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Image by Ken Sakamoto,
Honolulu Star Bulletin, Hawaii

  • How do I become a volcanologist?

    A good question! Keep reading through this page or/and:

    Click here for a good overview on how to become a Volcanologist

    For even more information, check out the following sections:

    What Type of Education Do Volcanologists Need?
    What are Some Personality Traits that Most Volcanologists Have?
    What Does a Volcanologist Do?
    Where Does a Volcanologist Work?
    What are Some Typical Daily Routines of a Volcanologist?
    How Much Do Volcanologists Make?

    For yet even more details on the instruments Volcanologists use and daily work and life, check out Scott Rowlands, Working on Hawaiian Volcanoes.



  • What does a volcanologist do?

    A volcanologists' work, to say the least, can be very exciting. When talking about his volcanology career, Robert Tilling states that "the present is the key to the past - In a sense, we're detectives, trying to decipher clues that rocks tell us." Another volcanologist, Ken Hon, says that being a geologist is kind of like "putting together the pieces of a puzzle." Indeed, both geology and volcanology are very investigative types of work. There are new things waiting to be discovered constantly and a scientists' application of these discoveries to everyday life is never-ending. Richard Fiske probably states it best when he says, "Once you get started in volcanoes, you become a junkie. The Earth is changing and you try to outfox it, understand its past activity and predict what it's likely to do in the future."

    While many may think, that a volcanologist's work consists solely on the exciting, adventurous work performed at the lip of an erupting volcano, they would be wrong. In fact, most of a volcanologists' work is done studying the remains of either dead or dormant volcanoes, or by monitoring volcanoes that are dormany, but may become active or "reawaken.". A significant portion of a volcanologists' work is also done in the laboratory and office, analyzing rock samples, reading and writing scientific papers, performing computer modeling of various aspects of eruptions, and interpreting the data that they have collected from the field. Basically, the goals of volcanology are to understand how and why volcanoes erupt, how to predict eruptions, their impacts on the history of the Earth and how they may affect humans and their environment. It is also important for volcanologists to be able to interpret and publish/present their findings in such a way that it is easy for the general public to understand.

    Essentially, volcanology can be broken down into four major groups of study. First, physical volcanologists study the actual processes and deposits of volcanic eruptions. Data gathered through this type of study gives volcanologists information about where and how volcanoes are likely to erupt, especially if nobody has seen them presently active. Collecting this data is very time-consuming. Mapping of the distribution of the rocks that make up the volcano, as well as chemical and dating analyses of the samples, leads scientists to information concerning the volcano's past. Second, geophysicists mainly deals with volcanic seismicity, gravity and magnetics. Third, volcano geodesists look the ground deformation that occurs at prior to, during, and after volcanic eruptions. Lastly, geochemists deal with the makeup of the Earth as well as volcanic products, such as emitted gases.

  • What type of education do volcanologists need?

    While an individual needs lots of schooling to become a volcanologist, perhaps the most important skills to obtain are those related to Earth science. Also, a basic overall understanding of computers, software and computer code could come in useful as the volcanology field is progressively getting more and more technology advanced. More specifically, though, let's take a deeper look into what types of things a person should be looking for at the different stages of their education.

    High School

    Developing your language skills is a major step towards becoming a volcanologist. Writing reports, giving talks and communicating clearly on some advanced and tricky subjects are eventually going to be a major part of your volcanology career. Preparing early can help you to better be prepared for this type of work when the time arises.

    Also, students interested in majoring in geological sciences should include algebra, geometry, trigonometry, geography, physics, chemistry and either biology or Earth science into their high school curriculum. If a general geology class is offered, along with a lab, it is also highly recommended that an individual take this as part of their high school education.

    University - Undergrad Program

    Volcanology is made up of bits and pieces of numerous different fields and thus, there are no schools that offer full degree programs specifically in volcanology. Therefore, many individuals begin their volcanology careers by getting a bachelor's degree in geology. Ideally, it is best to combine as much geology and geophysics as possible. However, this is very difficult to do and, usually, individuals just end up specializing in either one or the other.

