Wednesday, 25 November 2015

A volcano lover's gift guide

Once again, it is that time of the year - when the smell of baked goods and mulled wine floats through the air, jingly music comes from a speaker somewhere, and you can hear the crackling of a fire and the roar of a volcano... uh, what?
Just as to any volcano lover, volcano-y gifts are the icing on the holiday cake to me. So I thought I'd put together a list of awesome volcano-related gift ideas*, and share them with you. If you're not interested in gifts, but would like the take a super quick survey about science blogging, go ahead and scroll to the end.

  1. Based on my personal experience, volcano-lovers more often than not also love games. Why not give them a deck of Volcano Top Trump cards? Guaranteed volcano-battling-fun for all ages, and awesome for your bank account too - they come for only £4.99 (distributed through the University of Plymouth, click here)!
  2. For those who are more passive admirers than active players, a volcano calendar might be just the right thing. Pleasing to the eye, fascinating to the scientifically curious mind, and delivering a little bit of (imaginary) heat to any living room, volcano calendars are awesome because your volcano-inclined friend needs a new one every year! They usually come at a reasonable price, have all sorts of shapes and sizes, and may come with captions in different languages. They even come in your favourite currency! One example for €17 can be ordered here, or another one for $17.99 here.
  3. Going back to games, just because most of us have their inner child available somewhere. Did you know that my favourite board game of all times, Settlers of Catan, comes with an optional volcano tile?? This highly exciting variation of the game promises to add just the right level of excitement for all the risk takers among us. Apparently it can be bought as part of the Atlantis Scenario Extension (only in German, as far as I'm aware), or if you're looking for a cheaper option you can simply download and print the volcano tile from here.
  4. Feeling slightly cheeky? I highly recommend a selection of volcano-y movies for the not so serious volcano-phile. Among my all-time favourites are of course Dante's Peak (Pierce Brosnan), Volcano (Tommy Lee Jones), and the original Journey to the Center of the Earth (admittedly only somewhat volcano-related). One that I haven't seen but might add to my list is St. Helens, and one that I definitely would not recommend at all is Pompeii. But that's just me... Once you've picked your candidate, you can just buy a DVD if you want a simple present, or design a whole evening around a home screening of your volcano movie of choice. Maybe even accompanied by a freshly baked lava cake?
  5. Speaking of lava cake. A mouthwatering chocolate lava cake says more than a thousand words. I haven't tested this particular recipe, but it sounds temptingly simple.
  6. If you accidentally left your chocolate lava cake in the oven for too long, do not despair! You can always leave it in a bit longer and later gift it as a beautiful volcanic rock sample, with your own description of formation added... If you'd rather go the conventional route, a nice piece of volcanic rock from a volcano of your choice will let any semi-serious geo-enthusiast's heart beat faster. Volcanic rocks can be incredibly diverse and astonishingly beautiful. If you don't have a volcano as a source for your rock gifts in your backyard, you could order some rock kits that include igneous (= volcanic rocks from above and below the surface) samples here or here. Of course, if you found the sample yourself, you can add a little description with your story that goes with it. And maybe you were lucky enough to find a snowflake obsidian, or one of those beautiful banded, glassy volcanic rhyolites?
  7. While we're talking about geosciences: Somebody more interested in practical gifts and with a knack for popular science might enjoy a digital edition of a magazine themed around volcanoes. You can order a (German) digital collection about volcanoes and earthquakes by Spektrum der Wissenschaft for €4.99 here, or maybe Alex Witze's book about the Laki eruption in Iceland in 1783?
  8. On the topic of books: John Mullan at The Guardian put together this list of volcano-related fiction books. Even though I would question the appearance of Lord of the Rings on the list, overall it sounds like some of the suggestions might be really good reads! Or if you're looking for something for a little one, maybe this list by Jenni Barclay over at the University of East Anglia will give you some inspiration.
  9. Know someone who isn't too shy to display their volcano enthusiasm? Surprise them with a volcano-y piece of clothing! There are these cool looking (but somewhat pricey) volcano hoodies/sweaters/tank tops, or some cute handmade volcano and dinosaur onesies, or even a volcano-print catsuit!
  10. Last but not least, the crown jewel of volcano gifts - probably somewhat out of most people's regular holiday price range... a trip to a volcano! If you're in Europe you might want to go to Stromboli (Italy) to see its fireworks, if you're in North or South America maybe a trip to Popocatepetl or Colima (Mexico) to spot their ash clouds, from Asia you could hop over to Sakurajima (Japan) to see its almost daily explosions, if you find yourself in Oceania take the plane/boat/helicopter to White Island (New Zealand) to see some phreatic (= water/steam related) eruptions, or if for some magical reason you happen to be in Antarctica you could try to get a view into the lava lake at Erebus Volcano. So many options, not enough time (or money).
Hopefully I've managed to inspire your imagination and give you lots of awesome volcano-y gift ideas. Obviously there are lots of possibilities, so if you think of something amazing that I didn't mention feel free to comment or shoot me a message.

