10 January 2008

Why yes, I do have goals

Posted by Jessica Ball

G. K. Gilbert, in his account of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906:

It is the natural and legitimate ambition of a properly constituted geologist to see a glacier, witness an eruption and feel an earthquake. The glacier is always ready, awaiting his visit; the eruption has a course to run, and alacrity is always needed to catch its more important phases; but the earthquake, unheralded and brief, may elude him through his entire lifetime.”

I recently came across this quote in A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester. What I found amusing (and cheering, in a way), is that in more than a hundred years, the field of geology hasn’t changed so much that I can’t look at this quote and say, “Aha! That’s exactly how I feel!” Granted, the part about the glacier isn’t quite true anymore, and the “his” and “him” reflect an age of the science when there were no women involved, but as for the rest of it – well, those are my sentiments exactly!

The part about the earthquake is especially relevant to me because I actually should have had the opportunity to feel several. One was the December 9, 2003 M4.5 that occurred in the Central Virginia Seismic Zone about 40 miles West of Richmond. I was a freshman at the time, and out caroling around campus with some friends. Unfortunately, being outside on the ground, this meant that I was unable to feel the quake, since the only people who noticed it in my area were on the upper floors of buildings (which apparently magnified the effects a bit). I was, needless to say, extremely unhappy to have missed feeling the most significant EQ in Virginia in decades. (There’s a good writeup of that quake here.) The second time around was this past summer; I’d just come home from a month-long stay on the Big Island of Hawaii, only to find out that, ten days later, there was a M5.4 less than 10km RIGHT UNDER KILAUEA. That time, I was really pissed. I spent most of that month sitting on top of the volcano and nothing. But as soon as I left?

So you might say that I’ve been unlucky catching earthquakes. I have been lucky enough to visit Kilauea when the eruption was still feeding flows at the ocean entry, and it was then that I had my first real experience with hot lava (which got me permanently hooked on volcanology right then and there). The second Kilauea trip was somewhat less successful in locating the hot stuff; Pu’u O’o had recently begun the “Harry Potter” fissure eruption (July 21, 2007; they like to name the events after holidays or, if nothing else is available, book releases) and, despite a truly grueling hike out to the cone, we were only able to see the fissure source and not the active flows. (It was still hot out there, though, and we came pretty close to the flows before turning back because of safety concerns. Funny how a little thing like having to walk on partially-molten lava can ruin your hike.) I would really love to see a fountaining event, and my career goal is to work on stratovolcanoes, which means seeing a Pinatubo or St. Helens-style explosive eruption would basically make me incoherent with joy.

Glaciers…I’ve had even less luck with. I’ve seen plenty of glacier deposits, including some really spectacular moraines and cirques on the Fish Lake Plateau in Utah and striations on the slopes of Mauna Kea, but I have yet to see real glacial ice. Unfortunately, at the rate things are going climate-wise, if I don’t go see some in the next ten years, there might not be much left. Certainly any dream of visiting the glaciers of Kilimanjaro is pretty much kaput at this point, and with the way the Alaska ones are retreating nowadays, I’d better book one of those Princess cruises pretty quick.