Down to Earth With: Volcanologist Stephen Sparks

by Sam Lemonick
Tuesday, January 13, 2015

From the Caribbean to Iceland to the Andes, volcanologist Stephen Sparks has spent a lifetime studying volcanoes. As a professor of geology at the University of Bristol in England for more than 20 years, Sparks has devoted much of his time to figuring out where the next eruption will occur and how to respond to it. His latest effort is a project that will connect experts and technology in a global network to improve volcanic risk assessment.

Sparks, who is also president of the Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology Section of the American Geophysical Union, says his interest in geology, and eventually volcanology, grew out of a childhood love of nature and exploration. He has been awarded medals for his contributions to volcanology from the Geological Society of America and the European Geosciences Union. He talked with freelance writer Sam Lemonick about how volcanology has changed over his career and where he hopes it will go in the future.

SL: When I think of a volcanologist, I imagine a person in a silvery suit leaning over a pool of lava. Is that what you do?

SS: I think you’ve certainly put your finger on, I wouldn’t say a misconception, but at least a very partial perception of the field. There certainly are people who go up to the crater and sample lava flows and gas fumaroles, and I’ve done a little bit of that myself over the years. Going in the field, collecting material and making observations of erupting volcanoes is part of the science — and I suppose it’s the more dramatic part of the science.

If you went back to the 1960s or ‘70s, the big figures were people like Haroun Tazieff, a French volcanologist who would indeed go around in silver suits with large numbers of scientists and do what looked like really dangerous things — what probably were really dangerous things — and [they] accentuated this romantic daredevil image of a volcanologist.

There have been a lot of volcanologists killed while working on volcanoes — even up to 10 years ago when 20 or so people died in a single year. That was becoming perhaps a larger number than it should be.

[Volcanology] has changed dramatically. Not just because of these deaths, but also because if you’re a volcanologist in an observatory with an erupting volcano, you really don’t want to get the wrong message out to the general public and the citizens who are threatened by the volcano that it’s fine [to go out to an active eruption]. I think that the responsibility aspect has led most volcanologists to try to tone down this perception.

Of course, it does make good television, so you constantly see Discovery Channel or National Geographic or the BBC putting on documentaries where the riskier elements of the profession are accentuated. So I don’t think we’re ever going to quite get rid of it.

The other big change is that there are a lot of things we can do now where we don’t need to go near the volcanoes. We have satellites and remote sensing instruments and much better cameras and radar, so we can make a lot of measurements on volcanoes these days without having to go near them.

SL: So what kind of work do you do?

SS: A variety of things. The area that’s most prominent is developing methods to map global risks from volcanic hazards. With colleagues, I’m leading a new international network that is designed to bring together a lot of the world’s volcano science into one platform that provides information, databases and risk assessment tools for the global community.

I’m also involved in research on the transport of volcanic ash. I’m particularly focused on the applications of that science to aviation safety, but also to more general hazards issues related to environmental impacts of volcanic ash and trying to understand the fundamentals of how ash is generated and transported.

SL: Do you have a favorite volcano?

SS: I’m not sure I’d say there’s a favorite. They’re so different, and different volcanoes present different challenges and levels of interest. I suppose I’d have to say that Soufrière Hills [on the Caribbean island Montserrat] has been the most scientifically important. It’s not just that it was an eruption where one could do a lot of great science. It was also a humanitarian emergency, and being involved in applying the science to help manage the emergency was a great experience.

SL: Were you surprised to find a blurry line between science and humanitarian work?

SS: I suppose it shouldn’t have been a surprise … It’s been rather gradual because the applied science of the work has developed more and more as I’ve gone along. I do a fair amount of fundamental research, but significantly more of my time [now] is spent looking at the applied areas of volcanology. My first visit to Montserrat in 1996 accelerated the process.

It’s turned out that volcanology has a whole variety of applied aspects. An example is radioactive waste disposal. Volcanology is very important for that storage. Some of the more well-known sites proposed for radioactive waste disposal have been in areas of volcanic rock, so one has to know the volcanic geology rather well in those areas. Yucca Mountain in Nevada is a great example. It’s in an area of active volcanism, so what would happen if a volcanic eruption happened through the repository?

SL: You also do a lot of work with scientific societies. Why do you think that’s important?

SS: It’s pretty important that the science community has a voice these days. Organizations like the American Geophysical Union [AGU] do the usual things such organizations do — they arrange scientific meetings, publish learned journals, give out medals and awards, things like that.

But I think nowadays science organizations like AGU have a much stronger role in providing independent, impartial scientific information and being [a voice] for the scientific community. There are huge numbers of scientific issues, some of them very contentious, that are informing public policy: climate change, evolution, disposal of radioactive waste, energy issues. These are large areas of public policy where earth science is very important.

I think it’s only relatively recently that it has become clear that scientists have a large role in making sure that the debates are well informed and that people understand the best science that’s available. It’s difficult to see what organizations [other than scientific societies] could claim to be really, truly independent. We have a big role representing and also supporting the scientific community and getting the right messages across.

SL: Do you think science is playing the right role in today’s world?

SS: It’s always worth saying how much we don’t know about how nature works. There’s a tendency in political circles these days to think that all the science has been done and now all we have to do is apply it and humanity’s problems will be solved. That’s really just not the case.

I think one of the hardest sells we have to make is for the fundamental aspects of science. It’s relatively easy to justify the sort of science where you’re applying it or perhaps giving some advice that saves lives or reduces economic losses. But all that kind of advice is based on fundamentally understanding how the world works.

Sometimes, to the public, that can seem quite esoteric, but it’s absolutely fundamental if we’re going to make progress. I think making the case for fundamental science is terribly important these days. There’s a lot of interesting science still to do.

SL: Do you ever imagine a different career?

SS: I suppose like most teenagers I’d have liked to play for Manchester United.

There were other career possibilities, but as soon as I got to know geology, I enjoyed all aspects, so it’s hard to imagine a terribly different career. Obviously if you’re working on volcanoes, you’re going to very beautiful parts of the world.

I think one of the great things about science in general, and volcanology in particular, is that you’re part of a community of international scientists. Volcanology’s quite a small community — there are probably not many more than a thousand people around the world who you could say are professional volcanologists, so we all know each other pretty well. It’s great to be part of a scientific community.

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