Television Review: ‘Nova: Life on Fire’ and ‘Doomsday Volcanoes,’ on PBS

January 2nd, 2013

Saint Thomas Productions

An underwater volcanic eruption in a South Pacific archipelago, shown in “Life on Fire” on PBS.

Well, that didn’t take long. Two days into the new year, having barely had time to celebrate that we survived 2012 despite the apocalyptic predictions, we are being introduced to the new Thing to Be Feared for 2013: Iceland. And not by some crackpot reality show; by PBS.

No, Iceland is not, as far as we know, working to develop nuclear or biological weapons. Apparently it could blow up at any second because it is full of volcanoes with a history of doing so.

In consecutive hours on Wednesday night, an installment of “Nova” and then the premiere episode of a six-part series called “Life on Fire” make clear that Iceland is a seething caldron on the verge of going kablooey, and that Icelanders aren’t the only people who should be worried about this.

The programs cover a lot of the same material, and watching one or the other is probably sufficient to put Iceland on your personal anxiety barometer. The gist of it: The country has the misfortune of being on top of a spot where two tectonic plates aren’t getting along, and a result is that it is full of volcanoes of various types (yes, there are different types of volcanoes) that erupt with disturbing frequency.

Each program begins with a reminder of what happened in 2010 when one of them, Eyjafjallajokull, spewed a formidable plume of ash. Air traffic was disrupted for days, with a significant impact on tourism and other aspects of the economy. And, the programs point out, that was a relatively small volcanic event and merely one of many in the last few hundred years.

“In geological terms, Iceland is very young,” Jeremy Irons, the narrator of the “Life on Fire” episode, intones. “It’s still being built. It’s only when an eruption has consequences across the world that the rest of us learn something Icelanders know well: These volcanoes haven’t finished yet.”

We hear from several volcanologists who are studying the various Iceland volcanoes, trying to predict what the future holds. In the “Life on Fire” program, though, one of them, Hazel Rymer, confesses that it is difficult to draw conclusions about things that happen in geological time on the basis of a few decades’ worth of scientific observations.

“To understand how a volcano works, you need to make measurements for as long as possible,” she says. “A human lifetime is nothing to the life span of a volcano.” But we can study what has already happened, and it’s not reassuring. An eruption of one volcano, Laki, in 1783 was catastrophic.

“The long, slow famine which followed killed over 20 percent of Iceland’s people,” we’re told, and weather disruptions worldwide might have resulted in at least a million deaths. “A view of Armageddon” is the phrase one expert in the “Nova” episode uses to describe what the landscape touched by the poison-filled 1783 cloud must have looked like. The episode, by the way, is called “Doomsday Volcanoes.” Here we go again.

“Life on Fire,” once it gets the Icelandic volcanoes out of its system, becomes less catastrophe-oriented. An interesting installment on Jan. 16, for instance, examines how volcanic activity in Alaska about 2,000 years ago disrupted the spawning journey of a population of salmon, with surprising results. Tune in. If we’re still here.

Nova

Doomsday Volcanoes

On PBS stations on Wednesday night (check local listings).

Produced by Darlow Smithson Productions for Nova/WGBH Boston in association with Channel 5. Alex Sutherland, executive producer.

Life on Fire

On PBS stations on Wednesday night (check local listings).

Produced by Saint Thomas Productions. Directed by Bertrand Loyer, Jacques Bedel and François de Riberolles; Jeremy Irons, narrator.

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