Is it dangerous to work on volcanoes? What precautions do scientists take?

Volcanoes are inherently beautiful places where forces of nature combine to produce awesome events and spectacular landscapes. For volcanologists, they're FUN to work on! Safety is, however, always the primary concern, because volcanoes can be dangerous places. USGS scientists try hard to understand the risk inherent in any situation, then train and equip themselves with the tools and support necessary to provide a comfortable margin of safety. Such training involves learning the past and current activity of the volcano, first aid, helicopter safety procedures, and wilderness survival techniques. When working around non-explosive volcanoes in places like Hawaii, USGS scientists go through training to wear gas masks and use heat-resistant gear as needed.

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Where can I find information on employment with the USGS?

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) is a Federal science agency in the U.S. Department of the Interior that provides impartial information on the health of our ecosystems and environment, the natural hazards that threaten us, the natural resources we rely on, the impacts of climate and land-use change, and the core science systems that help...

Why is it important to monitor volcanoes?

The United States and its territories contain 169 geologically active volcanoes, of which 54 volcanoes are a high threat or very high threat to public safety. Many of these volcanoes have erupted in the recent past and will erupt again in the foreseeable future. As populations increase, areas near volcanoes are being developed and aviation routes...

Lava sampling: Why do we do it?

Hot lava samples provide important information about what's going on in a volcano's magma chambers. We know from laboratory experiments that the more magnesium there is in magma, the hotter it is. Chemical analysis, therefore, provides the means not only to determine the crystallization history of lava but also to establish the temperature at...

How are volcanic gases measured?

Instruments to measure sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide can be mounted in aircraft to determine the quantity of gas being emitted on a daily basis. Such instruments can also be used in a ground-based mode. An instrument that detects carbon dioxide can be installed on a volcano and configured to send data continuously via radio to an observatory...

How can we tell when a volcano will erupt?

Most volcanoes provide warnings before an eruption. Magmatic eruptions involve the rise of magma toward the surface, which normally generates detectable earthquakes. It can also deform the ground surface and cause anomalous heat flow or changes in the temperature and chemistry of the groundwater and spring waters. Steam-blast eruptions, however,...

What kind of school training do you need to become a volcanologist?

There are many paths to becoming a volcanologist. Most include a college or graduate school education in a scientific or technical field, but the range of specialties is very large. Training in geology, geophysics, geochemistry, biology, biochemistry, mathematics, statistics, engineering, atmospheric science, remote sensing, and related fields can...
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scientist with camera and spectrometer at the edge of smoking volcanic crater.
August 16, 2016

USGS HVO geochemist measuring gases released from Kīlauea Volcano

USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory geochemist measuring gases released from Kïlauea with a Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectrometer, an instrument that detects gas compositions on the basis of absorbed infrared light. The data obtained from FTIR measurements have been useful in identifying the many components of volcanic-gas emissions, which provide information on the

scientist shown taking a lava temp using a heat shield
July 8, 2016

Taking Lava Temps

In this photo, a USGS researcher is taking a temperature measurement on a sluggish channel eddy on Kīlauea Volcano in 1984. The research in Hawaiʻi is just one of many projects overseen by the USGS Volcano Hazards Program, which monitors active and potentially active volcanoes, assesses their hazards, responds to volcanic crises, and

A USGS geologist collects a molten lava sample during a December 2015 lava flow from Puʻu ʻŌʻō.
April 27, 2016

A USGS geologist collects a molten lava sample during a December 2015 lava flow from Puʻu ʻŌʻō.

A USGS geologist collects a molten lava sample during a December 2015 lava flow from Puʻu ʻŌʻō. As the lava cools on the surface, its viscosity increases and the flow slows down. Credit: USGS.

Scientist shields face while scooping lava with a hammer for chemical analysis
October 21, 2013

HVO geologist shields face from intense lava-flow heat while taking a fresh sample.

An HVO geologist shields his face from the intense heat as he takes a sample of active lava on the Kahaualeʻa 2 flow, Kilauea Volcano Hawaii.  The chemistry of the lava is analyzed through time and used to study changes in the magmatic system.  

Image: Taking Lava Samples
July 14, 2010

Taking Lava Samples

Geologist taking a sample from a recently formed skylight on the Quarry flow lava tube. Samples collected directly from the lava tube are usually the best samples for chemical analysis.

Image: Lava Sampling: Thermal and Non-Thermal
June 3, 2010

Lava Sampling: Thermal and Non-Thermal

This image shows an HVO geologist sampling the lava that was seeping out of the interior of the rootless shield. The lava was placed in a bucket of water to quench the sample. The top frame is a normal photograph, while the bottom frame is a thermal image taken within a fraction of a second of the photograph. As the thermal image shows, the incandescent interior of the

video thumbnail: Mount St. Helens: May 18, 1980
May 10, 2010

Mount St. Helens: May 18, 1980

USGS scientists recount their experiences before, during and after the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Loss of their colleague David A. Johnston and 56 others in the eruption cast a pall over one of the most dramatic geologic moments in American history.

Image: Scientist Captures thermal images of the Redoubt Lava Dome from Helicopter.
July 2, 2009

Scientist Captures thermal images of the Redoubt Lava Dome from Helicopter.

Kate Bull using a FLIR camera out the open door of an A-Star helicopter with the Redoubt summit and lava dome visible.

December 31, 2006

Mount St. Helens 2004-2008 Eruption: A Volcano Reawakens

Mount St. Helens reawakened in late September 2004. Small magnitude earthquakes beneath the 1980-1986 lava dome increased in frequency and size, and a growing welt formed on the southeast margin of the previous lava dome and nearby portions of Crater Glacier. On October 1, 2004, the first of several explosions shot a plume of volcanic ash and gases from a vent on the

Image shows two scientists on the slopes of Mount St. Helens with steam rising around them
September 24, 1981

Gas Sampling around the Mount St. Helens Dome

USGS geologists gathered samples by hand from vents on the dome and crater floor. Additionally, sulfur dioxide gas was measured from a specially equipped airplane before, during, and after eruptions to determine "emission rates" for the volcano.

Image:  ARRA-funded Student Sampling Gas at Augustine Volcano

ARRA-funded Student Sampling Gas at Augustine Volcano

ARRA-funded student Taryn Lopez (Univ. Alaska-Fairbanks) sampling gas emissions at fumarole next to dome at the summit of Augustine volcano.

Attribution: Natural Hazards