31 March 2011

Buffalo gets some (experimental) volcanic action

Posted by Jessica Ball

Volcanic eruptions are both relatively unpredictable and very dangerous, and it’s difficult to collect direct observations of volcanic phenomena. Because of this, volcanologists are always looking for safer and more practical ways of collecting data from volcanic processes. When they can’t derive it from eruptive deposits, they turn to experimentation – usually in a laboratory setting. While this is definitely a useful approach, there are problems inherent in “benchtop” experimentation. Scaling down a volcanic process and using artificial materials (or already-erupted volcanic ones) can have varying effects on the usefulness of the resulting experimental data, something that volcanologists must take into account when drawing conclusions from experiments. Accordingly, a big part of geological experimentation is finding ways to reduce the complexity of natural processes in a way that still produces useful data.

One way to mitigate this problem is to do as little down-scaling as possible. This is the goal of a new experimental facility that the University at Buffalo is developing, and it was the subject of a recent EOS article of which Dr. Greg Valentine, one of the volcanology professors here, is a co-author. The article is “Large-Scale Experiments on Volcanic Processes”, and it ties in with a recent conference our Center for Geohazards Studies coordinated last September.

The article gives a nice summary of a variety of volcanic processes and then discusses the ways that large-scale experimental studies could help us better understand the ways in which they operate. For example, large-scale simulations of eruption columns could answer questions about turbulent atmospheric entrainment (which controls plume stability). Observing the behavior of artificial pyroclastic density currents could lead to better quantitative descriptions of transport and deposition mechanisms, which will greatly improve hazard assessments dealing with explosive volcanism. And testing new remote sensing technologies on simulated eruptions  allows for a controlled and predictable experimental environment (which is pretty much impossible if you’re observing natural volcanic phenomena).

To help make these experiments happen, the University at Buffalo will be improving and expanding the testing facilities at our Experimental Campus for Large Infrastructure Protection, Sustainability, and Enhancement (ECLIPSE). This 700-acre site in Ashford, NY is already used for a variety of engineering experiments, such as the testing of seismic isolation technology on full-scale girder bridges, conducted by our Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER). The proposed improvements will include a geohazards field station aimed at conducting tests on a variety of natural hazards (but with an initial focus on volcanic processes).

The recent conference in September was aimed at discussing how such a facility would be operated and shared with geohazards researchers from around the world, and also covered what equipment, raw materials, and logistical support would be needed to operate the geohazards facility at ECLIPSE. A detailed final report from the conference is available here, and ongoing updates about the facility’s development are also available at vhub.org, UB’s online clearinghouse for collaborative volcano research and risk mitigation. (You’ll have to become a member to see the full content of the conference presentations and reports, but this is easy and free.)

I’m excited that the facility is under development, and I hope that I’ll have a chance to help conduct some experiments there (providing the facilities are ready before I leave UB!) Being able to conduct large-scale experiments on volcanic phenomena – and any geologic hazards – will be a great opportunity for geoscientists to improve our ability to accurately assess and mitigate natural hazards. Thanks to Brian Romans (Clastic Detritus) and Erik Klemetti (Eruptions) for pointing out the article – and for being good sports when I called home-institution-dibs. (Erik, if there’s anything cool that I’m leaving out, go for it!)


Valentine G.A., Bonadonna C., Manzella I., Clarke A., Dellino P., 2011, Large-Scale Experiments on Volcanic Processes. EOS Transactions, American Geophysical Union, Vol. 92, No. 11, pages 89-96.