly heard of him. This book is a chronicle of his career, and wow, he's had a cool life. He also has a talent for using the perfect adjectives for every situation, which was very satisfying. This is the sort of interdisciplinary science I want to do, and this book was a fascinating read.

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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher University of Chicago Press for an advance copy of this book on the lure, the science and the fiery beauty that are volcanos.

Volcanos have a unique place in the human psyche. Many a movie has featured a smouldering mountain on an island home to dangers both mythical and man. Evil villains use volcanos as lairs to carry out their devious actions and attempt at world take overs. Volcanos become gods, entrances to hell, places of wealth and even redemption if a sacrifice is found pleasing. Movies feature them as characters, threats, background seats of knowledge. Two documentaries have been released on a couple who found romance while observing volcanos, and died together doing what the love. Werner Herzog traveled to the Caribbean to watch a volcano erupt, while giving no thought to what was to happen to him or his two companions, if it did. Thankfully it didn't and Herzog has made more documentaries a few on volcanos, and one on the Kraftts as I previously mentioned. Clive Oppenheimer is a volcanologist who has traveled the world, often working with Herzog, or by himself, both studying and filming volcanos, risking his life, learning much and and now sharing this love in book form. Mountains of Fire: The Menace, Meaning, and Magic of Volcanoes is a look at his life among lava, along with a look at humanity's relationship with volcanos, the draw they have, what we have learned, and what we should fear

The book begins with a view of hell. Ash drops from the sky as lava bombs, partially melted rocks that are ejected from the volcano shot into the air, crashing to the earth, or falling back in. The smell and the heat are powerful, and yet beautiful, a sort of devil's music, where one is both drawn and repelled by what one sees. Volcanos have their own climates, which can affect the area, causing good growing seasons in one spot, bad burning areas in others. Volcanos, Oppenheimer points out have a past that is unknown and probably will remain that way, eruptions unmeasured, and destruction that will remain a mystery. Oppenheimer discusses his early investigations dodging lava bombs, walking through ash, alone trying to get temperature readings, and wondering what brought him here to this moment. Oppenheimer has traveled the world, from Antarctica, to Chad, to the Pacific Islands, learning and studying with others, volcanologists, dreamers, religious types and the people who spend their lives in the shadow of eruptions.

Oppenheimer is a very good writer, with an ability to share information, make things interesting and explain things so well it seems both clear and unforgettable. There are a lot of stories from early priests who thought that the fiery substances at the bottom of the volcano was gold, to working in North Korea at Mount Paektu, a volcano that holds much myth and legend in the origins of the North Korean Communist Party. And of course some writing on Werner Herzog, who is always good for a tale or two. A very good mix of science, facts and natural beauty, One of the more interesting and well-written science books that I have read in a long time.

Recommended for people who enjoy first hand stories about science and nature, and those with a thing for volcanos. Also for those who love to read stories about the world and the amazing things that are contained on it. A very well written book that would be of interest to people of any age who like volcanoes.

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I requested Mountains of Fire on a whim and it ended up exceeding my expectations. Oppenheimer dives into the history of/around volcanos, volcanology, and his experience in the field. I found it incredibly engaging and Oppenheimer did a fantastic job breaking down the topic for newbies to understand.
Thanks to both NetGalley and the University of Chicago Press for an e-ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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I first became aware of Clive Oppenheimer while watching Werner Herzog's documentary "Encounters at the End of the World". Their meeting at the Erebus volcano in Antarctica led to a collaboration on two more films. I found this British scientist to be a brilliant popularizer and storyteller, so I was very eager to read his book. And he does not disappoint.

It is no coincidence that these two men got along so well. Oppenheimer shares Herzog's insatiable curiosity and ability, or even desire, to be amazed. In this book, he masterfully blends popular science, the history of earlier discoveries, and recollections of his own fascinating expeditions to places like Iceland, the Sahara, Indonesia, and even North Korea ( in the company of Werener Herzog, by the way). His style is witty, colorful, and evocative - it truly transports you to different times and places.

Volcanology is not just an earth science - the modern approach includes cultural and anthropological aspects, as well as the effects of eruptions on our climate and environment. You don't have to be a volcano buff to find this book very interesting.

Thanks to the publisher, University of Chicago Press, and NetGalley for an advanced copy of this book.

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I thoroughly enjoyed Mountains of Fire, an excellent book about volcanoes that feels like a memoir, mystery, and science article all rolled into one. I even read almost all of the footnotes, where Clive tucked away more delightful scientific knowledge and opinions.

Clive Oppenheimer writes from his many years of fieldwork studying volcanoes. He recounts his travels from the deserts of north Africa to the icy fields of Antarctica, with each chapter focusing on a different volcano and area of the world. In some places such as Mount Paektu in North Korea, the political and social situations he encounters are just as interesting as the scientific ones.

I expected volcanoes to be dangerous, and indeed they are, as Clive describes via some close scrapes with flying lava rocks and plumes of gas clouds. But, they are also awe-inspiring, majestic, old, steeped in the culture and landscape, relevant on both the largest and smallest of scales. They last for millennia yet shift overnight, at once as unchanging as the foundation of the world and as instantly disruptive as the detonation of a bomb. Scientists can take advantage of that longevity to decipher cultural mysteries, such as using obsidian samples to trace ancient human trade routes based on which obsidian tools match which volcanic source.

Clive’s enthusiasm for volcanoes and discovery is contagious throughout the book. He recalls catching his first glimpse of several volcanoes in Chad, saying that “just calling their names out to the others above the din of the [airplane] engines was enough to make me almost delirious with excitement: Emi Koussi, Tarso Yega, Pic Tousside…I couldn’t believe my luck.”

In another chapter, he remembers a tough assignment where his frustrations were suddenly “eclipsed by the thrill of exposing the moment the ancestors witnessed darkness at noon and the earth turned to powder.”

What Clive taught me most through Mountains of Fire is the importance of showing up and being ready to study, observe, and ponder. A volcano is not the sort of thing you can run controlled experiments on or force to do your bidding. Instead, you must approach as a humble observer, patient and attentive enough to let the mountain reveal itself to you. As Clive advises, “I’ve often found that putting in the groundwork is the best way to give serendipity a chance to play its hand and thereby learn things beyond my imagination.”

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Clive Oppenheimer writes of a selection of volcanoes from multiple perspectives. There is history of early scientific study, both the physical and cultural impact on those living near these mountains, and sometimes a bit of politics. Each volcano in this book is one the author has worked on at some point in his career. He clearly explains why attempting to glean specific information about this or that mountain is important and also relates the personal side of these undertakings. He is an excellent writer and provides a great non-technical read for anyone fascinated by mountains of fire.

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I’ve long been fascinated by volcanos, and since I will be seeing one in person for the first time soon, I decided to read this book. In “Mountains of Fire,” Clive Oppenheimer regales readers with the harrowing tales of his experiences studying volcanoes and of those who studied volcanos in the past, giving a historical perspective along with facts about how volcanoes work. There is some specific volcano diction used, but it is often repeated, so after you look up a few words, you won’t have to look up much else. If you are interested in learning more about volcanoes, this is an excellent book chock full of information, presented in an exciting way.

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I stumbled upon Clive Oppenheimer while watching Into the Inferno by Werner Herzog. He was super captivating and I was so excited to see this book pop up on NetGalley. I can't imagine someone not being interested in volcanology, but if they were, this book would definitely change their view. Mountains of Fire delves deep into volcanoes and their connection with the world at large, done so eloquently by Oppenheimer.

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