National Geographic: Born of Fire


Out of need or curiosity

man has learned much about the Earth on

which he is both guest and prisoner

Often baffled in his brief journey

through time

he has found reassurance in the

order revealed in nature

the recurring sequence of the seasons

the symmetry in storm

Yet nothing has lessened his terror

when nature seems to turn against him

when the Earth shudders and

explodes in fire

making rubble of all he has built

"Twenty thousand people dead;

anywhere from fifty thousand

to one hundred

and fifty thousand injured..."

"If that's it,

there's a CCP there

The communication may go bad

but that's the angle they ought to go."

"There's two more in there."

Against the sudden blows of

an adversary

that often strikes without warning

some have tried to create defenses

Powerless to prevent eruption

or earthquake

they seek to diminish its toll

Others light candles of faith

seek safety in prayer

Today new candles light the dark

instruments whose beams are reflected

from distant objects

or catch signals from outer space

to measure the smallest movements

of the Earth's surface

Now man has devised new concepts

of the forces altering

our planet

forces that move the continents

twist the globe's thin crust

build vast mountain ranges

even beneath the sea

Like all living things

Earth is in ceaseless change

Born of fire, it too is being

transformed day by day

Once this was blank ocean the cold

storm-swept Atlantic off the

southern coast of Iceland

Then, in fiery eruption during

the winter of 1963

the island of Surtsey began to

emerge from the sea

Today its single square mile of ash

and lava forms one of

the newer additions

to the land surface of the globe

Yet this virgin terrain is

no longer wasteland

Already life has found it

Already seeds borne by wind

and wave have taken root in the ash

and birds have begun to

nest along the cliffs

A closed preserve to casual visitors

the island has become a

living laboratory

Here scientists from distant

countries can study the ways

by which life tests

and gradually seizes a new domain

Among them is Dr. Robert Ballard, geologist

from the Woods Hole Oceanographic

Institution on Cape Cod

"The story I often tell to try

to get across the point

that the Earth really is alive

if you were to interview a


standing on a branch of a sequoia tree

Now, a butterfly lives for

only a few days

and a sequoia tree can live

for over a thousand years

And if you were to ask that butterfly

Do you perceive the object on

which you are standing

as being alive?

And the butterfly would say,

of course not

I've been here all my life five days

and the tree hasn't done a thing

Same problem with the human being

If you were to ask a human being

perhaps one that's lived

a hundred years

if they perceive the Earth

which is over four

and a half billion years in age

as being alive

they'd probably say

Of course not. I've been here

all my life

and it hasn't done a thing.'

But the Earth really is a

very dynamic object

In fact, I think of it as

a living organism."

Like Surtsey, Earth too is an island

not in the North Atlantic

but in the vaster sea of space

In time beyond the measure of

man's brief experience

it too is in slow and ceaseless change

Some two hundred million years ago

its landmasses formed a single

continent scientists call Pangea

Then slowly, Pangea's fracturing

plates began to move apart

like pieces of a vast jigsaw puzzle

gradually assuming the shapes

and arrangement we recognize

on maps today

Riding upon a semiplastic layer

of Earth's fiery interior

the ocean floors and continents

that form its crust

or lithosphere are in continuing motion

Through the continents seem

stationary to living populations

they move an inch or more each year

The friction occurring along the

plate margins

is often marked by earthquakes

and volcanic eruption

Sometimes, as in California's San

Andreas Fault

the opposing plates grind against

each other in a sideways

or lateral motion called translation

It is when a section of the fault

locks, builds up tension

then abruptly releases

that major earthquakes occur

In other areas such as Japan

in a movement known as subduction

the edge of one crustal plate slowly

slides beneath another

causing volcanic activity and tremors

Along the 46,000 mile Mid

Ocean Ridge

in an action called spreading

molten rock

or magma, emerges through fissures

in the ocean floor

soon congealing in new submerged crust

Sometimes, as in Iceland

and its offshore islands of Surtsey

and Heimaey

the action has created

new land above the sea

Barely two hundred miles south

of the Arctic Circle

on the fiery seam still building

Iceland itself

Heimaey is accustomed to change

Port or the fleet that fishes

the abundant waters nearby

its only town of Vestmannaeyjar

has seen many a storm

take its toll of men and ships

Hardy descendants of the Vikings

who colonized the island more

than a thousand years ago

its people long have learned to

live with uncertainty

to meet risk and hazard

with a cheerful face

Each summer

by long-standing tradition

the entire population moves

out of town

on a three-day community holiday

It is a gathering that harks

back to Viking times

when villagers assembled to

review the spoken laws

by which they lived

On the grassy floor of an

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Rafiq Abdullah

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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