Lastly, I've teamed up with Science Borealis, Dr. Paige Jarreau from Louisiana State University and 20 other Canadian science bloggers, to conduct a broad survey of Canadian science blog readers. Together we are trying to find out who reads science blogs in Canada, where they come from, whether Canadian-specific content is important to them and where they go for trustworthy, accurate science news and information. Your feedback will also help me learn more about my own blog readers. 

It only take 5 minutes to complete the survey. Please, please, please, take the survey here:

If you complete the survey you will be entered to win one of eleven prizes! A $50 Chapters Gift Card, a $20 surprise gift card, 3 Science Borealis T-shirts and 6 Surprise Gifts! PLUS everyone who completes the survey will receive a free hi-resolution science photograph from Paige's Photography! 

This is one of the photos I got :)
Credit: Paige Jarreau

*Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any of the vendors, nor do I make any profit by writing this list. I just like volcanoes :)

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Like a box of chocolates

Sometimes studying volcanoes is similar to what Forrest Gump told us about life: You never know what you're gonna get.
Yesterday we had our Vancouver Volcano Studies Group meeting. Basically, this group consists of a bunch of people in Vancouver doing volcano related research, or people who are just somehow affiliated with one of us and interested in the topic. This time, we decided to have a once-a-term mini-conference. A bunch of us gave talks about our volcano-y research, and I was pretty blown away. I mean, I'm a volcanologist, so surely I know about most of the methods we use to study volcanoes, right? Incorrect. There are so many cool ways we can study volcanoes that people talked about yesterday, it was really fascinating. And the best part? Some methods can be done by anyone! Citizen scientists, we need you!
So let me give you some examples.

  1. Drones! This is of course a buzz word at the moment, but turns out they can really help us to learn about our volcanic neighbours. Drones are good, because they don't care too much if a volcano erupts a bunch of gases that might not be great for human health - at least if you don't leave the drone sitting in those gases for days or weeks at a time. Also, with drones we can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and get to see places that otherwise we might never get to. That means we can fly a drone over a lava lake, or some other potentially dangerous part of the volcano, and get video footage without having to risk our lives. Yay! You can also mount all sorts of cool equipment on a drone, depending on how big the equipment is and how strong/stable the drone is. I'm thinking, maybe small gas sensors, or a thermal camera? 
  2. Lasers! Ok, this sounds tacky, but seriously. There is a technique called "Lidar", which means you shoot a laser pulse at something, it bounces off, comes back to your sensor, and you can measure the time it takes, and maybe some other things about the returning pulse. We can cover whole areas with those Lidar measurements, and that way reconstruct the surface that we were scanning, in 3D! Certain properties about the returning waves might even give us some information about the material we were scanning. That means, without having to go there, we can scan surfaces and observe how they are changing over time. For example, we can learn about lava lake explosions when rocks fall into the lake from the walls. How? We measure the volume of rock lost into a lava lake in a rock fall, by comparing the Lidar scans from before and after, and we can of course measure the height of the explosion from the lava lake, or some other property. That way we can learn about potential processes happening underneath the surface of the lava lake during the rock fall, or at the very least we can know for next time when a rock fall happens how big the explosion might get.
  3. This is maybe the coolest one, cause it's so simple that anyone can do it: Photos! If you take lots of photos of the same object from different angles, there is software that can create a 3D image of your object. That way we can get detailed models of areas that are too difficult or too dangerous to get to, just like with drones. Even better if we can combine the two somehow, drones and photos. We could study the surfaces of the rock on a high peak, for example, and learn about how they formed, or we could get the change of time of the surface of a growing lava dome at really high detail - maybe this can tell us when a collapse of the dome may be happening soon? Of course there are lots of calculations and conditions that need to be met for this to work, but in theory anybody could do this! If you're an avid climber or mountaineer, you might be able to help us study some of the old volcanic peaks by taken photographs of them from certain angles during your trips, and submitting them to some sort of central repository afterwards - so you get to contribute to science while doing your favourite outdoor activities, isn't that cool?!
I realized during the meeting that this kind of thing happens quite often: I go to a meeting or conference, expecting the standard presentations, and then get something completely unexpected, new, and exciting! To me, it was most surprising to see how simple some of the concepts are, and yet how useful they might be to learn things about volcanoes! Sometimes, the best ideas are the really simple ones.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Volcanoes in Ecuador

