23 April 2010

Accretionary Wedge #24: My geologic hero

Posted by Jessica Ball

In considering who I would write about as my geologic hero, I of course had to consider my undergraduate advisor, who I’ve written about before. (You all know him from this blog, if you’ve been keeping up with the adventures of William & Mary’s Geology Department.) But that would essentially be a rehash of something I’ve already talked about. Although Chuck was (and still is) an immense influence on my growth as a geologist and a writer, I think that having almost two years of grad school under my belt means I can examine influences a little farther afield.

But who do I look up to as a volcanologist? I’m relatively new to the volcanological scene, and I haven’t had the chance to interact with many of the leading lights yet (although quite a few of them are right here at UB). If I were to consider someone who’s had an incredible influence on my entire field of study, however, I would tend to look further into the past…and I’ve come up with one volcanologist who fits the bill. 

My pick? Thomas A. Jaggar (1871–1953), an MIT professor who was the founder and first director of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory (HVO). While not the first of its kind in the world (that distinction goes to the one at Vesuvius, which has been around since 1847), the HVO certainly kick-started volcano monitoring in the US. Here’s a bit from the HVO History page about his motivation:

“Jaggar saw the need for full-time, on-site study of volcanoes. He had long deplored that to date, especially in America, it was only after news of an eruption was received that geologists rushed from academic centers to study volcanism. There was generally no trained observer there beforehand, and scientists from afar often arrived after the eruption was over. There was then only one volcano observatory in the world, that at Vesuvius established in 1847. Jaggar thought America needed one.”

On-site observation of volcanic processes is the key to deciphering the history of a volcano, and gives us the tools to make inferences about the past of volcanoes that have never been observed in eruption. Dr. Jaggar, as he made visits to Martinique following the 1902 of Mount Pelee, and followed them with expeditions to the sites of earthquakes and eruptions in Italy, the Aleutians, Central America, and Japan, became increasingly convinced that such trips were a too-short, inadequate way of observing Earth processes. In 1910, with the support with Lorrin Andrews Thurston, a Honolulu lawyer and businessman; this collaboration led to the formation of the Hawaii Volcano Research Association and, with the financial help of Jaggar’s home institution of MIT, the establishment of the Hawaii Volcano Observatory in 1912. 

Dr. Jaggar (second from left) preparing to measure the temperature of the Halema`uma`u lava lake in 1917, with stylish hat. My field hats are not even close to that stylish, nor have I ever attempted to do field work in a tie. From the HVO website.

Jaggar went on to work at the Observatory for almost 30 years, during which HVO researchers released more than 1,200 press reports and bulletins about volcanic activity; published The Volcano Letter, a weekly and then monthly report that lasted from 1925-1955; and published copiously in other periodicals outside the Observatory. Jaggar designed and implemented the Whitney Laboratory of Seismology beneath the Observatory (the first site of continuous seismic monitoring in Hawaii), conducted experiments in the Kilauea caldera to monitor subsurface temperatures, and helped pioneer the use of tiltmeters to record the deformation on an active volcano (among other things). The research that’s been conducted since at the HVO has been invaluable for the field of volcanology, of course, and the HVO has been a model for other observatories around the world. But why do I think Jagger is a good hero for me? Because he hit on one of the reasons that I wanted to study volcanology in the first place:

The main object of the work should be humanitarian…prediction and methods of protecting life and property on the basis of sound scientific achievement.”

That’s the reason I want to study volcanoes – not just for the sake of gaining knowledge, although that’s an admirable goal as well. I want my work to be useful to more than just other scientists. It’s been fairly obvious recently that most of the world has no idea how to live with the reality of volcanoes in their midst, even when the science of volcanology is firmly in place to study them. There needs to be a working link between science and society, and volcanology – a science which deals with one of the most visible and devastating geologic phenomena out there – should be a major part of that. In my opinion, Dr. Jaggar hit that one spot-on.

Like many heroes, Thomas Jaggar isn’t perfect; in order to stretch his limited funding during the building of the Observatory, he allowed convict labor on the site, something that no one would consider nowadays. (The prison camp that supplied the labor was located at the current site of the Kilauea Military Camp in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park). His supporter Lorrin Thurston helped lead the overthrew of Queen Liliuokalani the native monarchy of Hawaii in 1893. Both of them participated in somewhat unsafe experiments (although I will admit that if I had the opportunity to chuck logs i
nto an active lava lake, I probably wouldn’t pass it up either).

But it also seemed that he had a good sense of humor – a plus for anyone who works on volcanoes, considering all the hazards and difficulties – and a very tolerant wife (who also apparently had a good sense of humor). He dedicated one of his publications to her with the following lines, in fact: 

“To helpmeet and campmate, ISABEL JAGGAR,  Whose horse crushed her against a tree . . . /, Whose gloves fell into a red hot crack and burned up . . . /, Who slept in a lava tunnel beside the immortal remains of a desiccated billy goat . . . /, And loved it all.”

A pioneer in his field, a snazzy dresser and a good sense of humor? Something any volcanologist would aspire to.