A volcanologist is a person who studies the formation of volcanoes, and their current and historic eruptions. Volcanologists frequently visit volcanoes, especially active ones, to observe volcanic eruptions, collect eruptive products including tephra (such as ash or pumice), rock and lava samples. One major focus of enquiry is the prediction of eruptions; there is currently no accurate way to do this, but predicting eruptions, like predicting earthquakes, could save many lives.
Greeks also considered that Hephaestus, the god of fire, sat below the volcano Etna, forging the weapons of Zeus. His minions, the cyclops with their single staring eye, may be an allegory to the round craters and cones of a volcano. Indeed, the Greek word used to describe volcanoes was etna, or hiera, after Heracles, the son of Zeus. The Roman poet Virgil, in interpreting the Greek mythos, held that the hero Enceladus was buried beneath Etna by the goddess Athena as punishment for disobeying the gods; the mountain's rumblings were his tormented cries, the flames his breath and the tremors his railing against the bars of his prison. Enceladus' brother Mimas was buried beneath Vesuvius by Hephaestus, and the blood of other defeated giants welled up in the Phlegrean Fields surrounding Vesuvius.
Tribal legends of volcanoes abound from the Pacific Ring of Fire and the Americas, usually invoking the forces of the supernatural or the divine to explain the violent outbursts of volcanoes. Taranaki and Tongariro, according to Māori mythology, were lovers who fell in love with Pihanga, and a spiteful jealous fight ensued. Māori will not to this day live between Tongariro and Taranaki for fear of the dispute flaring up again.
The first attempt at a scientific explanation of volcanoes was undertaken by the Greek philosopher Empedocles (c. 490-430 B.C.), who saw the world divided into four elemental forces, of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Volcanoes, Empedocles maintained, were the manifestation of Elemental Fire. Plato contended that channels of hot and cold waters flow in inexhaustible quantities through subterranean rivers. In the depths of the earth snakes a vast river of fire, the Pyriphlegethon, which feeds all the world's volcanoes. Aristotle considered underground fire as the result of "the...friction of the wind when it plunges into narrow passages."
Wind would play a key role in explanations of volcanoes until the 16th century. Lucretius, a Roman philosopher, claimed Etna was completely hollow and the fires of the underground driven by a fierce wind circulating near sea level. Ovid believed that the flame was fed from "fatty foods" and eruptions stopped when the food ran out. Vitruvius contended that sulfur, alum and bitumen fed the deep fires. Observations by Pliny the Elder noted the presence of earthquakes preceded an eruption; he died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD while investigating it at Stabiae. His nephew, Pliny the Younger gave detailed descriptions of the eruption in which his uncle died, attributing his death to the effects of toxic gases. Such eruptions have been named Plinian in honour of the two authors.
In 1660 the eruption of Vesuvius rained twinned pyroxene crystals and ash upon the nearby villages. The twinned pyroxene crystals resembled the crucifix and this was interpreted as the work of Saint Januarius. In Naples, the relics of St Januarius are paraded through town at every major eructation of Vesuvius. The register of these processions allowed British diplomat and amateur naturalist Sir William Hamilton to document Vesuvius' eruptions, one of the first few 'scientific' studies of the eruptive history of a volcano.
Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) witnessed eruptions of Mount Etna and Stromboli, then visited the crater of Vesuvius and published his view of an Earth with a central fire connected to numerous others caused by the burning of sulfur, bitumen and coal.
Johannes Kepler considered volcanoes as conduits for the tears and excrement of the Earth, voiding bitumen, tar and sulfur. Descartes, pronouncing that God had created the Earth in an instant, declared he had done so in three layers; the fiery depths, a layer of water, and the air. Volcanoes, he said, were formed where the rays of the sun pierced the earth.
Science wrestled with the ideas of the combustion of pyrite with water, that rock was solidified bitumen, and with notions of rock being formed from water (Neptunism). Of the volcanoes then known, all were near the water, hence the action of the sea upon the land was used to explain volcanism.
Seismic observations using seismographs deployed near volcanic areas, watching out for increased seismicity during volcanic events, in particular looking for long period harmonic tremors which signal magma movement through volcanic conduits.
Surface deformation monitoring includes the use of geodetic techniques such as leveling, tilt, strain, angle and distance measurements through tiltmeters, total stations and EDMs. This also includes GNSS observations and InSAR. Surface deformation indicates magma upwelling: increased magma supply produces bulges in the volcanic center's surface.
Gas emissions are monitored with equipment such as the Correlation Spectrometer (COSPEC) which analyzes the presence of volcanic gases such as sulfur dioxide. Increased emissions possibly signal an impending volcanic eruption.
Temperature changes are monitored using thermometers and observing changes in thermal properties of volcanic lakes and vents which may indicate upcoming activity.
Other geophysical techniques (electrical, gravity and magnetic observations) include monitoring fluctuations and sudden change in resistivity, gravity anomalies or magnetic anomaly patterns which may indicate volcano-induced faulting and magma upwelling.