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You're a what? Volcanologist.

You're a What?


On May 18, 1980, the world watched in wonder as Mount St. Helens exploded with incredible fury. The north face of the volcano collapsed, triggering the largest avalanche in history. A steaming column of smoke and ash bellowed 12 miles into the sky as the blast sheared forests of 100-foot trees like blades of grass. Rock, ash, and hot gases devastated an area of nearly 250 square miles.

The destructive power of the cataclysm was unimaginable, but the eruption itself was not unforeseen. For several months prior to the explosion, volcanic and seismic activity had been increasing and volcanologists--who study volcanoes--had been monitoring it. Even earlier, in 1975, volcanologists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) had forecast that Mount St. Helens would likely be the first of the Cascade Range volcanoes to reawaken, possibly before the end of the century. In 1978, they refined their forecasts still further, detailing with uncanny precision the likely hazards of the eruption. "In my mind, the Mount St. Helens forecasts were one of the few genuine geologic predictions,' says Robert Tilling, one of the country's leading volcanologists. "You have to put it in the perspective of geologic time, where we usually deal in tens of thousands or millions of years. To say something is likely to occur within 10 or 20 years is to speak of a period comparable to a blink of an eye.'

When Mount St. Helens exploded, Tilling was Chief of the Office of Geochemistry and Geophysics at USGS. He coordinated the investigations of the eruption. "Mount St. Helens,' says Tilling, "launched the decade of the eighties for volcanology.' Since then, El Chichon has erupted in central Mexico, belching fire, ash, and massive clouds of gas high into the atmosphere; Kilauea, in Hawaii, has sent a river of lava streaming to the Pacific, incinerating everything in its path and actually increasing the size of the State by an area larger than three football fields; and the eruption of Ruiz in Colombia has caused mudslides that entombed more than 22,000 people while they slept. At Mount St. Helens, tragic as the eruption was, only 60 people lost their lives. The toll could have been much worse if not for the precautions prompted by the volcanologists' investigations.

Volcanology is a subdiscipline of geology, the study of the earth, in which Tilling earned a bachelor's degree from Pomona College in California and a Ph.D. from Yale. But, he says, it was more a coincidence of personal interests than a professional plan that steered him toward the earth sciences.

"I've always enjoyed the outdoors. When I was young, I did a lot of hiking and backpacking.' At the same time, he says, "the sciences fascinated me.' Today, his work provides the "ideal combination of my interests in the outdoors and science. I spend a lot of time in the lab; but, before I do, I have to do the field work to gather material and observations.'

The sense of mystery that pervades the science attracted him as well. "A classic axiom of geology holds that the present is the key to the past,' says Tilling. "In a sense, we're detectives, trying to decipher the clues that the rocks tell us.' By studying volcanoes, Tilling and other scientists are providing some pieces to the puzzle, because nearly 80 percent of the earth's surface was formed by volcanic activity.

Scientific curiosity about the past does not mean, however, that Tilling and his colleagues are only looking backward. Through intensive investigations of a volcano's history and careful monitoring of its behavior, volcanologists try to predict what a volcano might do in the future. These studies provide information useful in planning for potential disasters, as was seen in the Mount St. Helens' forecasts, and are a major focus of volcanology. "Much of my work in recent years has consisted of working with my colleagues to develop a global system to respond to volcanic emergencies,' says Tilling.

About 600 active volcanoes are found around the world. More than half encircle the Pacific Ocean in what is known as the Ring of Fire. "Most of these we know very little about. More volcanoes exist than there are scientists to study them,' says Tilling. He estimates the total number of volcanologists to be only several hundred.

Aside from the United States, several other countries actively pursue volcanological research. Among them are the Soviet Union; France; Italy, where one of the world's most famous volcanoes, Mt. Vesuvius, still smolders; Iceland, which was formed by volcanic action; and Japan, where, in late 1986, the eruption of Mt. Mihara forced the evacuation of Oshima Island. But it is in the world's developing nations, which lack the resources for extensive scientific research, where most of the dangerous volcanoes are found. Consequently, says Tillin, he and his colleagues travel the world to study these volcanoes and help officials in these countries develop volcanic hazard programs.

This planning is important because the zones surrounding the volcanoes are usually densely populated. As volcanic material decomposes, the chemicals in lava and ash provide rich nutrients for the soil. "Volcanic regions are among the most fertile in the world and are natural magnets of agricultrual development,' says Tilling. Indonesia, a country where Tilling has conducted extensive research, provides ample evidence of this fact.

