Thursday, May 18, 2017

Back in time to Mount St. Helens: News coverage of the 1980 eruption

- Janine

Today marks another anniversary of the deadly eruption of Mount St. Helens volcano in Washington, USA. This eruption was one of those events where most remember where they were around the world when they heard the news. It changed the lives of those around the volcano - those who lost friends or family, their homes, their view of the local landscape, and their belief that 'it won't happen to me'.

Thirty-seven years ago the world watched as the eruption took place, so what did they see? Two years ago I posted a list of resources on the eruption. This year I look back again asking what it was like for those who experienced the eruption firsthand? What did the rest of the country see through they experiences of reporters and those who were there?

When the next continental-US volcano erupts some of us will be there. Some of us will have to clean up ash or mud (depending on the eruption type). The rest of us will watch the news and social media. This is how most of us are fortunate enough to experience natural disasters, and how many remember them.

This collection of videos includes footage leading up to, during, and after the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Footage of Mount St. Helens on 11 May 1980. Reporters from Channel 2 News visit the summit of the volcano, heavily coated with ash. Includes footage of the crater and the fractures on the summit.

The 6 pm and 11 pm KATU 2 news including USGS Bob Christenson, and U.S. Forest Service Jim Unterwanger. Includes interviews with people coming out of the eruption area, and footage of the lahars down the Toutle River.

KOMO News 4 evening report on the eruption. "Mount St. Helens will never be the same again, perhaps all of us will quite be the same, never so smug about our ability to control mother nature..." - Bob Throndsen.

KEZI 9 News looks back to when they were called 'Eyewitness News'. They interviewed people giving accounts of running from the erupting volcano.

CBS News reports on the eruption three days later, including the now-famous photos taken by Gary Rosenquist. They talk to Keith and Dorothy Stoffel, geologists who got footage of the eruption.

Komo 4 News interviews Dave Crockett who was caught under the ash plume on May 18. He recorded his experience that day as the ash plume moved over him.

KGW-TV reports on the eruption, looking back to earlier explosions as the eruption progressed.

ABC news looks back at news reports from April, 1980 showing footage of the earlier ash plumes, interviews with Harry Truman, and the aftermath of the eruption. Footage of the cleanup efforts around the volcano, showing how hard it can be to clean up a few inches of ash.

CBS News (WBBM Channel 2) news including President Carter visiting the disaster zone, and the the effects of the eruption. Aired on 21 May 1980.

KCTS9 report including interviews with people living in the nearby Ritzville and Cougar telling how this eruption affected them. Footage shows lahars flooding the Toutle river and the reactions of those who saw it.

An ABC News Bulletin interrupts Charlie's Angels to report the largest eruption since May 25th.

Good Morning America thinks back to the eruption four years later. Shows the dome that grew and lahar deposits.

Former Lewis County Sheriff Bill Wiester talks about his experiences searching through the devastated area, 30 years later. Includes photographs of the recovery efforts.

It will happen again. It happens around the world more frequently than you might realize. It is important that we remember what happened, how lives were taken and how those who remained were changed. We need to shake our 'it won't happen to me' beliefs and realize that these people were just like us now. Safe and unaffected, until Mount St. Helens woke up.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Where did all the geologists go? To the field!

Wow, it is the two year anniversary of this blog! We wanted to take a moment to thank all of our readers who have visited the blog over 100,000 times! While we write because we love talking about volcanoes and our work studying them, it is nice to see that there is interest in what we’ve taken the time to write about.  So a heartfelt thank you!
Alison and Janine in Puerto Varas Chile, attending Cities on Volcanoes 9 in 2016. Orsorno and Calbuco volcanoes can be seen in the beautiful background.

Geologists exeunt

The end of the spring semester approaches here in the northern hemisphere, which means  that academic hallways are extra chaotic as everyone tries to finish out the semester. This is also the time that the geologists prepare for a mass exodus to the field. While geologists will do field work whenever the field area allows, summers are particularly known for emptying departments of faculty and graduate students. For some it is a time to get that much needed data for their current research project, for others it is a time for training, like field camp. Those students not running off to field work are likely in a lab or tied to their desk finishing their dissertations like our very own Janine.
Time to get out waterproof notebooks, cameras, pencils, hand lenses and all the other tools that make field work happen.
My summer adventures will keep me quite busy from May through to the very last week before classes start in August. I don’t always schedule this way, but this year it was hard to resist all the great opportunities. I’ll be heading to Idaho with a new graduate student for two weeks this month to check out rocks new to me and them. Then I’ll be tagging along on our field camp based in South Dakota to learn the ropes so I can help out in future years.
For geologists the field is one of our best classrooms. Students get a chance to test out their powers of observation and tackle messy three-dimensional problems. Field camp is just one of those chances to get noses on rock. Here students look at a peperite (a magmatic intrusion that mingled with wet sediment) in a volcanic conglomerate in a quarry in Mexico.