Last November I participated in a workshop on volcanic unrest, where we spent several days discussing possible tell tale signs that a volcano might be waking up, and whether or not we can use these signs to know whether it is going to erupt or whether it's just stirring a bit before it's going back to sleep. Turns out that knowing for sure is actually quite difficult!
We also got a chance to do an eruption simulation, where we were fed fake monitoring data and were supposed to make decisions about advice to local authorities and emergency management along the way.
From a science perspective the workshop was interesting, but what I think was most valuable (and is often overlooked) is how it brought together scientists, civil defense and emergency management professionals, monitoring organizations, and local (political) authorities. Communication between these different entities is crucial particularly in crisis situations around natural disasters, but can't function properly if it hasn't been establish long before an actual emergency occurs. Every scientific project with a natural disasters component should include all of these groups!
Last but not least, of course we visited two of the local volcanoes, Cotopaxi and Tungurahua. Neither of them were in eruption at the time, but both of them presented majestic sights.
Below a video from the VUELCO project, that summarizes our experience.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Disaster preparedness - Plan, pack, proof

Natural disasters can strike pretty much anywhere and anytime. I'm not just talking about volcanic eruptions, but anything from flooding through wind to earthquakes, landslides, and more. I have never lived in a place that was 100% free from natural disasters, and probably never will. Neither do you. 

When I was in southern Germany, we got thunderstorms, hail, and crazy rain that can lead to flooding, especially in the plains at the foot of the European Alps. In the mountains themselves, landslides and rockfalls are not unheard of. In New Zealand, we had earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, and even the odd tsunami alert from earthquakes happening far away. In BC, volcanoes are only a smaller problem, but (potentially large) earthquakes can happen. Whereas the West coast of Vancouver Island may get hit by Tsunamis, Vancouver is relatively sheltered. Winter storms can still hit pretty badly. I recently did a temporary move to Houston, Texas. If you've been following some US news I'm sure you heard/read about the Memorial Day flooding we've had down there. Tropical storm Bill, which followed a couple weeks later, was relatively harmless, thankfully, but Hurricane season has just started and we don't yet know what it will bring. The storm, however, got me thinking once again about being prepared for natural disasters.

Even though we may have little or no warning of what's coming our way (depending on whether we're talking weather, volcanic eruptions, or earthquakes, for example), there are definitely ways in which we can at least try to soften the impact natural disasters have on our lives. Of course, my German-ness makes me biased - after I all I love planning things, but in this particular case we could all benefit from some small preventative measures. The type of preparation might change depending on what kind of natural disasters your region is prone to, but some things are the same no matter whether you live in a volcanic area or somewhere with blizzards dumping snow on you. There are two important things to keep in mind:

  1. Come up with a plan well in advance. Whereas with a hurricane we might get a few days warning ahead of time, earthquakes unfortunately don't do us favours like that. We want to be ready when disaster strikes, and it will only take maybe an afternoon to come up with the basics.
  2. Most of your planning will not go into the logistics for the actual event, but mostly the aftermath - when power and water might be gone, infrastructure might be damaged, shops closed, and when we might have to be self-sustained for a number of days.

So that being said, here are some simple things that you can do to reduce the damage a natural disaster might do to your home, belongings, and loved ones.

