They can be hot, smelly, and dangerous, why would someone want to work on volcanoes?
What's it really like to work on one that's erupting?
What kind of things worry someone who deals with danger on a daily basis?
We've compiled candid interviews with some of the world's foremost volcanologists.
Read about their personal experiences including the highs and lows and "thrills and chills" of studying volcanoes!
There are all kinds of volcanologists, women and men who work in many different countries and come from many different backgrounds. Are you interested in becoming one yourself? Check out our FAQ's under 'Studying Volcanoes / Volcanology.'
Chris went to school at Western Washington University for his Bachlors degree and New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology for his Master’s degree. Chris began work on his Ph.D at the University of North Dakota and finished at Oregon State Unviersity. He also volunteered as a VW content editor for many years. This interview was originally conducted online 5/22/06 in response to a student request. Chris most recently worked for the Earth Observatory of Singapore.
1. Have you studied volcanoes in the field?
Yes, starting from the first time I ever worked on a volcano I have been doing field work on volcanoes for 13 years now.
2. If so, where?
Here in the United States I have worked mostly on the Cascades volcanoes, such as Rainier, St. Helens, Medicine Lake caldera, Newberry Caldera, and South Sister. Also, I have worked at Long Valley caldera in California and a little bit on Kilauea in Hawaii. In other parts of the world, I have worked on Mount Erebus in Antarctica and Misti volcano in Peru.
3. What is some of the information you have to collect from a volcano (in the field)?
In the work that I have done I collect many types of information. I take samples of the deposits to understand the past eruptions of the volcano and also I have been involved in many projects to monitor volcanoes. Typically monitoring includes installing instruments for detecting earthquakes and also very subtle uplift or sagging of the ground surface.
4. What was the most exciting volcano you’ve ever studied?
They are all exciting in their unique ways. I think that two specifically stand out for me, St. Helens and Erebus.
5. Where is it located?
Erebus is located on Ross Island, Antarctica. St. Helens is located in Washington State.
6. What made it so exciting/ interesting?
The location of Erebus in Antarctica is amazing, the snow, ice, and rock are beautiful and I think the fact that very few people have ever been there makes it a really special place to work. Also, it is a weird type of volcano and has a lake of molten lava at the summit.
St. Helens is a little different. I grew up close to St. Helens and have been hiking and skiing there since I was very young. So I have had a lifelong relationship with this volcano and I am very attached to it. This makes it a very special place for me.
7. What was the most dangerous volcano you’ve ever studied?
Probably the most dangerous for me personally would have to have been Erebus or St. Helens. I have worked on both volcanoes when there was a high possibility for eruptions occurring. The most dangerous volcano for the surrounding population is easily Misti volcano.
8. Where is it located?
See above for Erebus and St. Helens. Misti is located in southern Peru near a city called Arequipa.
9. What made it so dangerous?
Well, in the case of St. Helens and Erebus, both were in an active state and there was the potential for small eruptions to occur. In the case of Misti there are around 1 million people living within about 10 miles of a volcano that could reawaken at some point in the future causing very severe problems for these people.
10. What is the largest volcano you’ve studied?
Misti is just over 19,000 feet high which is easily the highest volcano that I have ever studied. However, because it is an island and a large part of the volcano is below sea-level Erebus is the overall largest volcano that I have ever studied.
11. Where is it located?
12. How long have you been studying volcanoes?
Around 13 years.
13. Have you ever been injured while studying a volcano?
I have never had any injuries directly related to the volcano. However, every field geologist has had scrapes, cuts, bruises, and assorted sore muscles from their work.
14. If so, how?
15. What made you decide to become a volcanologist?
Initially, when I went to college I fell in love with geology and when I went home for the summers I tried to find work doing geology. The local office of the US Geological Survey was a volcano observatory and so I started working there and in turn I found that volcanology was really interesting.
16. Where did you go to school for it?
I went to Western Washington University for my Bachilors degree, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology for my Master’s degree and now I am here at University of North Dakota working on my Ph.D. I will be moving to the University of Oregon this Fall to complete my studies.
17. Where did you get your first job?
My first volcanology job was with the US Geological Survey.
18. What was the first volcano you’ve ever studied?
The first volcano that I ever worked on a project at was Long Valley caldera.
19. Where is it located?
Long Valley Caldera is in central eastern California, essentially at the town of Mammoth Lakes.
20. In your opinion, how have volcanoes affected the earth the most?
Well, volcanoes are responsible for forming the atmosphere which is pretty important.
21. How do you think they have affected the solar system the most?
Volcanism is a major factor on all of the terrestrial planets, so it has had a huge affect in forming the Earth, Mars, and Venus.
Christina Heliker received her Bachelor's Degree from the University of Montana and completed a Master's thesis on inclusions in the lava dome of Mt. Saint Helens. From 1980 to 1984, she worked as a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's Cascade Volcano Observatory. In 1984, she joined the crew at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Kilauea began erupting continuously on January 3, 1983. She is the only geologist to remain on site throughout the current eruption of Kilauea Volcano, making her one of the leading experts on this eruption.
Christina Heliker was interviewed by Tari Mattox on May 21, 1999, in her office at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO). From 1989 through 1995, Christina and Tari worked together at HVO as part of a 3-woman Geology Team, a group responsible for mapping and monitoring the day-to-day activity of the eruptions in Hawaii.
|Christina Heliker and cheetah in Namibia.
Photo by Carol Carpenter.
The first question is, how did you get started in volcanology? What interested you in volcanology?
