Faculty Focus

The Physical Science of Volcanoes: Studying Volcanoes in Volcanoes

       A conversation with Dr. Conrad F. Shiba, Associate Professor of Chemistry
       and Dr. Joe Workman, Professor of Chemistry

 March 22, 2012
       View slideshow of their CentreTerm course in New Zealand.

Joe Workman & Conrad Shiba  Joe Workman and Conrad Shiba near a sulfur chimney
Q: Teaching a course on volcanoes seems exciting enough, but how did it come about that you actually teach the course inside of volcanoes?

Conrad Shiba: Any science course should involve laboratory or field work to show students how knowledge in the subject is actually obtained. Lecture alone does not convey a true sense of how the scientific enterprise is carried out. In addition, field studies are more interesting than looking at pictures, are better at placing objects in context, and allow students to get a more tangible feel for the subject matter. Since there are many places on earth where volcanoes are relatively accessible, it makes sense to teach about them on-site. Students get a much more real sense of the different concepts that we discuss when they actually walk on rough a’a lava flows, smell the differences between sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, observe firsthand the different shapes of different types of volcanoes, see where and how volcanoes are monitored, climb and descend the loose scoria on cinder cones, see the differences between alkaline-chloride and acid-sulfate hot springs, observe at close hand the flow paths of volcanic mudslides, and see how entire landscapes have been shaped by volcanoes. I spent three weeks last summer in a Hawaii working in a course on volcano monitoring, and the large amount of hands-on work carried out in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park was much more effective than classroom work alone would have been.

Joe Workman: This course is one of the several offered by the College that is team-taught. It has been really helpful to my development as a professor to learn from a colleague. I think the students have benefitted as well because Conrad and I have very different styles, but we are equally passionate about volcanoes. That said, neither Conrad nor I have a background in volcanology. Conrad did teach a course on natural disasters and my father is a geologist, but that’s it. We have basically developed our interests in the last ten years. I think our example is a good one for our students at a liberal arts college. It is possible to learn and become passionate about an area that is unrelated to your area of expertise. We have done this largely on our own. Conrad did the excellent course on monitoring in Hawaii, and I did a similar, though shorter, course in the Pacific Northwest. Mostly, though, it’s been reading books, studying Internet sources, and, most significantly, traveling to and hiking around volcanoes. As Conrad pointed out, this subject is best appreciated with visual, tactile and olfactory senses! That is really impossible in a classroom. I will always remember when I went to Pompeii and was amazed at how far away Vesuvius seemed to be that it could bury the city.

Q: Why is New Zealand the natural choice for such a course?

CS: Joe and I both have experience on many volcanoes in different parts of the world. Joe has been to Hawaii, Mount St. Helens, South Sister in Oregon and Craters of the Moon in Idaho—in addition to his many trips to New Zealand. I have been to Costa Rica on a volcano tour, did an extensive self-designed volcano tour in the Cascades from Mount St. Helens in Washington (two trips) down to Lava Beds National Monument in California, participated in a three-week session on volcano monitoring at the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes in Hawaii and have now taken four trips to New Zealand. Joe came up with the original idea for the course when he was touring New Zealand during his sabbatical year there. There had been no previous study abroad course in the physical sciences (and few in the sciences at all) and many of us saw the need for one, so this seemed like a natural. New Zealand has the advantage of exhibiting a wide variety of different volcanic phenomena and types of volcanoes within a relatively small distance. Most other places have only one type of volcano, e.g., Hawaii, Italy, Japan. The Cascades also have great variety of volcanoes and volcanic features, but the weather in January would not be conducive to conducting a course there.

JW: One of the big advantages to doing the course in New Zealand is the lack of a language barrier. It is fairly cheap to travel around New Zealand—we hire a bus and stay in backpackers, the NZ equivalent of hostels. Finally, the weather is usually very nice—mid-70s with no humidity and little rain.

Q: Do you have to be a science major to get the most out of this course?

JW: I think we do a very good job of making this course accessible to non-science majors. In addition to the science, we also talk about the impact volcanoes have on societies. We look at several important historical eruptions like Vesuvius in 79 CE, Krakatoa in 1883, and St. Pierre in 1902. We also talk about volcanoes and climate change and their potential as extinction events.

