Volcanologists, also called igneous petrologists, study active and inactive
volcanoes. For instance, they may study the rock formations created by eruptions
tens of thousands of years ago.
Others study what's going on right now -- the formation and movement of
magma (molten rock) deep under the Earth's crust. Along with the magma are
"mineralized fluids" that can produce valuable ore deposits. The field of
volcanology that covers these fluids is called economic geology.
Predicting eruptions is complicated. Satellite images, earthquake monitors
and correlation spectrometers (COSPECs measure volcanic gases) are all used.
Monitoring these instruments over weeks, months or even years, the volcanologist
is hopefully able to predict when a volcano is about to erupt.
Steve McNutt is a research professor with the Geophysical Institute at
the University of Alaska Fairbanks. According to McNutt, volcanologists can't
always forecast eruptions. "There are some surprises," he says.
This field involves a lot of outdoor work. You have to be willing to hike
through mountains in all kinds of weather. When things get hot, a volcanologist
will go right to the source of the heat for a closer look -- that is, to the
mouth of the volcano.
Still, there's also lab and office work to be done, says Ed Geary. He works
with the Geological Society of America (GSA).
"We spend a lot of time looking through microscopes, analyzing mineral
elements from rock formations," he says.
The field can be dangerous. A former classmate of Geary's was killed while
investigating volcanic activity in Japan. It's dangerous work at times, and
you have to be in good physical shape to be able to do the fieldwork.
McNutt was about a mile away when some scientists were killed while gathering
data around a volcano. Occasionally, says McNutt, the risk is not worth the
research. "That's something the individual people have to decide," he says.
Accidents can be avoided through certain safety procedures. For example,
it's safer to work in teams of two or three people than in large groups. That's
because it's easier to move a few people out of a dangerous situation than
it is to move a dozen.
"It's like forest fires or aviation," says McNutt. "There's nothing that
is risk-free, but what you try to do is minimize the risk."
Volcanologists are highly educated specialists in geophysics. They are
employed by government agencies, universities and private industry. Their
work can take them to different locations on a daily basis.
For McNutt, the incredible variety of tasks is perhaps the most appealing
aspect of his job. "There are days when it's an office job. Then there are
days when you're flying in helicopters over wilderness areas and installing
instruments. There are days when you're watching volcanoes erupt [and] there
are days when you're attending scientific conferences.
"You don't go in saying, 'I'm going to do this and this and this today.'
There are days when nature takes over," he says.