Well, I was working for the U.S.G.S. in Tacoma, Washington at an office devoted to studying glaciers when Mt. St. Helens erupted in May 1980. Up until then, I had absolutely no idea that I ever wanted to be a volcanologist, but the eruption of Mt. St. Helens changed the course of a lot of people's lives, and I was one of them. I went down to St. Helens the weekend after the big eruption and volunteered to help. There was chaos after the eruption, and they needed people to answer phones in this makeshift office. Eventually, I moved down there and worked for the newly created Cascades Volcano Observatory part-time while I went to graduate school. Then I was transferred to the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, and I've been here ever since.
What was it about studying volcanoes that drew you to the field? Was there something specific that attracted you to it?
Seeing the area that had been devastated by Mount St. Helens and watching the lava dome grow in the crater over the next couple years was an amazing experience. I think any earth scientist who had the opportunity to be there was instantly converted to volcanology.
Yeah, they're pretty dynamic. Actually glaciers are too. Glaciers and volcanoes both.
Volcanoes are warmer.
Yeah, you like the idea that they're hot! Have you ever been scared or really worried while working on a volcano?
Sure! How many experiences do you want to hear about?
Oh, whichever one you think is best or a single one that stands out.
I can think of a couple. The first was at St. Helens. It was always a bit scary working in the crater in the early days, of course because we were worried about explosive eruptions. Sometimes we felt dozens of earthquakes in a single day which sort of keeps you on edge. And there were constant rockfalls off the crater walls and the lava dome. One day, I was collecting rocks on the talus slope at the base of the dome, and I looked up and there was this huge block that was balanced on the slope above me. I was just thinking how precarious it looked when it toppled towards me. It was the size of a UPS truck and was breaking apart as it crashed down, throwing out little bits of hot shrapnel that zinged past me. I turned and tore down the slope and dove behind another big rock for shelter. I've never run across talus that fast before or since.
How close did it come?
The block stopped on the slope above me, but there were lots of airborne fragments that shot past me.
What was the other experience?
Here's one from Hawaii, and it involved flying in a helicopter, which is one of the more dangerous things that volcanologists do.
Yeah, that's probably my scariest experience too!
Yeah, sometimes we fly in less than ideal circumstances. One time I remember, we were camped out by Pu`u `O`o and there was an eruption in progress. It was just before dusk and we wanted to map the flows one more time from the helicopter before dark. So I went out alone with the pilot, and when I finished mapping we tried to get back to camp, but the clouds had come in and they were so low we couldn't tell where we were. The pilot was trying to follow the flow back to camp, so he went beneath the clouds. We had clouds above us and an active `a`a flow below. We were only a couple hundred feet above the flow, and we were inching along sideways because he didn't want to run into the cone where the camp was. Yikes, that was such an eerie scene. It was almost dark, and we were sandwiched between an incandescent field of `a`a and this thick layer of clouds that were glowing orange from the reflected light of the lava. I was plenty relieved when the pilot decided to give it up and fly out to somewhere else.
Did you worry about flying into the fountain or was that not possible?
Well, the pilot had to look out for the falling tephra, but mainly he was just worried about flying into 1123 (the hill where volcanologists camped when monitoring Pu`u `O`o) because it was the biggest hill around, except for Pu`u `O`o.
What's the funniest thing that happened to you while working on a volcano? I know we've had a lot of funny times but there must be one that stands out!
Hmm, funny...well, a lot of things seem funnier in retrospect than they did when they were happening. I remember being caught in a cloud of steam and sulfur dioxide on the rim of Pu`u `O`o crater with another geologist. We couldn't see more than a few feet in front of us, and the fume was terrible, even wearing gas masks. We were stumbling around and arguing about which way we should go which is hard to do wearing a gas mask because it’s like trying to talk with someone’s hand across your mouth. Then I heard this muffled shriek from my partner, who had almost stepped off the rim into the crater. We finally found our way out of the whiteout, but if anyone could have seen us in our identical flight suits and gas masks feeling our way through a cloud of gas you would have thought it was a scene from The Three Stooges--except that there were only two of us, because you were somewhere else that day.
As you know, a lot of funny situations don't have to do with the volcano so much as the people in them.
Here's another one, kind-of along the same vein, what was the strangest experience you ever had? Has anything weird ever happened to you?
Well, it wasn't weird in the sense of being supernatural, but it was very strange at the time because I'd never seen anything like it. A high-fountaining episode at Pu`u `O`o had ended several hours before, and we were about to fly back to the observatory. Then we saw these cracks starting to open in the ground on the uprift side of the cone. We went to look, and the cracks were continuing to open ahead of us, so we followed along, with the ground splitting open at about the same pace that we were walking. This went on for several hundred meters.
Was this was new lava or old?
This was on cinder-covered ground so you couldn't see the rock that was being cracked, you could just see the cinders slumping into the fissure. We kept falling into these troughs in the cinders as we followed the cracks. There was no heat or gas coming from the cracks at that point, but early the next morning, a fissure eruption began. So we had been on hand to see the fissures opening up.
Wow, so this was right after a fountaining event?
Yeah, it was right after episode 35 at Pu`u `O`o. The fissure eruption went on for a couple of weeks.
What would you rate as the best experience you’ve had while working on a volcano?
The best part is working in some really beautiful areas that are constantly changing. Usually geologists are studying landscapes that took thousands or millions of years to form, and out here in Hawaii we can see drastic changes from day to day. So volcanoes are very powerful places to work. An active volcano almost feels like a living entity.
That leads into the next question about what you like best about your chosen profession. Anything else you want to list about what you like best about being a volcanologist?
I guess it's rare to have a job that people are so interested in and curious about. Everyone wants to know more about volcanoes, which makes all the public speaking I do a lot easier, because the audience is so receptive.
What's the most difficult thing about being a volcanologist?
Well, the job can be physically demanding at times because it's so hot on an active volcano, especially here in Hawaii. And students who are interested in volcanology should be aware that they still have to spend a lot of time indoors staring at a computer. One of the biggest problems for volcanologists is that there aren't enough active volcanoes to go around, so it's hard to find a job.
