18 May 2010

Reflecting on risk

Posted by Jessica Ball

I don’t have any stories to share with you about the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, since I wasn’t around then – and the other geobloggers are doing a fine job of collecting reminiscences already.

Volcanologists, like everyone else, sometimes joke about their jobs, but it’s anniversaries like today that have prompted me to reflect on it instead. I love the work that I’m doing, and what I’m training to do. It’s exciting, and takes me to exotic places, and I get to learn all sorts of fascinating things about how volcanoes work. But whenever I’m near or on an active volcano, there is always an element of danger as well. Because volcanoes are natural systems, they always have some element of unpredictability. It is possible for scientists to forecast what a volcano may or may not do, but it’s impossible to predict anything with absolute certainty, so we can’t be absolutely sure that any part of a volcano is safe, no longer how long it’s been dormant or how mild its activity seems. Not to mention that volcanic settings in general are not safe or nice – there are any number of dangers from unstable or rough terrain, toxic gases, and just the remoteness and inaccessibility of many volcanic areas.

Those are all things I have to consider when I’m doing fieldwork at active volcanoes. In the past year, I’ve visited Stromboli and Etna and Santiaguito; this summer I’ll be traveling to Montserrat, where Soufriere Hills is still erupting. Each time I set foot on a volcano, I acknowledge – consciously or not – that the chance to learn about it overrides the potential hazards of the setting. I don’t take unnecessary risks, or make careless or foolhardy decisions if I can avoid it; I’m not going to wander into an exclusion zone or into an active crater just for the sake of samples and photos. But the recent significant eruption at Santiaguito reminded me that even the settings that seem safe at one moment can become deadly in the next, and the lateral blast that occurred at Mount St. Helens thirty years ago today is an excellent example of the same.
Dr. David Johnston was one of the 57 people who lost their lives in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. He knew the dangers of working on an active volcano, and no one could possibly fault him for being at the Coldwater II observation station when St. Helens erupted; if it hadn’t been him there, it would have been someone else. The volcanologists working there at the time hadn’t even considered that the volcano might produce a lateral blast, though they – including Dr. Johnston – were certainly uneasy about the setting.  In interviews, his friends, family and colleagues invariably say that Dr. Johnston died doing something that he loved.  As a volcanologist, I am doing something that I love whenever I go to study an active volcano; I can’t imagine myself as happy in any other job. But it isn’t a safe job. I know it’s difficult for my family to think about, and I don’t like to bring it up, but there is always a chance that I could be hurt – or worse – working at an active volcano. It’s the same risk that many of my friends and professors take. True, all of us take risks every day – driving, flying, playing sports – but volcanology involves unique risks that most people don’t have to deal with on a regular basis.

I hate to write such a depressing post about what would otherwise have been an exciting event, but it’s what’s been on my mind today. Volcanology is an exciting, unique science; volcanic eruptions are fascinating events. But it’s always good to remember that this is one of the sciences where the researchers take risks for the sake of their work.