Scarth, Alwyn

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Agent—c/o Author Mail, Oxford University Press, 2001 Evans Rd., Cary, NC 27513.


Geologist, author, and educator. Former lecturer in geography, University of Dundee, Scotland.


Volcanoes: An Introduction, Texas A&M University Press (College Station, TX), 1994.

(With Jean-Claude Tanguy) Vulcan's Fury: Man against the Volcano, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1999.

Volcanoes of Europe, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2001.

La Catastrophe: The Eruption of Mount Pelee, the Worst Volcanic Eruption of the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2002.

Savage Earth: The Dramatic Story of Volcanoes and Earthquakes, Harpercollins (New York, NY), 2002.


A noted volcanologist, Alwyn Scarth has written several books about one of the nature's most spectacular and devastating displays: volcanic eruptions. In his first book, Volcanoes: An Introduction, Scarth writes about volcanoes for a general audience, emphasizing both geography and geomorphology—that is, a volcano's characteristics, configuration, and evolution. The book includes historical accounts of various volcanic eruptions and the consequences that they had on the societies of the time. Scarth discusses the geographical location of volcanoes (most lie beneath the oceans), the process of creating magma (molten rock), and various categories of volcanic landforms.

In Nature, reviewer Peter Francis commented that Volcanoes: An Introduction revisits too much ground about volcanoes already detailed by other writers. He also believed that Scarth sometimes oversimplifies his explanations, which could mislead the reader. Nevertheless, he noted, "Such reservations apart, the book has much to offer." Writing in American Scientist, James B. Garvin noted, "In general, the author has produced a very readable and admirable short discussion of a selected set of volcanoes and volcanic eruptions from around the world."

In Vulcan's Fury: Man against the Volcano, the author turns from a scientific discussion of how volcanoes work to focus on the history of volcanoes, describing fifteen historic eruptions that occurred around the world. Much of the work is based on original sources in Latin, French, Spanish, and English. The author also includes numerous eyewitness accounts of volcanic eruptions, from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius overlooking the Bay of Naples in A.D. 79 to 1981's eruption of Mount St. Helens and the Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines a decade later. Scarth uses details from these accounts to provide a full picture of disasters, their origins, and their aftermaths. The chapters are chronologically arranged, and Scarth includes a discussion on how scientists can now predict and prepare for large volcanic eruptions such as Mount Pinatubo. Although Mount Pinatubo's eruption potentially could have killed a half-million people, early warnings to evacuate kept the death toll to around a thousand people. The book also includes maps and numerous illustrations.

"Alwyn Scarth has done what many of us aspire to do," wrote geologist Sally Newcomb in a review of Vulcan's Fury: Man against the Volcano in Isis. "He has taken a huge subject, best described in highly technical terms, and has written a gripping, highly readable history about it." She went on to note, "This story is a true intersection of science and society from which we all can learn." In Geographical Review, reviewer Michael Ort commented that his initial reaction to the book was "mixed" but concluded, "Overall, though, I found myself greatly impressed by a well-written account of the effects that volcanoes have had on society."

In his 2002 book La Catastrophe: The Eruption of Mount Pelee, the Worst Volcanic Eruption of the Twentieth Century, Scarth provides a definitive study of the 1902 eruption of Mount Pelee in Martinique. The eruption killed more than 27,000 people in the town of Saint-Pierre, leveling the island's capital in less than two minutes. Once again, Scarth relies heavily on eyewitness reports to describe in detail the worst volcanic eruption since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the city of Pompeii nearly 2,000 years earlier. In addition to discussing the natural events that led up to eruption, his account also explores the tragic aftermath of Mount Pelee's eruption and its wide-ranging political implications.

Writing in National Geographic Adventure, a reviewer called La Catastrophe "spectacularly detailed and heartbreakingly vivid." In a review in the Library Journal, Jean E. Crampon noted that she found that Scarth's "meticulous detail sometimes detracts from the smoothness of the reading." However, Crampon praised Scarth's "heavy emphasis on the political commentary, which will help readers understand the implications of the volcano in light of its time." Writing in Publishers Weekly, another reviewer praised Scarth for providing a "much-needed sociological dimension to the natural tragedy." The reviewer also noted that "Scarth maintains the reader's interest without watering down his formidable knowledge of how volcanoes actually work."



American Scientist, November-December, 1995, James B. Garvin, review of Volcanoes: An Introduction, pp. 574-576.

Discover, October, 1999, Robert Kunzig, review of Vulcan's Fury: Man against the Volcano, p. 108.

Geographical Review, April, 2000, Michael Ort, review of Vulcan's Fury, pp. 297-298.

Isis, September, 2002, Sally Newcomb, review of Vulcan's Fury, pp. 465-466.

Library Journal, September 1, 1999, Jean E. Crampon, review of Vulcan's Fury, p. 230; June 1, 2002, review of La Catastrophe: The Eruption of Mount Pelee, the Worst Volcanic Eruption of the Twentieth Century, p. 184.

National Geographic Adventurer, August, 2002, review of La Catastrophe, p. 42.

Nature, October 13, 1994, Peter Francis, review of Volcanoes, p. 569.

New York Times, February 29, 2000, "A Brief History of Beauty, Terror and Trial by Fire," p. F5.

Publishers Weekly, August 30, 1999, review of Vulcan's Fury, p. 63; May 20, 2002, review of La Catastrophe, p. 57.

Science News, September 11, 1999, Cait Anthony, review of Vulcan's Fury, p. 163.

Sciences, January-February, 2000, Laurence A. Marschall, review of Vulcan's Fury, p. 45.*