Confession of a basalt addict

They say the first step in addiction is to admit it. Okay, I like basalt. I like to travel to see it. I like to know how it has influenced our planetary history. I like how it creates such wonderful scenery so rich in color and texture. I like how it shows that nature bats first, and in many places last and clean-up. In essence I am what you might call a basaltophile.

I realized this recently on a vacation to Hawaii’s big island. This was the second time in less than a year that I spent time on an island of basalt. The first was last year on a trip to Iceland. In each place, basalt dominated the landscape. I don’t use dominated lightly. I mean it in the dictionary definition of “to bear rule over, control, sway; to have a commanding influence on.”

When you travel in Hawaii and Iceland, you quickly learn that basalt is what rules these islands. Drive down a road and you will discover how it weaves through lava flows, unless, of course, it simply disappears under the lava. Read stories about the islands’ histories and you will learn how basalt has shaped the actions of where and how people lived. Look at tourist brochures and you will see how promoters exploit the splendor of basalt to draw in visitors.

Part of the attraction is the beauty of the basalt, but part of it is the raw nature of the rock. On Iceland and Hawaii, you feel the primal personality of the planet. Exploding geysers, bubbling hot springs, oozing molten rock, this is how Earth was in its earliest days. It was a harsh and dangerous place, and yet seeing how life has taken root on these islands, it takes little imagination to envision some form of existence starting to evolve and flourish those billions of years ago.

Because of the youth of the basalt—on Hawaii we saw flows less than a year or so old—both islands have a dynamic feel. On Iceland, we experienced the eruption of Grimsvötn, which shut down the airport and curtailed our travel plans. On Hawaii, the ongoing spewing of toxic gases from Halema’uma’u crater prevented us from hiking several trails. Where else would you see signs that read “Stay on trail. Dangerous earth cracks in park area”?

That dynamic also gives Iceland and Hawaii a raw and unformed feel. The islands are in a constant state of change, growing with new lava flows and disemboweling themselves with eruptions. Hiking around Iceland, I was struck by how moss was often the lone plant life, as if only primitive vegetation veneered a primitive land. Hawaii does have its tropical rainforests, which at times made the island seem far older, but I also saw huge areas devoid of any plant, or even any animal. When driving, I found you could not always trust a map, as some geologic disaster might have simply erased a road or bridge.

The story of basalt is one that stretches back to the earliest days of Earth and continues unabated to the present. It is a story that shapes our planet and our species. It is a story that shows that geology is alive and well, and often kicking some butt. What more could a basaltophile want?

 

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