Iceland Eruptions Fuel Interest in Volcanic Gas Monitoring

REYKJAVIK—As a brown cloud of ash drifts down from the slopes of Eyjafjallajökull toward their truck, Hanna Kaasalainen warns a colleague that their gas masks won’t be much good against carbon dioxide. The masks filter out poisonous gases released by magma such as sulfur dioxide, but carbon dioxide can simply displace oxygen in the air, asphyxiating the researchers as they take ash samples alongside a haze-enshrouded, deserted road. “We shouldn’t stay very long,” the University of Iceland geochemistry graduate student advises, before strapping on a bright yellow mask and opening the door.

The samples Kaasalainen promptly begins collecting are just one of several streams of data that Icelandic researchers and civil protection officials are continually analyzing to make educated guesses about the duration and size of the eruption on Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that on Wednesday, 14April, turned from a modest tourist attraction into a nightmare for airlines and passengers across Europe. Everyone wants to know if the volcano’s ash cloud, harmful to jet engines, is going away or will remain a threat. At a briefing here called on 19 April to share the latest observations, University of Iceland geophysicist Páll Einarsson summed up the frustrating conclusion: Despite all the data, “we are still looking for an answer.”

Thanks to Eyjafjallajökull, scores of volcanologists, geologists, and other scientists are now focusing their attention on the southern coast of Iceland. Some are analyzing GPS measurements, seismic readings, and satellite images. Others, like geochemist Michael Burton of the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia in Catania, Italy, are measuring gas emissions that give hints about volcanic behavior. Burton, part of a team monitoring the Mount Etna and Stromboli volcanoes in Italy, flew here shortly after Eyjafjallajökull’s initial eruption on the night of 20 March. His hope is that combining information on gas emissions with traditional volcanology data will better explain the behavior of volcanoes before and during eruptions.

In the early days of its latest eruption, however, Eyjafjallajökull remained unpredictable. And some scientists wonder whether the volcano’s recent bursts are a practice run for potentially more disruptive eruptions in Iceland. The last blasts from Eyjafjallajökull, in 1612 and 1821, each preceded larger eruptions from Katla, to the east. And the tragic story of Laki, the volcano just under 100 kilometers from Eyjafjallajökull, looms in the back of Icelanders’ minds. Its eruptions from 1783 to 1785 released a cloud of hydrogen fluoride that coated fields and infiltrated groundwater in Iceland and generated an ash cloud that cast its shadow across Europe. According to some researchers, the resulting poisoning of livestock in Iceland and the cooling effect of the ash may have hurt Europe’s agricultural productivity enough to cause thousands of deaths; the fluoride may have even directly poisoned people (Science, 19 November 2004, p. 1278).

Eyjafjallajökull’s so-far-unpredictable behavior offers a perfect example of the challenge facing volcanologists. Before this spring’s first eruption, geophysicists at the University of Iceland and their counterparts at the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) noticed GPS stations on the volcano had wandered several centimeters in May of 2009 and again in December, signs that rising magma was stretching the skin of the volcano in advance of an eruption. In mid-February, Sigrún Hreinsdóttir, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland, placed an additional GPS station on the mountainside. By then, Steinunn Jakobsdóttir, a geophysicist at IMO, was tracking automatic seismic reports that revealed tremors about 5 kilometers below Eyjafjallajökull’s surface. In March, civil authorities alerted nearby residents that they were at risk of floods called jökullhlaups, literally “running glaciers,” if the ice-covered volcano erupted.

But officials didn’t order evacuations because the seismic hints weren’t that dire. “Usually when an eruption starts, a low-frequency [seismic signal] is rising when the magma is coming to the surface,” says Jakobsdóttir. Although seismic tracking placed magma closer to the surface on 19 March, this low-frequency signal was absent, so civil authorities kept the alert level at its lowest setting. But the next night, southern Icelanders reported a dark cloud glowing red above the mountain: The volcano had experienced a small eruption, one that led authorities to evacuate farmers living in its floodplains. “We missed [any] short-term warning,” says Jakobsdóttir ruefully.

