'Watching a volcano erupt is humbling — they remind us how small we really are'
PUBLISHED: 15:42 04 December 2019 | UPDATED: 16:06 04 December 2019
Prof Jenni Barclay has been scrambling up volcanoes for 25 years to better understand what it means to live with uncertainty. Stevie Smith visited the volcanologist at UEA to find out how radioactive dating and calypso music are helping to find the answers.
Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read more stories from the series here.
What does being a volcanologist involve? Volcanology is the application of science to understanding volcanoes. And people like me, who look at volcanic rock, are like the forensic detectives of volcanology.
The rocks contains a fingerprint of the things that have happened to the magma before the volcano erupts—helping us to understand what volcanoes too old to have been witnessed erupting did in the past.
Volcanoes are uncertain beasts, so I look at reducing the risk of a disaster and work with communities nearby to ensure they can live the best possible life with an active volcano on their doorstep.
One type I study are volcanoes where one tectonic plate is going under another, called subduction zones. They tend to create the most uncertain types of behaviour, and I'm interested in reducing scientific uncertainty, but also in learning how to live with it.
What's it like to see a volcanic eruption in person? The first one I saw was on the Caribbean island of Montserrat in 1996, and the novelty never wears off. I was observing the changes on the dome and had radio support and the ability to get out very quickly if needed.
Eruptions are very humbling, because they remind you how small you really are in the world, and that there are longer, bigger processes going on that span beyond our lives, like volcanoes that are active for hundreds of years—I've not met anyone who's seen an eruption and not wanted to talk about it afterwards.
You've spent a lot of time studying volcanoes in the Caribbean islands. Where else are you working at the moment? We've been working on Ascension Island, an isolated British territory in the middle of absolutely nowhere in the South Atlantic Ocean, to create a volcanic history for the island.
Although some of the lava flows looked young, we couldn't find historical records with convincing evidence for an eruption. The island was uninhabited until 1815. A volcano's radioactivity starts to decay when it erupts, so you can measure radioactive elements to calculate the eruption dates. We managed to narrow it down to 500 or 600 years ago.
We've been able to show that this very young volcano has real potential for erupting in the future. I'm really proud of our teamwork with other universities on this. Despite how science might be represented, it's not a solitary endeavour.
What first sparked your interest in science? Most schoolchildren do nature projects about nice things like butterflies or trees, but mine was called "The Violent Earth"! I've always been interested in natural hazards.
Witnessing my first eruption at Montserrat's Soufrière Hills was beautiful but I was also aware that I was a 'volcano tourist' and, nearby, peoples' lives were being ruined by what was happening. That made me rethink the kind of science I wanted to do; I wanted to make a direct societal impact.
What are some of the truly exciting things happening in the volcanology field today? I'm interested in how new technology can be used to create citizen scientists, and the huge amount of information that might bring.
When volcanoes are at their worst, we can't get close enough to take measurements, so we work with local communities, exchanging their understanding of the eruption process for ours.
I strongly believe in getting away from colonial science, where you just show up and think you can do whatever you like. People on the ground clearly understand the volcano, because it's part of their daily existence.
There's more realisation that local behaviour might be slow to respond to disaster risks because of the other challenges people have in their everyday lives. Thinking from their perspective means you ask scientific questions in a different way and generate more intelligent hypotheses as a result.
It's not all scientists doing this work - we're an interdisciplinary group with different backgrounds. Our work in the Caribbean uses local traditions of Calypso music and written word. We want to share the communities stories of the volcano. It teaches them and us how to deal with it in the future. So, the societal benefit comes not solely from our big instruments and fancy tech, but from that mix.
Prof Jenni Barclay is a professor of volcanology at the University of East Anglia at Norwich Research Park.
Explore the rest of the Norwich Research Park Lifechangers series here.