That nation, with its many volcanic islands strung like beads around the Ring of Fire, was the site of the two greatest eruptions in recorded history. In 1815, Mt. Tambora erupted, ejecting so much ash that the area was thrown into total darkness for 3 days, and sunsets around the world glowed a fiery red for more than a year. More than 50,000 people were killed. In 1883, a volcanic explosion obliterated the island of Krakatau; 36,000 perished. Nevertheless, "In Indonesia today, people are settled right on the flanks of volcanoes, because you find the prime rice-growing land there,' says Tilling. The inhabitants know the dangers but accept them. Volcanologists are working to develop plans that will lessen the odds of tragedy.

The first step is to develop "solid base-line data,' says Tilling. Volcanologists will collect and examine rock samples in the volcano zone. By deciphering the clues that the rocks offer, the scientists can determine when an eruption occurred and what conditions prevailed when it did.

But knowing what happened is only part of the process. "The only way we can begin to understand volcanoes and the risks they pose is by monitoring them constantly,' says Tilling, "before, during, and after an eruption.'

Volcano monitoring involves keen scientific observation and judgment, sophisticated technology, and a healthy dose of common sense. "I've gone down into active volcanoes many times,' says Tilling, "but believe me, I'm not foolhardy.' If there's danger, he keeps his distance.

To develop the forecasts for Mt. St. Helens, volcanologists arrayed a network of instruments over a wide area to gather important data. Seismometers measured earth tremors, magnetometers assessed changes in the magnetic field beneath the volcano, and special sensors monitored the content of volcanic gases. "The movement of molten rock or magma beneath the surface creates great pressures than can actually alter the shape of the volcano. We can measure such changes with laser-based instruments with the precision of parts per million,' says Tilling.

During an eruption, additional tasks confront volcanologists. They must take temperatures of lava and gas and collect samples for lab analysis; measure the height of lava fountains and ash plumes; and check the flow rate of ash ejection and the lava. "We use this information to construct a behavior model of a particular volcano or kind of eruption,' says Tilling.

Volcanologists use all the data they gather, plus the studies of other scientists, such as hydrologists, or create volcanic hazard maps that illustrate the zones of greatest risk and designate areas that are particularly susceptible to certain kinds of volcanic hazards, such as lavaflows, mudflows, or toxic gases. These maps aid officials in a country in developing viable land use and evacuation plans.

It is common practice at the USGS for scientists to spend time in both administration and research. This past winter, Dr. Tilling spent several months in Hawaii to continue his research on the Kilauea volcano, which has been in almost constant eruption for the last 3-1/2 years. "Viewing an eruption is an experience beyond description. All your senses come into play,' he says. "The steam blowing from the vents sounds like a fleet of 747's rolling down the runway. You feel the heat and smell the gases. You're reminded of your own insignificance,' he says.

"Naturally, we take precautions,' says Tilling. "We always approach a vent or a lavaflow from upwind and wear a foil-covered suit and a welder's mask to reflect the radiant heat. Even when there's no lava, heat from a vent can reach 800 degrees centingrade. Toxic gases are a frequent danger, so we always carry a gas mask as a precaution.' Cooled shards of lava can cut like broken glass, so heavy field clothes, including boots and gloves, are always worn.

Scientists don't gather data simply to fill their notebooks or floppy disks. It's their job to interpret the information and publish their research. "I've written my share of esoteric articles,' says Tilling. "But I also think it's important to get the information out in such a way that the public can understand it.' Acting on this belief, Tilling has written many of the general publications on volcanoes available from the USGS.

In recent decades, the frontiers of volcanology have been expanding. The importance of hydrology in the study of volcanoes and volcanic hazards is growing. Oceanographic research has shown the existence of many volcanoes on the sea floor, and space exploration has provided graphic evidence of past volcanic action on the moon and the planets. Voyager-2 transmitted photos of an actual eruption on Io, a moon of Jupiter.

As knowledge expands, so do opportunities. Interest in volcanology has grown since Mt. St. Helens erupted, according to Tilling. And events since then have kept the fires burning. If you think that you want to study volcanology, the first step is to get a bachelor's degree in geology. Gradute school is the next step, although a Ph.D. is not absolutely necessary. What is essential is that you be a good earth scientist, and this demands, says Dr. Tilling, "that you have a good grasp of the basics of the physical sciences--physics and chemistry --and a firm grounding in mathmatics.'

Volcanologists work in government agencies like the USGS, in universities, and in international or private research organizations. "We always need good scientists,' he says. Although the preparation for a career as a volcanologist is rigorous and opportunities are limited, Dr. Tilling offers encouragement to those who are willing to work.

Good scientists need a little relaxation, too. After feeling the heat all day, Dr. Tilling likes to make use of it. Maybe you can join him the next time he barbecues over the Kilauea lavaflow.
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Author:Stanton, Michael
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1987
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