What does it take to become a volcanologist?

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Staff members at the U.S. Geological Survey's volcano observatories frequently receive requests for career guidance from aspiring volcanologists, especially when activity is heightened as it is now on Kīlauea Volcano.

What does it take to become a volcanologist?...

What does it take to become a volcanologist?

(Public domain.)

Here are some common career questions and their answers.

How much formal training is required? The short answer is "a lot." Most volcanologists have an advanced degree—either an M.S. (Master of Science) or a Ph.D. (Doctorate)—in addition to the B.Sc. (Bachelor of Science) they received in college. An M.S. requires an additional 2-3 years; a Ph.D. might require 4-8 years after completing your B.Sc.. After all this, many people also have a few years of post-doctoral studies.

What courses should I take in school? In high school, take as many math, physics, and chemistry courses as you can. A solid foundation in mathematics is particularly valuable in any science. For an aspiring volcanologist, geology and computer programming courses will be invaluable.

In college, continue to build skills in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and geology, and hone your computer skills. Communicating hazard information to the public is essential so you might want to take some technical writing and webpage creation courses, as well. During the summer, some schools offer field methods in volcanology, like the one offered by the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes (CSAV) at UH Hilo.

Solid training in these fundamental skills will allow students to take advantage of opportunities that come their way. For example, few of the volcanologists currently at HVO started college in geology; they started in engineering, business, oceanography, geography, and even tropical agriculture, and switched when they came across a great teacher or course or opportunity that introduced them to geology. They had learned solid science skills in school, developed an interest in geology if they didn't start there, and found volcanology later.

One of the seismologists at HVO started college in engineering as a way to study buildings, became interested in geology, and switched to seismology as a way to study the structure of the earth. He now uses information about the way earthquake waves travel through volcanoes to reveal their internal plumbing. The young woman who now studies the meaning of shape changes of Hawai`i volcanoes started her career interpreting the chemistry of rocks. Much of the content on the USGS Volcano Hazards webpage was written and posted by a scientist who graduated from college with a geography degree and who then started film school before accepting an opportunity to be the spokesperson for the Cascades Volcano Observatory. There are many educational paths to volcanology; few are standard.

What are the job opportunities? Jobs in volcanology are not abundant. Most are found in the Federal government or in the academic community. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the federal agency that operates U.S. volcano observatories, has most of the volcanology positions within the Federal government. Currently, the USGS has about 60 full-time M.S. and Ph.D. volcanology positions, and the turn-over rate is low-typically a few positions per year. Colleges and universities probably have more positions and a broader range of specialties than the USGS.

How is the pay? In 1903, in the preface to his book "Volcanic Studies in many Lands," pioneering volcanologist Tempest Anderson stated, "I was consequently led to seek some branch of Science which gave no prospect of pecuniary return, and I determined on Vulcanology, which had the additional advantage of offering exercise in the open air, and in districts often remote and picturesque." So, apparently, the pay for volcanology hasn't changed much in the past century. If you want to get rich, consider a different career. U.S. Geological Survey positions are paid at standard Federal Civil Service rates. Academic positions tend to be in the same ballpark. Pay is adequate, but not extravagant.

So if the training is long and rigorous, jobs are scanty, and the pay is only "adequate," why would I want to become a volcanologist?

For virtually all volcanologists, their profession is a labor of love, driven by a fascination with volcanoes and a desire to contribute to society by unraveling the secrets of these hazardous but hauntingly beautiful wonders of nature.


Volcano Activity Update

Kīlauea summit and the July 21 fissures continue to deflate. Earthquakes continue to be located beneath Halema`uma`u crater; few have been located beneath the upper east rift zone. Seismic tremor levels continue to be low.

The July 21 fissure eruption remains active. Of the four original fissure segments, only the two fissures farthest east-fissures C and D-are erupting lava. Though fissure C has been barely alive, with only sporadic activity, for the last several days, fissure D continues to dominate the scene with an eruption rate that has not noticeably changed over the last few weeks.

Lava erupting from fissure D enters a broad, open channel that carries the lava off toward the northeast then gently swings around to the east. About a mile from the fissure, the lava stream transitions into `a`a. Though the original `a`a flow is no longer moving forward, lava continues to move beneath the surface of the stagnant `a`a flow and is squeezing out from the base of the flow along its sides and front. These "squeeze-outs" of sticky, relatively cool lava are forming new `a`a flows that are less blocky, darker in color, and moving much more slowly than the initial `a`a flow. Although the terminus of the flow is still creeping forward-it is now about 2.5 miles from the fissure-what is more pronounced is how wide the flow has gotten. In a few places, the flow is up to about 2000 feet across.

Vent areas are hazardous. Access to the eruption site, in the Pu`u Kahauale`a Natural Area Reserve, is closed (http://www.state.hi.us/dlnr/chair/pio/HtmlNR/07-N076.htm).

Though the July 21 fissure eruption has stolen the limelight, Pu`u `O`o is still alive. Steam and fume obscure the crater most of the time, but occasional glimpses of incandescence are still seen at four separate places on the crater floor and in the West gap. As has been seen in years past, Pu`u `O`o could be acting as temporary storage as lava passes beneath the cone on its way to the erupting fissures.

One earthquake beneath Hawai`i Island was reported felt within the past week. A magnitude-2.7 earthquake occurred at 9:31 a.m. H.s.t. on Saturday, August 4, and was located 4 km (2 miles) southeast of Holualoa at a depth of 14 km (9 miles).

Mauna Loa is not erupting. Two earthquakes were located beneath the summit; one was a deep long-period quake. Extension between locations spanning the summit, indicating inflation, continues at steady, slow rates, which have slowed further since May 2007.