One final note, we know you are fond of cats and are very active in the local Humane Society. We have a picture of you petting a very large cat, a cheetah, can you tell us a little about what you were doing when this photograph was taken?
I had the honor of meeting that cheetah last year in Namibia. I spent my vacation there volunteering for the Cheetah Conservation Fund, which was a fantastic experience. Seeing all the African wildlife for the first time, I felt like the volunteers at HVO feel when they see their first active lava!
Jim Kauahikaua is a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. He received his Bachelor of Science from Pomona College in 1973, his Masters degree from University of Hawai`i in 1976 and his Ph.D. from the same institution in 1982. Jim has worked for the U.S. Geological Survey since 1976, first for the Branch of geophysics in Denver, then at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park . He began working at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1988. Jim is busy studying the current eruption of Kilauea Volcano. He also enjoys detailing the connection between Hawaiian mythology/stories/history and geological events. He is a wonderful roll model for native Hawaiian children and devotes a great deal of time to teaching kids about volcanology through Hawaii’s Na Pua No`eau program.
(Image Caption: Geophysicist Jim Kauahikaua waiting for a helicopter to take him out to work on Kilauea Volcano. Photo courtesy of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)
What was the funniest thing that happened to you while working on a volcano?
What was the strangest experience you ever had on a volcano? Has anything weird ever happen to you?
Have you every been scared or really worried while working on a volcano?
Photograph by J. Kauahikaua on October 2, 1997.
Pu`u `O`o crater and the remnants of the once 255 m-high cinder and spattercone.
What was the worst thing that you’ve experienced on the job. Did it make you wonder if you should change professions?
Kathy Cashman has a Masters degree in Geology from Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand and a Ph.D. from John Hopkins University, MD. She worked in New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship studying igneous petrology. From 1980 to 1982, she was the Public Information Scientist at the Cascade Volcano Observatory, WA. Following her Ph.D. she was an Assistant Professor at Princeton University, NJ for 5 years. She is now a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Oregon.
Her current research involves studies of both active lava flows in Hawaii and the products of more explosive volcanic eruptions. Her primary interest lies in understanding interactions between chemical and physical processes that occur as magma ascends from deep within the Earth, erupts, and is emplaced on the Earth's surface.
Dr. Cashman was interviewed for VolcanoWorld on June 20th, 1999, in her home in Oregon.
How did you get started in volcanology and what was it about volcanoes that drew you to the field?
I didn't always want to be a volcanologist. I first became interested in volcanoes when I was in New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship, because New Zealand has several volcanoes. Then I had a chance to go down to Antarctica and work on an active volcano, Mt. Erebus. It was seeing red lava that made me decide this is what I wanted to work on.
Now how did you get that chance to go to Mt. Erebus? Was that while you were working in New Zealand?
I was doing fieldwork in New Zealand for my Masters thesis, and one of my field assistants was a geologist on his way back to the US from Antarctica. He was trying to put together a group of people to do a big Antarctic trip the following year, and he asked me "How would you like to go to Antarctica?" Of course!
Was it a very involved expedition to get down there and get out to Erebus?
American Antarctic work is done through research grants awarded by the National Science Foundation. We were not going down to Antarctica to work on Erebus, but instead to do a 500-mile reconnaissance loop by snowmobiles to look at lava flows that were related to the break-up of Gondwanaland, a supercontinent. A little less than 200 million years ago, the supercontinent started to break apart, and the Antarctic drifted away from Australia and South Africa. This breakup resulted in huge floods of basaltic lava. We were traveling around and doing field work on those lavas. However, Phil Kyle, the geologist who organized the expedition, was also very interested in Mt. Erebus. He had established a monitoring program on the volcano, and so we had the chance to spend two weeks at the summit - that was the truly special part of the trip for me.
What was it like looking down at lava?
It was amazing because the volcano is thirteen thousand feet-high, and it was probably 20 or 30 below zero on the top. There is a great big crater in the top of the volcano with very, very steep sides. We would walk up to the top and lie down on our stomachs and look down. If you looked way down you could see the lava lake - red lava with a black crust, and the whole lake circulating and convecting. You could feel the heat from it.
So after that you decided you wanted to be a volcanologist?
After that I decided I wanted to be a volcanologist but I didn't have a chance to be a volcanologist until Mt. St. Helens erupted.
So tell me about that. What were you doing then?
I returned from New Zealand and got a job working with the U. S. Geological Survey in Massachusetts doing marine geology. Then Mt. St. Helens erupted on the West Coast. I decided that that was where I wanted to be. So I managed to get transferred out to Mt. St. Helens to do all the work of explaining what was happening to the media.
That was when?
That was in 1980.
That was after it erupted. What was it like there then? Was it very long after it had erupted?
I didn't get out to the volcano until about 8 months after the big eruption, which occurred on May 18, 1980. However, the volcano had remained active, with several explosive eruptions occurring throughout the summer of 1980. I arrived right in the middle of the first eruption that was not explosive, but instead was "effusive" (pasty lava pouring out instead of exploding), and produced a small lava dome. That was exiting because no one really knew what was going to happen next, or if there was going to be another big explosion. I arrived and was handed a stack of papers to read about lava domes and was told to go read them and come back the next day for a press conference!
Oh no! Talk about trial by fire. How did you do?
I guess I did OK, they kept me!
What was it like being there at the observatory, how were people there? Where they still stressed from dealing with the eruption? Were there people there who had been working the whole 8 months and were getting burned out?
There were definitely people who had been working the whole 8 months, but things were calming down a little bit by the time I arrived. It wasn't nearly as stressful as it was during the summer when there were explosive eruptions. However, it was still a very exciting time because any geologist in the entire world who had to come to the U.S. for any reason made sure to visit Mt. St. Helens! There were lots of people visiting, lots of excitement about what was happening.