After that we have the second half of an NSF funded Research Experience for Undergrads run here in KC. Back in January we went to Baja Sur in Mexico to do the field portion of the experience (and hide from winter) and July will be the lab portion. Then finally in August it will be the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s interior (IAVCEI) conference in Portland Oregon. I’ve signed up for a field trip to see Crater Lake and Newberry Caldera. Janine will be helping run a trip looking at many deposits from Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood, and then we'll hang out with a bunch of other volcanophiles for a week talking about new research and working on collaborative projects. The summer ends with the solar eclipse! Kansas City is lucky enough to be very close to totality, I only need to drive 20 minutes to get the full 2 minutes of totality. It will happen during my very first volcanology class of the year, so I need to decide how to get my class in position to enjoy it.
Field work can involve many things, and going through photos afterward is always a good way to remember some of the fun bits, like the painted lizards in AZ that just kept begging for us to take their photos.
Field work is this broad expanse of activities that take place anywhere we can find a good reason to go. Field work for me involves anything from collecting rocks, images, and notes about rocks for my research projects. We could be looking for features we spotted in satellite images, following the notes of previous field seasons, or exploring new territory. More and more my field work involves training students how to make good observations and prepare for future projects of their own, but I also take the opportunities to head out to the field with an expert on the area and play the role of student again myself. Below is a list of things to prepare for any field adventure.
A small maar in Baja Sur Mexico stands out in the aerial photography (image from Google Earth), but would be hard to spot until you are right on top of it in the field.
Some of my work involves some remote sensing, using aerial photographs and satellite imagery to look at large areas all at once from my computer. To calibrate and validate what we learn from these images it is important to go into the field and compare what we see on the ground to what we saw in the imagery. Even for projects that are all about field observations, it is good to do research before heading out also really important for knowing where you want to go, and what you might expect on the way (dirt roads or paved, no roads at all?). One recent example is the crater in the image above that caught my eye in a Google Earth image near our REU research area. It was noted on only one map, but otherwise had been ignored by previous researchers because they had some other goal in the area. I dragged our group of students and a colleague along some fun dirt roads to locate the crater. Having the images with us and GPS coordinates meant we knew right where we were going, even if we couldn't see the crater until we were right on top of it.
Edge of small maar crater near La Reforma caldera (in the back on the right) and Tres Virgenes volcanoes (left), Baja Sur, Mexico. The crater cuts into the ground surface and has minimal ejecta deposits, so it is not obvious until you've reached its rim.
We can also collect imagery data in the field. That can include good old field pictures, gigapixel images, and various multispectral images (near infrared or thermal infrared). Some field work can also involve much heavier and more involved equipment, particularly for geophysics studies. Most field crews these days will at least have a GPS of some sort and notebooks to keep track of the all important whats and wheres of the work they are doing. If you have any electronic gear make sure to bring extra batteries, chargers, and all the protective carrying cases you need to make sure your gear gets in, works, and gets out of the field.
On the edge of Meteor Crater in fall 2016. A gigapan on the left will take gigapixel mosaics of rocky outcrops. The instrument on the right is a thermal infrared camera we were using to help try out new techniques to image hard to reach or vertical outcrops. Thermal infrared is useful for investigating the texture and mineralogy of rocks.

Another important field tool is the field vehicle! I've had a wide range of field vehicles from big meaty trucks, Land Rovers, small sedans, and luxury SUVs. You get what is available locally and hope for a vehicle with good clearance, and when lucky, four wheel drive capability. I have a tendency to name my vehicles things like Fattypuff, Utsala, Stiletto, and Silver Bullet. So many field stories revolve around vehicles, so most field crews take a healthy does of experience to help get you into and out of any mishaps.
We called this beast El Gordo. You could fit three of the trucks we drove in Chile inside this beast.

Probably the most important tool for any field geologist is their boots. These are a very personal choice, but one thing they all have in common is being rugged. Rocks in general, and volcanic rocks especially, are very tough on boots. The footing is frequently unstable, hikes long, temperatures wide ranging, and sometimes the air or water can be acidic. I've been through a number of boots in my time and keep finding new ways to destroy them. Taking care of your feet is an important priority for any field trip.

Duct tape has been used to repair many a boot. This pair of fancy flipflops managed to barely get me through our recent trip to Baja. I have a new pair I'm breaking in of the same all leather style for my next trip.
Field work also can mean making new friends. The experience of spending most of your day hiking, eating and sharing vehicles with the same people for a few days is a good way to get to know your group. I have also learned to look out for other friends like wildlife, landowners, and interested passers by. So remember to take your patience and good will.
A tarantula hanging out on the trail to my bathing hole in Baja. She kindly sat still so I could photograph her.
Field food is another element that makes these trips memorable, in both good and bad ways. When traveling I love to try local food, but we frequently have to cook for ourselves. Some meals become instant classics, and some become fodder for future anecdotes. So remember to take some bravery and maybe some antacids on any field adventure.
If you get to work in Baja find your favorite taco stand. Basically any of the seafood tacos are worth it (fish pictured above). 

My field gear also involves whatever clothing I'll need for the climate I'm working in. For me this always means sun protection from hats to long sleeves. Layers and water proof shells are also a field workers friend. After a few years you end up with a good collection for most any condition, though eventually that favorite jacket or hat needs to be replaced. For my field work this month I've got all my camping gear, and permits lined up, now I just need to pack the rest of my gear and make sure I've submitted grades before I go. 

For anyone looking to double check their packing list, here's a introductory list from Janine and myself, happy travels! Some items may or may not be needed depending on your trip, or there may even be extras (like crampons and bear spray) that aren't listed here, it doesn't  hurt to ask for suggestions from trip leaders or more experienced group members.  

