Learning about Volcanology in Auvergne, France

Vulcania conic structure houses volcanology exhibits (Credit: MCArnott)

Vulcania conic structure is the entrance to the volcanology exhibits (Photo by MCArnott)

I am holding my breath while other fellow voyagers let out screams of exhilaration. We are tumbling at a vertiginous speed — so it seems — into the magma chamber of an active volcano. The idea of hell crosses my mind.

Then I remember: We are in a simulator. We haven’t moved at all.

I am exploring the guts of the earth at Vulcania, in France. It’s a type of science amusement park for families, and an education and academic resource center for volcanology. Every exhibit, 4D film, and presentation about volcanoes offers a unique experience to learn, feel, and imagine the fantastic power of planet Earth — and to fear its wrath.

Vulcania: The Aventure of Planet Earth

Clermond-Ferrand and the gothic Cathedral Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption built with volcanic rock (Photo: MCArnott)

Clermond-Ferrand and the gothic Cathedral Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption built with volcanic rock (Photo by MCArnott)

 

Vulcania is located in Saint-Ourse-les Roches, a 20-minute drive from Clermont-Ferrand, the capital of Auvergne in central France. Built in 2002, the geological park sits on a 93,000 year-old and 40 kilometer-long volcanic range known for its Sleeping Giants–the dormant volcanoes that rise in the countryside as grassy pyramidal mountains. The highest (and youngest) is Puy de Dôme, which peaks at 1,465 meters.

Vulcania’s landmark is a curious 28 meter-high conic structure. Sheets of volcanic rock wrap the outside “to reflect the light without blinding.” The  inside is high-tech: The gold liner is made of stainless steel tinted with vaporised titanium.

But, it’s the pairing of  reality and simulation that is most interesting here. With a 35 meter-deep crater, a caldera and a lava tunnel, most of Vulcania is hidden under the volcanic subsoil, in the lava of a volcano that erupted 30,000 years ago.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • It may be the closest you will ever be to a volcanic “eruption.”
  • It’s an unusual theme for an amusement park.
  • For students who like to learn through thrill (and fear?).
  • For walkers (trails), families (activities suitable for all ages), scientists at heart, and physically and visually impaired visitors.

Becoming a Virtual Explorer at Vulcania

Our visit begins with the Dragon Ride that introduces us to the world of volcanology before it existed scientifically. I feel the breath of dragons, the Earth rolling under my feet, and something mysterious poking me in the back. The sound and visual effects show how mythical creatures such as dragons were invented to explain natural phenomena before science did.

The fun becomes really serious when I explore Mission Toba. It tells the story of the super volcano that erupted in Indonesia some 74,000 years ago. As I watch the fictionalized, yet scientifically-based vision of this doomsday eruption, I ponder how dormant, dormant really is. I am, after all, standing in the middle of the volcanic region of Auvergne. Could any of these mountains explode again? What if they did?

I have my answer at another attraction: The Awakening of the Sleeping Giants of Auvergne. I watch a grassy mount blow up in smoke, and get startled when the cap explodes and the volcano spits rocks and fire… just like a furious dragon. Animals flee from woods and burrows while a bellowing ashy mass drifts over the shaken, yet still verdant countryside. When magma spills downs the slopes, it scorches everything on its way. My jaw has dropped and my mouth is dry. What if?

The Puy de Dome last erupted in 5760 B.C. (Photo by MCArnott)

The Puy de Dome last erupted in 5760 B.C. (Photo by MCArnott)

 

I mull over an interactive map showing the location of a dozen super-volcano sites in the world. The mightiest one? Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming: 10,000 times more powerful than a regular volcano. Researchers claim that it would plunge the planet into a volcanic winter for several years, and wipe out part of the human population (see the note below).

I am particularly interested by an exhibit of the Pacific Northwest, where I live. The Cascade Range is featured with the 1980 devastating eruption of Mount St. Helens. It had been dormant for 123 years, but it’s a mere blink of the eye in volcano time. Nearby, Mounts Baker, Hood and Shasta are still holding their fire. And so are most of the 1,500 active and dormant volcanoes worldwide. About two dozen of them are in an eruptive phase.

An Education in Geologic Sciences

Tementit meteorite

The Tementit meteorite in display at Vulcania in France (Photo by MCArnott)

 

Around me, young teenage visitors enjoy the serious fun of the educational rides; some are enrolled in one of the Vulcania scholastic science programs. There, they  learn how geologists delve in the physical records of volcanoes to trace prehistoric eruptions dozens of millennia back. Some might question the red color of the magma whereas the interior of the planet (and of all planets) is mostly green. They’ll be introduced to the work of geophysicists and geochemists who deal with the subterranean layers, and of meteorologists who keep track of dusts and gases in the atmosphere around the globe. And they will learn about the science of volcanology.

There are about 1,000 volcanologists worldwide, yet only ten are reported as “hands-on” as Katia and Maurice Krafft were. The two French volcanologists, their American colleague Harry Glicken and 40 others perished at Mount Unzen on the Japanese island of Kyushu, from a pyroclastic flow (an eruption of volcanic rocks and searing gases). The new exhibit Volcano Devils memorializes their life mission: To witness and understand volcanic eruptions in order to educate and help reduce, if not prevent volcanic disasters.

 

 

The exhibits and attractions are filled with extremes: interactive platforms, virtual explosions, the chance to ponder the origin of a metallic 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite that must have hit earth in its earliest days. Meanwhile, in the indoor mossy garden “50 year-young” tree ferns quietly strive in rich volcanic soil.

I take a last, but real ride on the electric GPS-navigated VolcanBul vehicle, reassured by the peaceful above-ground views of the natural landscape: All is quiet on the front of the Sleeping Giants.

*Note: For peace of mind, consider this article excerpt with a quote from Jake Lowenstern, head of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory: “… there is little indication that one [eruption] will happen anytime soon. Serious volcanic activity would ‘follow a considerable amount of [ground] deformation, intense earthquake swarms, and steam explosions. Yellowstone’s recent activity pales in comparison.”’

Practicalities

  • Vulcania is accessible by car from Clermont-Ferrand freeway exit, train station, or airport.
  • Plan for a 4-6-hour visit – Tickets are available online for specific times.
  • Furthermore, the site has been awarded the National Accessibility Charter to welcome physically, mentally, and visually-impaired visitors.
  • At Vulcania.com select “Language” to navigate most of the website in English. Pre-book a guided group-visit in English (3€/person), or use self-paced audio guides in English (3€). The exhibits interpretive staff speaks English. Films are subtitled in five languages, including English. Brochures are in French only.
  • Note that workshops at La Cité des Enfants (for children aged 3-7) are animated in French. Except during French school vacations, it is possible to pre-book a scholastic workshop in English. English-speaking staff are available for other activities. Special interactive presentations in the 200-person auditorium are in French only.
  • Don’t let the language stop you from visiting Vulcania: There is plenty to see and the staff is friendly and helpful (usually they are students from Clermont-Ferrand Pascal Blaise Université).
  • Some rides are not recommended for children under 5, pregnant women, and anyone sensitive to shaking motions (warning by symbol on brochure, at location, or by staff).
  • Free parking, restaurants, and picnic areas are available. Dogs and camping are not allowed.
  • Vulcania can be booked for conventions and private events.

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