That’s why Burton and Icelandic researchers plan to pay closer attention to the smells of the volcanoes here. A few days after they arrived last month, Burton and colleagues drove a candy-red Land Cruiser with over-sized tires onto the black gravel where the March eruption took place. On that mountain pass, they measured sulfur dioxide using a UV-sensitive digital camera and spectroscopes. Combined with seismic readings and knowledge of the magma’s composition prior to the eruption, such gas emission data can help researchers estimate the volume of magma rising beneath the surface. “Seismic tremors tell you where things are happening, and it tells you in a way the intensity with which things are happening,” notes Burton, “but it doesn’t tell you volume; … that’s what makes these two systems extremely complementary.”

Analyzing gas emissions from dormant and active volcanoes is a growing trend. “Not all eruptions start with a bang,” notes IMO geophysicist Kristin Vogfjörd, who is pushing to add volcanic gas detectors to Iceland’s seismic, GPS, and strain monitoring systems. Indeed, the promise of integrating gas emission studies with other volcano monitoring systems has attracted European funding for a pair of networks that have monitored nearly two dozen volcanoes from Central America to Iceland over the last 5 years. As a result, researchers armed with increasingly portable and affordable instruments are deciphering the gas signatures of distinct kinds of magma, much as a beer brewer might recognize stages of fermentation and different beers with a mere wrinkle of the nose.

Magma-released volcanic gases proved their predictive power in 1998. Although seismic signals from magma had tapered off, volcanologists heeded gas signals that Montserrat was not done erupting and thus avoided a potential disaster when the volcano began erupting again in 1999 (Science, 28 March 2003, p. 2027).

Since then, interest in gas geochemistry has steadily risen among volcanologists, according to Michael Poland of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) in Hawaii National Park, who himself stuck to monitoring land deformation until he had an eruptive epiphany. In early 2008, HVO staff met to discuss unusually high amounts of sulfur dioxide venting from the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea. Poland thought a summit eruption “was out of the question, since there was no deformation or seismicity indicating magma ascent,” but a gas geochemist argued that one was imminent. Poland laid a wager: If the volcano erupted, the geophysicist would become a gas geochemist or quit his job.

Kilaeua erupted explosively three times within a month.

Poland has been true to his word. He now says that incorporating gas geochemistry is “absolutely essential for really good monitoring of volcano activity.” Last year, in the 27 August 2009 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, he and USGS colleague A. Jeff Sutton, a gas geochemist, reported that another instance of Kilauea volcanic activity preceded by sulfurous fumes in 2007 could be explained if the magma that left the summit chamber for a side vent lowered local pressure enough to release gases, including sulfur dioxide, that had been in solution in the magma.

Burton and his Italian collaborators have also had success relating volcanic gas activity to eruptive activity. “Only about 10% of magma which is degassing ever comes out,” he says, so researchers need to establish detailed relationships between physical signals such as deformation and degassing to predict accurately when magma will emerge (Science, 3 August 2001, p. 774). Burton uses a webcam in his Pisa, Italy, office to guide the latest gas spectroscopy instruments on Stromboli. The team has also used portable infrared spectroscopes there to analyze gases exploding from the volcano’s crater and to compare them with gases emerging when the volcano is quiet. The ratio of chemicals in the gases helped the team estimate the temperatures through which the exploding gases passed and depth at which they separated from the magma—a new kind of measurement (Science, 13 July 2007, p. 227).

Setting up a gas monitoring network good enough to predict anything isn’t easy. The UV spectroscopes, for example, rely on a clear line of sight—they need a light source, such as the sun, behind a gas plume. Iceland is particularly tricky for gas detection. Glaciers cover volcanic vents, and frost, wind, and rain would bedevil stationary gas monitoring equipment. “We don’t really know … where to put these gas monitors,” says Magnús Tumi Guðmundsson of the University of Iceland.

Getting close enough to a vent to detect gases can also be lethal, as a 1993 accident that killed six scientists on the Galeras volcano in Colombia demonstrated (Science, 16 April 1993, p. 289). Such difficulties are why seismometers, not gas monitors, remain the frontline tool on most closely monitored volcanoes. “Seismicity sees in all weather,” Jakobsdóttir notes.

Still, satellites can complement ground-based measurements of volcanic gas emissions: NASA’s EOS satellites carry UV spectrometers, and several research groups use these readings to assess volcanoes across the globe on an ongoing basis, though they lack the continuous coverage ground-based monitoring systems offer.