Every trip and everyone has special packing needs, its good to think about it in advance. I, for one, never can leave without my trusty field duck. A sense of humor is a good thing to take into the field.
Day pack
Socks (don't skimp on these, your feet are important)
Clothes for hiking and back at camp (including a comfy pair of shoes)
Gaiters (covering the top of your boot or snake protection)
Long pants and shirts are good even in hot climates, lets you keep your skin less scraped, burnt or bit
Measuring stick / scale bar / ruler
Pencils (may need colored pencils too)
Hand Lens
Field guide / air photos / maps
Hat (some locations that means warm and cold weather)
Sun glasses and back up glasses or extra stuff for contacts
Sun screen and bug spray
Rain gear
Water bottles (several)
Bandanas (I use them for everything from dish rag to hair tie to hanky, note bring more than one so they don't have to do double duty!)
Duct tape
Sample bags (cloth, paper bags then plastic is also useful)
Plastic bags (for electronics or in case of rain)
First aid / regular medications / stomach settler/ anti diarrhea / antihistamine / chap stick / emergency blanket
Extra shoe laces 
Sleeping bag
Bowl / plate / silverware
Hard Hat
Swim suit
Chargers for camera, phone
List of important phone numbers on the trip and for folks at home

Monday, May 1, 2017

Why do we act after a disaster, and not before?

- Janine

Photo shared by @Mikel_Jollett.
Right now is a time of deep reflection for many of us. People are taking to the streets marching and advocating for human rights, for science, and for protecting our planet. Tens of thousands of people, around the planet, together.

I love this sign 'At the start of every disaster movie there's a scientist being ignored'. Usually in a disaster movie there is some person trying to silence the scientist (who is trying to warn of impending disaster) is portrayed as the bad guy, and often succumbs to the disaster itself. Now, it is important in reality to have people asking the hard questions and looking at all sides of an issue (this does not make them a bad guy), and so many threats do not lead to disaster. In movie-world we know in hindsight that the scientist was right and everyone should have listened to them. So why isn't it so obvious in reality? Why do we ignore so many scientists saying things like 'it's when, not if, the disaster will occur'.

A big question at the moment is 'is science political?'. In the case of natural hazards sciences the answer appears to be yes. If science points out an issue (let's say, like an impending disaster) then it is up to local and national governments to actually do something about it. If there is a huge amount of air pollution that results in the deaths of those unfortunate enough to live in it (see the Donora tragedy in 1948, where 20 people died and 6,000-14,000 became ill), then policies are made to say that industry has to adapt. Quoting Marcia Spink from the EPA 'Before Donora, people thought of smog as a nuisance. It made your shirts dirty, The Donora tragedy was a wake-up call. People realized that smog could kill." Events like this lead efforts around the world to put regulations in place to keep us all safe. When science works with politics lives can be improved and saved.

Why do we wait until a disaster to act, then only a few decades down the track forget why it matters so much?

Let me point out that a disaster is not a disaster unless an event is interacting with us - people. No people, no disaster.

On 16 March 1980, Mount St. Helens began to show signs of activity, and only a few short months later on 18 May 1980, disaster struck killing 57 people, destroying 595 square kilometers (230 square miles) of forest, damaged 27 bridges and nearly 200 homes (USGS Fact Sheet). This cost the USA an estimated $1.1 Billion (list of the cost of volcanic eruptions in the USA). This was only 37 years ago, many people around the world remember this eruption. Many countries face these losses and costs from natural disasters much more frequently than most of us realize. Monitoring costs money, but the benefits far outweigh the costs

News coverage on May 18, 1980, on the Mount St Helens eruption. KOMO News 4.

It didn't take long for people (who weren't personally affected) to forget about Mount St. Helens. In 2009 'something called volcano monitoring' was under attack in the US. This came only 18 years after the U.S.-based Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) worked with the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) to successfully forecast the second largest eruption of the 20th century and evacuate 200,000 people, including the nearby U.S. Clark Air Base (more here).

While on a FEMA Volcanic Crises Awareness course the course leader, volcanologist Bruce Houghton said something that I have repeated many times. In a room of 15-20 people he
said if he were to tell us that there was to be a devastating earthquake in a few minutes and only 20% (paraphrasing from memory here) of us were to survive... *pause* ... I bet each one of you believes you are in that 20%. He was right. In that short pause each one of us had come up with a good reason as to why we would be one of the few survivors, even faced with such a small chance of survival. Closest to a door, run faster than others, jump under the desk... We all quickly 'calculated' [completely guessed] our own personal risk. We have a sort of positivity bias that allows us to believe that although disaster does strike, even a room full of people who study disasters find it hard to believe that it could actually be 'me' who is among the unlucky.

This is echoed across natural disasters. Is this why people don't take a few minutes to come up with a plan for their family in case of an emergency? Is this why people don't really put together that emergency kit that we all know we should have? Is this why we don't have more funding put into disaster preparedness? After my years of paying attention to disasters I know that the answer is 'it's complicated'.

United States 2016 public risk perceptions. Yale Climate Opinion Maps - U.S. 2016.
Right now Americans have overwhelmingly (70%) accepted that climate change is, in fact, a thing that is really happening. Yet only 40% believe that it will 'harm me personally' (Yale Climate Opinion Maps). This is just one example of perceived risk (here is some information on global views).

Recently in the USA the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act was introduced - and example of people working to set up a preemptive system to help save lives. I am told that this is not the first time that something like this has been put forward. This would provide a system that would improve volcano monitoring in the USA - something that seriously needs to happen if we are to be prepared for any one of the ~169 geologically active volcanic centers in the United States awakening. The 2005 National Volcano Early Warning System report identified 57 priority volcanoes that are unmonitored. Let's walk through this. Each volcano has its own personality, and each volcano has its own level of background activity - the shaking and burping that a volcano does just because it is a volcano. In order to know if a volcano is waking up (generally important for saving everyone around the volcano), we need to know when the activity (gas emissions, earthquakes, deformation, thermal output, water chemistry...) is changing. How do we know if different or concerning without knowing what it normally does? This gives us much less warning time, or none at all.

The eruption that had very little warning. Having monitoring networks around volcanoes gives us the best chance of a timely warning.This is Calbuco volcano in Chile erupting in April 2015. This very impressive eruption gave very little warning before producing this ash plume that traveled across international borders.

