8 December 2011

AGU 2011: Day 2

Posted by Jessica Ball

Tuesday was the first chance I had to attend a press conference (one of the perks of being an AGU blogger!) I was especially excited about one of the first of the morning, which was by Hawaii volcanologist Don Swanson about explosive eruptions at Kilauea. Dr. Swanson worked (and still works) at the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory, so he knows Kilauea intimately (especially the information that can be drawn from oral histories).

Kilauea isn’t as quiet as most people think – there have been explosive periods of eruption in the past. But what wasn’t realized until now is how long the duration of those periods actually was – and in fact, the duration can be hundreds of years. C-14 dating of carbonized plant material in lava flows and PDC deposits from explosive periods showed long periods of violent activity coincided with a lack of effusive (lava flow) activity. One period (1500-1800 AD) is probably responsible for the Hawaiian legends of Pele, a sometimes violent and cranky volcano goddess.

Dr. Swanson described a diatreme-like model of explosive conduit behavior, where explosions seem to be linked to withdrawal of lava in conduits below the water table level. Legend seems to confirm this – in one story Pele, searching (digging) for body of a lost lover, was warned not to dig too deeply or water would flood in and drown the hot lava.

Next up was the Congressional Science / Mass Media Fellow lunch. These are programs which AGU participates in, but other organizations also sponsor.  The Congressional Science Fellowship helps link geoscientists to Congress by providing a congressional office with an on-staff scientist for a year; these fellowships are available through AGU, GSA, AAAS, and AGI. The Mass Media Fellowship allows a scientist to join one of a variety of major media outlets, including out-of-country ones  like the Voice of America radio program.

Some important points from the fellowship presenters included:

  • The goal of good journalism is to educate, not to impress (hopefully that part will happen if the writing is engaging)
  • Journalists are on a shorter timetable than scientists – their stories are quickly produced and have a very short lifespan in the news room
  • Congressional fellows must be able to learn on the fly
  • A congressional science position requires a broad but shallow knowledge of many scientific topics

I also looked at a few posters in the morning and afternoon, including one about the lava pour project at Syracuse University (some Wheaton College scientists have been working on the thermodynamics and fluid dynamics of the “lava flows”); a project on CO2 production from decarbonation reactions in limestone triggering eruptions at Mount Merapi; and how water saturation affects rock failure in dacites (both tensile strength and fragmentation threshold are reduced).

In the evening I attended the Volcanology, Geochemistry and Petrology Section Awards and Mixer, where the Kuno Award for early-career achievement and the Bowen Awards were given out. The evening was also a great chance to socialized with my fellow volcanologists, who were out in force to enjoy the company (and free drinks). Unfortunately, I noticed rather late that not only had I not had a chance to practice my talk for Wednesday, I also hadn’t eaten anything! A quick stop for food and I hightailed it back to the hotel for one last powerpoint run-through.