Vogfjörd believes such local gas monitoring is needed if Iceland is to better predict its explosive future. While the world’s eyes are now on Eyjafjallajökull, and its even more dangerous neighbor Katla, she’s making plans to install gas monitoring equipment on Hekla, which erupted in 1970, 1980, 1991, and most recently in 2000. “Multidisciplinary monitoring is the way to go because no one thing is going to show you what you need to know,” she says.

This story first appeared in Science Magazine: [html] or [pdf]


Transitioning from Researcher to Outreacher

Shelley Bolderson was scraping mud from a trowel one day in an Anglo-Saxon midden in St. Neots, United Kingdom, when she realized she didn’t want to be an archaeologist any longer. “It was winter, and I’d spent ages on that particular site,” she recalls. “It was really kind of soul-destroying work.”

Until that point, Bolderson had worked as a freelance archaeologist around England, mostly in urban environments, where she assessed building sites before development. She had a bachelor’s degree in archaeology from the University of Southampton in the U.K. and wasn’t interested in doing a master’s or Ph.D. She sought temporary work while deciding what to do next.

One of her temporary jobs was at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. in the office that coordinates the Cambridge Science Festival, an annual, weeklong event that shares Cambridge-area science research with the public. “I saw a new career I had no idea existed beforehand and thought it looked really exciting,” she says. When a position coordinating the science festival opened up in the office, Bolderson applied for it.

It’s common for scientists do some outreach work alongside their research jobs — an occasional public lecture, say, or a talk at a local school. But a few scientists, including Bolderson, have turned outreach into a full-time job, connecting science and scientists with the public via their jobs at universities, associations, museums, or other organizations. Andrew Hickley, Bolderson’s former boss who’s now an independent consultant, says the mission and motivation of science outreach “is helping people understand science more effectively, helping them understand the role that science has got to play in society [and] in people’s lives.”

What is outreach?

For Bolderson, that has meant organizing the annual science festival and training graduate students, postdocs, and other researchers to host their own public-engagement activities during the year. She also helps manage the ongoing relationship between the university’s scientific community and the city government, with which she coordinates a summer science program for young people. Managing relationships with colleagues and community members is an important element of her work, she says.

Science outreach careers bring science to the public in many settings, whether it’s by putting on special programs at the university, giving workshops in the community, or going into school classrooms. It’s a teaching gig, with the widest possible audience. Still, Hickley says, “there’s absolutely no substitute for standing up in front of a classroom full of kids.”

Chris Vanags of the Vanderbilt Center for Science Outreach (CSO) in Nashville, Tennessee, is a quintessential example. He coordinates a program that brings local high school students to the university once a week for science classes. He and his colleagues prepare lesson plans and teach just as if they were high school teachers but within a university setting. “Our goal is to teach kids to think like scientists though not necessarily to be [scientists],” he says.

Outreach coordinators at academic institutions also work with the scientists and departments within the university. Scientists with outreach components to their research funding may look to the university’s outreach specialists for assistance in designing outreach plans that complement their research, in writing the outreach portion of a grant application, or in executing the outreach plan once that funding comes in. Jennifer Ufnar, director of the Science Teacher Institute, also at the Vanderbilt CSO, often helps Vanderbilt scientists write broader-impact statements for their National Science Foundation (NSF) grant applications.

Outreach officers at scientific societies have some similar responsibilities, especially in interacting with the public. The British Science Association, for instance, organizes its own annual science festival, as well as a science and engineering week aimed at the general public. The rest of the year, the organization offers enrichment activities and material to schoolteachers and their students, coordinates student science project competitions, and helps organize local science and engineering clubs. Katherine Mathieson, the association’s director of education, supervises the managers of each of those outreach areas; she does little direct science outreach today, she says, but she enjoys having a hand in a variety of projects, established and new.

Mathieson notes that science-related businesses are another place to look for jobs with an outreach component, as those companies want to build good relationships with the community. However, “the major opportunities are going to be related to universities or similar institutions, such as museums,” Hickley says.

An outreach incubator at Vanderbilt

Ufnar’s career got a major boost when she connected with pathologist Virginia Shepherd, the director of the Vanderbilt CSO. Early in her career, Shepherd attended a session at a scientific meeting at which a speaker proclaimed that scientists have an obligation to the public, which funds their research, to devote 4 hours a week to teaching. Shepherd was attracted to the idea, and today she devotes far more of her time to outreach at the Vanderbilt CSO, where she coordinates the efforts of 15 postdocs and graduate students who handle more than half a dozen different science outreach initiatives. “It started off very modestly, and now we have funding of around $1.5 million a year,” she says. In addition to directing the Vanderbilt CSO, Shepherd still runs her pathology lab and publishes in biochemistry and microbiology journals.

