Volcano Songs
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Lava bursts from Mount Etna, near Nicolosi, Italy, in 2001.

His interest in mountaineering and international travel makes field volcanology a natural choice for Johnson. Having hiked all the highest mountains in New Hampshire while still a high school student at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., he chose to study abroad in Ecuador because it has so many alpine peaks. It was there that Johnson fell in love with volcanoes. Last summer, supported by the Fulbright Scholars Program and the National Science Foundation, Johnson returned to Ecuador for the ninth time to set up monitors to assess the magnitude of eruptions. Unlike visual assessments, infrasound monitoring can be done when the volcano is cloaked in clouds or darkness. And with the help of wireless networks, it can be done in real time from a safe distance.

Johnson's readings revealed that the ground motion caused by the eruption was 100 times stronger than indicated by the traditional seismic network in place at the volcano, which was saturated by the force of the eruption. "If no one had been doing the measurements, no one would have known about the intensity of this explosion," says Johnson. "There is a real need for this technology in Ecuador, where both a large population and important infrastructure are threatened."

His research has taken him to a dozen active volcanoes and he has visited many more as a "volcano tourist." His favorite is Mt. Erebus in Antarctica, which he calls "the most magical place on the entire Earth. It's an immense volcano with an active summit lava lake that pokes its head above a sea of ice," he says. "In terms of dramatic landscapes, it's unmatched."

Johnson came to UNH in 2004 from a postdoctoral position at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology on the island of Oahu. "It was an easy decision for me to return to New England, where my family lives," he says. "But it was a bit harder to convince my wife, Liz."

Johnson's colleagues approach a bridge on the way to the Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador.

While studying volcanoes may seem like dangerous work, Johnson says volcanology has an undeserved reputation. More of his colleagues have perished en route to their field work in traffic accidents and climbing mishaps than as a result of volcanic activity. "I don't think the volcano work is any more dangerous than the high-altitude mountaineering I used to do," says Johnson. "I would argue that in many situations, getting to the volcano is the more dangerous aspect of our work."

At UNH, there is a growing expertise in the use of volcanoes to study earth processes. Professor Karen Von Damm, who has a joint appointment in earth sciences and the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, is studying undersea volcanoes known as "black smokers" to help resolve some of the most basic questions about geochemical cycling on the earth's surface. In the earth sciences department, assistant professor Julie Bryce uses the geochemistry of volcanic rocks to study processes deep within the earth, and assistant professor Joe Licciardi studies ancient lava flows to help date geologic events, such as the melting of glaciers in Iceland. Department chair Matt Davis is preparing to study the geochemical contrasts created by ancient volcanic structures in New Hampshire to better understand the flow patterns in fractured bedrock aquifers.

MOUNTAIN VIEW: With Chile's Licancabur volcano in the distance, volcanologist Jeff Johnson, above, bicycles through a field of lupines.

Davis says this common expertise in volcanoes has emerged more by chance than by intention and is somewhat surprising, given the absence of active volcanoes in the state. But his department is looking closely at how volcanoes can advance its research program and attract more students to the geological sciences: "Volcanoes tie together several different areas of the department. Their study offers many scientific opportunities as well as outstanding educational opportunities."

Johnson is eager to share his passion for volcanoes with students. He hopes future courses in volcanology will pave the way for UNH field trips to recently active volcanoes during summer or spring breaks. "Volcanology is a sexy aspect of geology because it gives us the rare opportunity of seeing geologic change happen before our eyes," he says. "I got into geology because of my field experiences and, from my perspective, that's the best way to get students excited about earth sciences." ~

Robert Emro is the science writer for UNH's College of Engineering and Physical Sciences.

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