UO Looking to Expand Volcanology Dept

As part of the University of Oregon’s 2014 Cluster of Excellence Faculty Hiring initiative, UO is looking to hire five new faculty members who specialize in volcanoes. The goal is to turn the UO Geological Sciences Department into one of the leading volcanology research organizations in the world.

Narrow Field of Study, Worldwide Implications

Unlike engineering or economics or math, volcanology is a very narrow field of scientific research. UO is uniquely positioned to take full advantage of that specialization, however, with close proximity to many major volcanoes. The Cascade Range alone is home to 21 volcanoes, with Mount Shasta, the Three Sisters, Mount St. Helens, Mount Rainier, and many others also on the US Geological Survey’s list of volcanoes that are likely to be active soon. Smaller volcanoes abound in the region, as well.

As global population grows, more and more people are living within the “danger zone” of volcanoes—some 450 million-plus worldwide. “Mount Rainier certainly is [hazardous] because it’s close to a populated area, and there’s a major river drainage that goes from the volcano, basically, to Tacoma [Washington],” said Paul Wallace, a UO volcanologist. “If you have a big, collapse eruption like you did on Mount St. Helens, it could be quite dangerous.”

Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980. Photo credit: Washington State Department of Natural Resources / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980.
Photo credit: Washington State Department of Natural Resources / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

And volcanic eruptions are not hazardous only to those in the immediate vicinity. The massive eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815 is a prime example of volcanic activity having a worldwide impact. Tambora sent 500 times the ash and pumice into the air that Mount St. Helens did, leading to widespread acid rain and extreme climate effects and weather patterns. The ash in the atmosphere ultimately blocked so much sun that crops couldn’t grow, leading to food shortages worldwide.

A Rapidly Advancing Field

Volcanology technology is growing by leaps and bounds as of late. New computer modeling software, new sensors and sensing techniques, and highly specialized, mountainside researchers are making the study of volcanoes a more and more exact science all the time. Scientists can more accurately analyze the signals a volcano gives prior to full-scale eruption; they’ve successfully measured the size and location of volcanoes’ underground magma pools; they’ve studied the composition of the magma itself from the surface. The only thing left is to discover just what, exactly, will trigger an eruption.

“You don’t want to panic people needlessly,” said Wallace. “You want to recognize accurately the signs that a volcano is giving. That’s a big part of what we’re gearing up to do.”

Highly sensitive GPS devices, satellite remote sensors, optical correlation spectrometers, infrared spectrometers, laser ablation tools, electron microscopes, and other advanced equipment is now par for the course in any volcanology study. New technology often leads to new discoveries, and that’s what UO is hoping to capitalize on.

“We’ve targeted key areas where we think the big discoveries are going to be in the future,” Wallace said. “What we’re trying to do is [bring in] experts in all of these different fields. When you build this kind of integrated program, you’re going to find things that you’re not going to discover otherwise.”