FAQs About Studying and Working on Volcanoes

Q: Are you "scared" when working on an active volcano?

A: "Excited" is the first word that comes to mind when most of us think about our work at active volcanoes. Safety is always our primary concern, because volcanoes can be dangerous places. But we manage personal risk in the same way as other professionals in hazardous occupations, such as police officers or astronauts. We try hard to understand the risk inherent in any situation, then train and equip ourselves with the tools and support necessary to provide a comfortable margin of safety. Such training involves learning the past and current activity of the volcano, first aid, helicopter safety procedures, and wilderness survival techniques.

In the words of one scientist, "maybe because of these precautions, I've never felt scared while working near an active volcano. Instead, I'm usually terribly excited by the puzzle that every eruption poses to volcanologists: what is the volcano doing right now and what might happen next?"

Some of us, however, have experienced situations that were more than exciting. In the words of another scientist, "Scared? Oh sure. When a little steam explosion occurred from the dome at Mount St. Helens in 1982, three of us were surveying the dome from less than 100 meters away. As soon as we saw the basket-ball size rocks streaming through the air, we ran for cover beneath a huge block of ice on the crater floor. Until the rocks stopped landing all around us, I was absolutely terrified."

Q: Are you scared when the volcano is showing signs of restless activity and you've concluded the volcano is likely to erupt soon?

A: This is the most anxious time, because generally there is nothing more to be done than wait, watch, and hope your team is right in its assessment of the situation. With modern monitoring instruments, the level of unrest can seem almost overwhelming at this stage -- earthquakes happening virtually non-stop for hours or days, swelling or cracking of the ground at rates that keep going up and up, changes in the kinds and amounts of volcanic gases being released. But even so there are always uncertainties, including the very real possibility that the process will simply stop before magma reaches the surface and you'll be asked to explain why there was so much fuss over a "failed eruption."

A: The difference between a major eruption and a period of unrest that quickly fades from most people's memories can be very slight, and we haven't yet learned how to identify the point of no return. A restless volcano is a mind-boggling collection of complicated processes interacting with each other at ever increasing rates and under conditions that are often extreme, rushing toward an outcome that can't be known for sure until it happens. The uncertainty can be exciting, frightening, confusing, frustrating, and incredibly rewarding all at the same time. Many of us feel such emotions when working on a volcano that's threatening to erupt.

Q: Is it dangerous to work on volcanoes and what precautions do scientists take?

A: Restless volcanoes can be very dangerous places, but it's possible to work safely around them if you're properly prepared. First and foremost, scientists protect themselves by working as a team to create a "safety net" in which all the important bases are covered. Like a professional driving team, a volcano-response team includes key staff who know the monitoring equipment extremely well, experts in several scientific disciplines who can interpret data coming back from the field, a spokesperson to communicate warnings and other information to public officials and the media, and a scientist-in-charge, or "driver," who assumes overall responsibility for team performance. As part of an experienced scientific team capable of quickly assessing the past behavior of a restless volcano, installing instruments to take its pulse, and analyzing all available information to understand what the volcano is doing, a modern volcanologist is prepared to work safely even in the hazardous environment of a restless volcano.

Q: What's it like to work on volcanoes?

A: Volcanoes are inherently beautiful places where forces of nature combine to produce awesome events and spectacular landscapes. For most of us, they're FUN to work on! Most people are fascinated by volcanoes, and many may feel a strong connection to them in the same way we sometimes feel a connection or familiarity to a place, like a favorite coastline, a river valley, or forest. In the words of a scientist, "for me, there's something fundamental and moving about the idea of magma rising from deep inside our restless planet to flow gracefully onto its surface, as in Hawaii, or explode violently into its atmosphere, as at Mount St. Helens. I'm fascinated by the knowledge that some of the gases I breathe were once miles deep in the Earth, and arrived in my lungs by way of a volcano." Perhaps no spot on Earth is untouched by the effects of volcanoes. In fact, more than half of the Earth's surface is covered by volcanic flows, especially the sea floor. All forms of life on Earth are linked in some way to volcanic activity. With this perspective, what could be more exciting or rewarding than to work on an active volcano?

Q: What kind of school training do you need to become a volcanologist?

A: There are many paths to becoming a volcanologist. Most share a college or graduate school education in a scientific or technical field, but the range of specialties is very large. Training in geology, geophysics, geochemistry, biology, biochemistry, mathematics, statistics, engineering, atmospheric science, remote sensing, and related fields can be applied to the study of volcanoes and the interactions between volcanoes and the environment. The key ingredients are a strong fascination and boundless curiosity about volcanoes and how they work. From there, the possibilities are almost endless. Learn more about volcano training and schools.

Q: What instruments, tools, and methods do you use to study volcanoes?

A: The type of equipment and techniques we use to study volcanoes depends on the particular volcano topic we are investigating and on the experiment we are conducting. When specialized instruments are not available for a special study or for monitoring a specific type of activity, we design and build our own; for example the acoustic flow monitor (AFM) for detecting lahars and an experimental flume for studying flowing mixtures of water and rock debris under controlled conditions.

For studying and monitoring restless and erupting volcanoes, several onsite and remote methods are used to gather data that also help us answer four critical questions during a volcano emergency.

For reconstructing a volcano's eruptive history so that we can identify the type of activity most likely to occur in the future as well as the areas around a volcano that are likely to be effected by future eruptions, we use many geologic mapping and dating strategies. These include:

  1. Identifying rock outcrops, formations, and features on the ground and identifying their exact location on detailed aerial photographs and topographic maps or in computerized geographic information systems (GIS).
  2. Collecting dozens to hundreds of volcanic rock and ash samples from sites located on or near the volcano and also tens of kilometers downwind or downstream, and then using laboratory techniques for determining their chemistry and mineral compositions.
  3. Determining the ages of as many rock deposits formed by past activity of the volcano by using several common methods:
    • Carbon-14 dating when a volcanic deposit either incorporated or came to rest on top of vegetation or organic-rich soil and sufficient carbon-bearing material can be found. It's based on the fact that living trees and other organic matter contain small amounts of carbon's radioactive isotope (atomic weight of 14). When a tree is killed by a volcanic deposit, its radioactive carbon begins to decrease by radioactive decay at a known rate. By measuring the 14C/12C ratio in the wood sample, its age can be calculated. This technique can adequately date deposits that are as old as about 50,000 years, and each date may have an error range of between a few tens to several hundred years. The most common technique for dating recent volcanic deposits, only a few scientific laboratories in the United States can perform the carbon analysis.
    • Tree-ring dating when a volcanic deposit caused an unusual growth pattern of annual rings among trees growing at the time the deposits were emplaced. This technique can sometimes date deposits to an actual calendar year or to within a few years when used to on deposits of the past few hundred years.
    • Paleomagnetism in some volcanic areas where scientists have determined the yearly changes in the position of the Earth's magnetic pole over the past several hundreds or thousands of years and when the Earth's magnetic direction is preserved in volcanic rocks (usually lava flows and individual large rocks in pyroclastic flows); this technique usually yields ages with a range of between a few tens and several hundred years.
  4. Representing the types and ages of volcanic rock deposits and/or identifying volcanic hazard areas around the volcano on a paper map or computerized geographic information system.