So you were meeting some pretty prestigious people.
That's right. Also it was exciting time because when it started producing lava domes, people started feeling more comfortable about going in the volcano (because it wasn't exploding). The scientists started making measurements and realizing that they could successfully predict the small dome-building eruptions. That was exciting because no one had done that before. So it was a very interesting time to be at Mount St. Helens.
Wow, what a great start to being a volcanologist.
That's right, but, I was then told if I really wanted to be a volcanologist, I had to go back to school.
And get a Ph.D?
And get a Ph.D.
And so you did.
And so I went back to school.
Where did you go?
I went to John Hopkins University in Baltimore.
What did you study for your Ph.D?
I was interested in what was happening underneath Mount St. Helens, what was driving the eruption. Magma that is ejected during an eruption comes from deep underground - one topic of interest in the early 80's was what was happening below the surface in what we call "magma chambers". Magma is a liquid with dissolved gases, and, commonly, containing crystals. One important feature of magma chambers that no one knew much about was how those crystals form. What I did for my dissertation was to try to understand the rates of crystal formation. Since that time, I have been interested in how the presence of crystals (and bubbles) affects the behavior of magma when it comes out of the ground.
So crystals can record what happens in the magma chamber?
They can record what happens and potentially they can tell us how long they've been down there.
That's neat. The next question is, what would you rate as the best experience you've had while working on a volcano?
I would say that there is no one best. I've had many both fun and exciting experiences on volcanoes. One of the best would be Mount Erebus, that first time that I looked down and saw molten lava. Another one would be the first time I saw Mt. St. Helens. I had seen pictures on the news and I had heard about it and I had been trying really hard to get out to Washington to see what was going on. But to actually get out to the mountain and see the extent of the destruction and to see what the volcano looked like was very exciting.
Wow. It must be a little humbling.
It's very humbling. Antarctica is a particularly humbling environment altogether and to have a volcano in the middle of it is even more humbling! That's certainly part of what draws me to this field. It's good for us human beings to feel small.
That's good! I know we've had a lot of fun on volcanoes, but what's the funniest thing that's happened to you while working on a volcano?
I'm not sure if this is really funny but this is a good story that also has to do with Antarctica. We were on the volcano for two Christmases in a row. Obviously Christmas is a time that you want to celebrate with your family. We were there with several New Zealander scientists. The New Zealanders, of course, eat lamb, so they managed to bring up a large leg of lamb. But how are you going to cook the lamb when you're camping? When you're on a volcano, you use the volcano's heat! We wrapped the lamb in aluminum foil and then in a big canvas bag. There were areas of ground that were hot enough that we could dig a big hole and put the lamb in the ground and have like a Hawaiian luau!
An "imu"! (A Hawaiian Underground Oven)
Yes, a Hawaiian imu or in New Zealand it's called a "hangi".
This was on the volcano?
This was up on the top of Mt. Erebus.
Wow, you could possibly have had one of the first Christmas dinners cooked on a volcano by a volcano.
It tasted a little bit like sulfur, but certainly made for a festive celebration.
I bet it did. But it cooked it just fine?
It cooked just fine.
What was the strangest experience you ever had on a volcano?
The weird one that I remember was working in Hawaii. We were working on an older lava flow that had lava tubes. We went in to explore one lava tube, a beautiful lava tube that was nice and tall, so I didn't get claustrophobic.
Are you inclined to be claustrophobic?
I'm inclined to be a little claustrophobic. I love being high on things, I don't like being closed in. I can manage lava tubes because I'm interested. Well, we walked into this lava tube. The first thing that we saw, down in the tube was a big shape. We slowed down and then we heard a noise. We realized the shape was an owl. We stood and watched the owl and suddenly it took off, not back out toward us but instead the owl just soared down the lava tube somewhere. That was a little mysterious. We then went down a little more, but soon turned around as we hadn't really come prepared to explore a lava tube and we just had small flashlights. When we were coming back out, right at the entrance to the lava tube, on a large rock that we had to have walked over when we went in, was a beautiful enormous peacock feather. We knew that it couldn't have been there when we went in. So that just seemed a little mysterious, and owl and a peacock feather...
Have you ever been scared or really worried while working on a volcano?
The scariest volcano experience that I had was also in Antarctica. The first time that I worked on the volcano I was there with a fairly large group of people, including a scientist who wanted to study gases that were coming out of the lava lake. To reach the lava lake, we first had climb down a steep face, using ropes, to reach the main crater floor. The lava lake was in an inner crater, another 3 or 4 hundred feet below that.
And the main crater floor was how far down?!
About 3 hundred feet. A number of us went into the main crater and set up a rope pulley system. First we lowered down a climber who was with us because he wanted to check out some routes and make sure the sampling trip was do-able. Then we lowered down the gas geochemist. And then there was an eruption out of the lava lake! Bombs about a foot in diameter fell around us, hot ones that hit the snow and sizzled. The scientist who was down on the ropes wanted to stay down there, we insisted that we pull him up. He had a small burn hole on his pants.
I bet you were watching for a bomb to sever the rope.
We had three separate ropes because we had thought of that. There was a large bomb that landed close to one of the ropes and that was why we didn't want to leave the scientist down there - we wanted to check all the ropes for damage.
What did you do when that happened? Did you just duck and try and make yourself a small target?
Most people dodged, I think I was so surprised I just sat down.
What was the worst thing you've experienced on the job and did it make you wonder if you should change professions?
The worst thing I've experienced on the job was working with the media at Mount St. Helens. I did not enjoy that. A particularly bad experience involved the one explosive eruption that I experienced, in March of 1982. Because of the explosion, media folks from the major networks flew up from San Francisco. They were really pushy and really obnoxious. And all the scientists were stressed, and I was working in a different building than they were. So I was having trouble getting information from the scientists, and I was being pushed by the media. I didn't like it. So I decided to go back to school and get my Ph.D. so I could do something on the volcano other than work with the media!