CS: Students with different academic backgrounds react to the course in different ways. For example, an art major may draw more elaborate pictures in her/his journal than other students would. I have had students in my environmental geology course tell me that aspects of the course have inspired either artwork or creative writing. We also discuss the historical background of New Zealand, especially with regard to the Maori people, which can be of interest to history, sociology and anthropology students. Aspects of the unique natural history of the country are also of interest to biology students—a science, yes, but not a physical science.

Q: You each mentioned the richness of this experience from a faculty standpoint, given how you learn from each other. What are some of the key takeaways you’ve gained from each other?

CS: Joe had spent a year in New Zealand during a sabbatical, so he knew the country pretty well. The first time I taught this course, I had no previous experience with New Zealand, so I relied heavily on him. My role was to teach the more general aspects of volcanology, while Joe talked about the features specific to New Zealand. I drew upon his personal experience to give me a much more detailed knowledge of the country than could be obtained from a guidebook. His interest in and experience with many varied cuisines was also of great help to me as I sought out places for meals. Of course, after four trips there I feel comfortable moving about the country and sharing my knowledge of it with the students. Also, as Joe mentioned, it was interesting and useful to observe someone who has a different teaching style. In this environment of being around each other morning, noon and night and interacting with students to a much greater extent than on campus, I feel that we have gotten to know each other much better than campus colleagues normally would.

Q: Talk a bit more about this. You mentioned how, from a faculty standpoint, the possibility a liberal arts college offers to become passionate about areas unrelated to your area of expertise. Do you see this possibility from a student’s standpoint, too; that is, are English and history majors going on this trip and finding it to complement their major areas of study?

CS: This is a bit off the point, but I agree with Joe that it is good for us to model being self-learners and to let students know about their professors’ varied interests. As another example, I have studied and performed American folk music for over 40 years and have sat in on Nathan Link’s Kentucky folk music course twice, giving lectures and demonstrations on the banjo and dulcimer and commentary about other Kentucky folk musicians. The desire and ability to delve into various areas of learning should be a big part of a liberal education.

JW: I’m not sure how well the course complements anyone’s field of study. I think it does give them an appreciation of the science behind the natural beauty of the earth. It also shows them how dynamic our earth is and alerts them to the risk factors of living in such a place.

Q: You’ve now taken four groups of students to New Zealand for CentreTerm. What’s different—or similar—about each experience?

CS: Actually, the course has been given five times. Keith Dunn was a co-leader twice, so Joe and I have each co-led four times. We have the same basic course outline and major activities each time, but add or subtract activities from time to time as we feel appropriate. Of course, weather plays a big role, since the entire course is held outdoors. This past January was unusually wet in New Zealand, and we had to juggle the scheduling of several planned activities. The volcanic activity also changes over time; the fumaroles and crater lake on White Island have been different on each trip, and we were fortunate to see the aftermath of a small eruption and lahar (volcanic mudflow) on Mount Ruapehu in 2008.

JW: The students are different individually and as groups. Many students in the 2012 course were really passionate about the “Lord of the Rings” film series that was filmed in New Zealand. We watched the movies in the backpackers, and so many of them seemed to know the lines by heart. Two students did a tour of the Hobbiton film site. We had a memorable performance by Gollum at the Forbidden Pool. Finally, there is always a great feeling of accomplishment after climbing Mount Doom.

Q: Do you go to New Zealand with specific scientific questions in mind? Is there even a textbook for this kind of course?

CS: We attempt to cover the basic areas of volcanology and place them in the context of the local geology of New Zealand. Students also choose specific topics on which to give oral presentations and write a paper. We do have a textbook, a paperback on basic aspects of volcanoes, and we have the students read and discuss Simon Winchester’s book on the 1883 Krakatoa eruption. We also use a BBC video on Krakatoa and UNESCO and National Geographic videos on volcano hazards.

