Friday, October 6, 2017

Being a Volcanologist


I especially love responding to school children. This is one example.

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Q: My name is Kasey and I am in year 9 studying Science in NSW, Australia. I am doing a group project at school on volcanologists. I have come across your work and I am very interested. I was wondering if you could answer some questions for our project. These questions include: What got you interested in volcanology in the first place?  What being a volcanologist includes? What studying volcanology includes? And any extra information you could share would be greatly appreciated.
- Kasey B

A: I'm actually a research geophysicist; I have studied and published papers and books in a wide range of topics. I got into volcanology rather late in my career.

I got into volcanology, in fact, because I had an extensive background in a lot of scientific management - leading science teams as large as 850 people in a system that the US Geological Survey calls "rotational management." I would be a manager for 3 - 4 years and then rotate back to being a scientist (which is a lot more exciting and interesting). The idea is that you can't really lead scientists if you don't understand what being a scientist actually is. So I was invited to apply for the job of Chief Scientist for Volcano Hazards, and was selected over several competitors. This allowed me to move from the "Right Coast" to the "Left Coast" of the United States, into the beautiful Pacific Northwest. It also placed me ~4,000 km closer to a daughter and two grandsons who live in Sydney, not far from you. 

Being a volcanologist means you get to work in exciting, wild places and terrains. It also entails certain risks; most of the people here in the Cascades Volcano Observatory have known at least one person who was killed by a volcano. The compensation is that we get to work on geology that is not dead... but is often (episodically) very alive and (often dangerously) active. 

You can't predict an earthquake, but you CAN predict a volcanic eruption under certain conditions. Those conditions include (1) having thoroughly mapped the previous deposits around the volcano. This means getting reliable age-dates for each deposit, something that is technically very complex and difficult. It also means (2) having enough instruments on the volcano. A remote volcano in the Aleutians can erupt, and it is difficult for us to know what is going on if the nearest seismometer or telemetered GPS system is 100 km away. An ash cloud can loft to 20 kilometers and damage or even kill an airliner flying through it along the Great Circle route from North America to Asia. 25,000 passengers a day pass through this region, so this is a non-trivial safety issue. 

Thus, volcanologists can also legitimately feel that they are protecting their fellow citizens.  I have repeatedly watched men and women take calculated personal risks to gather the information necessary - because they felt it was their civic duty. It is an honor to work alongside people so sharply focused on their responsibilities while being ferociously self-demanding, working and thinking at the highest level of exacting standards. 
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