Phase 1: Plan

Educate yourself about natural disasters that might happen in your area. Geologic surveys, met offices, and other (potentially government run) organizations and their websites are great resources. Work your way down from large to small: What natural disasters occur in my part of the world? How would my town be affected? My neighbourhood? My house? My commute? My workplace? My kids' school? For example, you might live in an area where flash flooding can occur after heavy rain, but your house is on top of a hill, in which case you would not necessarily have to be super worried about large amounts of water accumulating in or around your house. Or you may live in an earthquake prone region, and your house might be on top of sand or gravel type sediments, in which case the shaking from an earthquake might be worse than if the building was on a thick, stable granite. Knowing what could happen can win you half the battle. Below an example of an earthquake hazard map for Victoria, BC, from the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Similar resources might also be available in public libraries.

Relative earthquake hazard map for Victoria, BC. Monahan et al, 2000, from Ministry of Energy and Mines (

Furthermore, come up with a plan for your family. How are family members going to get in touch in case of a disaster? Is there somebody outside the area who could serve as a check-in point? What if the event occurs when you are at work/school? What if it's at night? Do you have a pet that needs extra consideration? Make sure everyone is aware of the hazards and knows what to do. Again, there are some amazing online resources that make coming up with a plan really easy.

Phase 2: Pack

Once you know the potential natural disasters and their impacts, pack an emergency kit. Imagine being without water/power/outside help for several days. You will need enough water for everyone in the house, dry/canned food, medications, first aid, flashlights, spare batteries, cell phones and chargers (ideally with portable power sources), some tools and/or an army knife, your most important documents such as passports, some blankets, warm/waterproof clothes, and so on. Having documents in a waterproof case/envelope might be useful. Some extra items like sleeping bags, or your children's favourites toys could be a good idea too. Make sure everything is in one, easily accessible place, and everyone knows where that is. If you don't want to assemble a kit yourself, you can even buy them online! Be sure to change water/food/medication every few months so that nothing is out of date. And again, having everything ready well before a natural disaster occurs is crucial - when I went to the supermarket the night before Bill was supposed to make landfall they were almost out of bottled water, and canned food was running quite low too.

Phase 3: Proof

Last but not least, try to proof your house for the potential event. For example, in earthquake regions you could move heavy items to the bottom of shelves instead of the top, to avoid heavy objects such as books tumbling down and injuring people. Or, in regions along hurricane paths it might be useful to always secure or limit the number of loose items in the backyard/on your balcony, outdoor shutters, and more. It all depends on the type of natural disaster happening in your area.

That doesn't sound so difficult, does it? By doing all this you won't be able to reduce the hazard (i.e. the potential for natural disasters) to your particular area, but at least you have done everything in your power to lower the risk (i.e. your vulnerability to the existing hazards). In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't take long, it doesn't cost much, but it might make your life a lot easier in case something really does happen! Stay safe!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Calbuco Volcano - a beginner's guide to its hazards

I'm sure you all have read tons about Calbuco Volcano now, so I'm not going to bore you with the details. Hopefully you've seen some of the stunning photos that have emerged, e.g., the ones on the Flickr stream by the Chilean Geological Service.
I quickly want to talk about hazards though. This volcano has quite the selection of hazards for you to choose from. The explosive eruptions have sent ash more than 15 km high into the air (click on the orange links to learn more about each hazard). This ash is covering a lot of infrastructure, property, and destroying crops. Most of it is being blown to the North-East at this point. With eruptions this explosive there will also be big blocks of rock being thrown out of the volcano, sometimes landing several kilometers away!
If an ash cloud collapses it can produce a pyroclastic flow. The deposits from old eruptions at Calbuco show that pyroclastic flows in the past have reached as far as Puerto Montt, a city with around 200,000 inhabitants around 30 km away from the mountain. For now I would guess that these pyroclastic flows are more likely to go towards the North-East, following the direction of the wind, but there is no way to know for sure, especially if the weather conditions change.
In addition, if ash settles on the mountain and is mixed with water (for example from snow on the top, of if there is a bit more rain over the next few days or weeks), big lahars (mudflows, mixtures of ash, dirt, water, snow, and debris such as trees etc.) can happen and travel down the valleys of some of the many rivers flowing down the slopes of the mountains. These flows can be incredibly powerful and destructive. Lahars can also reach tens of kilometers, so the 20 km exclusion zone they've put up makes a lot of sense.
In addition, some lava fountaining has been seen at Calbuco after the initial, more explosive phase that sent the ash into the skies. This means that some small lava flows can occur on the mountain. And of course, the gases that accompany volcanic eruptions can be quite dangerous too, if you get too close. Better stay at a safe distance. That way it's also much easier to take photos of the entire ash cloud!
It currently looks like the activity is getting a bit weaker: Whereas the Chilean Geological Survey observed more than 1,500 earthquakes between April 22-23, this number went down to just over 1,000 between April 23-24, just over 500 one day later, and to around 300 today. Unfortunately it's very difficult to know whether this number is going to increase again, which could mean another pulse of eruptive activity. For now all we can do is to closely monitor and to keep away from the mountain as much as possible.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Volcanic whistles and more

