In March 2010, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano sprang to life after nearly 2 centuries of dormancy. As volcanic eruptions go, this one was fairly mild. The event might have gone mostly unnoticed beyond Iceland's borders had Eyjafjallajökull not started, on 14 April, to spew ash more than 8 kilometers high. Once it hit the jet stream, the ash cloud spread over much of Europe, causing havoc for air traffic for more than a month. Altogether, several million travelers were affected. The cost to companies globally was estimated at $2.2 billion.
Scientists, meteorological institutes, and aviation authorities had long recognized the hazards posed by Iceland's volcanoes; the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (London VAAC) had been simulating the spread of ash from a hypothetical eruption of Eyjafjallajökull's neighboring Katla volcano for several years. Eyjafjallajökull itself had been kept under close scientific surveillance.
The April 2010 crisis was partly a result of limitations in the model used to assess ash location and density, which made operational planning all the more difficult during the crisis. And the problem was also partly a breakdown of communication between researchers, policymakers, and the public regarding the possibility of a volcanic crisis, writes Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanology and remote sensing lecturer at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, in a commentary published in The Geographical Journal. Researchers “can have the best monitoring systems in the world and knowledge of what the volcano will do in the next week. But if [they] can't communicate that, the knowledge is worthless,” Oppenheimer says.
As Eyjafjallajökull demonstrated, volcanology is not just an academic subject. It is important not just for public safety, but also for business. Because of these real-world concerns, some volcanologists participate in a worldwide volcano monitoring system, doing the research needed to inform the public and governments about events that could affect economies and public safety. You might say these volcanologists are like weather forecasters, but with volcanoes.
But often, their jobs don’t stop at alerting authorities to likely events. Many volcanologists also try to estimate the impact of a volcanic eruption, and some even help with mitigation and recovery efforts.
Volcanologists with an interest in public safety can and often do work in academia. Academic research builds theories and models that contribute to volcano monitoring outside of the university; such monitoring is coordinated by government agencies but facilitated partly by academia.
There are also opportunities for academic researchers to see their work directly applied to real-life situations. Susanna Jenkins, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, works on forecasting the impact of volcanic crises. During her recent field trips to the Mount Merapi volcano in Indonesia, she got to see the recovery and rehabilitation of devastated areas. Oppenheimer and his colleagues get called on during volcanic crises to help with ground-based remote sensing of ash clouds.
Similar opportunities for volcanologists exist outside of academia. Some volcanologists work at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which runs the Volcano Hazards Program. Scientists at the program's five volcano observatories monitor and interpret seismic signals, ground deformation via satellite images, and gases emitted from volcanoes, predicting eruptions and impacts. When the time is right, they issue warnings to local emergency authorities and populations.
Kristi Wallace of the USGS Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage radiocarbon dates past tephra deposits—the rocky material ejected in an eruption—to predict what the volcano might do in the future. Jacob Lowenstern, a geologist for the USGS Yellowstone Volcano Observatory who is based in Menlo Park, California, analyzes gases in recent volcanic rocks to help predict volcanic eruptions. Puffs of gas and small amounts of rock can leak from a volcano before an eruption; the composition can indicate the presence of magma near the surface, which could mean an eruption is imminent.
Most USGS volcano scientists work closely with local authorities. Lowenstern discusses with land managers, federal agencies, and municipalities "how our science can ... help their decision-making," he says. Wallace provides health and water agencies with the latest information on ash concentrations in air and water.
In the United Kingdom, volcanologists work at the Exeter-based Met (formerly meteorological) Office, modeling the drift of volcanic ash clouds in the atmosphere. Met volcanologist Claire Witham works to improve the capabilities of the Numerical Atmospheric-Dispersion Modeling Environment, the office's main modeling tool. Witham is based in Exeter but works to support the Met Office–operated London VAAC. That center is responsible for monitoring and forecasting the spread of ash over the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the northeastern Atlantic Ocean. The Met Office advises the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority and National Air Traffic Services on the path of the ash so they can make decisions about flights. Volcanic ash advisory centers exist around the world and typically employ meteorologists, but volcanologists with experience in satellite data and dispersion modeling also work there. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs VAACs in the United States.
A handful of U.S. state governments also employ scientists to focus on volcanology. For example, the Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, part of Alaska's Department of Natural Resources, has a volcanology section that "focuses on processes and hazards associated with Alaska's more than 50 active volcanoes," according to the office's Web site. The office employs three geologists and a programmer-analyst.