The work has given Shepherd and her protégés — including Vanags and Ufnar — an idea of the skills aspiring outreach workers need to communicate science to teachers and students. One key: laboratory experience. “Having worked in a lab really did help me because I was comfortable with the science,” Ufnar says, referring to her Ph.D. research in environmental toxicology at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg. Another key, Shepherd says, is the ability to create partnerships. She points to NSF’s Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education program, in which science graduate students commit to visiting a classroom on a weekly basis. “If I were going to hire somebody,” Shepherd says, “I’d certainly look to see if they’d been involved in leading a program or if they were involved in a program for training” during their scientific career.

Ufnar also teaches in Vanags’s high school program, brings schoolteachers into her water-contamination lab at Vanderbilt to teach them how to do research, and teaches at a nearby community college. A portion of her time is spent writing grant proposals, for her research in water contamination and to support her outreach efforts. “I do everything a traditional scientist would do, just in the outreach field,” Ufnar says. She hopes eventually to take the skills she is accumulating at Vanderbilt to another university, directing her own outreach center and forging closer links between the research community and the public.

Getting started

It’s possible to earn an advanced degree in science communication, but most scientists interested in outreach begin with small steps out of the laboratory. The ready availability of volunteer work makes it possible to try before you buy. For a one-time taste of outreach that doesn’t require a long-term commitment, Hickley suggests looking for a nearby science festival to see if they could use volunteers.

“With educational outreach, contacting the outreach center on campus is the perfect first step,” Ufnar says, adding that outreach officers would usually be delighted to utilize volunteer help from a grad student or postdoc. Even undergraduates can volunteer in outreach, as Ufnar did when she was still an undergrad.

Mathieson recommends volunteering at your institution before abandoning research to pursue a full-time outreach career. She got started in outreach as a volunteer answering calls from the public on Science Line, the now-defunct science-questions hotline. It was “anything-could-happen outreach,” she says. “It was really good fun getting a sense of the kind of questions people would ask and why they ask them.” When Science Line needed a full-time staffer, they hired her. “A lot of charities and small enterprises who do science outreach operate in that way. They’ll need volunteers for particular activities or events, and then when it comes to recruiting there’s an obvious pool to recruit from.”

Like many science-related jobs, outreach requires a combination of skills. “You need to be a good communicator first of all, … good at working with people, empathic; you need to understand what stage they’ve reached in their understanding,” Hickley says. Even if you decide not to pursue outreach as a career, the interpersonal skills you gain will help if you go into outreach full time — or even if you don’t. “You don’t have to be a scientist to do this stuff,” Hickley says, but if you are, there is absolutely nothing stopping you acquiring the skills for doing it.”

This feature first appeared in Science Careers [html] [pdf]

Haitians go home as government proposes relocation

Almost as soon as the earthquake hit Haiti on 12 January, urban planners and scientists dusted off plans to relocate some of Port-Au-Prince’s infrastructure away from the crowded city centre, which is dangerously close to the Enriquillo fault.

In discussions with the Haitian government last month, geophysicists advocated relocating critical city infrastructure to the north (See: Haiti earthquake may have primed nearby faults for failure, Nature News). Now, at a United Nations donors’ meeting today, Haitian officials are due to present their Action Plan for National Recovery and Development, which incorporates recommendations to rebuild some of Port-au-Prince’s infrastructure in provincial towns further from the fault (New York Times).

At the same time, some Haitians have begun returning to their homes, or at least the lots where their homes once stood, encouraged by relief agencies keen to avoid flooded refugee camps during the upcoming rainy season (Associated Press).

Read the rest of this blog post on The Great Beyond: [html] and see my previous article on the Haiti earthquake: [html]


New commissioner spells new direction for EU research funding

The EU’s €50.5 billion ($69.4 billion) research framework is the biggest such fund in the world. But it is not known for being nimble, and it is underused by European businesses. Now, as the seven-year program approaches its half-time review, a change in the political lineup could lead to shifts in funding priorities that favor ambitious pan-European ideas.

See the entire story on Nature Medicine’s website [html] or as it appeared in print: [pdf]

Journalism from around the world