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.