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Ideas

Go with the flow

The hot career this summer was volcanology. There are occupational hazards.

By Glenn McDonald

It was 2000, and John Chadwick was working on his Ph.D. research, studying volcanoes in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. He and his colleagues were taking samples from a volcano near the port, which had been erupting every couple of months. Suddenly, he looked down at his feet.

“I didn’t have any good hiking boots,” Chadwick says. “I had these little shoes that were basically flip flops, and the ground was literally steaming. If you put your hands into the soil, it was really hot.”

He got back to the boat without incident, but as the team was pulling out of the harbor, they looked back at the volcano one last time.

“And it exploded,” says Chadwick, now a geology professor at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. “It was a pretty big eruption. And I’m standing there picturing myself running down the side of this volcano in my flip flops.”

Such are the occupational hazards for a volcanologist. The subspecialty of geology got renewed attention this summer, as volcanoes in Hawaii and Guatemala erupted in a series of dramatic and dangerous bursts. Volcanologists study volcanoes’ formation and activity, the better to warn communities of impending danger.

But the study of nature’s fiercest displays of anger and creation isn’t always so dramatic.

Often, volcanology means spending time around volcanoes that are long-dormant: mountains that have eroded over time to reveal their internal structure. There, scientists study the volcanoes’ plumbing and evolution “like crime scene detectives,” says University of Richmond geologist David Kitchen, the author of “Global Climate Change: Turning Knowledge into Action.” (Volcanoes, he notes, were the major climate change threats of previous eras.)

This can lead to some fascinating field work without the fuss and bother of explosions and molten rock. Kitchen has studied volcanoes in Yellowstone, Mount St. Helens, Easter Island, Ireland, and the Andes. He has traversed the high hills of Scotland to study the Hebrides, and walked across the surface of sharp, glassy lava flows in Hawaii.

“Standing on the summit of these ancient mountains, and knowing the power and overwhelming forces they once unleashed, instills a unique sense of awe,” he says.

“I’m standing there picturing myself running down the side of this volcano in my flip flops.”

John Chadwick

That awe only increases when those ancient forces return. Having dodged one tectonic bullet in the Solomon Islands, Chadwick had an even closer encounter a few days later. Working off the Australian research ship Franklin, Chadwick’s team was looking to get samples from a nearby underwater volcano that hadn’t erupted in years. 

“We’re really in the middle of nowhere out in the ocean,” he says. “We’re away from all the shipping lanes, studying this volcano called Kavachi. At the time, the top of the volcano was maybe 30 or 40 feet under the surface.”

As the ship approached, the volcano started erupting, throwing lava and boulders 200 feet into the air. It would blast out of the water for a minute or two, then go quiet for five minutes at a time.

“This thing is going off as we’re heading towards it, and all the geologists, of course, we want to pull right up,” Chadwick recalls. “We’re trying to encourage the ship captain and get closer and closer. And he’s saying, ‘No way. No way…’ He was afraid we were going to drift over top of it.”

The group negotiated a compromise, circling the eruption from about a kilometer away.

“We spent the entire day just circling and sonar mapping,” Chadwick says. “Then the sun went down and it was just this fireworks display of orange and black. It was very hard to pay attention to my work because the thing is exploding and it was such a dramatic display.”

Those kinds of displays were in full view this summer on Hawaii — most recently when Tropical Storm Lane hit the islands in late August. According to reports from Hawaii, the collision of storm and lava fields produced isolated whiteout conditions as heavy rains caused massive steam clouds to blossom out from active lava vents. The rain also caused a few extra rock slides, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The USGS now estimates that the Kilauea eruption has added 875 acres of new territory to the Unites States, as lava slides into the ocean and creates new land forms.

Geologists will soon be able to inspect the new rocks as the lava cools into brand-new Hawaiian shoreline. While the USGS didn’t specifically warn against it, it’s probably a bad idea to wear flip flops.

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Lava flow photo from Kileauea volcano in Hawaii by USGS

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