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Updated Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 07:31 AM

‘Life on Fire’: living with volcanoes

By Michael Upchurch
Seattle Times arts writer

What better way to start the New Year than with a glimpse at one of the newest places on earth? — Iceland, where some of the terrain was created in just the last year or so.

“Icelandic Volcanoes” (10 p.m. Wednesday on KCTS) is the opening episode in PBS’ six-part “Life on Fire,” a series focusing on the effects of volcanoes on all sorts of creatures, great and small, living near or far from eruptive activity.

While “Icelandic Volcanoes” concentrates on the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010 and the five Icelandic volcanoes most likely to blow next (with an emphasis on their potential disruptions to human activities), other episodes examine the plight of Alaskan salmon when their streams are wiped out by volcanic torrents; bats and parakeets living in the crater of Nicaragua’s volatile Masaya volcano; and other species adapting as best they can in the South Pacific and other locales.

There’s also an episode, “Volcano Doctors” (Jan. 9), chronicling scientists’ efforts to predict volcanic activity in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Chile and Iceland in order to safeguard populations living in hazard zones.

Jeremy Irons narrates all six episodes, and his elegantly purring delivery has rarely sounded so seductively ominous. There should be a special Oscar category just to honor the mellifluous way “Eyjafjallajökull” rolls off his tongue: you can almost taste the ash-clouds in his voice.

“Icelandic Volcanoes” makes it clear that the 2010 eruption of the near-unpronounceable volcano was small potatoes as far as Icelandic volcanism goes. Among the country’s 30 active volcanoes, the biggest threats loom from Katla, Hekla, Laki, Askja and Grimsvotn (which had a minor eruption in 2011).

The problem, of course, is the damage airborne ash can do to airplane engines. The documentary outlines the ripple effect of that damage beyond its paralysis of passenger air travel in Europe. One example: The importation of food and flowers into Europe also comes to a halt, bringing losses to growers in Kenya, Zambia and Uganda, countries thousands of miles from the eruption.

The cinematography on “Icelandic Volcanoes” and “The Surprise Salmon” (the one other episode I’ve seen, airing Jan. 16) zooms in startlingly close to the action, thanks to “a superpowered filming application” with powerful telescopic abilities. (You may well feel like a beleaguered salmon, in the latter.) The use of menacing slow-motion footage and rumbling music/sound cues sometimes can verge on the hokey — but the overall level of film-craft is high indeed.

Note: For those unable to get enough of Icelandic volcanism, PBS is airing its Iceland-centric Nova episode, “Doomsday Volcanoes,” at 9 p.m. Wednesday, just before “Life on Fire.”

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

On TV

‘Life on Fire’

10 p.m. Wednesdays, KCTS, Jan. 2-Feb. 6


Courtesy of Saint Thomas Productions
A helicopter over the crater of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland, which erupted in 2010.




Courtesy of Saint Thomas Productions
Hekla volcano in Iceland. Hekla is ready to erupt, but its magma chamber is so deep, even for modern instruments, that it will give little warning.




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