My life sci­en­tific

He­len Pilcher talks lava, ex­plo­sions and ban­dits with vol­ca­nol­o­gist Prof Tam­sin Mather.

Focus-Science and Technology - - Contents -

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.

How so?

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.

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