Getting close to volcanoes that look eager to spit rivers of incredibly hot molten lava may not be the dream of a generation, but it is a delightful experience for those who admire Earth’s forces. Dougal Alexander Jerram, a British geologist, researcher and media presenter is part of this group. He has been seen next to volcanoes explaining its details and has featured as an expert on his appearances on BBC, Discovery Channel, History Channel, National Geographic and Channel 4. Director of DougalEARTH, his earth sciences website, Dougal has accepted to pour some of his hot volcanic knowledge into this interview.
Interview done by jonasscherer via e-mail between october 13th and 24th, 2012.
Why do people call you Dr. Volcano?
Dougal: During the Iceland volcanic ash crisis which shut off all Europe’s air space, I was asked to go on a popular TV show called “The One Show” on the BBC, to explain about the volcano. They called me Dr. Volcano, and I used a volcano model and geological samples to explain why the volcanic eruptions were causing such a problem. The name Dr. Volcano has stuck and its now my knick name.
Where did your interest in volcanoes come from?
Dougal: Interest in volcanoes comes from childhood times, where I was always interested in the outdoors/expeditions/mountains. I guess the real interest in everything volcanic came from my fist degree at Cardiff University, where I was inspired by Dr. Tim Druitt our volcanologist at the time.
And is it necessary to get near lava and other potential harmful elements to study volcanoes?
Dougal: Not necessarily, many people work on Ancient volcanic deposits from back in Earth’s history. However, it is good to have an understanding of the modern active systems to help interpret the origin of these older rocks. I do a bit of both, modern and ancient.
In the media people talk a lot about daredevil researchers getting close to volcanoes, molten lava and things that look like certain death. Can you tell me more about this behaviour?
Dougal: Most of the time people get close to active volcanoes that are relatively safe, e.g. Stromboli. But like all of Earth’s extreme processes, getting too close can be dangerous and some people take more risks, such as French volcanologists, the Krafts, who died in a pyroclastic flow on Mount Unzen.
Is there another way of investigating volcanoes with lesser risks and similar results?
Dougal: We can investigate even the dangerous ones these days with remote sensing techniques.
In this case reaching dangerous areas of volcanoes is more a personal research style option than anything else?
Dougal: In some ways yes, though you still have to get equipment to the volcanoes for monitoring.
Sometimes we can see you very near active volcanoes, near enough to be a part of an eventual eruption. How does it feel?
Dougal: It is amazing to get that close to one of Earth’s primordial forces. It always excites me and is always different.
What happens before and after a volcanic eruption ?
Dougal: Before an eruption the ground may swell and small seismic tremor can be monitored. There may also be an increase in gasses. After an eruption you can have mass wasting of eruption products if it was an explosive one, such as blocks and ash in debris flows.
Is it possible to predict volcanic eruptions?
Dougal: Yes, we are getting quite good at predicting when volcanoes that are well monitored are likely to erupt. We are less certain about how big the eruption will be and how long it will go on for. To help with that we need to look at the past behaviour of the volcano.
What is this thing they call supervolcano?
Dougal: Supervolcanoes are ones which have the capacity to erupt say 1000 km3 of material or more.
That is a lot of material! Do you know when did we have the last eruption of one of those?
Dougal: Two most recent are Taupo New Zealand, 26.5 thousand years ago, and Toba, Indonesia, 74 thousand years ago.
Have you ever studied this kind of volcano in DougalEARTH?
Dougal: Yes, I study volcanoes that cause what are known as flood basalt provinces, which are massive outpourings of lava that occur at key moments in Earth’s history, such as the Deccan Traps and the Siberian Traps.
What are the latest research topics at DougalEARTH?
Dougal: Ongoing studies into volcanic rifted margins and flood basalts which erupt when the continents split apart, and looking at the erupted products of modern volcanoes as a window into the magma plumbing system of the volcano.
For the curious ones: how to become a volcanologist?
Dougal: Usual root to being a volcanologist is a geology degree then PhD in a volcanic related subject. Then either get a direct job with an observatory or continue to research on volcanoes at University.
It is possible to volunteer at many observatories around the world, and get into the subject a little that way.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Dougal: The Earth is a wonderful playground. In our hectic lives we often forget to enjoy it for its nature. If you want to get closer to one of the Earth’s great forces, why not find out more about volcanoes… or better still go and visit one.