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Lava Junkie

Climbing into craters and washing volcanic ash out of her hair are all in a day’s work for volcanologist, Emma Liu. But while molten magma is her first love, a new project in Papua New Guinea found her focusing more on the people who live alongside it.

You just got back from Papua New Guinea?

Yes, and it had a profound effect on me. We were on the island of Manam, one of the country’s most active volcanoes. There are about six thousand people living there. These are people who live self-sufficiently from the rainforest, uniquely connected to their land. Back in 2004 the government tried to evacuate them permanently, re-housing them but without taking into consideration age-old traditions. Over time it became noticeable that their social structures were beginning to break down, government aid was drying up and people began to return to the island.

This is a familiar story isn’t it...

One of the reasons I got into science in the first place is because I believed I could make a difference. But the reality is that you are so busy analysing data, understanding process that you can feel removed from the human element. This was different. I first went out to Manam last October for a research project, but after meeting with these communities I realised the difference regular monitoring of the volcano would mean to them. They would be able to stay in their homes and just move away when needed.

So we secured additional funding to do philanthropic work and taught local scientists how to use our technology. Already this is having an impact. The scientists who came to our workshops have applied for funds to get their own equipment to monitor the volcano. The project has also grown in ways we did not foresee. We came in thinking we would just be dealing with volcano-monitoring but the scientists there also have to deal with landslides, floods, earthquakes, so the skills we shared with them are being applied to a whole host of other hazards as well.

Before the government intervened they would rely on instinct to sense when the volcano was about to erupt

So the project exceeded your expectations?

Definitely, but Manam also changed my perspective on a lot of things. The people we met were living in harmony with nature. They have an innate understanding of the volcano. Before the government intervened they would rely on instinct to sense when the volcano was about to erupt and go to their communities on the mainland until it was over. Obviously there was risk, but their culture is built around that risk. As communities they have learnt to bounce back, while we with all our knowledge of process don’t adapt so well.

Manam photos courtesy of Emma Liu

The flood of fire flowed with the speed of a great river swollen with meltwater on a spring day…Great cliffs and slabs of rock were swept along, tumbling about like large whales swimming, red-hot and glowing*

When I visited Etna recently, I was struck by how proud the locals are of their volcano. And despite quite serious eruptions no lives have been lost in recent years. Is that down to monitoring?

Yes. At Etna and Stromboli their monitoring network is state of the art, and has been going for a long time. All volcanoes have their own personality, and in order to really understand you would need to examine each one individually. But that’s not feasible so we examine those which already have detailed data like Etna and Stromboli and look for similarities with the lesser known ones.

Manam is actually very similar to Stromboli. It goes through the same cycles of intensity in its behaviour, which is to do with the type of magma it erupts.

So the magma under the surface gives an indication as to how a volcano will erupt?

Eruptions are all about gas. What kind of eruption you get is down to how easily the gas can get out. I often use the analogy of the coke bottle, if you start to take the cap off a bottle of coke, you are decompressing what is inside so bubbles start to form. The same happens when magma starts to come to the surface of the earth. Bubbles form, and if they can rise easily through the liquid they’ll release the pressure and the magma will likely erupt non-explosively as a lava flow. But magma varies in its viscosity – or stickiness. If the magma is really sticky the bubbles get trapped, they pressurise, and that is how you get the more explosive eruptions.

Magma samples, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge

What causes a volcano to erupt in the first place?

Volcanoes are made in three different ways. They occur where the Earth’s tectonic plates are either moving apart causing the magma to well up, or coming together, which causes one plate to be dragged under and melt, leading to a chain of volcanoes. The third type is when you have a plume of hot magma coming up from below like in a lava lamp. This is the type of volcano you see in Hawaii and Iceland.

Hawaii and Iceland are especially fascinating, their landscapes are so visibly volcanic. Iceland is unusual because it is a plume but also part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, so there are quite unusual magma chemistries there. In Hawaii last summer we were close enough to the lava flows to feel the heat radiating on your face.

You stare into this bubbling cauldron and you are looking through a window into the depths of the Earth

Do you ever feel that you are being drawn in?

Yeah. Lava is hypnotising. Sometimes I can feel myself wanting to walk towards it.

And you need a colleague to pull you back?

The trouble is all my colleagues are feeling the same thing, we are all wanting to walk closer and closer.

There is a volcano in Chile called Villarrica. It is an open lava lake where there is nothing between the surface of the lake and the mantle below the crust of the earth. You stare into this bubbling cauldron and you are looking through a window into the depths. The gases you are analysing to understand what will happen next are coming from tens of kilometres below. Essentially you are measuring a tiny messenger from the deep. It feels like quite a romantic concept to me.

Geological samples, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge

Obviously climate change is something we are all concerned with at the moment, could this affect volcanic activity?

Actually it is more the case that volcanoes affect climate rather than the other way around. One of the things we are interested in is how much carbon dioxide volcanoes emit because before humans even appeared volcanoes completely modulated climate, they were responsible for pumping out carbon from deep in the earth and releasing it as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Our present work is to quantify what is the present day emission of carbon dioxide from volcanoes. That’s why we went to Papua New Guinea where there is an entire arc of volcanoes that are missing from our data set. They are inaccessible from the ground so you can only measure them from satellites – but you can’t measure carbon from satellites, so this was the ideal place to use drones.

So you didn’t need to jump in yourself this time?

No, although I am very much a direct-sampling volcanologist, we are limited in terms of where we can access, and how many sites we can visit in a day. With drone technology I can take measurements wherever I want and as often as I want.