What does warning time give us? Primarily, it saves lives. Real lives. It prevents people from dying in sometimes damn awful ways including burning, asphyxiation, or physical trauma. This list includes volcanic eruptions that have produced fatalities, with numbers up to 29,000, 36,000, 92,000 for single eruptions. Statistics, however, do not get us to act. These numbers are so huge that most of us cannot comprehend them. My local Pittsburgh Steelers stadium (Heinz Field) can hold 68,400 people. All of those people - gone. Imagine if this statistic included those you grew up with, bought bread and milk from, went to school with... Yet this still doesn't get us to act.

So what can we do?

You can save lives by paying attention. On December 26 2004, a ten year old girl - Tilly Smith from England, saved an entire beach of people in Thailand because of a geography lesson about tsunamis. She recognized the signs (frothing water coming in and in, not out) and, understandably, became hysterical (read her story here). She was about to witness the Boxing Day Tsunami first hand. Because of her courage and insistence lives were saved.

Everyone should watch this video. This still gives me waves of chills. We all have the power to save lives.

Teachers and parents - you can produce these heroes. Children are powerful messengers, raise them to believe in themselves. Teach them to be observant of the world around them, encourage curiosity and let them know that they can contribute.

You all have this power. You don't have to wait until you are on the beach with an impending tsunami, you can tell your elected leaders to support the scientists and disaster managers who do that part for you. Unfortunately, this requires funding, and this is where politics comes in.

We become numb when we thing there isn't something we can actually do to help ourselves or others. We do not act if we do not believe our actions will mean or amount to anything. If we scientists rave about how devastating something will be, the 'well we are screwed anyway' attitude can quickly set in. We do not act if we do not feel an emotional connection to something. We feel something when we hear or see stories that we relate to. We forget about other people's disasters as soon as the media does. Why? Partly because every day life has its risks and challenges (feed the kids, don't crash the car, meet this deadline...). These every day challenges are much greater for more vulnerable populations (see factors of vulnerability) and those are the populations are hit harder by disasters - just look back at Hurricane Katrina.

The thing is, we can all be doing more to prevent disaster for ourselves and others. Right now. Depending on where we live we are ALL faced with a mix of hazards from climate change, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, avalanches, landslides, flooding, tsunami, drought, hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms, tropical storms, fires, thunderstorms, sinkholes, heatwaves... that's not even mentioning the hazards from space!

Remembering the 1985 Nevado Del Ruiz disaster. A small volcanic eruption unleashed lahars (volcanic mudflows) that killed around 23,000 people. Film by Streva.

You can begin to help people by participating in local and national levels, this can be as simple as phone calls. Tell your elected leaders that you care about these issues. Believe that you can make a difference, because you can. Disasters can be made less severe with evacuation plans, land use planning, building codes, education, a personal action plan, policies, emergency management networks, and funding to name a few. Your voice can influence all of these things for your family, town, state, country, or the entire planet. Really! We don't need to wait for another disaster for attention to be paid, and for funding to support crucial preparedness efforts.

History classes teach us about past disasters. We sit there wondering 'why didn't anyone do anything?!' swearing to ourselves that we would have.Your chance is every day. Your chance is now.

Nevado del Ruiz, living with the volcano. Film by Streva.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Finding strength through a love of volcanoes

- Janine

Isn’t it funny how a photo can take you back in time, to the person you were many years ago along with all of those insecurities, fears, and aspirations? I just turned 31 (I will never be ashamed to tell my age) and my Mum lovingly posted photos on Facebook that threw me into a time warp. Photos from the day I was born, through my childhood, through high school, and into my field work as a young volcanologist. I felt my face (or entire body) flush red with embarrassment at the photos out there for all to see. After a long talk to Mum (and begging her to take a couple of them down) I promised her I would find a way to make it into a positive – yes I am that person who is determined to make a positive out of pretty much anything. Everyone has a story, everyone’s stories have chapters. Some chapters are much easier or harder than others, all good stories have challenges to overcome. Each one of them leads to the people you see today.

If I could go back to my 13 year old self, I would give her a big hug and promise her that everything was going to be okay, better than okay – I was about to embark on an adventure! I wouldn’t tell her how tough things were going to get but I would promise her that she has the strength to get through everything, and each challenge would make her stronger and more determined to help other people. Determined to show every kid that wanted to be a volcanologist, or anything else, that the people they look up to started out like them. A kid.

When I realized I was going to be a volcanologist I embarked on my biggest adventure. I also grew up near what would soon be Hobbiton.
 I was lucky to grow up in a household with a great Mum and Dad, an incredible extended family, and a brother who, like me, figured out what he wanted to do at a young age (he is a graphic designer/artist and I am so proud of him). I was that super sensitive kid who loved documentaries but had to turn away when the baby antelope got eaten. I understood that this was an important part of life but I still did not want to witness it and feel that gut-wrenching compassion for the animal getting attacked. Many might say that this sensitivity is a weakness, but is one of my strengths. It is why I can write about my personal struggles in the hope of even one kid out there, of any age, can think 'I can do that too'.

Embarking on my first year of school in Te Awamutu, New Zealand. Little did I know I would still be in school 26 years later. My Mum told me that I could do anything I wanted to in life. So I did.

Like many girls out there I grew up very self-conscious, how could you not with society telling you at every turn what you are supposed to look and be like! Luckily my love for being around people and my extroverted personality helped me to ignore it some days, and fake confidence on others (fake it till you make it, right?). If I could go back to that kid looking in the mirror after flicking through a magazine feeling my gut sink as my eyes pointed out all of my ‘flaws’, I would hug her. I'd tell her that this body was going to be strong enough to climb volcanoes, walk in marches in Washington D.C. (a place I never thought I would go!), sit on planes for hours on end to travel the world, and stand for hours talking with other volcanologists in poster sessions.

