Dear Richard Herring,
I must admit I read your article in the Metro last week with great interest, for I am a geologist and as such I feel I am adequately qualified to assist you in your volcano-jumping quest.
I am very much in accord with your desire to become a perfect fossil, a symbol to the future for our times. But there is one very important thing you must understand first: in order to become a perfect fossil, you must choose the method with the greatest – dun dun duuuun! – PRESERVATION POTENTIAL!
For example, you could choose to walk into the lava lake of the fabulous Nyiragongo. But the surface temperature of the lava here is more than 1000°C. Your body matter would quite simply burn away and leave no trace in the fossil record. Darnit! It would have looked lovely and dramatic too!
Okay, so no jumping into actual lava. What now? Well, you could try jumping into the centre of a dormant volcano, like the island of Vulcano in Italy. There’s no lava, but there are enough poisonous gases to put an end to things within minutes. These gases are so heavy they cannot rise through the lighter air, so stay sunken in the crater waiting for an unsuspecting potential-fossil.
But this option has its downsides too. The dormant volcano may become active again in future, and a massive explosion may blast you out of the crater along with the volcanic plug that’s blocked it up for all that time. Your preservation potential would be – literally – shattered. So maybe this option’s no good..
We could try one of Vulcano’s cousins, Stromboli. If you are lucky enough to get close to Stromboli while it’s erupting, you might stand a chance of being hit in the head by a boiling lava bomb (like my old teacher did – don’t worry, he survived – it was not his time to become a fossil!).
Provided enough lava bombs by chance hit you, you could become buried in rapidly cooling rubble, which has a little more preservation potential than the previous options.
But we’re going for perfection here. Let’s skip across to Vesuvius. Everyone knows AD79, the eruption that decimated Herculaneum and Pompeii, right? Okay, most people in that debacle died in the massive pyroclastic flow (a mess of fluidised ash, air and hot stuff from the earth’s belly) that engulfed the region. Pyroclastic flows can move as fast as a car on the motorway, and it would be a pretty quick way to go! Maybe this would be a good option, then? You would be fossilised in ash, provided that nobody disturbed your remains. For what would happen if you were disturbed?
Volcanic ash is not the strongest of materials, even when it forms a concrete-ish mass called an ignimbrite. It’s still quite easy to disturb, and in a volcanic area, earthquakes and future eruptions seriously lower your chances of perfect preservation. There’s also the fact that the intense heat from the pyroclastic blast will strip away the finer features of yourself, the minutiae that would render you a perfect fossil.
So what is the ultimate solution? There has to be one, right?
Oh, and there is:
Your best bet really is just to wait until a massive volcanic eruption or meteor strike occurs, and while the ensuing particles to taint the atmosphere and the oceans with poison, wait in a shallow muddy sea until the water becomes completely devoid of oxygen (ensuring all the fishy things in the sea won’t nibble at your body), then wait until the toxic atmosphere really takes hold.
Et voilà! A couple of million years from now and your body will be perfectly, wonderfully preserved! (Provided plate tectonics doesn’t get in the way in the meantime!) You would have successfully become a Lagerstätte, which is the word we geologists use for the most amazingly preserved fossils in the world!
Yours most sincerely,