JW: Before the class each pair of students chooses a topic about New Zealand volcanoes or important geological phenomena that we see in New Zealand. They will do a great deal of research on the topic before the course starts. Then, when we are at a particular site, a pair of students will give a presentation on their topic. For instance, the site of the most violent eruption on Earth in the last 5,000 years is a large caldera volcano that is filled by Lake Taupo. It’s very dramatic for the students doing the oral presentation to contrast the seemingly innocuous lake with the violence and size of the eruption that occurred in 181 CE.

Q: What are examples of New Zealand’s various volcanic phenomena? Which seem to most grab the attention of your students?

CS: As I mentioned earlier, only New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest exhibit such diversity of volcanoes and volcano-related phenomena. In New Zealand we see a hotspot-driven volcanic field, a maar (crater formed by the explosive interaction of magma with water), lava tree molds, pillow lava, and a volcanic plug (remnants of the magma conduit after the outside of a volcano erodes away) in the Auckland area; caldera volcanoes, thermal pools, mudpots, and geysers in the Rotorua and Taupo areas; and cinder cones, lava domes, and large stratovolcanoes in the Tongariro National Park. Students seem to particularly enjoy the White Island marine volcano (my favorite), where we walk inside a live volcano, the Rangitoto Island volcano in Auckland, and the thermal pools, mudpots and geyser at Wai-O-Tapu.

Q: Help us laypeople. What are “loose scoria” and “cinder cones”? And what exactly are the differences between alkaline-chloride and acid-sulfate hot springs?

CS: Scoria is basaltic volcanic rock that is full of openings called vesicles, due to the lava having a high gas content. The red or black “lava rock” that is sold in garden centers is scoria. Scoria is formed when very fluid molten lava is blasted into the air during an eruption, cooling and solidifying as it falls. Scoria piles up around the vent to form a cinder cone. The material is much more loosely consolidated than that found in volcanoes built up primarily from lava flows. Alkaline chloride hot springs are clear and full to the rim. Acid-sulfate hot springs contain grey mud and water, are generally cooler, and usually occupy a collapsed crater with the fluid well below the rim due to the acid eating away the rock.

JW: The smaller the scoria particles are, the more difficult it is to hike up them. For instance, on the Mount Doom hike you can really make it difficult by hiking up the loose scoria instead of the solid lava flow. Coming down, however, it’s really fun to go through the scoria—like a giant sand dune with bigger particles.

Q: Are any or all of the volcanoes active?

CS: Yes, definitely. White Island, where we walk inside the crater, has many active fumaroles (steam vents), some hot springs, and a hot-water crater lake. Mount Ruapehu last erupted in 2007 and had a large eruption in 1995. Mount Ngauruhoe last erupted in 1977. These are all considered active. The last eruption in the Auckland field occurred about 550 years ago, but the hot spot (source of magma) still exists, so the possibility of a future eruption exists. White Island and Ruapehu are extensively monitored, and you can view them on webcams.

JW: We actually missed the Ruapehu eruption in 2007 by just three months. It was a very small eruption, but its effects were easily seen (large sulfur-containing blocks ejected from the crater lake and ash covering much of the crater area.) In 2006, a large lahar came from the crater lake on Ruapehu a few months after we had been there. Unfortunately, only Conrad and I are able to make the contrasts to previous times. We are always saying to the students “The last time we were here…”

Q: Seasonal weather challenges notwithstanding, do you ever imagine volcanic study for CentreTerm anywhere other than New Zealand?

CS: I have considered the possibility of a volcano course in Costa Rica, which has several stratovolcanoes. However, there would not be as many different types of volcanic phenomena to observe. Perhaps such a course could also include discussion of alternate energy technologies, which are important there. The Cascades or Iceland would make a good setting for a course in the summer.

JW: I agree with Conrad’s choices. However, it’s so easy for us to do it in NZ because we have all of the logistics worked out. We know exactly where we are staying, how long it takes to get the places we need to go, how much time we should spend at each site, what to do if weather interferes, etc. The certainty with which we conduct the course reassures students.

Interviewed by Michael P. Strysick, Director of Communications

Have comments, suggestions, or story ideas? E-mail michael.strysick@centre.edu with your feedback.

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