On the days that I didn’t feel smart enough, I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that I would go on to get my Ph.D., and it wouldn’t be my ‘intelligence’ that would ultimately get me there, it would be my passions for volcanoes and helping people. I would tell her that intelligence is something you can apply to anything in life. I know people who are an absolute genius when it comes to music, cooking, nursing, writing, sports, parenting… you name it. Being told you are not smart enough, even from your own mind, doesn’t mean anything.

Embarking on field work with my co-blogger, Alison, on a 2007 lahar on Ruapehu volcano in New Zealand. Friendships are so important in life and careers. Photo by Michael Tayler.
If I could go back to the 13 year old girl who realized that she was going to be a volcanologist, I would tell her that she was going to make this happen and it is going to be even more amazing and exciting than she thinks! I would tell her that she would actually end up working on the May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption deposits. I would tell her to keep ignoring all of those ‘in the real world’ pep talks and well-meaning advice that she should chase a career for money or stability. I would tell her that all the reading about volcanoes and the eruptions that made history (Mount St. Helens, Pinatubo) was priming her for a career not only working on volcanoes, but loving reaching out to kids and other groups about them too. It is all going to work out great so don’t doubt yourself. To all the kids out there – keep reading and exploring!

I would stare at this volcano thinking "this is way too cool to be a real job". Ngauruhoe volcano, New Zealand. I would end up studying this volcano for my Master's degree.
If I could go back to the young girl who was in a lot of physical pain, I would hold her and tell her that she is going to get such an amazing gift out of it. At 20 I would be diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome a condition where every tendon and joint in my body can feel perfectly fine, achy, or I can be crippled by pain for no apparent reason. If I don’t take care of myself right those tendons would tear in blinding (literally) pain. By that stage all I cared about was that I would be able to climb volcanoes and do field work. After soaking up every bit of information on how to take care of myself, and a few mistakes that landed me on crutches along the way, I am perfectly able to climb volcanoes, sleep in a tent for a few weeks, and focus through pain to sit for hours writing my dissertation. I haven't read anything about this condition since, and mostly forget I even have it (sometimes I do have a realization that all this pain is not normal). I was determined to not be defined by it. To all the girls and boys out there who have a physical challenge: I thrive with chronic pain through a lot of my life and it has not stopped me. You can find a way through it, I believe in you. Your invisible or not-so-invisible illness is not who you are.

This is me on Ruapehu volcano in New Zealand, 2011. You can't tell that this is the day after tearing 3 tendons in my ankle and I was about to be on crutches for a month. Pain tolerance is a wonderful thing.
If I could go back to the girl who was afraid to move out of home to move to University, I would tell her that I would find the courage to move to a new country, twice! I would meet people along the way who would inspire and help me, giving me strength to put my hands over my eyes and take the leap. I would tell her that eventually I would go through so much that I would come to know that I can get through anything with the help of people I meet along the way and focusing on my passion in life.

If I could go back to the young woman who moved to Australia to be closer to her dying grandfather, I don’t think I would warn her about how hard that was going to be. I definitely wouldn’t tell her that I was about to get so sick that I would be bedridden, and that doing something other than volcanology would feel so awful. Instead, I would tell her that no matter what, everything was going to be okay. The lessons I would learn from those three years would give me a strength and confidence I couldn’t yet imagine. The self development and leadership training I would receive would help me in every aspect of my life. I would tell the young woman stuck in bed sick with a mystery heart illness, terrified that she wouldn’t be able to do volcanology again, that after a couple of years it would get better and this would only make me more determined to somehow give other people hope.

To younger-me who got bitten by a monkey in Indonesia who was freaking out after (wrongly) being told by a very concerned friend that I had rabies - you're okay! The rabies treatment is really going to suck, but you're okay and this is going to be another one of those life stories you laugh about. When you think you just made your last mistake on Earth your priorities are crystal clear. On that bed in Indonesia all I could think of was being a volcanologist - I hadn't even seen my first eruption yet! 

To the young woman about to embark on a move to the United States to do her Ph.D. I would stand her up straight and say ‘this is it’. The next 5 years are going to change your life and define who you are as an adult. The next 5 years would involve finding a voice through social media, finally seeing my first volcanic eruption, meeting people whose work I had been reading about for many years, losing myself several times, and finding a stronger version of myself each time. It would involve two polar opposite trips to Kamchatka. The first harrowing trip where time would slow down when the ground below me opened up and tried to swallow me (I wish I meant this metaphorically). Then the second that would be the most incredible trip of my life! Mount St. Helens would get thrown into my work and I never would stop thinking “I can’t believe I get to do this!”.

Field work on the Mount St. Helens pumice plain at age 30. This is what a dream coming true looks like. Photo by Simon Barker.

Well I can’t go back and give my younger self pep-talks. So, to the kids and young adults out there, in the words of my Mother ‘you have no idea what is waiting just around the corner for you’. The version of you right now will evolve as you forge many strengths along your journey that will get you through the challenges that jump out at you. Through all of this you can follow your dreams, even though the path may not look anything like you think it will. Through the toughest times you have a chance to learn grit, determination, and that taking care of yourself (body and mind) is so important. You will find gifts along the way like friends, colleagues, inspiration, encouragement, and hindsight. Take the chance to appreciate mistakes as hard earned lessons, and criticism as an opportunity to re-evaluate.

