Obituary: Haroun Tazieff

Bill McGuire
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:36

Haroun Tazieff, vulcanologist: born Warsaw 11 May 1914; Assistant Professor of Geology, University of Brussels 1950-52; Head of Research, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France 1967-70, Director 1971-81; Secretary of State in the Prime Minister's Office for Prevention of Natural Disasters 1974-86; Mayor of Mirmande 1977-89; married 1952 Pauline de Ways-Ruart d'Elzius (deceased), 1958 France Depierre; died Paris 2 February 1998.

Tell any French citizen that you work on active volcanoes for a living, and their inevitable first question will be, "Do you know Haroun Tazieff?" Such was the visibility and charisma of Tazieff that everyone in the country knew who he was and what he did for a living. This might be expected for a politician or a celebrated actor, but for a scientist in a small - if rather glamorous - branch of the earth sciences, it was quite extraordinary.

Tazieff reached this almost godlike status by taking one of nature's most spectacular and terrifying phenomena and transporting it into the lives of every French man, woman, and child - both through his books and, more importantly, through his breathtaking films of volcanoes in action.

Born in Poland in 1914, Tazieff spent his formative years - following the death of his father - with his mother in St Petersburg, and later in Belgium, where he studied geology and agriculture. Always fascinated by the Earth and everything associated with it, Tazieff worked as a geologist, first amongst the snowy peaks of the French Alps, and later - in the 1940s - in the steamy jungles of the Belgian Congo. It was here at last that he discovered volcanoes, and in them a natural phenomenon worth his attention.

It would be untrue to say that Tazieff fell in love with volcanoes; rather he regarded them as the enemy. As a keen boxer and rugby player, Tazieff viewed volcanoes as he would an opposing fighter or team - as something to be overcome at all odds. Some fellow vulcanologists, and especially those with a more sobre and scientific bent, frowned upon this attitude, but it found favour and admiration in the hearts of his French compatriots who followed his struggles against molten rock across the planet and viewed his ordeals somewhat in the light of France against nature.

For the first time, his documentary films gave the viewer a real impression of the terrifying power of volcanic eruptions and the destruction they are capable of wreaking. The human interest in the films was inevitably provided by Tazieff himself as - apparently oblivious to any danger and for no obvious reason - he placed himself, time and time again, in incredibly dangerous positions on the rims of exploding craters, in the paths of lava flows, and in boats on the surfaces of acid crater lakes.

Tazieff never did anything by halves and always had one eye on the camera throughout his long and active career. When a new crater opened up at the summit of Mount Etna (Sicily) in 1968, the UK sent a single researcher to sample the escaping gases; Tazieff on the other hand led a major expedition, complete with sherpas and shiny reflective silver suits. Needless to say film of the team in action was shortly to be seen all over France encouraging another generation's interest in volcanoes and their activity.

However popular he was with his countrymen as a whole, it would be wrong to imagine that Tazieff did not create ripples, or even rather large waves, wherever he went. During the 1976 volcanic crisis on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, he argued violently with another great French earth scientist, Claude Allegre - correctly, as it turned out - against the needless evacuation of 75,000 people from the vicinity of the volcano.

In 1980, just before the biggest eruption in North America since 1912, he assured US citizens that Mount St Helens would not erupt any further. Following a submarine landslide off the south coast of France, Tazieff announced that the town of Nice could disappear into the sea at any moment, a prediction that led an irate mayor to describe Tazieff as "a photographer who specialises in volcanoes" - a serious putdown for a man who regarded himself very much as a scientist first and foremost.

In his later years, Tazieff entered the political scene, becoming Secretary of State for the Prevention of Natural and Technological Disasters in 1984. He lacked, however, the guile and subtlety of a natural politician, and preferred the freedom that allowed him to speak his mind on all and every issue. According to Tazieff, global warming was an "outright invention" and the ozone holes had been around since the 1920s and had nothing to do with CFCs.

Perhaps the most surprising of Tazieff's remarks were reserved for his scientist compatriot Jacques Cousteau, whose stance against nuclear testing at sea he described as "imbecilic". Surprising, because - in the eyes of the French and many other avid followers of his films across the world - Haroun Tazieff was the Jacques Cousteau of volcanoes.

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