Erebus Field Season is Officially a GO: The Team is Off to the Ice

Kayla Iacovino

It was touch and go for the Erebus crew this year. Canceled, uncanceled, canceled again, and now, finally, the field season is a go for team G-081 heading to Erebus volcano, Antarctica. Access to Erebus is through the largest base in Antarctica, McMurdo, which is run by the Americans. Our Cambridge crew get to the volcano via a collaboration with New Mexico Tech located in Soccorro, NM, USA. They’re funded by the National Science Foundation. The US government shut down meant that this year’s field season almost didn’t happen. At one point, the NSF even issued a press release claiming the Erebus work had been shelved. Finally, after much confusion, our team got word that they were clear to head for the ice and up to the camp on Erebus.


Did Our Camera Survive the Harsh Antarctic Winter?
Volcanofile Nial Peters has been on pins and needles all southern hemisphere winter — he left an infrared camera perched atop the rim of Erebus, pointing at the lava lake that sits in the Erebus crater. Details of the specially designed camera system are in a paper now open for discussion in the journal Geoscientific Instrumentation, Methods and Data Systems. The crew left the camera with the hopes that it would survive through the entire winter season. If so, we’d have the longest data set from Erebus ever. The camera’s power system was registered as working for some months after last year’s field season was over, until one day it stopped. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the camera stopped running.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” says Nial. “We know the power lasted for as long as it normally does. The power stopped when the sun went down”. Solar power is a main source of energy for the systems at Erebus, which is fine during the 24-hour-a-day sun in the summer months. In the winter, power systems rely on wind turbines. The timing of the shut down, Nial explains, indicates that the wind turbines may be damaged. We haven’t seen the power return since it switched off, but that could indicate a number of things. It could be that the power came back on but that the telemetry, which tells us if we have power, never returned. If that’s the case, the camera could still be running, but we won’t know until we go and have a look ourselves. There is also a seismometer attached to the telemetry system. If that’s damaged, it could simply be a case of the seismometer not registering any voltage even if the system is running fine. Again, we won’t know what happened until someone goes up to have a look.

Nial Peters with his thermal camera system at the summit of Erebus.

Nial Peters with his thermal camera system at the summit of Erebus.

Erebus Activity Revving Up?
While we were all worrying about whether the Erebus season would be canceled this year, Erebus decided to put on a nice show for us via the our seismic stations. It looks as though the volcano may have entered a highly active phase, and it may even be throwing out volcanic bombs generated by explosive volcanic eruptions from the lake. Seismic data streaming in from Erebus kept us all on our toes. But, again, we won’t know exactly what’s been going on until the team get there and have a look for themselves.

Another explosive day at Erebus. The small earthquakes are the result of explosive eruptions. The eruption near the bottom of the chart is one of the largest seen in October. The large teleseism is the magnitude 7.3 quake off the coast of Honshu, Japan.

Another explosive day at Erebus. The small earthquakes are the result of explosive eruptions. The eruption near the bottom of the chart is one of the largest seen in October. The large teleseism is the magnitude 7.3 quake off the coast of Honshu, Japan.

An exciting season lined up…
In addition to all the exciting science that happens on Erebus each year, this year promises to be an exciting one. With the activity gearing up and the possibility of our first winter data set from the volcano, there’s a lot to look forward to! Watch this space for updates from the field!

Epic Journey to Paektu volcano, North Korea: Or, How to Service a Seismometer in -12 °C

Kayla Iacovino

Just two months ago this August, Volcanofile Kayla ventured along with volcanologist (and Volcanofile PhD supervisor) Dr. Clive Oppenheimer and seismologist Dr. James Hammond to a remote volcano that straddles the North Korea-China political border.

Peering into the caldera of Mt. Paektu this August (photo credit: Kayla Iacovino/The Volcanofiles)

The gigantic 7 km-wide caldera that hosts a deep Lake Chon was created about a century ago in one of the largest volcanic eruptions to occur on Earth in the last 2,000 years. A few years ago, the volcano started acting up after decades of quiescence. It awoke with a seismic crisis that lasted from 2002-2005. The new rumblings caused anxiety in the region, since little was known about the slumbering giant Paektu.

