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What is it like to be a volcanologist

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On March 16, 2017, Mount Etna almost killed Boris Behncke. He was in the snow-covered wings of volcanoes, accompanying a film crew from the BBC. Lava snakes were sliding from a southeastern crater, but Behncke, a volcanologist at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy, felt no need to remove his sturdy hat from his bag. They were more than a mile from the crater, apparently far from the damage.

Suddenly, steam igniters exploded from the icelava had entered the snow shore and were evaporating it violently, releasing hot debris into the air. Everyone rushed down; some fell from their feet by the explosions, others were struck by a Hadean hail of volcanic rock. A small, hotly burnt piece of material fired at Behncke, taking care of his backpack like a bullet through Jell-O. The fact that he had not taken off his strong hat was extremely lucky: If he had put it on his head, that volcanic piece would have been cut in his belly.

That day, Behncke thinks, he haunted us all for a while, he told me. But that same evening, he saw the explosion unfolding on TV and said to himself: This is beautiful. It’s spectacular!

This is the emotional paradox of volcanologists. The explosions are very spectacular. I admire them, said Behncke, who lives on the slopes of Mount Etna, 13 miles from the summit. But we are things in their own way.

About 40 volcanoes are erupting on Earth at any given moment. Most do this harmlessly. Some cause great destruction. Right now, lava is coming out of Cumbre Vieja volcano, on the Spanish island of La Palma, and every day life turns upside down and homes are lost.

Somewhat perversely, this constant destruction is accompanied by a kaleidoscope of aesthetic wonders: Incandescent paint, with shades of purple and burnt purple, flows into the Cerulean Sea; lines of purple lightning dance around lava springs with high skyscrapers; melted rock curtains are poured from a newborn lithic coliseum, creating the youngest soil on Earth.

When volcanologists see eruptions like this, the line between fear and horror is a very narrow edge, Behncke said.


Some blasts easily turn over that edge, in one direction or the other otherWith the eruption of the Colombia Nevado del Ruiz volcano in 1985, for example, it caused mud eruptions that killed 23,000 and still haunt many volcanologists to this day. There was nothing beautiful there, Behncke told me. In contrast, last March, the first eruption 800 years later The Reykjana Icelandic Peninsula was predicted long ago, was fully expected to be non-explosive and non-threatening, and appeared to be likely to be confined to uninhabited valleys. Locals and volcanologists greeted him with astonishment, and the baby volcano, which had been built from scratch from a series of cracks that released lava, was soon the backdrop for concerts, wedding proposals, and improvised lava-fed cooking; researchers had innumerable chances to carry out advanced science.

But between these two end points are dangerous eruptions, the most harmful effects of which can be limited through forensic examination of the history of volcanoes, scientific documentation of real-time eruptions and monitoring by a range of technologies. However, no amount of preparation prevents any harm. There is often a degree of loss of communities, livelihood or life, and managing and studying these active volcanoes during their eruptions can bring a host of emotions.

A volcanologist is heading towards an active site
Emily Mason in 2018, walking towards the starting point of a lava-water interaction feather (Evgenia Ilyinskaya / USGS)

Take Cumbre Vieja. Since it started exploding on September 19, its first spill after one interregnum half a century, the southwestern corner of La Palma is invaded by molten rock. Hundreds of houses and many agricultural lands have been destroyed, but careful monitoring and preventive evacuation orders have so far prevented any fatalities. Similarly, when Hawaii Klauea volcano expelled 320,000 Olympic-sized lava-worth pools from fresh scars on its east wing in the spring and summer of 2018, it destroyed more than 700 homes, but thanks to the work of scientists and authorities , not one was killed. No volcanologist would agree that the Klauea eruption, like the eruption in La Palma, was devastating. But it was the first time many volcanologists who arrived in Hawaii had seen lava up close, and this gave them another, often surprising, otherworldly experience.

In that time, Emily Mason was a doctoral student in volcanology at Cambridge University and her visits to the rivers and fountains of molten rock emerging from Klauea’s eighth fissure at that stage, the focal point of the eruption gave her a pronounced introduction to mutual emotion, an explosion raises When you stood in front of something so phenomenal that the lava flows coming out of the eighth crack, it was like a swift river, a stream of brown lava hard to think of anything else, despite the fact that you are very aware that maybe he’s standing on top of someone’s house who’s buried, she told me. It’s very surreal. Jessica Ball, a volcanologist at the California Volcanic Geological Observatory, felt very much the same way. I had a moment where I just stopped and said: I can not believe I am seeing this, she told me. The Incredible is incredible; is dangerous And you are standing in the middle of this apocalyptic-looking neighborhood.

