No more than two years have passed since geologist Michael Ramsey stood at the threshold of an erupting volcano, barely escaping the ensuing barrage of molten rock that killed two of his colleagues.
After the ordeal, fewer than three months passed before he was back on top of another active volcano.
Ramsey, an assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Planetary Science at the University of Pittsburgh, has the technology to monitor these volcanoes from the safety of his Oakland office, thanks to a NASA remote-sensing satellite system and a laptop computer. So one would think he no longer has to put himself in harm’s way at the lip of a volcanic crater.
Wrong, he says.
Why on earth Ramsey and his fellow volcanologists continue — despite this technology — to climb active volcanoes is the subject of a lecture Ramsey will give Thursday at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
“I was trained that you have to be in the field, so you A: understand the volcano itself, and B: understand your satellite data,” says Ramsey, seated behind the desk of his nondescript office on the University of Pittsburgh campus.
It’s not enough to rely on NASA technology, despite its extensive abilities, he says. It helps volcanologists stay at a safe distance most of the time from active volcanoes, which have killed about 30 scientists in 20 years. (That’s 10 percent of all volcanologists, Ramsey estimates.)
Satellite images, though, aren’t enough of a substitute for the real deal.
The NASA program Ramsey uses is Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer. He can use the program to combine visible-light images of the volcanoes he studies with infrared images of heat under the earth’s surface on and around them.
The radiometer has helped him to monitor three or four volcanoes per year on Alaska’s Aleutian islands; Russia’s far-east Kamchatka peninsula; Montserrat, just south of the U.S. Virgin Islands; and in Japan and Indonesia. By late 2002, Ramsey and his colleagues hope to use the program, launched in 1999, to accurately predict volcanic eruptions.
Until then, visits to volcanoes such as Mt. Semeru in Indonesia will always be unpredictable. That volcano, which he visited in July 2000, spewed ash and steam regularly. That wasn’t a deterrent to Ramsey and a small group of scientists, porters and a tourist. The group hiked up to the volcano’s summit to get a look at the active crater, and get some samples of volcanic gases.
After a couple of minutes, there was a tremor underfoot. Almost immediately, the crater erupted, not with ash and steam but with molten rock. Two Indonesian scientists — who had often studied Mt. Semeru — were killed instantly where they stood at the lip of the crater. Other scientists were pummeled and bloodied by rocks, but Ramsey had dropped to the ground and covered his head quickly enough to avoid serious harm, breaking some toes and sustaining bruises.
The eruption lasted less than a minute.
After making it off the mountain with his surviving colleagues, Ramsey waited until October before heading to the top of Japan’s Mt. Unzen, leading his own team of scientists and students. His reservations about being near a volcano crater had dissipated by the time he reached the mountain’s summit.
“Once you’re up there, the excitement kicks in. The scientific curiosity kicks in,” he says.
He says he didn’t have any fear until his third day atop Mt. Unzen, when tremors once again started below his feet. The group bolted from the summit.
“We were up there and started hearing rock fall and vibrations,” he says. “… It wasn’t until we saw on the news that it was an earthquake.”
A 7.2-magnitude earthquake had struck 100 miles away. Still, it was a chilling reminder of Mt. Semeru.
One might take the episode as a higher power telling this man to stop climbing volcanoes. But not Ramsey.
“It’s not quite a sign from above, but again this hammering in your head that you’ve got to be careful,” he says.
Ramsey wouldn’t sit at a desk watching volcanoes even if the radiometer could do all the work for him, says the former whitewater-rapids river guide. He likes a little thrill — that’s why he’s studying volcanoes instead of, say, the erosion patterns of igneous rocks.
“Volcanoes are one of the few things in geology that tend to be active and exciting,” he says.