We've been talking about science and being a scientist and girl power for a while, so I reckon it's time to get back to volcanoes. In August 2012 I went to Hawai`i for the AGU Chapman conference on Hawaiian volcanism. The lovely people at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) were nice enough to let me stay for a bit to get familiar with the volcano and to get some of their data to play with. It was also a good opportunity to catch up and collaborate with my friend and colleague Jess Johnson again. My supervisor Mark and I had decided that Kilauea would be a good volcano to study earthquake recordings.
What were we trying to achieve by studying Kilauea Volcano? The main question we had was 

"Do the continuous earthquake recordings look different for different types of eruptions?"

Intuitively one might say, of course there are differences (or at least that's what I would have said). But we wanted some real evidence. Kilauea tends to erupt most of the time, and the style of activity varies, so this was an ideal place for us to go and test our hypothesis. 
I got data from the continuous recordings of earthquake activity around Kilauea volcano for an eruption in the eastern section of the volcano (called the East Rift Zone, close to a crater called Pu'u `O`o) in 2007, and a similar eruption in 2011. These eruptions were related to magma breaking and pushing open a big crack a few kilometres underground. This is called a dike intrusion.
I also got data from a series of more explosive eruptions in the western part of the volcano, close to a crater called Halema`uma`u, in 2008. During the year 2008 these explosive eruptions slowly formed a connection between the magma supply at Kilauea and the surface. Now there is a lava lake that's something like 200 m across, and visitors can no longer access the crater like they used to. The explosions probably only moved magma around that was a few 100 metres below the surface, not kilometres like in 2007 and 2011.
So we had data for two types of eruptions:

fissure eruptions in the east (i.e., lava fountains)

vs. explosive eruptions in the west

We used a technique called Fourier Transforms to find out what frequencies the earthquake waves were composed of at the different points in time (if you want an analogue explanation for what Fourier Transforms do check out this old post). That way we can make what's called a "spectrogram". You can learn a lot of things about the earthquake waves by doing that. For example, you can get an idea if the movement of the ground is from an earthquake that happened close by, or from an earthquake that was hundreds of kilometres away. The graphic below shows the seismic ground movement (the black wiggly thing) and the spectrogram (the rainbow coloured rectangle) for a few days in 2011. I've added some labels to explain in a bit more detail what we can see on it.

Seismic ground movement and "spectrogram" from Kilauea Volcano during an intrusion and fissure eruption. The coloured spectrogram shows how much of each frequency we have in the seismic wave at each point in time. Red means a lot of that frequency, blue means not a so much of that frequency. The red diagonal streaks across the graphic are the volcanic whistles, described below, where the frequency goes up (or down) over time. You can just hear the first one when you listen to the audio from the link in the text below.

So by doing that we learned three main things about eruptions at Kilauea:

1) Fissure eruptions and dike intrusions at Kilauea really do generate ground movement that is different from explosive eruptions.

2) These fissure eruptions and dike intrusions show two phases of ground movement:
Phase I (purple in the graphic above): The first phase is made up of lots of short earthquakes, close to the dike intrusion and the eruption. These earthquakes are probably related to breaking the rocks when the magma pushes open the crack. 
Phase II (blue in the graphic above): The second phase starts a few hours after the first phase. It doesn't have as many short earthquakes, but instead shows continuous (small) movement of the ground for a few days. This continuous movement is what we call "volcanic tremor". Phase II happens quite far away from the eruption and the dike. 

3) The second phase has something called "frequency gliding" (the diagonal streaks in the graphic above). It means that the frequencies of the waves slowly change over time, a bit like a kettle on the stove that starts whistling at a higher and higher tone when the water is boiling.

