Work with lava louts

July 11, 1997

Mark Davies outlines the dangers and attractions of working around mountains that explode. Kate Worsley reports

Earlier this year Mark Davies spent two months monitoring the volcano on Montserrat, in the West Indies, where 23 people were killed at the end of June by the biggest eruption in the islanders' memory.

Davies, a 28-year-old vulcanologist at the Open University's department of earth science, was there from January to March as part of a British Geological Survey emergency team. Although it was only in June that the volcano's activity resulted in deaths, it has in fact been erupting unpredictably since July 18 1995, prompting the evacuation of thousands of people and leaving the south of the island uninhabitable. People are living in shelters converted from church and school halls.

The British government has promised more money for emergency housing and transport, roads and a new hospital, but it may not be enough to stop the exodus of islanders.

Normally a fairly gung-ho sort of a fellow, who lists his recreations as snowboarding, mountaineering and surfing, Davies is in sombre mood. Some of the people killed on Montserrat, including farmers who had ignored official advice about approaching the volcano, were known to him. He makes it clear that he cannot talk specifically about his work on the island because of Foreign Office restrictions, but is willing to talk generally about the risks, and pleasures, of being a vulcanologist.

There are not many vulcanologists world-wide. It is a small community, says Davies. The BGS team is an international one, made up of around 40 West Indian, American, French, Canadian and British scientists. Vulcanologists working at the Open Uni-versity plan trips together "for safety reasons, so that there is more than one of us on the volcano at any one time".

In 1993, an Open University vulcanologist died on the slopes of Galrias in Columbia, in an eruption which claimed the lives of 11 people in all.

It is stressful and highly dangerous work. "Two months is about the limit for a trip. Then you need a break." But whenever he returns from a trip he has "a feeling of desertion from the team," he says.

"Working in a closed environment such as a volcanic crisis the camaraderie and teamwork builds up to an enormous level and once you get back to Britain it takes a long time to adjust back into a normal routine lifestyle."

Field trips monitoring and surveying volcanos are exhausting. A typical day starts at 7am and can end just before midnight. "During the day it is normal to walk well over 20 kilometres on a volcano with up to 10-15 kilogrammes of equipment on your back. Lunch is sandwiches when and where possible."

In an emergency situation there are scientific meetings in the evening "to discuss the state of the volcano." The evening is spent processing data, writing a report and also getting the equipment ready for the following day's work.

But there is a lighter side to being a vulcanologist. Davies lists his most uncomfortable encounter with a volcano as "having to walk five hours through a tropical forest to sample gases on Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica". Having sweated to chop a path through the undergrowth, the team eventually reached the sampling site. "Once there, a tribe of howler monkeys started throwing berries and urinating on us in order to defend their territory," he remembers.

And Davies' love of volcanoes is not diminished by his recognition that they can "cause some of the most catastrophic disasters known to man".

"All natural phenomena associated with volcanoes are awe-inspiring," he says, "from a pyroclastic flow with its billowing hot grey ash moving faster than we can drive in a car, to the making of sulphur crystals at a hydrothermal vent, where hot fluids escape from the superheated rocks below the earth's surface."

In the next few days he will leave for another volcano - this time in Iceland.

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