In the beginning there was sheep

Volcán de Fuego erupting stars. Photograph by NASA.

“When in doubt, data shall provide the answer!”


In the beginning

A decade ago to the day, the first article was published here at Volcanocafé. It was not one of the memorable ones that I remember without checking, but from humble starts came many memorable articles over the years.

Starting Volcanocafé was quite unexpected to me, it was never my intention, and never what I wanted. So, how did Volcanocafé come about? As with all great things it involved a sheep and nagging elderly English ladies.

The embryo was seeded one stormy night in Iceland during the easy to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull eruption. As we were sitting chatting and gawking at the eruption on one of the webcams a sheep came flying past the camera and passed out over the cliffside.

This image stuck with us, and we became sort of the club of the flying sheep. At the same time many of us was dissatisfied with the early volcanic blogs, mainly with the commenting sections. And during the aftermath of the eruption the elderly English ladies decided that enough was enough and elected me as the person who should write all the articles.

At this point I got the idea that I could get away from this daunting responsibility by refusing to do it alone, so I said that I would do it only if Lurking tagged along, to my utter horror he accepted to do so.

I then tried to get away by stating that I knew nothing about setting up and maintaining a forum like this, but one of the ladies then unfolded her wings and came out as a fully-fledged forum-coding-demon.

After that I was told in no uncertain terms that I had to write an article. The rest is sort of history now.

I will though say that I completely by accident got my comeback against the dear old English ladies a few years later. As most know I am not a native English writer, and sometimes upon a blue moon I miss entirely the cultural connotations of an English word.

I just never expected that canines would be one of those words fraught with peril. In an offhand sentence I wrote, “To doggedly dog where no dog has doggedly dogged before”. My intention was to point out general stubbornness, but from the shocked, giggling, and red-faced elderly ladies I kind of understood that there was something more to it.

So, I mercilessly questioned them about what it was that I had written that shocked them so much, and slowly the truth of the English national weekend pastime of “Dogging” came out into the open. In the end I just had to ask them how on earth they knew what this was… innocently asked of course.

Oh, the sheep you ask? Well, it is rather memorable to watch a flying sheep, so we made it into the Patron Sheep of Volcanocafé. Having a Patron Sheep sort of made certain that we would never take ourselves to seriously, even though we obviously took the science part seriously.

However, we never expected to see the sheep again. So, it was with utter horror we watched as Bear Grylls found the sheep in an episode of his tv-series. He then ate the rotting carcass, made a sleeping bag out of it, and then profusely vomited sheep all over.

After that the flying sheep was elevated to Martyr Patron Sheep, and nobody watched Bear Grylls again (at least I hope so).


The four foundations

The Flying Sheep of Iceland. Photograph by Helgastina.

From the beginning there were four things that was important to set into place. The first was that we would not enforce any out of topic rule for the comment section, as long as it was about science, we let it slide.

The reason for this is that there can be years in between interesting eruptions, and we wanted people to hang on, read articles, and generally be friends. After all, we who founded the place wanted it to be our living-room where we could discuss all sorts of topics as we pleased.

It worked as a charm. As soon as a volcano came around of importance everyone set aside the conversations and started to discuss the topic at hand.

Then we needed a rule to moderate with. We came up with a rule that both explained itself and had enough wriggle room to be useful in pretty much any circumstance, “Be Nice!”. On the few occasions that we have had to use it, we voted before banning repeat offenders.

In a world of trolls and argumentative people it is remarkable that we are still below 10 people that have been banned. This is not due to a lack of arguments, but in general people remember to argue themselves blue in an ever so polite way. We do have the best readers in so many ways (thank you).

The third thing was science above else. What we wrote should be factual and based on science and follow the data at hand. The reason back then was that we were stunned at some of the early volcano blogs playing loose with science and facts when talking about volcanoes. We wanted to be the opposing force of that.

Later came the clickbait youtubers bleating out ever weirder prophecies about ginormous volcanic eruptions. Science and facts in this day and age turned out to become ever more important, and we do our best to do our part.

So, it is with quite a bit of joy that we find that we are referenced as people try to point out those who produce hogwash. Every time I see someone referencing us as a means of stopping nonsense my heart leaps with joy.

Do get me right, there are very good Youtubers out there doing fabulous work in letting the images do the talking for them. I will especially mention Roman over at GutnTog, we have all drooled over his fabulous drone footage of Fagradalsfjall and La Palma.

Just a little while ago he emailed us and told us that he was a fan of ours since we kept to science and facts and offered us to use his drone footage (something that we will most assuredly do) and asked if we had any volcanoes in Iceland that we wanted droned to oblivion. Oh boy, do we want that!

So, hopefully there will be a bit of collaboration with Roman in the not-so-distant future with his wonderful videos, and us doing the best we can to explain what we see and how it came to be. Finally, we might have answers to our biggest riddle, Herdubreid.

And here we come to the most important thing. Nobody can do it alone. From the moment of inception I knew that I could not do it alone. We needed to be more writers than one. First of all, we all have working lives, families and so on.

Secondly, one voice will not be able to create a discussion and a foundation for scientific debate. Opposing views are important. It also forces us to do better, at least it forces me to be better.