    Basically, students should build a strong foundation for themselves by taking lots of mathematics and physics courses. Calculus I, II and III, analytical geometry, differential equations, introductory linear algebra and at least one year of an upper division sequence in applied mathematics is recommended. A student should also complete 1 full year of physics with a lab. Classical mechanics, thermodynamics and electromagnetism courses are also suggested. A year of chemistry with a lab is usually required as well. Clearly, introductory geology, historical geology, mineralogy, and many other courses are required for a geology degree and will be needed if you're interested in becoming a volcanologist. Lastly, an oceanography course (numerous volcanoes are formed in the oceans) and a meteorology/atmospheric sciences class (eruptions can greatly affect the climate) can also provide useful background knowledge and help students prepare for a post-graduate program.

    Finally, if money permits, perhaps one of the best things you can get involved in would be a summer internship. Doing volcanological fieldwork, either as a volunteer or even as a paid field assistant, is a first step towards your success as a volcanologist.

    University - Post-graduate Programs

    Most present volcanologists have gone on to get their degrees through a graduate program of some kind, but not all believe that it is absolutely necessary to get your Ph.D. However, in the pursuit of your graduate degree, the choice of specialization allows you to truly become a volcanologist. Here, under the supervision of an experienced, senior volcanologist, you conduct your own individual research. Choosing a particular university for this type of study depends on lots of things and may be a difficult decision to make. Factors such as the particular aspects of the field you are interested in; potential advisors' interests, abilities and personalities; the university's location; the available financial aid options; the language that most of the classes are taught in; and also the specific degree that you are interested in can all play a role in deciding where you would like to continue your education. (The link below offers a list of some of the schools that offer programs dealing with geology) Contacting researchers concerning their advice on certain projects and locations is usually a good idea. Also, if it is possible, meeting and visiting with prospective advisors at their university is highly recommended.

    "Post-Doc"

    Lastly, after many volcanologists get their Ph.D., they also do something referred to as a "post-doc." This is basically just a 2-3 year paid research job at a university, observatory or geological survey company.

    For more information on universities that offer graduate programs related to volcanology follow this link: http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Outreach/StudyVolcanoes/UniversitiesColleges/

  • How much does a volcanologist make?

    The income for volcanologists varies widely. However, for a person working in the United States at a university of government agency incomes typically range from $30,000 to $90,000 depending on seniority, level of education, location, etc... Incomes for volcanologists in countries other than the US can range from equivalent amounts to only several thousand dollars a year depending on the country. Nonetheless, most of us become volcanologists because we are passionate about studying volcanoes rather than to become rich.

  • Where are some good graduate schools for volcanology?

    A partial list of universities that offer graduate programs in volcanology can be found below. Each program at each university will have a different character. I would recommend deciding what aspect of volcanology that you want to study, i.e. volcano seismology, stratigraphy, modeling, etc., then research the universities carefully to find out where the people are that are doing this sort of work. Be sure to talk to prospective advisors to know if you will get along with them and that your interests overlap. Also, more importantly, talk with the current and former students of your prospective advisor to see how they feel about both their advisor and the university. Ask about what your potential projects will be and where, or if, you will be doing field work. Also, check into the availability of teaching and research assistantships and what the requirements for your degree will be. Finally, once you are satisfied with a program go! For more information on universities that offer graduate programs related to volcanology follow this link: http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Outreach/StudyVolcanoes/UniversitiesColleges/

  • Where can I apply for a job as a volcanologist? Is it hard to find a job as a volcanologist?

    In general, jobs in volcanology are difficult to find. This is because funding is limited and there are typically many people applying to the few jobs that are available. In reality there are only two options for employment in volcanology, the government or academia. Some federal, state, or provincial governments do employ volcanologists. For example, the US federal government employs a significant number of volcanologists in the US Geological Survey. States, for example Alaska, also occasionally employ volcanologists. Depending on the position, government jobs are typically available to people with both Masters and PhDs. Academic positions typically require a PhD, are few and far between, and are heavily contested. Also, many volcanologists in academia do not hold positions that are specifically volcanology, rather they hold positions in some related field such as igneous petrology, geomorphology, geodesy, seismology, remote sensing, etc.

