\Have you hugged a volcano lately? You should. Although we commonly perceive them as lava-spewing cones of doom, humans probably wouldn’t be here without them.
Roughly 2.5 billion years ago, underwater volcanoes breached the ocean’s surface and began emitting gases like steam, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen into the air: These became the building blocks of a life-supporting atmosphere. When all that carbon dioxide dissolved into the oceans, simple cyanobacteria—which possibly evolved thanks to underwater volcanoes called black smokers—gobbled it up and released an important byproduct: oxygen. So, it seems humanity owes volcanoes a debt of gratitude. And in a way, we’ve already thanked them. Ancient cultures turned these mountains into gods and goddesses, like Vulcan, Hephaestus, and Pele. We still worship them today, but mainly by vacationing in their shadows. Approximately 1500 potentially active volcanoes dot the globe, and each one is a unique source of wonder.
1. SAKURAJIMA // Kyushu, Japan
Ash billows daily from Japan’s Sakurajima, which is so active that authorities prohibit anyone from climbing it. Sakurajima’s activity often causes “dirty thunderstorms.” When the mountain throws a tantrum, lava and rock fragments spew into the air, colliding and creating electric charges. The result? Lightning bolts streaking over an erupting cone.
2. COTOPAXI // Quito, Ecuador
Ecuador’s second highest peak hasn’t erupted for decades. That’s made Cotopaxi popular with a diverse set of adventurers, namely climbers, skiiers, and... bird-watchers. That’s partially the fault of the Ecuadorian Hillstar, a rugged species of hummingbird, that likes hanging out there.
3. PACAYA // Escuintla, Guatemala
Guatemala’s Pacaya is a popular tourist draw, despite the fact that it erupts with some frequency (it last blew its lid this past spring!). Volcano diehards can go on day hikes from nearby Antigua or Guatemala City and walk close enough to the lava to poke a stick in it.
4. MOUNT ETNA // Sicily, Italy
Europe’s tallest active volcano, Mount Etna in Sicily is also the birthplace of volcanology. Etna inspired the Greek philosopher Empedocles to divide the world into four elements: earth, wind, water, and fire. Although Empedocles was the first person to study volcanoes, he met a rather unscientific end when he tested a weak hypothesis: He jumped into Etna’s fiery crater to prove his immortality.
5. MOUNT MAYON // Luzon, Philippines
Mount Mayon is the Philippines’ most active volcano and probably the easiest to paint—the smoking cone is almost perfectly symmetrical. But good looks can be deceiving. In 1814, Mayon erupted, followed by Mount Tambora in Indonesia the next year. The two belched so much ash into the atmosphere that, in 1816, temperatures plummeted worldwide. In New England, snow fell as late as August, and people called it the Year Without a Summer.
6. EYJAFJALLAJÖKULL // Iceland
Remember when this geological boil halted air traffic over Europe in 2010? Well, today you can take helicopter rides over the scarred, blackened remains of Eyjafjal- lajökull [eye-a-fyat-la-jo-kuhl], Iceland.
A version of this story ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2022.