In 1980, Mount St. Helens in Washington exploded. Rocks the size of refrigerators rained down and David Johnston, a U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist, was swept away. French volcanologists Katia Krafft and her husband, Maurice Krafft, died when Japan’s Mount Unzen erupted in 1991. Two years later, Geoffrey Brown, a volcanologist at the Open University in Britain, was killed when a sudden explosion from the Mount Galeras volcano in Colombia sent steam, rocks and ashes flying into the air.
“There was no way to escape the rocks falling,” said Andrew McFarlane, a scientist from Florida International University, according to the Independent. “We just ran. … I guess we were lucky.”
One volcanologist described the noise and 2,000-degree heat of an eruption as “an assault on her senses.” Another said it was like being “pelted by cherry-size rocks.” Some said the gas smells like “old redfish.”
This is volcanology: one of the least safe academic pursuits one can find — the study of what makes volcanoes erupt, often in real time.
Volcanoes are oozing across the world. The Philippines’ most active volcano, Mayon, glowed red Wednesday morning as molten rocks ran down its slopes some 200 miles southeast of Manila. Earthquakes continue to rock Iceland’s Bardarbunga volcano in the Vatnajokull glacier after a weekend eruption. And lava from the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is cutting a course through a rural area, creeping toward a roadway on the Big Island.
Since June, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory have been tracking Kilauea’s lava by helicopter as it creeps toward the town of Pahoa. Those in the field look like first-responders, wearing fire-resistant flight suits, helmets, face masks, gloves with heavy leather boots. They fly over live volcanoes to get an overview of the eruptions. Sometimes they hike the treacherous terrain to map the flows.
At the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, a crew is three scientists plus a pilot, each with a specific job to do. One person operates a handheld GPS to track the chopper as it traces the outline of the lava flow. Another uses an infrared camera to map out the hot spots, Jim Kauahikaua, scientist-in-charge at U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, told The Washington Post via e-mail. And everyone takes pictures.
They collect lava samples and analyze the temperature and chemistry to detect changes, Tim Orr, a geologist at the observatory, told Tested. If science suggests a dangerous situation, they inform authorities.
A photo snapped by the observatory this week shows a snapshot of a geologist in protective clothing using a radar gun to measure the speed of the lava flow. Another shows a scientist recording measurements of the volume of lava flowing through the tube. Janet Babb, a geologist who also serves as the observatory’s spokesman, told the Associated Press, “To do that you have to walk across a lava tube and that’s fairly hazardous work.”
The Kilauea volcano in Hawaii has been active for more than 31 years and, for the past six years, has been exploding from two different spots, emitting thousands of tons of sulfur gases into the air, Kauahikaua said
“Probably the worst accidents we have had are falling on the crusts of lava flows, which are like glass,” he said. “One can get cut up if not wearing leather gloves and long-sleeved shirts and pants. We are also sometimes exposed to sulfur gases for which we wear respirators and monitors to track our exposure.”
Then there’s the lava. Although it destroys everything in its path, it’s a volcanologist’s job to collect it.
“We physically dip the hammer in the molten lava, pulling out big globs and dumping them into a bucket of water to cool off,” Orr told Tested last year. “You have to do it quickly. I don’t take my time. If you’re close enough the radiant heat from the lava will burn your bare skin if it’s exposed so we wear gloves, leather boots, a face mask and sunglasses.”
And, just like with any vehicle, helicopters can crash.
“There are days when it’s an office job. Then there are days when you’re flying in helicopters over wilderness areas and installing instruments. There are days when you’re watching volcanoes erupt [and] there are days when you’re attending scientific conferences,” said Steve McNutt, a research professor with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “You don’t go in saying, ‘I’m going to do this and this and this today.’ There are days when nature takes over.”