So, the Mount Paektu Geoscientific Experiment, a UK-US-DPRK collaboration, was born, and after two years of bureaucracy, the international team made it to the DPRK along with a set of seismometers and empty sample bags. The trip was a great success, thanks to extensive support from North Korean scientists and officials. Not too long after the team’s return, however, it was discovered that some of the seismometers were acting up.

“We only have these seismometers for a year,” says Kayla Iacovino, Volcanofile and PhD student working at Paektu, “so, it’s imperative that we get as much data as possible from all of the stations.” Just this month, seismologist James Hammond set off on an epic adventure to service those stations. Why so epic? Paektu, while temperate and quite agreeable in August, is known for some of the most extreme weather on Earth. What was a picturesque, lush area in summer quickly became a white, frozen mountain peak only passable with the right gear.

James Hammond’s view of the Paektu crater covered in fresh October snow (photo credit: James Hammond)

“I am back in Pyongyang after a trip that can only be described as epic,” Hammond wrote in an email to his UK-based team. “It was very challenging both physically and mentally, but the good news is that all our stations are now working.”

(photo credit: James Hammond)

The project was made possible with help from AAAS, the Royal Society in London, the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP), and Pyongyang International Information of New Technology and Economy Center (PIINTEC), a DPRK non-governmental and non-profit organization that organizes international exchanges and cooperation.

Follow the team on twitter:
James Hammond @joshammond
Kayla Iacovino @kaylai
Clive Oppenheimer @ultraplinian
The Volcanofiles @TheVolcanofiles

Teaching Tools – Tectonic landscapes: Volcanic research at a subduction zone

Kayla Iacovino

After the Volcanofiles 2012 Chile Expedition, supported by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), we teamed up with GCSE Principal Examiner Martin Parham who took our experiences — photos, data, anecdotes — and turned them into useful teaching tools. As part of the RGS From the Field Programme, Martin created three lessons:

  1. A case study of active volcanism in Chile.
  2. Data analysis using some of the data we collected in the field with UV spectrometers.
  3. And, a practical task using a KML file of a walking transect at Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcano.

The full lesson, with introduction and all downloadable materials, is available at the From the Field Programme website. As the website states:

This will be of particular interest to A-Level students studying Tectonic Activity, but is also a valuable resource for all students interested in understanding the activity of different volcanoes and how researchers collect data from the field.

Memorial talk at IAVCEI 2013: Kelby Hicks

Kayla Iacovino

It’s now less than one week until one of the biggest volcanology conferences on Earth – the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI). It only happens once every four years, and it always takes place in a volcanolgically interesting place. This year, the conference will be held in Kagoshima, Japan. Over 1,000 volcanologists are slated to present orals and posters. Among them are a few of the Volcanofiles, including our recently departed Kelby Hicks. To honor his work and his memory, Kayla Iacovino will be presenting his talk, entitled “Volcano monitoring using ultraviolet cameras: Two case studies from Volcán de Colima, México and Volcán Villarrica, Chile”. The session will be light on science (Kayla’s no expert in UV cameras), but will showcase the work that Kelby was so proud of up until the day he died on Volcán Colima. Anyone who would like to attend is of course welcome.

Kelby Hicks oral presentation: (given by Kayla Iacovino) Volcano monitoring using ultraviolet cameras: Two case studies from Volcán de Colima, México and Volcán Villarrica, Chile
Session 2C. High-level volcano monitoring and data interpretation
O16, Wed July 24th, 15:00

Kelby hard at work on the UV camera at Villarrica volcano last season.


