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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!