Friday, March 20, 2015

Is Your Job Dangerous?

Q: For a school assignment, I was told to ask a geologist some questions that I have about volcanoes. Is your job dangerous?
- Malayah M

A: It CAN be dangerous. I've walked out the toe of an evolving flow from Kilauea volcano, and accidentally stepped directly on the magma several times. It damaged my boots. Most volcanologists I know are or were personally acquainted with people who are now dead - killed by a volcanic eruption. These deaths usually involved a silica-rich volcano that exploded violently. They were visiting during a time of volcanic unrest, and the explosion happened so fast that it didn't give them time to get far enough away. This type of high-silica volcano tends to form stratocones, so you have an idea of its potential to cause great destruction just by looking at it. Think: Mount Fuji in Japan. Avachinskiy in Kamchatka. Mount St Helens in the United States (it was a nice cone before 1980).

As a result, the volcanolgists still living, whom I personally work with, have become very careful and cautious. They don't take unnecessary risks - but being a volcanologist almost by definition means you must take SOME risks. 

Q: What do you do when a volcano is showing restless activity, and you have predicted that it will erupt soon?

A: We notify public safety authorities at the first reliable hint that something might happen. We make it a practice to drill with them and review the possible things that can happen, ahead of time. When Mount St Helens erupted in 2004-2008 the interaction between the USGS volcanologists and the federal, state, and county safety authorities was almost seamless.

Q: Have you ever witnessed a volcano eruption??

A: Several times I've witnessed a volcanic eruption:
- Mutnovskiy volcano in Kamchatka erupted as I was inside the main caldera in 2004. Fortunately it was a mild eruption, but the Russians with us gave us no warning (I don't think they had realized what was happening before we did). 
- Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983, and I have visited the flow-front a number of times. There is an interesting photo here: - look in the upper right-hand corner.
- I was the first person to see and photograph the new dacite dome coming up from under the glacier at Mount St Helens on October 12, 2004. I was orbiting in a helicopter inside the crater at the time. 

- In addition, I've been on several restless volcanoes that were showing activity like fumeroles (Mount Lassen, in California, Akutan in the Aleutian Chain, etc.).

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