I am not writing this from a place of ‘everything has worked out’. I write 2.5 months before I defend my Ph.D. with a lot of work left to do, and with no idea where I am heading next. But through the challenges in life I have learned to be at peace with uncertainty, knowing that I have my own back and plenty of great people around me. I am nearly closing this chapter and opening a new one and after looking back over all of my past chapters I am excited. Every challenge, every lesson, every degree, every volcano, every friend, have all led me to this point. Bring it on!


This blog post was a long time coming, and was finally written after being inspired by the incredible Amariyanna “Mari” Copeny, or 'Little Miss Flint', a 9 year old girl with the courage to stand up for what she believes in. Watching her on stage at the Science March in DC this past weekend had me wishing that every kid out there was encouraged to follow their dreams and use their voice.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Why did Etna's lava flow explode?


There is something powerful about understanding that something can happen, and then seeing it happen. Today a video on BBC showed what happens when a lava flow moving gently down a snow-covered slope suddenly becomes very dangerous. The video clip shows a white plume of steam with some dark streaks in it, then suddenly there are loud wooshing noises and bangs. The rising plumes are black and brown. The camerawoman needed to run to escape. The group thankfully all made it away from the scene and down slope.

 Video from BBC from March 16, 2017.

So what happened? How does a lava flow suddenly explode? It is all about the snow. The lava flow is very hot > 1,000 C and the snow is frozen, so 0 C. That big difference represents all the energy in the lava flow in the form of heat. We complain when the weather is above 37 C (98.6 F; or hotter than our inside body temperature), so you can appreciate that there is a LOT of heat energy in that lava flow. We might imagine that lava would melt all the snow away rapidly. Turns out it is a bit more complicated than that.

This video taken on Tolbachik volcano in Kamchatka, Russia in 2013 is a great example. During this eruption there was ample snow for the lava to travel on. You can see the lava touches the snow without instantly melting it. This is because of how heat is transferred through the lava. Thermal diffusivity is a way of measuring the ability of the material to transfer heat as well as how well it stores heat. Lava is good at storing heat. It takes a long time for a lava flow to cool down. You can think of different materials in your house that have various thermal diffusivities, like that aluminum pan you always burn your hand on that gets hot super fast (and cools down really fast too). There is also that cast iron pan that takes forever to get hot, and stays hot much longer than you even need it for cooking (when you think lava think of the cast iron pan).

So if lava likes to keep its heat, how do we get those explosions? The snow does melt, just not as fast as you might expect. In fact much of the snow can be turned into steam because we are well above the boiling point of water (100 C). If this steam has an easy escape it can just billow out the side of the lava flow and produce white clouds. If the steam builds up under the lava it can sometimes escape rapidly and produce that wooshing noise and fast rising clouds (like in the Tolbachik video). But what we saw on Etna had dark clouds that thew hot rock at the camera crew?!

This is a more complex process. When the snow melts, some of it hangs around as liquid water. Water is much better at transferring thermal energy than steam. If the water gets into the lava flow through a crack, or if the lava traps pieces of snow in it while traveling, it can produce an explosion flinging steam and hot rock into the air and make it dangerous for observers. So what is happening with the trapped water that is different? The space (volume) that steam requires is much greater than that of water, so there is an element of the explosion caused by the pressure build up of steam. There is also a process called 'molten fuel coolant interaction'. Since water is more efficient at heat transfer it can transfer thermal energy (heat) rapidly from the lava. This causes the lava to crack as it cools. If this happens really quickly it shatters the lava and produces a pressure wave, turning the thermal energy into mechanical energy. In order for enough heat to be transferred at a fast enough rate to lead to an explosion, a large surface area of hot lava needs to be in contact with liquid water. In fact, the more we study this we realize that the two materials need to be mingled together so that there is lots of water in contact with the lava.

Water droplet on a hot pan dancing on top of a protecting steam layer. From CoolScienceGifs.tumblr

All along this surface the water wants to turn to steam. This steam actually insulates the water from the lava, like the water droplet in the gif above. This protects the liquid water and lets it accumulate under the lava flow. If the vapor film breaks down all at once, from a sudden shift in pressure caused by the moving flow or the shaking ground, the water is put in contact with the lava all at once and cools the surrounding lava rapidly. This shock to the lava, plus expanding steam, breaks up and throws rock at high speeds (an explosion).

The famous Kilauea firehose from February 2017 shows explosions from the lava rushing into the sea, video courtesy of USGS.

If you watch these various videos you can see this full range of interactions. Gentle melting, lazy looking steam plumes, rapid steam plumes, small explosions throwing a few bits of rock, and bigger explosions that break up and throw larger volumes of the lava. I think the Etna event was getting closer to the more explosive end member from just how much material was involved in the explosion. What is really important to notice is that the explosion doesn't happen the whole time. In fact there are lots of chances for lava to interact with water and snow without exploding! There are lava flows in the ocean that predominantly make bulbous shapes called pillow lavas without exploding.

A growing pillow lava, you can see the steam enveloping the lava as it grows, insulating the lava and slowing down the cooling process. From .gify original source unknown. 

This is because the circumstances that lead to the explosions (trapping water and vapor) and the right amount of surface area are less common. All this complexity, and the difficulty of studying volcanoes that might throw hot rock at you, is why the question of 'whether interactions explode or not' is one of the biggest questions in volcanology at the moment.

Several teams of experimental volcanologist are trying to tackle this question. Ben Edwards and the crew from the University of Syracuse have done a bunch of experiments to better understand how lava melts snow and ice. That video up above from Tolbachik in Russia was also part of this project and you can find the many papers written up explaining their results.

