Hotspot volcanoes

NATURE: Living volcanoes | KPBS public media


Premieres Wednesday January 5, 2022 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV + Sunday January 9 at 8 p.m. on KPBS 2 / On Demand

Our planet is bursting at the seams. Globally, up to 30 volcanoes erupt each day – and hundreds more could explode at any time. Meet the people and wildlife that live alongside these volcanoes, from Kilauea to Mount Etna. Discover how volcanoes not only cause destruction but also create and nourish life.

Courtesy of Alex Ranken / © True to Nature Ltd

Chris Horsley and Dr Jeffrey Marlow begin their descent to the lava lake to collect samples looking for signs of life inside Marum Crater, Vanuatu.

In the “burning heart” of this documentary is a daring expedition of scientists and adventurers to one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, located in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Take a terrifying descent into Marum Crater with biologist Jeffrey Marlow, who risks a boiling lava lake to collect and analyze rock samples for signs of life. His findings could lead to a better understanding of the origins of life and a picture of what life might look like outside of Earth. James naughton recount.

NATURE: Living volcanoes: overview

Featured Creatures:

  • phytoplankton
  • Manta rays
  • Wildebeest
  • Quito Rocket Frogs
  • Argentata dell’Etna goats
  • Hawaiian carnivorous Eupithecia caterpillars
  • Thread related bugs
  • Galapagos giant tortoise

Two goats on Mount Etna, Italy.

Courtesy of Amy Thompson / © True to Nature Ltd

Two goats on Mount Etna, Italy.

Notable facts:

  • There are hundreds of active volcanoes on Earth. Every day, up to 30 of these volcanoes are in the eruptive phase.
  • Etna in Italy is one of the largest active volcanoes in the world. Despite the danger, people live nearby as the soil created by the Etna eruptions produces some of the richest farmland in the whole country. Dr Salvatore Giammanco, an Italian volcanologist, studies the gases emitted by Mount Etna and finds that water vapor levels are extremely high – Mount Etna releases hundreds of thousands of tons of vapor into the atmosphere every day. This finding supports a widely held theory that the first water on Earth did not emerge from comets, but from a volcano that tore through the Earth’s crust.
  • Kilauea is the most active volcano in the United States – the 2018 eruption was the most devastating in 200 years, but the volcano is also said to have provided life. Following the recent eruption, scientists at the University of Hawaii saw giant blooms of phytoplankton in the ocean, which emerged from the enriched lava. Phytoplankton feed on larger zooplankton, which in turn becomes food for larger animals like manta rays.

The Quito Rocket Frog is perched on a rock face on the slopes of the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador.

Courtesy of Amy Thompson / © True to Nature Ltd

The Quito Rocket Frog is perched on a rock face on the slopes of the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador.

Interesting moments:

  • One of the most active volcanic hotspots on Earth is the Marum Crater of Ambrym Volcano in Vanuatu. Harvard University geobiologist Dr Jeffrey Marlow travels to Marum to search for extremophiles, microorganisms capable of surviving in the most extreme environments. Accompanied by an expedition specialist Chris Horsley, Dr. Marlow sets out on a perilous journey down into the crater and collect samples at the edge of its bubbling lava lake. At the risk of a 1,300-foot drop, threats of acid rain and extreme temperatures, Dr. Marlow hopes his findings could help explain how life can exist elsewhere in the universe.
  • A small cove at the base of the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador is home to an extremely rare species of frog, the Quito Rocket frog. With only around 100 of these frogs in the world, their home is on the verge of danger should the volcano erupt. A team of scientists, led by Dr Andres Merino, frantically collect the last remaining frogs for a breeding program to help save the species.
  • Argentata dell’Etna is a breed of goat that can only be found on the upper slopes of Etna. A breeder finds that the goats behave erratically shortly before one of the Etna eruptions. Scientists are using GPS beacons to corroborate that goats do indeed leave the mountain before an eruption, but it is not yet clear what triggers their sixth sense.
  • Isolated in the Pacific, 90 percent of Hawaii’s native species are found nowhere else on the planet, and continual disturbance from volcanoes has created a landscape that can accelerate evolution. A resulting example is the carnivorous caterpillar Eupithecia. This unusual caterpillar uses camouflage and claws to trap and ambush its prey.

Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador, with the heavily populated community below.

Courtesy of Zach Voss / © Retroscope Media

Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador, with the heavily populated community below.


NATURE is a production of Thirteen Productions LLC for WNET and PBS. For NATURE, Fred kaufman is executive producer. Bill murphy is a series producer and Janet Hess is a series editor. A manufacture of True to nature limited in coproduction with ZDF, ZDF companies, ARTEand Thirteen Productions LLC for WNET. The documentary is produced and directed by Alex ranken. Wendy darke is executive producer for True to Nature Ltd. Narrated by James Naughton.

Bubbling lava pools from the 2018 eruption of Kilauea, Hawaii

Courtesy of John Paul Careless / © Spotmatik

Bubbling lava pools from the 2018 eruption of Kilauea, Hawaii.