Volcanoes: Up Close and Personal

Volcanic eruptions can be devastating; damaging infrastructure, spoiling crops, and leading to injuries and loss of life. Volcanic monitoring can help mitigate against disaster, ensuring the safe and timely evacuation of those living in the vicinity of a volcano on the brink of eruption. Much of this monitoring is now conducted remotely, using satellites and systems that send information back to where the data is processed. However, some sampling methods still involve people going on site and getting up close and personal with volcanic hazards. It is vital that these volcanologists are well protected and wear the correct safety gear to keep safe.
Volcanologists take samples of gas at a fumarole. The yellow on the rocks is sulfur from the cooled sulfur dioxide (Wikimedia, accessed 8/6/2020)
Gas sampling is a very important type of monitoring. When magma begins to rise to the surface its pressure decreases, this releases gases into the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and water. This process is known as degassing. The gas is released at chimney like structures on the volcano known as fumaroles. Sampling gases can be hazardous for numerous reasons. There is a chance of asphyxiation and irritation to eyes, skin and the respiratory system. The gas can also be extremely hot, with a high risk of burns. For these reasons, when conducting gas sampling volcanologists usually wear protective clothing such as full-length trousers and long sleeve tops and gloves. Sometimes they also wear gas masks. The collection device is at the end of a long stick so that the volcanologist does not need to get too close to the hot gas.
Volcanologists also study lava as it flows out of a volcano. From this, they can find out about the chemistry of the molten rock and learn more about what is going on deep underground. They can also analyse samples taken from further down the flanks of the volcano, which may have erupted some days previous, to work out how the magma has evolved after eruption. 
It is difficult to comprehend just how hot lava is. When it first erupts it can be above 1,000oC, even at its coolest it is still above 600oC. Obviously, this is very hazardous to anyone who is working to collect samples. Volcanologists will often wear special full body suits, which are heat resistant and look a lot like a space suit. They will wear gloves and usually a mask or visor to protect them from lava splatter. Thick soled boots are also necessary as the ground they are walking on can often be hot..

With improvements in technology the need for humans to conduct direct sampling will continue to decrease. Increasingly gas sampling is being conducted by specialist instruments either mounted on site or on satellites. In future, it is likely that lava sampling will be conducted by remote controlled robots. Although, for some volcanologists it may take some excitement away from their jobs, this will lead to much safer scientific data collection.
Useful activities and websites:
  • For hands on activities relating to designing protective clothing for volcanologists,  have a look at our Monitoring a Volcano WASP STEM package.
  • For more information on how volcanoes are monitored, read our Volcanic Predictions blog.
  • To learn more about gas sampling methods and the hazards associated with volcanic gas have a read through the USGS Volcano Hazards Program.