Come listen to the rest of the Volcanofiles present their research throughout the week:

20th – 24th July, 2013
Kagoshima, Japan

Kayla Iacovino oral presentation: Experimental constraints on the storage conditions and evolution of alkaline lavas at Erebus volcano, Antarctica: A case for CO2-dominated volcanism.
Session 1C. Generation, transportation, and emplacement of magma in continental crust
O12, Sun July 21st, 15:00

Tehnuka Ilanko oral presentation: Degassing of Erebus lava lake, Antarctica
Session 2I. Open system volcanoes
O12, Wed July 24th, 10:45

Yves Moussallam oral presentation: The redox state of volcanic gases: a reflection of magma depth.
Session 2G. Volatile tracking of magma degassing processes and volcanic eruptions
O17, Tue July 23rd, 15:00

Yves Moussallam oral presentation: Zonation in anorthoclase feldspar megacrystals reveals dynamics of the magma
conduit feeding the lava lake at Erebus volcano, Antarctica.

Session 2I. Open system volcanoes
O2, Wed July 24th, 8:45

Is the Kilauea lava lake less dense than water?

Kayla Iacovino

According to a new study, the answer is yes. In a paper published this week in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, lead author Daniel Carbone says that, based on gravity measurements in the lava lake at Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano, they’ve worked out that the bulk density of the stuff in the lava lake (that includes lava, dissolved volatiles, and gas) is an astonishingly low 0.95 g/cm3. For those keeping track, that’s less than the density of water (1 g/cm3).

Thermal image of Kilauea’s lava lake (Carbone et al., 2013)

How is this possible? Carbone and colleagues suggest that the vapor-melt ratio (that is, how much gas there is in the lava lake compared to how much lava) could be very high to account for the low density. Since the density of gas is so much lower than that of lava, more gas means lower density. Intrigued, I decided to do the math. Just how much gas does it take to get a lava lake with a density of 0.95? Here’s a quick run-down of my calculations. If anyone spot’s an error or wants to improve upon this back-of-the-envelope calculation, please do so in the comments below!

Let’s assume:

  1. The density of a Kilauea tholeiite at 1200° C is about 2.66 g/cm3 (reference: Lange and Carmichael, 1990. Reviews in Mineralogy)
  2. To simplify things, let’s use a vapor consisting only of H2O, which makes up most of the budget of volcanic volatiles (other components would be CO2, SO2, H2S, F, and Cl)
  3. The density of water vapor is around 0.0006 g/cm3 (reference)

Now we can calculate the bulk density like so:
Bulk Density (lava and gas) = [Density of Lava]*[Weight fraction of lava in the bulk] + [Density of water vapor]*[Weight fraction of water vapor in the bulk]


ρ_bulk = ρ_lava * F – ρ_H2Ovapor * (1-F)

Plugging in the above numbers gives us a weight fraction of lava of about 35%, meaning that gas must make up 65% of the Kilauea lava lake (by weight) to account for such a low density of 0.95. That’s equivalent to about 70 mol% gas and about 70 vol% gas. That’s a LOT of gas, and it raises a LOT more questions: how does the magma hold itself together without simply degassing it’s huge volumes of gas? The paper is an intriguing one whose results have certainly caught the attention of a lot of volcanologists. What do you think?

Check out the paper published in EPSL here: Continuous gravity measurements reveal a low-density lava lake at Kīlauea Volcano, Hawai‘i

Rest In Peace, Kelby Hicks

Kayla Iacovino

kelbyIt is with great sadness in my heart that I announce the passing of Kelby Hicks, 31, who was found dead on fieldwork at Colima volcano, Mexico earlier this week. He died of apparently natural causes, heart failure, and was discovered next to his instrument at his remote field camp on the volcano. Although his life was tragically cut short, we can say that Kelby died doing what he loved.

His passion for volcanology was contagious and only outweighed by his passion for living life. Kelby was the guy who knew how to handle anything that Mother Earth could throw at him. He had an adventurous spirit, a distinct talent for off-road driving, and as a white water river guide for seven years he never flipped his raft. Not even once. In his short life of only 31 years, Kelby accomplished more than most people do in 10 lifetimes. And, along the way, he touched the hearts of many people all over the world.

