In Mountains of Fire (Univ. of Chicago, Sept.), volcanologist Oppenheimer explores the science of volcanoes.

You detail volcanology’s history alongside current research. Why the historical focus?
I’ve found it humbling to read works by the pioneers in my field, dating back to the late 18th century. They asked the same questions that pepper our research proposals today, and they even foresaw that technological advances might solve the riddles. Of course, we have more knowledge now, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to acknowledge how brilliant, foresighted, and downright intrepid the early explorers were.

You describe getting detained by soldiers in Eritrea and accosted by rebels in Ethiopia while conducting research. Do you worry more about the dangers posed by humans or nature?
I’m most concerned about transportation dangers. I’ve seen so many accidents on the roads in Ethiopia, for instance. Places like Antarctica and the Sahara are forbidding environments where you have a very minimal safety net if anything goes wrong.

Can you elaborate on your argument that volcanology has lessons for climatology?
We learn from volcanology of the scale and intensity of eruptions that we haven’t observed in the modern period, which informs us of the rare but high-magnitude volcanic episodes we can anticipate in the future. Some prehistoric eruptions were so large and disastrous to the climate of surrounding regions that a repeat episode is among the existential threats faced by humanity. We’ve also learned that the impact of future eruptions will be influenced by the changing state of the atmosphere and climate, issues that should be fed into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessments. More generally, we learn about risk—that there are different ways it’s framed and accommodated by societies around the world.

Do current attacks on science make risk mitigation for volcanic eruptions more difficult?
In many countries, like the U.S., that have lots of volcanoes, there are agencies and observatories doing round-the-clock monitoring. Their staff are often deeply engaged with the communities they serve and that’s every bit as important as the science. When we have knowledge of hazards, it demands we communicate that knowledge effectively enough to have a positive impact on preparing for the future. It means we must try to make our voices heard and not give up.

With approximately one billion people currently living within 50 miles of an active volcano, how worried should we be?
I don’t think worried is the right word, but rather prepared. We should be prepared for the threat posed by volcanoes actually happening, which again means doing the science and engaging citizens and authorities.