What do you like best about being a volcanologist?
I really love traveling and working on volcanoes, I have to admit.
Where have you traveled?
Antarctica, New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, Alaska, Hawaii, the Northwest US, Iceland, Italy...
Volcanoes are in cool places.
They really are.
What would you say is the most difficult thing about being a volcanologist?
The most difficult thing for me is that I'm a volcanologist at a university. So I don't get to go work on volcanoes unless I raise the money to do so, unless I get a grant from the National Science Foundation. I also have responsibility for teaching and training students, and for doing administration both within the university and within the profession. So there's a big juggling act involved, and while I enjoy most parts of the job, it is often overwhelming to try to do them all at once.
How much time do you spend in the field doing your favorite part of the job?
I'm lucky if I spend a month in the field a year.
Wow, that's good for people to know. There's a lot of work involved in being a volcanologist. How is being a woman in a male dominated field?
Most of the time I don't think about it. But I have had instances where I've been denied access to things because I was female. That's very annoying. When I was first getting interested in volcanoes working in New Zealand, there was a volcano there called White Island that was active. It was pretty exciting and so a lot of people were going out to White Island because it wasn't that dangerous. It was a good place to go see how volcanoes work. The head of my department, who was in charge of access, told me flat out that he wouldn't let me go out there because it was too dangerous for a woman. I remember being outraged but there was nothing I could do about it. And then I went to Antarctica and got caught in an eruption!
Sonia Calvari is a volcanologist with a degree in geology from Universita` della Calabria (Cosenza, Italy) and a PhD in volcanic hazard from Lancaster University in England. Since 1987, she has worked as a volcanologist at the Istituto Internaziona le di Vulcanologia (Institute of Volcanology) in Catania, Sicily. Most of her work is on Mount Etna in Italy, but she has also worked on Stromboli, the Iblean Mountains (Italy), Kilauea (Hawaii), Skye and the Lake District (England) and Colima (Mexico). Her main interests are volcano instability and lava flow emplacement mechanisms.
I decided to study volcanology after a visit at Stromboli volcano, while I was at university studying geology. To observe the strombolian activity and the explosions of bubbles from the magma that was filling in the crater was absolutely fantastic. This let me think of the power of nature and the possibility to understand more of its secrets. I believe that volcanoes are the quickest and more dramatic means that Mother Nature uses to change landscapes.
My most impressive experience was on 13th September 1989. I was with a few colleagues at 1 km distance from South-East Crater, 3000 m asl on the summit of Etna. At that time this crater was having almost continuous Strombolian activity, very close to fire fountains. I was inside a wooden house, where we spent all night watching the activity. In the morning, at 9:00 am, I was at the window, when I suddenly could feel the heat increase through the glass of the window. It was like a wave of heat, that let me understand that the activity was increasing too much and it was better to leave. We packed everything in our backpacks (what a silly thing to do while instead you need to run away!!!), and when we left the house it was too late. From the crater there was a 2-km high column going upwards, continuously increasing in height. This activity caused a very strong wind that was attracting us towards the crater, no matter how much we were trying to run away. I remember I had a quick look at the sky: it was completely black, a curtain of huge scorias was covering our heads. We tried to run away from the crater, when a woman that was with us fell. She had too many instruments with her. We helped her to get up, and I turned my head towards the South-East Crater, thinking: we are dead. In that moment everything disappeared. Lots of big bombs fell around us (2-3m wide!) but none fell ON us. All the smaller material was transported away by the wind. We were all safe! This episode lasted only 5 minutes, but in my mind everything was incredibly slow.
This episode made me judge more carefully the activity of the volcano, especially when it seems that there is no danger. As you probably know, on Etna there have been people (tourists) that died on the summit of the volcano because of phreatic explosions (9 people in 1979 and 2 in 1987), which are really unpredictable. In this occasion I could realize that also “normal” Strombolian activity can be dangerous.
Well, in that moment it wasn’t very funny, but it makes me laugh every time I think about it… I fell with my bottom on a bunch of “spinosanto”, a special plant that grows only on top of Etna above 2000m above sea level. The name means “saint spines” because the beautiful flowers hide many huge spines…
Another funny side of working on volcanoes is certainly the fact that, being a woman in an environment of predominant men, and especially being in Italy where to women is given much less consideration than in the States, you need to gain the respect of people working on volcanoes, as Etna’s guides. At first their attitude is that you won’t last for long doing this job. Now is 12 years that they see me going on the volcano, and I can say that they treat me like one of them.
I think it was when I realized that what I was doing was often very dangerous. But it didn’t make me wonder if I should change job, it made me know myself better, and now I know how to control panic.
During eruptions that last for long, it’s very hard to spend most of your days working, and being continuously stressed about the terrible consequences of lava invading villages, and to be able to be calm and discuss with the frightened population of the threatened villages. It is also very hard to cope with media during those episodes.
The fact that it is a continuous challenge. And this challenge involves both my body and my brain. My body because many places are hard to reach, my brain because I never end to learn and to have more curiosities.
Thomas L. Wright received his B.A. from Pomona College in 1957 and his Ph.D. from The Johns Hopkins University in 1961 in igneous petrology. Following graduation, he joined the United States Geological Survey in Washington DC. He served as a geologist on the staff of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory from 1964 to 1969, returning as Scientist-in-Charge from June 1984 to November 1991. From 1971 to 1980 he participated in reconnaissance mapping and petrologic study of the Columbia River Basalt of the northwestern United States. In 1974, he sailed on Leg 37 of the Deep-Sea Drilling Project. In December 1993, he returned to the USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia. Since then he has moved to the Smithsonian where he is a Research Associate in the Mineral Sciences Department, also retaining an active emeritus status with the USGS.
