During my Primary School years, we lived in Taupo, New Zealand, and the day of the Mt Ruapehu explosion in 1996 Mum and Dad had gone for a walk and left us kids playing fairly nicely at home, alone. Our house was up the hill, overlooking the entire lake down towards the mountains. We had a
terrifying stellar view of the explosion and I had nightmares of volcanoes exploding out of my bedroom wall for months afterwards. I still have a little bag of the ash somewhere in storage. By the time I visited White Island, I was well into my teens and my love of science had overtaken any lingering childhood fear.
If you live around the Pacific Ring of Fire, odds are reasonable that you had drills in primary school and learnt about the many volcanoes dotted about the place. It is easy to forget that not all countries are like this, and that some people might not have ever felt an earthquake let alone seen any volcanic activity in their lifetime. Volcanoes have to be right up there with dinosaurs, with regards people maintaining a childlike delight towards them into adulthood. As such – this week we are super excited to have Assistant Professor Erik Klemetti taking over curation of @RealScientists!
Erik is a the Assistant Professor of Geosciences at Denison University in Granville, Ohio (USA), tweets at @eruptionsblog and writes at Eruptions, for Wired Science Blogs (sweet shoutout to RS in this post!). On form with our recent curators -Erik has answered our usual batch of questions:
Why/How did you end up in science?
I took a long and winding path, with more majors and potential majors than I care to admit. I went to a liberal arts school, so exposure to all disciplines can sometimes make it difficult to zero in on one – and I didn’t even do that. Instead I double-majored in geosciences and history (which aren’t that different in many ways). Before college, I was fascinated by rocks (and also by the stars), so interest in how the world/universe works has always been there. In the end, there were too many questions in science – and specifically in the geosciences – that I wanted to try to answer to turn away.
Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?
I’m a volcanologist/petrologist. This means I study volcanoes and the magma that is the source of volcanism. My mother is from Pereira, Colombia and I have distinct memories of seeing some of the results of the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz, so that likely started my curiosity about volcanoes. In the end, I did an undergraduate thesis on some ancient igneous rocks on an island off the coast of Maine and that sent me on my way. It’s been 15 years since I did that project and my graduate, postdoctoral and current work has sent me to Chile, New Zealand, the Pacific Northwest and California.
I just love trying to figure how magma evolves underneath volcanoes. What does that mean? Well, magma rises from where it is formed in the upper mantle and interacts with the crust it travels through to reach the surface. These processes, like magma mixing and crystal recycling, all occur underground so we can’t observe them. Instead, we can read the geochemical and geochronologic record in crystals found in lavas. That’s what I do – I use minerals like zircon to understand how magmas change over time at a volcano. The questions far outnumber the answers, so it’s easy to keep moving forward.
Tell us about your work?
Right now, I have projects looking at both modern and ancient volcanic rocks. On the modern end of things, I’ve been working at the Lassen Volcanic Center in California. I’ve also started projects at Mt. Hood in Oregon and on some of the large explosive eruptions that occurred in central Oregon. On the ancient end, I’ve been working on the deposits of large explosive eruptions found in the Sierra Nevada of California that are 135-195 million years old, when North America was being constructed.
Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research?
Understanding the fundamentals of magmatic systems at volcanoes can tell us about how quickly volcanoes can produce sufficient magma that is the right composition to potentially erupt explosively – so if you care about why your local volcano erupts as it does, my work can help with that. On top of that, volcanic systems are the source of important ore deposits, like copper and gold, so the more we can understand about the magmatic and hydrothermal processes, the better we might be at finding these vital deposits.
Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?
Beyond my job as a professor at Denison University, I also write a blog for Wired Science Blogs – Eruptions. I’ve been writing it for over 6 years now and it gets over 200,000 visits a month. It has become a hub for discussions of volcanic eruptions around the planet, along with a place where I can talk about exciting volcanic research and dispel myths and fear-mongering journalism.
Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?
I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan with a small obsession with baseball. Unabashed sci-fi fan. Generally, a swell guy who’s easy to be with. I also used to write album reviews for a website in Seattle and still generally listen to too much music. My current obsession is T. Rex, and really it isn’t because of the geologic name.
How would you describe your ideal day off?
Probably involves my wife and my 2 year old son off in the woods somewhere.