Over the years we have had many guest writers, recurring guest writers, specialists writing about their volcanoes, and in the end a small group of staff-writers that uphold the bulk of the writing.

Let me talk about one of them. I do have a more than passing interest in the field of astrophysics, and I read a lot about astrophysics. And I noticed that a certain (back then) commenter wrote really astounding comments about volcanoes and now and then about astrophysics.

And since I am a curious person, I looked at the registration email and noticed a name out of the stary sky of astrophysics that I knew about quite well, as it happened, I had just read one of his papers.

I mentioned this to Henrik Lovén, and he had for quite some time wanted to write about exo-volcanology, so he contacted our dear Albert, and history was made. In his very unassuming and kind way Albert lifted the bar for factual correctness and showed us what a true popular science article could be.

Due to Albert, I found that I had about one week to become a far better writer than I had ever been. And I better had to have all my reasoning and facts straight, otherwise I would receive a polite professorial thumping in our backchannel.

There are also the unsung heroes who perform our daily technical maintenance, Gaz Dale, Tommy Wallace and Ingrid van der Voort. Without them the place would fall to pieces in a heartbeat, you guys are the best.


The New Decade Volcano Program

Out of the trio of Albert, Henrik, and I, came our claim for fame during a session of having beers together. We somehow got it into our heads that the Decade Volcano Program needed an update since it had been running for a decade.

We also felt that the volcanoes did not truly fulfil the original requirements for the decade volcano program. On top of that we wanted to update those requirements a bit.

Out of this came a monster-set of articles. To our surprise the series got wings and flew out over the world, and in many ways, it influenced how decadal volcano programs are used today.


My two favourite articles

Okay, who of you invented this? It gotta be one of our readers. Spike, this be you?

Even though I am happy about how the NDVP turned out, I have two other articles as my personal favourites. The second one on my list of best articles is one I wrote myself (modesty be my middle…).

It is the one about Aniakchak. It is the only time I have read everything written about a volcano to be able to write an article. But it did not end there. I also had to read a substantial amount of everything that was written about a completely different volcano to be able to write the article. And then almost everything ever written about dendrochronology during that time period.

It is probably the only article I have written that changed how we look about one of the worlds most famous eruptions. It turned out that I could link Aniakchak’s eruption to the same year as the more famous eruption of Thera.

And as I studied the ice-core data I found out that the eruption over at Aniakchak was the far larger one, and that the Minoan civilization was hit by a double-whammy-eruption.

To my sadness that article never really took off, due to its historic implications it deserved that, I guess it is a case of parents and their favourite child.

Now over to my personal favourite article of all time. One of those ideas that had turned into “truth” was that the moon and the tide causes earthquakes, eruptions, and dandruff. Almost everybody used to believe it back then.

I argued against this but did not have any hard facts to back my opinion with. Lurking decided to just go and ask the data itself a few hard questions. Without any bias he started to pound the entire dataset that he had on earthquakes to see what would drop out.

It turned into a tour-de-force of scientific “Question-data-answer”. Even the USGS nowadays link ever so often to The Moon and the Moonies-article. It has also been used by Nature as a tool for vetting an article prior to publication.


Our fallen comrades

I would here like to mention two people who formed Volcanocafé. The first one was one of the English Ladies. Well, except that Sissel Skramstad was Norwegian and lived in Holland. She was one of the two that set the place up from a technical standpoint and helped to run the place.

Sadly after a few years we suddenly lost her, and I lost a dear friend who I had chatted with late nights when neither of us could sleep. Without Sissel there would have been no Volcanocafé to begin with.

Then we come to irascible artillery major and world-class anglophile Henrik Lovén. If there was ever anyone who could give me a run for the money on having had a career with many twists and turns it was Henrik.

Besides a long and illustrious military career, he also did a stint as the CEO of a major league bandy club, proprietor of a gem store, and an assortment of other ventures. In the end he fought a very long and painful fight with cancer. He knew from onset that he would not stand a chance and was given 3 months to live. But he went at it like the soldier he literally was and fought back with gusto and got 3 years before the end.

He was through his life a man of grand ideas, so it should come as no surprise that he was the champion of our grandest project, the NDVP. From day one Henrik wanted to pen the final piece himself. In many ways it was his own Eulogy that he penned, it was truly glorious and true to form it was larger than life.

No jubilee would be complete without upholding the memory of our fallen comrades.

In memory of Sissel Skramstad | VolcanoCafe

Henrik Lovén 1958-2019 | VolcanoCafe


The future

The future of Volcanocafé is both complex and simple at the same time. All I will say is that we will not change one bit in how we strive to uphold science and data above all else. The format and the writers will change over time, and there will be changes in technology.

But I am not the one to present that. I leave the technology to one of our technology wizards in an upcoming article.

I leave the changes in content up to you dear readers. Both in regards of what we write, but I would at the same time kindly ask that you also help with content and writing, the more we are, the more fun we will all have.

After all, it is not my place, it is your place dear readers and writers. I am but the custodian of the place until it is my time to have beer again with Sissel and Henrik.

Until then, here’s for many more years of Doggedly dogging like no dog has doggedly dogged in the sulphur mines of science.


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