30 September 2010

Why I Blog: Erik Klemetti (Eruptions)

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Erik Klemetti

Guest post by Erik Klemetti, assistant professor of Geosciences at Denison University.

I started blogging out of frustration with the lack of knowledgeable commentary on volcanic eruptions on the Internet in early 2008. It all came to a head when a mystery volcano in southern Chile erupted (this turned out to be the eruption of Chaitén). I searched in vain for some place that was collecting the unfolding information on the eruption and putting it in a geologic context (in other words, the opposite of most mainstream media coverage of geologic events). So, I decided to start my own blog to do just that: take all the random news reports, volcano observatory news releases, satellite images/remote sensing data, and downright rumors and offer commentary on it all through the lens of someone who studies volcanoes for a living. (N.B., I had found some good volcano information out there back then – for instance, the Volcanism Blog, run by a historian, Ralph Harrington– but working geologists were surprisingly unrepresented in the volcano-blogging world.) Little did I know how the blog  Eruptions would evolve in the 2+ years since – in some ways I might have predicted and in others I could not have imagined.

I think the most important development on Eruptions was the creation of a community of volcanophiles who not only read the posts, but actively get involved in discussing, dissecting, reporting and digesting the piles of volcano news and data that is found on the Internet. The boom of real-time data, such as webcams, live-updating seismicity, deformation data and satellite imagery, has made volcano monitoring around the world a hobby you can do in the comfort of your own home. Twenty years ago, much of this data was only available for a select few volcanologists who might be monitoring the activity of a specific volcano, yet today you can do a simple web search and find a plot of current seismicity of remote Aleutian volcanoes. You can watch ongoing eruptions at volcanoes in Japan. You can see the lava lake at Halema`uma`u Crater rise and fall. You can watch the plume of a new eruption  rising over the clouds on live weather radar. With all this publicly available information comes a desire by people who are not professional geologists to understand the data and interpret it. And that is where my blog comes in: over the two years I’ve been blogging, what I write hasn’t changed much, but the level of discussion with readers has increased dramatically. This is a great evolution of the blog: from being only me delivering information to the creation of a community that learns from each other about volcanoes and petrology.

Probably the singular event that defined this new evolutionary stage of Eruptions was the activity at Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in the spring of 2010. From the very beginning, Eruptions readers were not only looking for information, but actively participating in interpreting data such as seismicity posted by the Icelandic Meteorological Office or webcam images from the multiple cameras positioned around the eruption. I would post the information I could find on the events, then readers would add their own observations and interpretations and I – along with other readers – would help guide the conversation. It was truly a collaborative effort and, I think, a large reason that the blog received over 700,000 page views in the month of April alone (from a more typical 100,000 page views). There have been some problems with this level of interaction – sometimes keeping civility and defusing “disaster-mongering” took priority over blogging about the events at hand – but I think this free discussion of science helps people feel that they are taking part in the scientific endeavor from wherever they might be.

I love what I do with Eruptions. I went into geology because I love volcanoes and I went into academics because I love teaching – and with Eruptions I can do both. I think that blogging like I do, based on facts and with a focus on information and education, is something that will become more common in academics over the next few years. Right now, it really lacks a place in the typical evaluation of academic work – it doesn’t count as teaching, since your readers aren’t officially your students, and it doesn’t count as research, since it is not peer-reviewed. However, it does count under the broad umbrella of “outreach”. The question is:  Should science blogging continue to merely be part of the somewhat marginal space of outreach when it comes to one’s academic life? This is a quandary that will likely need to be addressed by academics and administrators alike as blogging becomes a mainstream way to disseminate geologic (or any other) information.

I recently moved Eruptions from its second home, ScienceBlogs, to a new home at Big Think. This was not an easy decision for me as ScienceBlogs was the first host that paid me for blogging (prior to this, Eruptions was truly a hobby). There have been many words spilled about the turmoil at ScienceBlogs during the summer of 2010, but I felt that the focus of blogging at ScienceBlogs had drifted from trying to convey information about science (and especially geology) more towards opinions. This was not necessarily a bad thing, but I no longer felt like Eruptions fit in that mix, so I decided to move to a new host where this dynamic is not present. Big Think is an entirely different world, where there is less of a community of bloggers like at ScienceBlogs than a series of writers of all disciplines who are hosted under the same umbrella. That is fine with me – it reminds me of my current academic home at a small liberal arts college. Change is good sometimes, and the realm of geoscience blogging has undergone a great upheaval this summer – all for the better, in my opinion. I am excited to see what the future has to offer.

It is hard for me to remember what it was like before I started Eruptions – the intellectual profit I’ve culled from the blog is immeasurable. Not only does it allow me to keep up with current volcanic events and research, but it also lets me know when we’re not doing a good job explaining the difficult geology concepts to the public. This is exactly how science should work – you should be ready, willing and able to explain your work to anyone and let them realize the “a-ha!” moment. I’m not saying that we should all start blogs on our respective research, but I do feel that many times in geosciences, we get too used to talking to people who understand all the lingo, numbers and jargon without interacting with non-specialists. It is this cloistering of academic knowledge and expertise that I think helps engender the anti-intellectual attitude or science-phobia that pervades much of American society: people just feel like they don’t understand – and honestly, sometimes we don’t do a good job in helping them understand. Eruptions is my very small part of trying to help science seem accessible, interesting and – most of all – important for everyone to understand, appreciate and enjoy.

Erik Klemetti is an assistant professor of Geosciences and author of Eruptions