At the same time, the eruption presented researchers with a vast amount of volcanic treasure: a chance to hear a seismic soundtrack to determine changes in future explosiveness; an opportunity to see how this giant volcano dramatically inflating the peak forced lava from its wings; a front-line site for a massive, lava-laden eruption that made future effusive eruptions more predictable worldwide. Being able to do so much exploratory research was definitely exciting.

These more positive emotions can reduce embarrassment with volcanologists. But it is not difficult to see where their involuntary surprise comes from. There is this feeling we expect for these faint-hearted outbursts, Mason said. We were so excited about when they actually happen that it is easy, for a moment, to forget how destructive they are.

Scientists sometimes like to divorce because of emotions, but it is impossible to do so, Balli told me. This is your career; this is what you have worked for all your life, and suddenly it is in front of you.

Fissue 8, Hawaii
Penny Wieser and Emily Mason collect fresh samples of lava channel in Fisur 8. (Evgenia Ilyinskaya / USGS)

ABOUT Richie Robertson, a volcanologist at the University of the West Indies, this notion of waiting a lifetime for a particular fireworks display is particularly appropriate. La Soufrire, on St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean, exploded its peak in 1979 when Robertson was in his senior year of high school. He decided to become a volcanologist after noticing that none of the scientists were dealing with the response greeted by St. Vincent and thinking, as he recalls: How is it possible that we, as people at St. Vincent, have no one here who knows enough about volcano?

In December 2020, a lava mix similar to toothpaste began to flow from the summit of La Soufrires, and the following April, a seismic cacophony and a hyperventilating summit suggested that an explosive eruption was coming. An evacuation was ordered on April 8 and flowering began the next day. Once it became clear that the evacuation had prevented the loss of life, Robertsons’s initial nerves faded somewhat and he could not help but marvel. Those mushroom clouds that rise in the air and expand, and look like they are alive, and at night you see lightning flashing and you can see pyroclastic flows crawling in the valleys of all those that are spectacular to see, he told me. The volcano is much calmer today, but it remains fascinated by La Soufrire. It’s still so magnificent, dangerous and interesting that it was sometimes maybe even more now.


The relentless power of eruptions, which affect every single feeling, gives volcanoes a somewhat divine status. They are similar to giant, primitive, stormy animals. As they continue their business, whistling and crashing, they remain impenetrable to people’s lives, he says. Ailsa Naismith, a volcanologist at the University of Bristol. And, like the ancient gods, they seem omnipotent: They create new earth, rotting it with the atmosphere, incubate life, and, sometimes, cause biocidal cataclysms.

Explosions show the planet is alive, Stavros Meletlidis, a volcanologist at the National Geographic Spains Institute told me. They are the outward expression of a planet of healthy geological heartbeats. It is only human to be affected by their presencewith

However, especially in the early days of an outburst, as emotions swirl between fear AND lamentation, the danger posed by volcanoes may exert a stronger attraction. Meletlidis, who has been monitoring and responding to the eruption in La Palma, realizes that lava springs and rivers look deceptive from a distance. But field conditions have become a litany of desolation. He went to visit a friend last Saturday; the next day, lava passed through his friends house. For now, we were in an emergency, and we should treat it as an emergency, he told me.

This attitude, shared by many of his peers, seems to stem at least in part from his history of origin. Many were inspired to become volcanologists by America’s deadly Mount Helens eruption on May 18, 1980, the dimensions of which fell from the jaw and astonishing savagery shocked the nation. Meletlidis was 15 years old and lived in Greece. In the pre-internet era, he first saw the degree of destruction in a number of National Geographicwith

While studying images of the landscape sterilized by the explosion, he fell in love with the scientists who gave everything involved, in that case, their livestrying to monitor the convulsive volcano and provide rescue data to the public. Then he decided to join their ranks and do his best to defeat these entities like the lithic god.

At the moment, Meletlidis is trying to overtake Cumbre Vieja. Any thoughts on exciting scientific breakthroughs will wait. People are more important than the explosion, he said. The eruptions, he told me, can be mesmerizing, fascinating and spectacular, but now, when you look at those streams of molten rock that erode and destroy neighborhoods, all you see is a disaster.

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2/ https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/10/volcanos-awe-beauty-terror/620416/

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