Tom's research has included studies of alkali feldspar and the petrology of basaltic rocks. More recently, he has put time and energy into a broad historical and multidisciplinary understanding of Kilauea volcano.
How did you get started in volcanology? What was it about studying volcanoes that drew you to the field?
Totally by accident (serendipity is the fancy word!). I got a job with the U.S. Geological Survey right out of graduate school in an area that was not my primary interest--it involved compiling data on occurrence of trace elements for a project called "Data of Geochemistry," but it was in Washington D.C., which put me close to the petrologists that I wanted to work with. Two years or so into my work I was approached about going to Hawaii to work with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. I had no experience with volcanoes or volcanic rocks (I had done my Ph.D. dissertation at Mount Rainier, but on the granitic rocks that underlie the volcano) and, after consultation with my wife and colleagues, accepted the assignment. My wife was all for it, but my colleagues had mixed feelings. One person, with whom I had been working collaboratively, said "no way!, it will stifle you career, because you can't keep equipment working due to power outages" (what's new?, anywhere in the country). The other said "Go, Tom. You've been working with white rocks (granite) and these have had their day. Hawaii is black rock (basalt) and that's where the future is." So I went and it was a career-defining experience.
|That "black rock". Basalt lava flow from Kilauea Volcano.Photograph by Steve Mattox, July 1990.|
What would you rate as the best experience you've had while working on a volcano?
Hard to pick the best. I spent much of my first tour in Hawaii as a geologist drilling a pond of lava erupted into a pit crater (Imagine a giant outdoor experiment in which the crucible is the crater and the filling is liquid basalt.) Our finest day was when we successfully measured the viscosity (stickiness) of the molten lava under a 50-foot thick crust. The probe, developed by a friend and colleague, was a rotational viscometer, attached to the end of a stainless steel casing, and pushed into the lava at the bottom of the drill hole after it softened following the drilling (water was used to cool the drill bit so it could penetrate into the hot zone). Our first excitement came after successful emplacement of the probe when it started rotating, powered by weights at the top of the drill string. We measured the speed of rotation to calculate the viscosity. The final excitement occurred when we successfully recovered the entire probe, complete with a quenched sample of molten lava adhering to the viscometer. This took several hours of corkscrewing the drill string out of the hole. Drilling steel loses its strength at the temperatures of molten lava and bends to touch the sides of the hole. Meanwhile, the molten lava adhering to the viscometer froze as we pulled it up, thus making the recovery more difficult.
What was the funniest thing that happened to you while working on a volcano?
During the Kalapana crisis of 1989-1990, after I had returned as Scientist-in-Charge of the volcano observatory, I realized that many of the technical staff had not had a chance to see active lava. So I took them individually as partners in the monitoring of the lava advance on populated areas. During the monitoring we had to cross areas of active lava, a hazard that could only be learned through experience. One person accompanying me was never able to cross even a short stretch of hot lava without having to take off his boots on the other side, because of the heat. I was wearing normal geologist's field boots and had no problem. It turned out that my colleague had steel-reinforced boots, the sort used on construction sites, and the steel pins brought the heat of the lava directly to the soles of his feet!
Have you every been scared or really worried while working on a volcano?
I was terrified by my first view of a volcanic eruption in Hawaii. The eruption (the one whose lava lake I later worked on) was several hundred feet down in a pit crater, and some geologists experienced in working with active lava were going out on the thin crust at the edge of the rising lava lake. I had to force myself to go down to join them thinking at the time that I was in the wrong place and should retreat to a different area of the USGS. Once I got down on the talus at the level of the rising lava, I was still apprehensive until I had an opportunity to collect my first sample of molten lava on a ceramic tube, holding a heat shield in front of me. That was an amazing experience. The molten lava was the consistency of taffy and I was excited to see the fresh, glassy sample on the tube. After that, my fear of the volcano was replaced by excitement, although I never became complacent, always aware that I would have to be prepared to react to something unexpected.
What do you like best about your chosen profession?
It combines field and office work (computer, library, etc.). Geology/Volcanology is still largely a qualitative science, so one can deal in the realm of ideas-inductive reasoning. It can also be quantitative-much of my work has been interpreting the very precise chemical analyses of rocks to infer important things about what chemical changes can happen during magma storage and transport. Finally, I love the aspects of volcanology that mean something to people-hazard evaluation for populated areas at risk-including actual monitoring of lava flow advance-and the educational projects I've recently been involved as a technical consultant to a developer of a middle school curriculum on natural hazards, and for a children's book on volcanoes and earthquakes.
What's the most difficult thing about being a volcanologist?
Nothing occurs to me. Like any profession, it's a challenge to do ones job at a high level, but I don't count that as difficult.
Thor Thordarson graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the University of Iceland. He received a Masters Degree in volcanology from the University of Texas at Arlington. He went on to the University of Hawaii and completed his Ph.D. with Professors Stephen Self and George P. L. Walker. His professional experience is equally (geographically) diverse, he has worked at the Nordic Volcanological Institute in Reykjavík, Iceland, with the IGNS Volcanology Group at Wairakei, Taupo, New Zealand and finally with the CSIRO Magmatic Ore Deposit Group in Perth, Western Australia
His research includes studying Archean (very, very old!) volcanic rocks in Western Australia and more modern volcanic rocks in Iceland, Hawaii, and Washington State. As a hobby, he is very interested in volcanic activity and history of volcanic research in Iceland. When he needs a break from all things volcanic, he dabbles in soccer, martial arts (Tae Kwon Do), poetry, and studying eastern philosophy and the history of native American Indians.
|Thor Thordarson working on Ruapehu Volcano in New Zealand.|
How did you get started in volcanology?
A good question, but unfortunately I don't have a simple or a straightforward answer.