To give you an idea what I'm talking about I've taken some of the ground movement and sped it up by a lot. You can play the movement that happened over roughly 1 day in just over 1 minute. That way we can actually HEAR the ground move. Click here to listen to the earthquake activity during the 2011 eruption at Kilauea. At first you just hear some noise like the wind. That's before anything is happening. All of a sudden (around 7 seconds in) you start hearing a lot of clicking sounds, maybe like gun shots or like rain drops on a metal roof. Those are the little earthquakes during Phase I. Then it gets a bit quieter again, and then you start hearing something continuous, like a boiling kettle (around 45 seconds). That's the volcanic tremor from Phase II. If you listen really carefully you can even imagine that you're hearing the frequency gliding, i.e., the whistling getting higher and higher.
You may remember a study in 2013 from Redoubt Volcano up in Alaska. Redoubt was also whistling, for around 1-3 minutes before some of the explosions that happened there in 2009. They called it "screams". It turned out that the screams where actually little earthquakes getting closer and closer together in time, until you can't distinguish them anymore and they're just one continuous scream. 
The screaming or whistling at Kilauea is quite different: It's really slow and lasts for many hours. Nobody has seen gliding that lasts this long anywhere before. Also, the little earthquakes that you can hear in the beginning actually SLOW DOWN before the whistling starts, so the explanation from Redoubt doesn't work here. Many other models that explain this type of behaviour can't produce whistling that would last for several hours, so we spent some time exploring what could generate a signal like that. In the end we decided that the Kilauea tremor and whistling may be related to bubbles in the magma: We think that it's possible that gas bubbles in the magma reservoir beneath the western crater Halema`uma`u can form "bubble clouds", or areas where lots of bubbles collect in one place. These bubble clouds can start swinging, or oscillating, if there is magma flow or something else that can start the oscillation. This swinging is transferred into the ground. When the magma flow changes (for example when a crack breaks open somewhere else in the system, like the dikes in 2007 and 2011) the frequency of the bubble cloud tone can change, and produce the whistling that we observe. 
To know whether that is actually what was happening at Kilauea we would need some more info, for example a detailed study of where exactly the whistling was coming from on the volcano. However, it was still really interesting to see how by comparing the earthquake recordings from several different eruptions we were able to identify similarities and differences, and how that - in combination with other observations during those eruptions - made it quite tricky to come up with possible explanations for what we observed. Many studies focus on just one eruption, but we showed that we can learn a lot by looking at the bigger picture.
If you're still reading this you really must have a lot of spare time, so feel free to check out the journal article that we wrote about all this.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Want more like this? Check out Science Borealis!

Good news! The Volcano Diaries are now part of the Science Borealis network - lots of awesome blogs about all sorts of science and related topics in  Canada or by Canadian based writers. Click on the image on the right to explore the Science Borealis world.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Being a scientist - Like a girl

The stereotypical geoscientist is, of course, a geologist. And if you're imagining this geologist you might be seeing a man with a lot of facial hair who spends all day hiking around the mountains in trekking shorts and hiking boots, equipped with a compass, a rock hammer, and a hand lens. Geologists like him are maybe what Sheldon Cooper refers to as "the dirt people". I hate to break it to you: Geoscientists come in all shapes and sizes.
First and foremost, there are tons of awesome lady geos out there. Think Martha Savage, who is one of THE people to talk to about seismic anisotropy (or in other words, the fact that earthquake waves can sometimes travel faster in one direction than another, for example), and a brilliant supervisor on top of that. Think Linda Elkins-Tanton, a very inspiring planetary scientist who spent some years in business before going back to grad school and a little while later ended up as the Director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington (she is now at Arizona State, also check out this blog post about her time at DTM, and yes, planetary scientists are also geos in a wider sense). Or, if you're more into popular science, this would be a good place for a shout out to my former fellow UBC student Mika McKinnon, who writes awesome geo-related content for All these ladies, and so many more, are doing awesome things in the name of science - and defeating the stereotype. The campaign #LikeAGirl, which got a little attention boost this weekend after it was aired during the Superbowl, is a great example of how important the fight against these kinds of stereotypes is. And it works even better if we have examples for how to do it, if we find women we can look up to and respect for their achievements. Similar to the Like A Girl campaign, a few months ago some women in science took it upon them to promote the fact that, yes, you can be a girl of any kind (manicured or not) and do great science. Check out some of the tweets:

