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The explosive work of a volcanologist
Paradise Lost; the burning lake, the liquid fire are scorched into our cultural imaination.| "Floods and whirlwinds of tempestuous fire" formed John Milton's conception of Hell in
But these infernal connotations are rendered quite differently by John Stix, a volcanologist, whose work takes him to the edge of some of the most alluring, dangerous places on Earth.
It has also recently led him to that considerably less dangerous place, the McGill campus: Stix joined the faculty last summer, moving over Mount Royal when the geology department of the Université de Montréal, his previous base camp, was disbanded.
You need a good reason to stroll the cusp of doom and destruction, and the pursuit of knowledge seems as good as any. Stix recently returned from Ecuador and Chile, where his labour involved measuring volcanic phenomena. Using Global Positioning Systems for instance, he gauged the deformation of the upper portions of Guagua Pinchincha, a volcano ten kilometres west of Quito.
Volcanologists monitor such things because, while they cannot predict exactly when a mountain will blow, every bit of information furthers knowledge and makes such predictions more feasible. "I hope to provide little pieces of the puzzle that will contribute to a larger understanding of the volcano as activity progresses," he explains.
Guagua Pinchincha will probably remain active for another couple of years, providing plenty of research material which could be useful to forecast eruptions and will certainly add to understanding about volcanoes.
A New York City native, Stix credits his interests to undergraduate work at Dartmouth College in the United States; the geology program had a field school, which included accompanying professors as they studied a Central American volcano.
However, volcanoes retreated from his research agenda for years, as he did geothermal work for Los Alamos labs in New Mexico; then, deciding to pursue graduate studies, he headed north to the 2.5 billion-year-old Precambrian rocks of the Canadian Shield, and to the University of Toronto. After graduation in 1989, he arrived in Montreal.
His interest in volcanoes resurfaced, but active volcanoes are found elsewhere. Following his own undergraduate experience, Stix takes students on field trips, most recently to El Salvador to look at deposits in a massive volcanic depression about 15-20 kilometres in diameter. The eruption itself was in 260 AD. "We know the date precisely because there are artifacts underneath," he explains. "It had a big impact on the Mayan civilization there."
The time since the last eruption, while vast by human standards, is a mere sliver of a second on the geological clock. Most geological processes move very slowly; an active volcano is, by comparison, a veritable speed demon, allowing students to see geology in action.
Volcanoes are on the "active" list if they've erupted within the last 10,000 years, so one cannot wait for just any hill to start rumbling. Instead, volcanologists must travel to currently performing mountains. Hence Stix's recent forays to Ecuador and Chile.
Since Guagua Pinchincha was reactivated in August 1998, Stix has visited four times, making measurements and assessing activity. "Until last October," he says, "there was no evidence of magma, but then a lava dome started forming. Because the lava in this region is so viscous and rigid, domes often explode." And when this happens, trouble can result.
"Downwind, there's ash falling on top of you. Ash fall is more of a nuisance than a real danger — it's bad for cars, the airport has to close, and it causes lots of misery, but people aren't in danger." However, he continues, "huge falls of ash, especially coupled with rain, can be quite severe. A collection of wet ash can collapse roofs and kill people. Also, if ash collects on slopes and it rains, you can get debris flows which are dangerous for people living in low areas."
If one were to infer that the job of volcanologist is on the dangerous side, one would be correct. Indeed, a committee appointed by the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior (IAVCEI) recently recommended a list of safety measures, prompted by the high number of professional fatalities in the last decade.
While Stix says that he has had some close calls — they were in his "younger days" — he is a wiser man now. "On Guagua Pinchincha we were being pretty careful, because it had been a long time since the last explosive eruption," he explains. "We were working on the far ridge from the lava dome, and we minimized our time there." Ultimately, he says, what "seems safe" is "a judgement call. You look to see what has fallen out around you; in our case, there was some ash, but no big stuff."
It also helps to know your volcano. "They definitely have their own personalities," Stix says. "Pinchincha grows these lava domes, it's very quiet and nothing much happens. Then, all of a sudden, with no warning, you get a very big eruption that goes 10 kilometres into the atmosphere."
Contrast this to Villarrica, Chile, a perfectly symmetrical volcano with an ice cap on top. "You can climb to the crater to look in on this glowing red lava lake, which every few minutes spits out gas bubbles that burst to the surface, scattering and splattering the lava." It is, says Stix, "really wonderful, lovely."
That beauty may be part of the appeal — Stix doesn't say — but he does enjoy the work. "I like having a way to combine research with trying to help negate some of the problems caused by volcanoes by developing forecasting methods," he explains.
In addition to an impressive flow of academic articles, Stix is also an associate editor of the massive Encyclopaedia of Volcanoes, published by Academic Press last fall. "It includes everything you wanted to know about volcanoes, and more," he jokes.
His teaching responsibilities converge well with research. The allure of the volcano means it is, in Stix's terms, "a hot hot hot field." Students clamour for admission to the advanced courses, although enrolment is restricted to the cream of the undergrad crop.
"It really gives me pleasure to see students visit young volcanic rocks. Lots of them work summers for mining companies, in northern Quebec, with old volcanic rocks. They can really get a better appreciation by experiencing both ends of the spectrum."