My mother claims that she always knew that I would become a volcanologist and I am the last person to question her reasoning. However, logic tells me that there is not much connection between my childhood habit of filling my pockets with stones and volcanic activity.
I am not sure what role my childhood activities played in the decision of career path, but growing up in Iceland it is very difficult to avoid contact with volcanoes. They are all around and are a big part of our culture and history.
I have often wondered whether the fact that my main playground, which consisted of a lava flow featuring long dark and mysterious caves (i.e., old lava pathways known as lava tubes) had something to do with the whole process. Probably not, because not one of my childhood playmates are even remotely interested in volcanoes.
I have also often wondered about the role other factors such as seeing my first eruption (Surtsey in 1964) at the age of six. Or at age twelve, taking a 3-hour-long journey in the back of a "bad-smelling" jeep (normally used to transport sheep between pastures) to get up close with the glowing lava from the 1970 eruption at the Hekla Volcano. Or as a 15 year old teenager going for a lazy afternoon stroll onto the still active 1973 Eldfell lava flow on the island of Heimaey, when a really bad storm forced my grandfather seek shelter there for us and his fishing boat.
|The 1973 eruption on the island of Heimaey. Photograph by the late Sveinn Eirikksen, fire marshal of the town of Vestmannaeyjar and courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.|
These events must have had some affect because the images of these eruptions are still as clear today as they were then. This more or less sums up my volcano experience before entering adulthood. However, if memory does not fail me, not once during these years did I consider the possibility of becoming a volcanologist or showed any extraordinary interest in volcanoes.
The thought of making volcanology a career first entered my mind during my undergraduate studies at the University of Iceland. I was inspired by the teachings of late Professor Sigurður Þórarinsson and my lifetime mentor in volcanology, Guðrún Larsen, as well as their devotion and enthusiasm for volcano studies. But even then I was not sure about a career path, because my academic interests where all over the place extending to disciplines such as sedimentology, petrology, glaciology and oceanography.
The decisive moment came in August 1983, when I first laid my eyes on the Laki cone row immersed in orange red light of the setting mid-summer sun. At that point there was no turning back, the volcanoes had captured my soul. It was a brilliant image! A line of well over hundred tephra cones superimposed on a 27-km-long volcanic fissure stretching across the landscape from the southwest to northeast - literally splitting the mountain Laki in two around the half way mark of the fissure. Behind me, the ice-capped Katla volcano towered over the landscape and some 40-km to the north east the rims of the Grímsvötn caldera rose up from the vast ice fields of the Vatnajökull glacier that is the largest ice cap in Europe. At that time I was completely taken by the urge to understand the mechanics of these sublime, and at the same time mysterious or even mythological, structures. I still am.
What was it about studying volcanoes that drew you to the field?
First of all, the mystic and the fact that I could spend lot of time outdoors up in the mountains.
On a more serious notes, I have always been attracted to the multidisciplinary approach as is required in volcanological studies because not only does it offer diversity but also a continuous challenge to acquire more knowledge and to do better. In their own way, volcanoes remind us that despite our enormous achievements in the field of science and technology, we have still a long way to go before attaining a comprehensive understanding of what makes Mother Earth tick.
It is important to remember that volcano studies are not only important for assessing risk and preventing hazards, but also from an economic point of view. One of Earth's largest energy source (i.e., geothermal energy) is driven by volcanic activity and many of the richest ore deposits on our planet were formed by past volcanism. Thus a good understanding of volcanic systems is of value to mankind.
What would you rate as the best experience you've had while working on a volcano?
Another difficult question to answer because just being on a volcano is enough for me, but since I have to pick one, it has to be witnessing the beginning of the June 17, 1996 eruption at Ruapehu Volcano in New Zealand.
|Acidic crater lake at the top of Mt. Ruapehu by Peter Otway.|
It all began with a wake-up phone call at 6 o'clock in the morning. It was my boss, Professor Bruce Houghton, who said that a white steam column had been seen rising from the summit crater and that the tremor levels had gone up. We had to go check the status of the volcano, which had been relatively quite for 7 months (or since November 1995). I had about 5 minutes to get ready because the chopper was waiting for me at the airport and half an hour later we were in the air on our way across Lake Taupo heading straight towards Ruapehu.
The white steam plume became more apparent as we approached the volcano from the northeast, carried to the north by strong southerly winds. As we circled the summit crater from east through south to west all we saw was white steam, nothing unusual to report and I was anticipating a quick return to Taupo.
But as the helicopter turned around to make the second pass by the summit crater, I saw a small (roughly 100-m-high) black ash-rich slug rise from the summit crater and up through the white steam column. Another one, slightly bigger than the first soon followed it, and then one after another they emerged at increasing frequency and gradually growing in size and volume. Before we knew it, the eruption had produced a roughly 4-km-high almost pitch-black eruption column and up to 10's-km-wide plume drifting to the north over Taupo and Rotorua. The column was almost constantly lit up by lightning strokes and ballistic blocks up to several meters in diameter were ejected from the vent, curling through the atmosphere before crashing into the ground. The shower of ballistic-blocks was so intense that snow covered summit peaks were inundated with impact craters.
It was clear that we had just witnessed the beginning of a major eruption at Ruapehu (turned out to be the largest event of the 1995-96 eruption episode) and that from "the Grand Stand". It was a marvelous spectacle and the view impeccable as we were suspended in mid-air at a safe distance. The near-complete darkness below the plume was a striking contrast to the clear sky and the sun-bathed countryside all around it. An additional satisfaction came from the fact that Ruapehu put on this spectacular show on 17 June, just as if it was joining me in celebrating the Independence Day of Iceland.