Pyroclastic flow is a billowing cloud of hot gas and volcanic ash that travels at hurricane speeds

You should never turn your back on a volcano should you? Even though your initial instinct might be to turn and run.

Watch it, always watch it. If you can see the magma as it erupts you can react to it.

What about lava?

Lava usually moves quite slowly in comparison to other volcanic phenomena. The biggest danger are gas clouds, called pyroclastic flow. This is a billowing cloud of hot gas and volcanic ash that travels at hurricane speeds away from the volcano, caused by the release of built-up pressure.

Mount Etna, December 2018

Have you had a pyroclastic flow fall on you?

Fortunately not or I would not be talking to you now! We would never put ourselves into that kind of danger. However, I have had ash fall on me many times, it isn’t great for your hair, it’s like being at the beach, you are finding it for weeks afterwards, in my shoes, in my bag.

Do volcanoes have different sounds, their own voice so to speak?

Yes, it largely depends on the type of activity, so it is the process that makes the sound, but certainly it does feel as if each of them are talking, because each of them behaves very differently.

The first volcano I ever saw erupt was Volcan de Fuego in Guatemala. And the sound was like a jet engine taking off just beside you. But it wasn’t just a sound. You could feel it in your chest, so each explosion you would feel and hear simultaneously.

Do you have a favourite volcano, an old friend?

Fuego is my favourite because it was my first one, I was already studying volcanoes, but this was the first one to actually erupt in front of me. I was sitting on the roof of the Volcano Observatory, and I stayed there all night, just watching, because there was an eruption about every 20 minutes. Everyone else had gone to bed but I couldn’t sleep. How could I possibly sleep? I saw lava flow in front of me and I was hooked.

You are a lava junkie?


Where did your volcano obsession begin?

Mount St Helens in Washington State in the US, when I was about six. It was 15 years on from the 1980 eruption but the trees were still all leaning in one direction, having been hit by a pyroclastic flow. The area was barren, and you could still see a gaping chasm where the eruption had blasted a hole in the side of the mountain so that it had changed from a beautiful symmetrical peak to a horseshoe shape. My parents tell me that in the Visitor’s Centre I went from being a child with the attention span of a goldfish to being impossible to drag away. The obsession stuck with me.

The school actually had to adjust the timetable for me to study physics. I was the only girl in the class

Did your parents encourage this obsession?

My mother was a geologist who went into the oil industry. She really wanted to work on an oil rig, but everyone turned her away because she was a woman, so she always told me go for it and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.

Emma at the Sedgwick Museum in front of a seismic monitor showing near real-time updates of seismic activity around the globe.

Science is often seen as an area where women have been less represented. How is volcanology?

Volcanology actually has a pretty good ratio of women. This summer for our project in Hawaii we put together a team based purely on who was working on what, and once we got out there suddenly Twitter was picking up that there was an all-female team at the eruption site. We looked around at each other and realised ‘Oh yes we are’. We loved that we hadn’t even noticed.

You weren’t trying to keep the quotas up?

Oh don’t get me started on quotas. I took part in a L’Oreal debate a couple of weeks back as part of their Women in Science Week and the subject was ‘Should we introduce quotas for men?’ Obviously they were being provocative, and it certainly aroused a passionate response.

I am against the idea of quotas – for men or women – because although we are missing women in some areas, quotas seem so structured and imposed. They remove all the creativity and the personal aspect of research. No two people are researching the exact same thing, so by replacing someone of one gender with someone of another gender you are dismissing the particular line of research someone is investigating. Quotas keep the conversation focused on numbers rather than dealing with the culture that makes it untenable for women to find their place in the workplace.

We are losing the art of description. Nowadays it’s all about numbers, data

As a girl who was obviously brilliant at science what were the areas you were encouraged to go into ?

Biology, geography – physics was the difficult one. The school actually had to adjust the timetable for me to study physics. I was the only girl in the class, and that’s not long ago. We only have about 15% of women at university entry level in engineering, so obviously something is going wrong right at the beginning. We need to be encouraging girls into engineering at those early career talks.

The link between arts and sciences is something I am interested in too. I like thinking about new ways to express science, to communicate it. We are losing the art of description. Nowadays it’s all about numbers, data. We collect lots of quantitative data, we interpret it, we make our reports, but what we know about the past activity of volcanoes is mostly from beautiful descriptions written through the ages, personal responses. We just don’t have that anymore.

This past week, and the two prior to it, more poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash, volcanic hairs, rain full of sulphur and saltpetre, all of it mixed with sand. The snouts, nostrils, and feet of livestock grazing or walking on the grass turned bright yellow and raw. All water went tepid and light blue in color and gravel slides turned grey. All the earth’s plants burned, withered and turned grey, one after another, as the fire increased and neared the settlements*

I am curious, am I how you expected a volcanologist to be?

Well certainly I imagined a person who spends their life staring into an exploding crater would be unusual, but you have confirmed volcanology is a very particular science, which requires not only a high level of bravery and heat resistance, but above all a romantic soul.

*Passages from Pastor Jon Steingrimsson’s book ‘Fires of the Earth’, a famous account of the eruption of Laki in Iceland in 1783 The eruption and outpouring of lava began on 8 June 1783 and continued until February 1784. The consequences were devastating. The lava poisoned the land killing nearly half of the country’s livestock, which caused a famine that killed a fifth of Iceland’s fifty thousand residents.*

Interview and images
Susannah Baker-Smith