A volcanologist is for life, not just for crises

Note – I begin each year with a plan; with a resolve that dissolves by the middle of Jan. My New Year’s Resolution is to have fewer resolutions. My other resolutions are also good. One of them is to write more frequently. I hope you enjoy this new blog and its contents!


I recently returned from Liverpool, my half-way house between home and home from home. Between January 3rd and 7th, the University of Liverpool hosted the VMSG-TSG-BGA Joint Assembly, the first gathering of three groups of British geoscientists. I attended as part of the VMSG (Volcanic and Magmatic Studies Group). I enjoyed this, my first academic conference, and learned many curious things:

1. There are dozens of us. Dozens! Approximately 400 geoscientists attended the Joint Assembly.

2. The presence of dozens doesn’t mean we are alike. It is astounding that within the niche world of British volcanology, there is such a broad range of research interests that I found my current area of work (ground-based remote sensing) represented by a handful of scientists.

3. I have yet to define the collective noun for a group of volcanologists. Seismologists arrive as a swarm, sedimentologists form a conglomerate, but how do volcanologists group?

4. Before the conference, my expectations vacillated between that of a casual social and a formal, high-stakes meeting of minds. Actually, a geological conference is a multi-faceted event that exists to serve simultaneous purposes: to meet old friends, to network, to find future collaborators, to gain experience in presenting, to drink beer in a new city, and to meet other volcanologists in the wild. The latter is known as ‘magma mingling’.

5. It is better to go without expectations, because the highlights will be unexpected.

On the latter, my favourite part of VMSG-TSG-BGA 2017 was the talk given by Dr. Sue Loughlin, winner of the 2017 Thermo-Fisher award, titled “Global monitoring, reporting, and anticipation of volcanic activity: can we do it?”. Dr. Loughlin made two arguments which particularly resonated with me:

  • Monitoring of volcanoes must continue during periods of quiescence, in order to establish a baseline level from which extraordinary activity may be distinguished.
  • It is essential that scientists embarking on monitoring of a volcano in another country must not undermine local efforts, but instead attempt to support them and to work collaboratively.

Perhaps both of these arguments are self-evident. But if not:

Argument 1 is a fundamental point observable across disciplines. Consider a medical drug trial: half of the participants are given an active pill; half, a placebo. How can one distinguish a significant change in behaviour if one has no baseline with which to compare it? Furthermore, baseline monitoring in volcanology is important for understanding changes over long timescales, and I believe that in general, improved understanding over longer timescales leads to less uncertainty. It is cool to observe a volcano when it goes BOOM – but the BOOM is interesting not just of itself but also because of context (i.e. the volcano was quiet ten minutes ago).

Argument 2 is crucial. I wonder what examples we can find of international and local scientists working well collaboratively, and conversely of examples of intervention by international scientists that went poorly? Perhaps I’m overstating my hand. But I think collaboration between international and local scientists is fundamentally a matter of respect: for those who live there, who know the laws of the land in which they live. It is the responsibility of those who come from afar to encourage such collaboration; at least initially. One cannot be given respect before one gives it. That will be a challenge of my project. When I work in Guatemala I wish to actively contribute to the work of INSIVUMEH and my colleagues in-country, not just gaining but also giving.


For any españohablantes reading: publicaré este post en español esta semana.

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