On the explosive side there is the University at Buffalo's Center for Geohazards Studies Rock Melt facility that is making their very own explosive lava water interactions. I've been lucky enough to be part of this project and am looking forward to seeing more progress as they perfect their experimental set up.

My own research focuses on the rocks formed by both explosive and non-explosive interactions between magma and lava with water on Earth and on Mars. I've written about how volcanoes involving lots of magma water interactions are different from your typical volcano and what sort of crazy things happen with eruptions under glaciers before on the blog, and I expect there will be more in the future (especially after some field work I'm doing in Idaho). You can find examples of magma water interactions all over the world. We've seen evidence for lava flows interacting with water before including some spectacular features called rootless cones or pseduocraters, which are craters on top of a lava flow caused by multiple explosions from trapped water in the same spot.
Rootless cones in Myvatn, Iceland, the small craters along the lake shore. These formed where the lava flow went into a lake. Picture from 2011 by Graettinger. 

Today's story on Etna is a good reminder that volcanoes continue to be dangerous places. Many eruptions look quite scenic, but it is important to remember that conditions can change rapidly at any time. I am very glad that all the people on Etna today made it back off the mountain with only minor injuries. Just remember this if you get a chance to visit volcanoes around the world, that even on familiar volcanoes we can be taken unaware.

If you want some more technical reading about molten fuel coolant interactions in volcanic settings here are some papers to look up:

Zimanowski, B., B├╝ttner, R. & Lorenz, V. Bull Volcanol (1997) 58: 491. doi:10.1007/s004450050157 Mattox and Mangan JVGR (1997) Littoral hydrovolcanic explosions a case study of lava-seawater interaction at Kilauea volcano. 10.1016/S0377-0273(96)00048-0
(open access) Hamilton, C.W., Fitch, E.P., Fagents, S.A. et al. Bull Volcanol (2017) 79: 11.  doi:10.1007/s00445-016-1086-4 
And the citations with these papers.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Never stick your hand into a viscous material


“If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s never to stick your hand into a viscous material” I came across that quote again in the signature of a colleague's email. It is from the 2004 Van Helsing movie. The movie is a bit cheesey, but that advice is very sound.

So what does viscous mean? The term viscosity is not a word that most people use every day, but a really useful one if you want to know anything about a fluid or anything that flows. It gets used by your mechanic when discussing different types of oils to put in a car’s engine. Or occasionally in movies involving evil scientists, monsters and gooey things (see above). Even TSA has to have a basic understanding of viscous things as they limit all things that pour, spreads or smears. This covers a range of things that, while they behave like fluids (which means they deform under a force), you might not immediately think of them. Unfortunately, TSA is as just as likely to take away your hair gel or peanut butter as your water bottle. Here at In the Company of Volcanoes, our favorite viscous material is of course, lava.

Sampling this viscous fluid is a unique experience. I used a rock hammer while wearing thick leather gloves while I was a volunteer at the Hawaii Volcano Observatory and it was still uncomfortably hot! Kilauea 2009. Even the duck was wearing personal protective gear. 

Volcanologists care about viscosity because it is a useful means of discussing how magma and lava move. A practical example is using viscosity of a lava flow to help estimate how far it will travel. Viscosity is, in its simplest form, a way to describe how a material, usually a fluid, flows. Viscosity is technically defined as the resistance to flow. The more viscous it is, the more sticky and slow it will be. So oil is more viscous than water, and toothpaste is more viscous than oil. If you ever take a geology course that has a good volcano section you may get to race various fluids down a slope, including things like syrup, oil, or ketchup.
There are lots of web resources to design these experiments for students of all ages. Everyone likes making a mess. Image from Science Sparks a website full of science activities for kids.

Another fascinating thing about viscosity is that it changes with temperature. You can think about honey. When it is a warm day honey will pour nicely from the container (squeezey bear for me) and runs quickly. When it is a cold day, or you keep your poor honey bear in the fridge, the honey is much thicker and doesn’t flow as easily. This temperature relationship with viscosity is pretty common. I’m sure you can think of lots of edible examples from your kitchen (chocolate and peanut butter are my personal favorites). 

Honey bear, backlit, from Wikimedia Commons.
Viscosity is also dependent on things like bubbles, or crystals inside the fluid. The presence of these things change the way the flow will respond to deformation. Crystals can get locked up and prevent the flow from moving, for example. Our honey analogy works here too. When honey sits around too long it can start to crystallize. These crystals resist flow and makes it much harder to get any honey out of that bear and into your tea. At some point, the honey becomes nothing but crystals and then it isn’t a fluid anymore. The trick is to reheat it and melt those crystals. For lava flows we have to consider the temperature, the crystal content, and the gas content, which are all constantly changing while at the surface because it is trying to cool down.

This lava from Tolbachick has lots of holes in it that are preserved bubbles, or vesicles. Some of them are stretched meaning they were formed while the lava was still flowing, these vesicles can influence the lava's viscosity. Image by J. Krippner.
Ok, so what units do we even measure this in???  The one we use in volcanology is the Pascal second (Pa s).  A pascal measures pressure, Europeans who own cars should already know this from when they check their tire pressure. In the US, and a few other holdouts, we use pounds per square inch, or PSI.. Blaise Pascal was a French Mathematician. I remember this because one of the top schools for Volcanology in the world is in France and named after him (though we more frequently refer to the city where it was built, Clermont Ferrand). When we add the seconds it becomes about the pressure required for deformation over time. This also can be called Poise (this is useful for really small viscosities as 10 Poise= 1 Pa s). We can also measure this as a function of distance mPa s (dynamic viscosity) or by area m^2/s (kinematic viscosity). 