  • Who were Maurice and Katia Krafft? How did they die?

    Maurice and Katia Krafft were French volcanologists who devoted their lives to documenting volcanoes and specifically volcanic eruptions in still photos and film. The Krafft's died on 3 June 1991 when they were hit by a pyroclastic flow at Unzen volcano in Japan. During their lives they visited literally hundreds, if not thousands, of volcanoes around the world! They also had a strong devotion to the cause of volcanic hazards mitigation and used their imagery to this end whenever possible. Often overshadowed by the deaths of the Krafft's, is the death of American volcanologist Harry Glicken during the same event. Harry did some of the pioneering research on volcanic debris avalanches and helped to develop our understanding of these phenomena. Around 40 journalists that had accompanied the Krafft's were also killed by the same pyroclastic flow.

  • Is volcanology dangerous?

    Volcanology is probably less dangerous than the image presented in the movies, where every film has at least one volcanologist being killed by the volcano! The reality is that most volcanologists, especially those studying actively erupting volcanoes, take safety very seriously and are extremely careful when on a volcano. Because of this the number of volcanologists killed in the line of duty is very low. Nonetheless, there are some inherent hazards involved in the job. Hazards that apply to any job requiring field work in remote locations, such as falls, helicopter crashes, etc., are the primary risk. Nonetheless, volcanoes do present some rather unique hazards, such as volcanic gasses, being caught in an eruption, etc. Again though, I must emphasize that most volcanologists take rigourous safety precautions and will not work in an area that they think is too dangerous.

  • What sort of tools do volcanologists use?

    Volcanologists use many different types of tools to measure different aspects of volcanic behavior. Seimometers are used to measure earthquakes from the volcano. GPS, traditional surveying equipment, such as theadolites, and satellite imagery are all used to measure the swelling and deflation of volcanoes. Many different types of equipment, such as COSPEC's, are used for measuring the different types of gasses that come out of volcanoes. Plus, this is a developing science, so every year there are new tools developed to study volcanoes.

  • How good are volcanologists at predicting eruptions?

    There are two answers to this question, depending on what sort of time scale you are dealing with. If you are interested in predictions on the scale of a year or more typically it is considered impossible to predict when a volcano will erupt. For example, many volcanoes are currently dormant, that is they are completely at rest. It is impossible to say with any certainty whether these volcanoes will become active and have an erupting next year, in the next five years, in the next decade, etc... On the other hand, once a volcano has shown signs of becoming active, such as earthquake swarms, etc... Volcanologists have become very good at using these signs to predict when the volcano is going to erupt. Typically this will occur within the time scale of days to months prior to an eruption.

  • Why made you decide to study volcanoes?

    I first became a geologist, and then decided to specialize in volcanology. I became a geologist because much of the work is outdoors in nature, and to me that is very enjoyable. I decided to specialize in volcanology because here in Hawai'i, volcanoes are part of our lives every day. Also, volcanology is a branch of geology where things actually happen quickly. Watching a volcano erupt is much more exciting than watching a beach erode or a glacier move (and those 2 are considered FAST geologic processes!!). Finally, volcanoes present hazards to many people, and someday I would like to contribute to efforts that make living on volcanoes safer. Maybe you will become a volcanologist too.

  • How many volcanologists are there in the World?

    The exact number of volcanologists in the world is difficult to determine because volcanology combines many different elements of the geological sciences. Nonetheless, the International Association of Volcanology and Chemisty of the Earth's Interior, which is the main professional organization for volcanologists, currently has around 1500 members from around the world. This includes people from many sub-disciplines that study every aspect of volcanoes. However, the number of people that monitor and work on actively erupting volcanoes is much more limited and is probably only at most several hundred people throughout the world.

  • What skills and personality traits do you need to be a volcanologist?

    First, many volcanologists claim that they have always had an interest for the outdoors. Backpacking, hiking and climbing are common hobbies found among this group of geologists. Also, a fascination with the sciences and a desire to travel are other key characteristics of many volcanologists.