Research museums are another place where scientists can work at the interface of volcanology and society. The Smithsonian Institution's Global Volcanism Program (GVP), based in Washington, D.C., documents the history and recent reports of volcanic activity around the world and makes that information available to civil authorities and the public. “We ... try to quantify and parameterize these into a database format,” says GVP Director Elizabeth Cottrell, adding that she enjoys being involved in work that will affect a lot of people.
A few volcanologists work on their own as consultants. John P. Lockwood, who has a geology Ph.D. from Princeton University, is based in the rainforest town of Volcano, Hawaii. In addition to his geohazards consulting work, Lockwood has served as an adviser for movies and TV shows, including the blockbuster Dante's Peak. The New Zealand–based consulting company GNS Science monitors and models active volcanoes in New Zealand and provides advice on strategies to mitigate damage. Risk Management Solutions, based in Silicon Valley and London, also focuses on natural hazards and may cover volcanoes in the future.
Wherever you work, bridging real life with research findings is not easy. There is still a gap between modeling-based predictions and decisions about, for instance, when to evacuate a city. “Getting better modeling and better evidence from instrument networks is critical," Oppenheimer says. Another difficult balance to strike is between keeping the public fully informed and risking misinterpretation by nonexperts, which could cause panic, he adds.
Volcanology mainly involves applying mathematical, physical, and chemical principles to geological questions. That makes undergraduate study in physics, chemistry, math, and computer science just as valuable as Earth sciences and geology, Witham and Oppenheimer say.
Different paths offer different advantages. "A geologist with a background in igneous petrology," the study of rocks formed from solidified magma, "will be able to interpret a lot more from a rock than a physicist. But a physicist with a solid background in fluid dynamics can say more about the flow processes that formed the rock,” says Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History volcanologist Ben Andrews, who is based in Washington, D.C. While it helps to specialize in a field, volcanologists need to be multidisciplinary, able, and willing to pick up knowledge and skills across boundaries.
Important geological skills include petrology (to understand the depth at which crystals start to form in magma, changing its flow properties), optical mineralogy (to determine composition from thin sections of rock), and sedimentology (to understand historical deposits from volcanoes). Traditional geological mapping is also important in work such as Wallace's tracking of ash flows in remote areas of Alaska.
In physics, fluid dynamics is a particularly important subject because it is needed to model magma dynamics, which are “all about multiphase fluids moving through the crust," Oppenheimer says. Magma modelers may tap into geochemistry if they want to study the gases that exsolve from magma as it nears surface pressure.
Optical physics and remote sensing techniques are valuable. Ground-based remote sensing through ultraviolet and infrared spectroscopy is used to measure the composition of a volcanic plume, the column of hot volcanic ash, gas, and rock emitted when the volcano erupts. Satellite remote sensing is used to monitor volcanic activity in isolated areas, track ash clouds, and detect surface temperatures.
Strong computational and numerical skills are necessary. Andrews recommends knowing the programming languages MATLAB, Fortran, and C, in particular.
Perhaps the most important skill for those who want their research to be relevant to people’s lives is an ability to stay focused on applicable work. You could develop an amazing model of magma movement, but if it takes months to run, it will be difficult for another organization to use it, Witham says.
Finally, the ability to distill detailed observations into material that is useful to federal agencies and risk management teams is often gained with experience. Wallace advises young volcanologists to volunteer and perform agency work during their Ph.D.s.
As in most other research fields, volcanology jobs are scarce. But for those passionate about volcanoes, once a job is found, the satisfaction and thrill are difficult to match. Volcanoes “change from year to year, and minute to minute, creating a dynamic environment unavailable in most geologic research. And darned if they aren't beautiful to look at and exciting to move around on," Lowenstern says.
Jenkins adds that doing fieldwork in areas where money is scarce but volcanic risk is high helps her remember “why we do this research: to save lives and prevent disasters.”
-The University of Colima’s Centre of Exchange and Research in Volcanology in Mexico, which facilitates visits for students who wish to have some hands-on experience working on an active volcano
-The Volcanology Group at the University of Cambridge
-The University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences in the United Kingdom
-The Volcanology Research Group at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom
-The Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Oregon, Eugene
-The Michigan Technological University Volcanoes Page
-The Hawaii Center for Volcanology in Honolulu
-The University of Alaska, Fairbanks’s Geophysical Institute
-The Nordic Volcanological Center in Reykjavik
-Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris in France
-The AXA Research Fund, which supports research toward the prevention of environmental, life, and socioeconomic risks
-The U.S. Geological Survey Volcano Hazards Program offers links to volcano observatories and USGS job postings
-A conference called Cities on Volcanoes, bringing together researchers, emergency management officials, and the public to be held in Colima, Mexico, on 19–23 November 2012
Rachel Berkowitz is a freelance science writer based in Cambridge, U.K.