Most of us, though, don’t have a good calibrated Pa s in their brain to be able to compare how much more viscous motor oil is than lava. So what are a few examples to put this in context? Water, one fluid I’m sure all of us have encountered enough to have a good feel for how runny it is, has a viscosity of 8.9 x 10-4 Pa s. So that is 0.00089 Pa s. So not very much resistance to flow. In fact we call it a Newtonian Fluid, or one that responds to any deformation in a linear way. When you add a force it responds quickly and proportionately. 

So lets look at these for different orders of magnitude. That is, each step is 10 times less runny than the previous. All numbers are rounded and for room temperature (70 F or 21 C).
Water              0.001 Pa s
Milk               0.03 Pa s
Motor oils      0.1-1 Pa s
Karo Syrup     5 Pa s
Honey            10 Pa s
Peanut butter  250 Pa s
Silly Putty      8,000 Pa s
Glaciers (average)         1,000,000,000,000 Pa s

Ok, so now we have some items to compare against lava flows.

Basalt, which is what most people think of when they think of lava, erupts at high temperatures around 1200 C, which is 2,500 F.  Hot runny basalt can have viscosities of as low as 10-100 Pa s. That means it can be as runny as honey in your kitchen (we don't see this often). A recent video of lava entering the ocean from Kilauea volcano in Hawaii shows a good example of low viscosity basaltic lava. The color and the velocity of this lava tells us it has a low viscosity (for lava) and thus very hot. This footage is so impressive that its getting a lot of attention, even in Hawaii. The video below is from Big Island Video News.


At lower temperatures basalt becomes more sticky and the viscosity increases. This makes the lava ooze more than gush. The viscosity of the lava in the video below is probably closer to 100-1,000 Pa s. That makes it closer to that of peanut butter. It is still smearable, but it takes more force to make it move. This video below shows the oozing lava collected by Hawaii Outdoor Guides.

Even though flows like this take their time moving, as long as there is more lava pushing behind it the flow can keep going for miles. You can out run most lava flows, but they can still cause damage by covering roads, damaging houses and farms. Sometimes the viscosity of the flow is high enough that it doesn't even look like a liquid anymore, more like a pile of moving rubble. A'a lava flows have viscosities that range from 1,000-10,000 Pa s. That is closer to the viscosity of silly putty at room temperature. Inside that rubble is molten lava that is pushing the whole pile forward. The footage below was taken at Kilauea volcano on 1 June, 2010 by volcanochaser.

As I mentioned before viscosity is controlled by temperature (seen in videos above), but also composition. The above examples are basalt lava. They contain between 45-52% silica by weight. Silica in rock hangs out with four oxygens to make a tetrahedron. If we add more silica to a lava the tetrahedra start sharing oxygen, linking together and making chains. As they link up, the flow gets harder to deform, more viscous. As silica increases further the chains link together, then the tetrahedra form a framework.

One silicon (grey) hangs out with four oxygens (red) to make a tetrahedron. This is the building block of most minerals that occur in lava. As the amount of silica increases the tetrahedra link together to make chains, and then double chains, and then a framework. As these structures get more interconnected the viscosity of the lava increases. Image using silica tetrahedra from wikimedia commons. 

Lavas with more silica have progressively higher viscosities. Andesite lava, which has silica contents closer to 60 % silica by weight have viscosities that are a few orders of magnitude higher than that of basalt (1,000,000 Pa s). However, as the viscosity increases it becomes more dangerous to film these lavas moving. They tend to form steep volcano and trap more gas. Trapped gas can build up and cause explosive eruptions. I haven't yet found a good video of an andesite lava flow, as so many andesite flows occur while explosive activity happens at the same time.

The next step in viscosity is dacite, or lavas with 60-70% silica by weight. With this much silica the viscosities get really high and the lava doesn't look like a fluid anymore. Most often when we see dacite lava moving it is in lava domes. These look like piles of rubble, or even fins of rock that grown and change with time. The inside of this pile is still hot viscous lava that pushes the cooler dome material above it out of the way. To see them move we really need time lapse photography. This video of the Mount St Helens 2004-2008 lava dome from the USGS is really quite impressive.

At the far end of the silica spectrum we get rhyolite, which is up to 77% by weight silica. So half again as much as the basalt. The effect on the viscosity is significant, up to 1,000,000,000,000 Pa s, that is the same order of magnitude of a glacier, which moves very slowly. So not quite doubling the silica content of runny basalt makes the viscosity go up 10 orders of magnitude. All that silica makes a difference. The difference we saw between similar composition lavas but different temperatures spanned from 100-10,000 Pa s. The effect of adding more silica is much greater. Rhyolite is the stickiest of lavas. It is so sticky, that it rarely flows at all. We don't get to see it very often because the viscosity traps gases which means the volcano is more likely to explode than ooze a lava flow. There have been a few cases, including the video below from Lancaster University showing an eruption of Cordon Caulle, Chile in 2011. Hugh Tuffen and colleagues were lucky enough to see the high silica lava flow in motion. They call it obsidian because it is very glassy (the preview image of the video is not of rhyolite, you have to click the video to see the obsidian lava).

You may not have thought about viscosity before reading this blog (and you may never again), but if you want to, you will be able to compare some numbers if you are trying to buy fancy olive oils, translate a physics text, digest a hazard model, look up the safety features on your shampoo, or pick an oil for your car. More importantly, you now can talk about how viscous lava is, a party subject I'm sure you've been longing to bring up. There are lots of good exercises online for studying viscosity including this and this that have great teaching tips to give another explanation of what was covered in this blog. Don't forget our long list of other volcano teaching resource from our blog last year.