My life scientific
Helen Pilcher talks lava, explosions and bandits with volcanologist Prof Tamsin Mather.
Why study volcanoes?
They are a spectacular natural phenomenon. They can be hazardous, but they can also be a positive force. Because they’re so big they can change rainfall patterns. They provide resources like mineral deposits. They’re tourist attractions. They’re also a key force in shaping not just our Earth, but other planets too.
Which volcanoes are the most explosive?
It depends on the magma and the gases trapped in it. Some, like those in the Pacific Ring of Fire, have sticky, viscous magma that traps gas at high pressures, leading to really big explosions. Others, like the ones on Hawaii, have runnier magma so trapped gases can escape more easily. So you end up with lava flows that look spectacular but that don’t tend to kill many people.
Is your work dangerous?
Volcanoes can be dangerous for lots of reasons, not just their eruptions. These are big mountains. One time, I was on Mount Etna when the weather changed suddenly. It started snowing and hailing and we got really blown around. I was pretty nervous, but fortunately our guides were able to get us down safely. No measurement is worth risking your life for. It can be a lot of fun though.
The science is fascinating, the scenery is breathtaking and sometimes it can be surreal. When I worked on Villarrica volcano in Chile, we’d spend the day taking measurements at the summit, then strap our equipment to our backs and slide down the snowy ice cap on our bums.
What’s it like getting so close to an active volcano?
It’s pretty intense. If you’re standing in a volcanic plume, the smell can be horrible. There’s sulphur dioxide, which smells of burnt matches, and hydrogen sulphide, which reeks of rotten eggs. There are also various acids, which make your skin feel really unpleasant.
Do you need any special gear?
Some volcanoes are not easy places to be. You need a gas mask, helmet and eye protection. Sturdy boots. And synthetic clothes are better than natural cotton. The gases can eat through cotton trousers. You take them home and wash them, then find that they are full of holes.
What’s the scariest experience you’ve had on a volcano?
I was held up at gunpoint on Masaya volcano in Nicaragua. We were so excited about taking measurements that we went to the national park before the rangers arrived and it had officially opened. Some local bandits must have seen our car on the crater rim, so two guys with a rifle and a machete turned up. They were a bit confused when we didn’t have any money – just scientific equipment. In the end they just took a camera and a watch, but it was pretty nerve-racking.
Can you pronounce the name of ‘ that’ Icelandic volcano?
Eyjafjallajökull? Yes, I can, although not perfectly. It annoyed lots of people in 2010 when its ash clouds closed airports. I was on maternity leave at the time and got loads of phone calls from journalists, so it disrupted my life in a different kind of way.
Prof Tamsin Mather is professor of earth sciences at the University of Oxford, specialising in volcanology and atmospheric chemistry.