Some people complained that this campaign hijacked a hashtag that was maybe meant for young girls. I have to disagree. In a hijacking something is taken away. Showing how you can have hands #LikeAGirl and be an amazing scientist at the same time is hardly taking something away. Quite the opposite, I think it's a great add on.
Being a girl in science is a blessing and a curse. Depending on the field you may be surrounded by the older men, who may or may not think that you are where you belong. In one of my undergrad classes there were 6 of us - 4 guys and 2 girls. We had to take turns in walking through our homework assignments at the blackboard in front of the professor and the rest of the class. When the guys had their turns we all listened to what they had to say and worked on the problem of the assignment. When the other girl or I had our turns we had to write out our solution while the prof was sitting down and making comments along the lines of "Pfff, girls, they don't belong in science, not a clue what they're doing". In the end, our final grade was down to written work, and he had no choice but to give me the top grade in the class alongside one of the guys. When we came to pick up our exams and get our grades he made a big point to congratulate my (male) friend (who got the other top grade). After my friend pointed out to the prof that I had gotten the same grade the prof started stuttering and mumbling something like "yeah, but you were better". I can only laugh about this guy. Of course this is only a minor problem compared to some other stories, and definitely nothing that would have kept me from doing what I set out to do. But you never know. From being ignored through harassed to assaulted - sadly we've heard it all. 
On the other hand, being a girl comes with certain (legit) advantages. In many scientific disciplines we are far from a gender balance, especially when it comes to leadership positions. According to the 2011 report from the American Geoscience Institute, only 30% of the US geosciences workforce are women, even though girls get 40% of the geoscience degrees. That means that if you decide to stay in the field as a woman, you might have slightly better chances compared to a guy with the same qualifications, just because of the "minority" status women have. This advantage may sound unfair to some guys, and it really is, but sadly, until we have a gender balance or something close to it (particularly at the leadership level) I don't think we can afford to not implement this kind of decision making. 
All the same applies not to just to gender, but also to ethnicity, social background, age, and who knows what. Ultimately, I'm going to be optimistic and say that maybe one day we can be balanced scientific society, where hiring decisions are made on scientific merit alone. I hope that the little girls of today, like those in the Like A Girl campaign (also check out this great article) will grow up and run, throw, drive, laugh, cry, sing, do maths, paint, dance, play football - like girls who came into a world with a little less stereotyping. I personally tend to do things to the best of my abilities and knowing when to accept defeat - I run like me (not very far), throw like me (not even 5 meters), do science like me (lots of volcanoes and computers involved), and I stand up for myself like me: According to my dad, my teacher in primary school once told him a story from a field trip where the boys treated one of the girls in some unfair way, so that little 8-year old me ended up scolding them all so vigorously that the whole episode made a lasting impression in the teacher's mind for over a decade (and maybe it's still in there...). I think I stuck to that habit, and I'm not planning on letting go any time soon. #LikeAGirl

Sunday, 18 January 2015

A road to studying volcanoes

Whether I'm at a party or talking to strangers on a plane - the question "What do you do for a living?" is almost always followed at one point or another by "How did you get into that?".
Sometimes I even ask myself this question. Ten years ago, when I finished high school (yes, I'm that old...), I certainly didn't have the faintest idea that life was going to take me right to this point. Yet, here I am. So whether you're curious about my path, or trying to determine whether it's the right one for you, let's explore how I ended up in the here and now.