Some of you might wonder why this is a special event to a volcanologist. It is simple really, contrary to what many people might believe, not many volcanologists get the opportunity to see the very beginning of an eruption. We normally arrive on the spot some minutes, hours or even days after the fact and also many eruptions are simply to big for a close-up viewing. Consequently, a volcanologist rarely gets the chance to see the very beginning of an eruption.
What was the funniest thing/strangest experience that has happened to you while working on a volcano?
Before I attempt to answer this question it is important that the readers realize that anyone working on an active volcano is aware of the possibility (however remote it might be) that it can erupt any time and without much warning. Thus, when I am working on a volcano my alert-level is unusually high.
Have you ever tried to walk across an `a`a lava flow in the dark and without a flashlight? If not, then don't!
It was in January 1991 and we were measuring and filming the active lava rivers of the erupting Hekla Volcano in Iceland. Needless to say, we got carried away and stayed out there for too long. As we were heading back, darkness set in and the pitch-black rubbly and highly irregular lava surface simply merged with the blackness that surrounded us. Not a good sign. I had left my torch in the truck and we had to walk at least 2 km across the flow field to get back to the truck. Needless to say, I had to get on my "four legs" and slowly crawl my way back to the truck. Between episodes falling flat on my back or my stomach, I spent most of my time rolling and tumbling over spiky obstacles and my outfit was completely in shambles after the exercise . Well, I got what I deserved; it pays to be prepared.
|Lava flow from Hekla Volcano.|
A little shake has never hurt anyone!
In February 1995, on the last day of a two week-long working trip to the White Island volcano in New Zealand, I was working on the outer slopes of the cone, about one-kilometer from the vents that were active between 1976 and 1992. Early in the morning, I had planted myself in a 1.5m deep pit, a standard procedure as I was measuring a section through a series of historic tephra layers. Half way through the exercise, the ground began to shake gently - gradually increasing in intensity over a period of a minute or so and a large steam cloud billowed up from the main crater. There was I, sitting in my hole on an active volcano and the first thought that came to my mind was - the volcano is about to erupt and I am trapped in this hole! I felt awful small at that moment.
The shock of running water!
It was a summer day in 1986 and I was crossing the main outlet glacier of the Kverkfjoll central volcano on my way from one outcrop to the next. It was a gorgeous day, the sun was shining bright and most of last winter snow had melted exposing crevasses and other clefts and the sun was practically bouncing of their deep ice-blue walls. Suddenly, the tranquillity of the situation was interrupted by fast-growing noise of running water, but nowhere could I see any water flowing or approaching. It all became obvious in an instance, because suddenly I noticed that the surface of the glacier was moving up and down like a wave and the rushing water was right below the ice I was standing on. It was time to get off the "ICE" and fast.
What happened was that a "jökulhlaup" had begun as I was crossing the glacier, which simply means that water normally stored in the summit caldera of the volcano came rushing down through a subsurface pathway within the glacier, bursting out at its snout and causing a flash flood in the outlet rivers.
What do you like best about your chosen profession?
It offers a constant challenge of doing better, both physically and mentally, and allows you to use your imagination. Another advantage of being a volcanologist is that one gets to travel to secluded and unusual places.
Tina Neal is a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has worked as the geoscience advisor to the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. Prior to this position, Tina was a staff geologist at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage where she participated in a number of eruption responses, worked on the aircraft and ash problem, and studied Mt. Spurr, Mt. Redoubt, and Aniakchak volcanoes.
She has also worked at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) on the Big Island of Hawaii. She has an ScB in Geology from Brown, a MS from Arizona State University, and she did additional graduate study at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
(img caption: Tina Neal with Nepali girls in a Kathmandu boarding house. The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance helped fund the Nepal Society of Earthquake Technology, an organization promoting earthquake safety in Nepal. Tina was in Nepal helping celebrate the first annual Nepal Earthquake Safety Day.)
Hmm. Other than the many laughs in the cook tent inside Aniakchak during an eruption of Pu`u `O`o, a helicopter landed at our camp just after dawn. Out popped a reporter (male) followed by a woman in a full evening gown and high heels. They had just flown in from Kona after an all-night party. Thrilled by the sight of lava spurting above the cone about 1 km away, this woman proceeded to hobble in her shoes across the new lava field and back. I was impressed by her persistence.
Another time, just after dawn, a group of us were driving to the summit of Mauna Loa to conduct a geodetic survey. A M 6.7 EQ (earthquake) happened maybe 10 km away and we did not know we were having an earthquake because of the bouncing of the truck over the exceedingly rough 4WD road. Columns of red dust, illuminated by the early sun, rose from the walls of the summit caldera and we thought an eruption was beginning. Then, when John Dvorak radioed in the report, I demanded that we stop the jeep! I felt so cheated! I wanted to hop out to feel aftershocks!
In Alaska, I have had a few close encounters with grizzly and black bears, including a young brown bear that was attracted to Michael Ort’s black bean dinner at the Ukinrek Maars. He stuck his quivering nose and head into our weatherport one evening, catching 4 of us off guard. A flurry of gun grabbing and yelling ensued and the bear thankfully stepped outside. Michael managed a deterrent blast of pepper spray, under cover of my 30-06 and a shotgun, and the bear fled to paw his irritated eyes. We kept watch all night but the bear did not return.
Another time at Ukinrek, a group of us rounded a patch of alders and spooked a beautiful blonde grizzly who was down on all fours grazing. The bear stood up in a flash. I can only remember my neck snapping back as I tried to follow the trace of his head – it seemed an impossibly great distance above me….in a heartbeat he raced off, leaving us to gaze with enormous eyes at each other, pulses racing, knees a bit like jello!
Other difficult times were due to conflict with coworkers – sometimes about work issues, other times sadly about interpersonal behaviors.
Neither of these kinds of experiences made me question my field.
The most difficult thing? For many it is finding a job! Unfortunately, there are not many spots for volcanologists.