    Second, some people find that the sense of mystery associated with scientific studies is intriguing as well. While it may be fascinating, though, individuals are expected to monitor volcanoes with keen scientific observation and judgement, common sense and advanced technological methods. You must have a willingness to work hard and a desire to combine all sorts of research in an effort to arrive at a possible solution for one of many problems.

  • Who is considered to be the first volcanologist?

    I think most volcanologists would agree that their science began with the detailed description of the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius by Pliny the Younger. He described the earthquakes before the eruption, the eruption column, air fall, the effects of the eruption on people, pyroclastic flows, and even tsunami. The book "Volcanoes" by Peter Francis contains several direct passages from Pliny the Younger.

  • What protective equipment do you wear when working on volcanoes?

    The type of equipment that I wear in the field depends on what I am doing. Most of the time when I work on a volcano, I just wear a pair of heavy boots, jeans, hat, and long-sleeved shirt. I have also used heavy work gloves if I am working on fresh lava flows and a rock-climbing helmet if I am working in an area where there is a lot of rock fall. If I am being transported into the field by helicopter I will wear a fire-retardant flight suit and a flight helmet. Also, if I am working in an area where there is a lot of volcanic gas I carry a gas mask, though I have never actually had to use one. I have never seen someone use one of the silver heat-resistant suits but it does happen very rarely, most of the time these suits are too bulky and difficult to move around in to make them practical field gear.

  • Where does the funding come from to study volcanoes and how much does it cost?

    Funding for studying volcanoes typically comes from one of two places depending on who is doing the research. Typically if the volcanologist is working for the government, such for the US Geological Survey, then their money comes from the agency that they are working for. If the volcanologist is at a university then the money comes from grants from various groups, like the National Science Foundation. This model is, for the most part, followed throughout the world with the amount of funding available to scientists depending dramatically upon the finances of the individual country. Unfortunately volcanology is very expensive. This is because the equipment to monitor and study volcanoes costs a lot of money. Also, international airfare, field expenses, laboratory analyses of samples, and many other similar aspects of volcanology add up to a high price tag. However, the cost of not doing some of this research can be measured in human lives rather than dollars, thus in my mind the cost is worth it.

  • Can you supply the addresses of volcano observatories around the world?

    The best place to obtain this information is from the World Organization of Volcano Observatories (WOVO). This is a multinational organization that serves many functions within the volcanological community. The WOVO web-site (www.wovo.org) has an on-line directory that should contain current address information for most of the world's volcano observatories.

  • How can I get a summer job in volcanology?

    Unfortunately as funding becomes tighter it is becoming more difficult to find summer time employment doing volcanology. Paid positions are pretty much non-existant, but there is hope if you can work as a volunteer. My advice would be to talk to people at universities doing volcanological research that interests you and see if you can help on field projects. Also, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory has had a program for summer volunteers for many years. Details can be found on their web-site. Occasionally there are opportunities to work at other volcano observatories too, but these are sporadic and will require a bit of luck and good timing on your part. Regardless, summer jobs are the best way to learn the basics of volcanology and I highly encourage anyone interested in this aspect of geology to pursue any opportunity they can find.

  • Are there different kinds of volcanologists?

    There several different kinds of volcanologists that study different aspects of volcanoes. Geologists study the deposits of volcanoes and derive information on what the volcano has done in the past and what it might do in the future from these deposits. Geochemists study the gasses emitted from volcanoes and derive information about the magma and possibilities of an eruption. Geodisists investigate the swelling and shrinking of volcanoes and can determine whether the magma chamber is growing. Petrologists can look at the minerals and geochemical composition of the rocks from volcanoes and determine the conditions, such as pressure and temperature, of the magma chamber that produced the rocks. Remote sensors use satellite images and data to determine various characteristics about volcanoes. Of course many of us actually do work that incorporates aspects of several of these disciplines.

  • Where are most volcanologists employed?

    The majority of volcanologists throughout the world are employed either within the university system or by their governments. Typically the university jobs are focused more on research and the government positions more on hazards and monitoring, however, the reality is that there is much overlap in interests and collaboration by both groups. Few corporate positions in volcanology exist because much of the research done on volcanoes is not well suited to making money. The exception to this is in the exploration and development of geothermal areas.



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