1. Geophysics.
In Germany, geophysics isn't really much on people's radar. Having grown up there, it wasn't on mine either. When I was little, maybe 7 or so, I thought whales and dolphins were really cool, so I wanted to be a marine biologist (yep, 7-year old me was that specific). A couple years later, inspired by who-knows-what, I thought archeologist would be a better idea. This phase was soon followed by my Egyptologist period, when I loved everything from scarabs to hieroglyphics, and was extremely excited about finally getting history classes in school in grade 6. What I didn't realize at the time was that all these lines of employment (or lack thereof?) have something in common: I've always loved to study things, alive (dolphins) or dead (neanderthal men, pharaohs), and I've always loved mysteries. In a way, this is what science is all about: solving puzzles. 
The closer I got to the end of high school the more urgent became the question of what I thought I was going to do with my life. I had lots of favourite subjects in school - languages, maths, physics, and geography - which didn't make the choice any easier. I took tests in newspapers which were supposed to give me the answer. Needless to say, even though the results brought some interesting ideas they didn't solve the problem. In the end, my Mom - inadvertently - gave me the deciding clue. She asked me whether maybe I would enjoy studying meteorology. Her suggestion didn't throw me into complete ecstasy, but was worth taking into consideration, so I flipped open the "career bible", a book published by the German Employment Agency every year summarizing almost any study or career choice you can imagine. The page about meteorology read somewhat interesting, but it really hit me when I flipped to the next page and saw the headline "geophysics". You mean you can combine all the cool topics from geography with physics and that is actually a thing? Even better, they offered a program in Munich, really close to where I grew up. My first decision was made: I was going to give this at least a try.
I looked up a professor in the geophysics department in Munich, Heiner Igel, and sent him an email. For some magical reason he agreed to meet me if I was going to come to Munich to pay the department a visit. In retrospect I realize that this was probably a very special and amazing act of friendliness of him - which professor takes time to meet with a high school student who may or may not be interested in his subject? He invited me into his office, told me about his research and then took me to one of his classes. It was a 3rd year class or so, everything was in English, and little high school me only understood about 25% of what was going, but those 25% really captured my attention. After the class, he introduced me to two of his Master's students who added the final bit: You could go hiking in the mountains, or travel to remote destinations for work? I was in! I signed up for a geosciences Bachelors degree.

2. "Fernweh" - or The nomad story.
During my high school years I had already wanted to go overseas - it just never worked out. Ok, I had done 3 student exchange/language school visits to England and 1 to France, but it just wasn't enough. I needed more. A mapping field trip to the Italian island of Elba and a volcanology field trip to the Canaries just made my travel bug more impatient. I needed to go somewhere - far away! And indeed, for my Master's degree I ended up about as far away from Germany as you can get: New Zealand! I had worked hard for about a year and a half, contacting geosciences departments, applying for scholarships, university housing, etc, before I finally stepped onto that plane into the big unknown. The fact that I didn't know a single person in this country on the other side of the world that I had never been to that was going to be my home for the next 2 years certainly added to the adventure. I loved Wellington as soon as I got there, but a disappointment was waiting for me at the university: The funding for the project I was supposed to work on hadn't been approved (just another day in academia, as I now know). My supervisor, Martha Savage, encouraged me to chat with people in the department and read some papers before deciding what to do instead. My life was about to take another unexpected turn: I was about to find out that I had a passion for volcanoes. Sure, there was the volcanology field trip to the Canaries, but it wasn't until now that I realized that, yes, I can study volcanoes if I want to. ME! For real.
The next two years flew by, and I was so busy exploring this awesome little country and its surroundings (Samoa! Australia!) that I hadn't noticed that - somewhere along the way - I had lost my plan to go back to Germany after my degree was done. I had milked my New Zealand visa as much as I could, and left the country on the last day I was legally allowed to be there. I said goodbye with one crying and one laughing eye: I was about to leave my dear friends and my dear Wellington and my dear kiwi land behind, but only to embark on a new adventure. I had signed up for a PhD in Vancouver, Canada. When I had visited Vancouver that spring, I think the new vibe combined with the odd familiarity had influenced my decision: This was a new city, a new country, and yet there were the familiar elements of nature so similar to New Zealand (water. trees. mountains. whales. birds.) and the ever friendly people who softly tickled my about-to-be-missed kiwiness with their always present "eh". This is my 4th year in Canada.
Of course the traveling didn't stop there: Pretty much all of geosciences are so small that conferences happen all over the world, that at any given moment you're likely to work with people from as many different countries as you can count. I've had the luxury and pleasure to travel to Austria, Italy, Spain, Australia, Japan, Mexico, Ecuador, and to 9 different states in the US (Alaska, Hawai`i, Washington state, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington DC) all for work related reasons, and I've had the chance to live and work on research vessels twice. Do I need to say more?

3. Geoscience - an allrounder
In geoscience, a field that goes back centuries, you can be a lab rat, an outdoors man (or woman), a computer geek, an explorer, a big picture thinker, a writer, a talker, a listener - it doesn't matter. There is a place for everyone. Geoscience turned out to be the perfect combination for my needs: I get to travel, speak different languages, work with people from all over the world, and help to unravel mysteries that affect our every day lives. These mysteries are visible (eruptions!), we can feel some of them (earthquakes!), and yet they are strangely fleeting, almost intangible, and continue to astound!

At Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador last November. Can you tell my excitement? Photo credit: James Hickey