His work on Colima volcano in Mexico had just taken a turn for the better. After a string of bad luck with volcanic activity, dengue fever, and bad timing, Kelby had just become a part of a research team sent to Colima as part of a NERC urgency grant designed to assess the volcano’s recent awakening of activity. He was keeping us updated regularly through The Volcanofiles and his personal facebook page. Last week, Kelby posted the below photo to his Facebook page with the caption, “Colima volcano on my birthday!”


Kelby's last post on his facebook page before heading to his field site on Colima volcano.

Kelby’s last post on his facebook page before heading to his field site on Colima volcano.


Kelby was a man of many words and never failed to fill an awkward silence with a funny, outlandish story. He was adventurous, brave, kind, loving, and most of all passionate. Kelby is survived by his loving wife, Anna, his dog, Buddy, and the hundreds of people who he called friends. Kelby, dear brother, we love you and miss you. Although you’ve certainly left your mark, this world will never be the same without you.

Kelby Hicks: The most bad ass volcanologist this world has ever seen!

Kelby Hicks: The most bad ass volcanologist this world has ever seen!


If you wish to express your condolences or post memories/photos of Kelby Hicks, please feel free to do so in the comments section of this post and on the facebook page created for him by his wife:


Services in Memory of Kelby Hicks


Funeral for Kelby Hicks in West Virginia, USA

From the obituary published here:

On Saturday, April 27, Kelby’s family will be at the farm helping each other through this difficult time. Extended family and close friends are welcome to visit from 4-7 p.m.

For those who wish to stay on, at sunset, to celebrate Kelby’s life, there will be a private memorial at the pond from 7-10 p.m.

Gathering together his diverse and extensive friendship group was so important to him, and we know this is what he would have wanted.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in his memory to Friends of the Cheat, 119 S. Price St., Suite 206, Kingwood, WV 26537.

In the near future, a scholarship will be established to fund promising geology students.

Arrangements are being handled by Field Funeral Home.




Cambridge Services for Kelby this Friday, April 26th at 1:30pm


View Larger Map A memorial service for Kelby Hicks will be held at the St. Edmund’s College Chapel in Cambridge at 1:30pm. All are welcome to attend. A memory book for Kelby is currently on his desk in his office and will be available for signing at the memorial service.

Services will be held at:

St Edmund’s College

Friday, April 26th, 1:30pm


Celebration of Kelby’s Life to be held in England

After the funeral in West Virginia, a celebration of Kelby’s wonderful life will be held in England, possibly at his home in Brandon. As details arise, we will update this page.


Flowers and Memory Book

Kelby’s wife Anna asks that all flowers are sent to the Geography Department to be displayed on Kelby’s desk. A memory book for people to sign is also located there, so please drop by or contact to get more details. If sending flowers by post, please send to:

University of Cambridge
Dept. of Geography
Attn: Kayla Iacovino
Downing Place
Cambridge CB2 3EN

We’re in Costa Rica!

Kayla Iacovino

After our month-long field season monitoring Villarrica in Chile, The Volcanofiles have headed north to Costa Rica. Our itinerary takes us all across the country.

UPDATED March 18th with a new schedule.

LIVE webcam of Turrialba Volcano

Where in the World?

View Costa Rica Volcanofiles Expedition 2013 in a larger map

Volcán Arenal
We start our season here in Costa Rica heading north. Arenal has been one of the world’s most active volcanoes. In the past two years, activity has been significantly lessened. Access to the rim is difficult, as the volcano is steep and can be quite dangerous to climb. Luckily, we can use our remote sensing instruments to measure SO2 emissions from the volcano. Weather is impossible to predict here in Costa Rica, especially on the tops of these high volcanoes, and Arenal is often covered in clouds at its summit. If we are lucky enough to have some clear weather, we will scan the volcano’s plume to our hearts content.

The next volcano on our itinerary promises to be the most interesting. Volcán Turrialba, although historically not the most active in Costa Rica, has been showing signs of unrest over the past two years. Recently, a new fumarole formed in the crater and has been reported as hot as 800 °C. With the help of our friends from the Universidad de Costa Rica, we will haul our FTIR instrument, multigas sensor, and UV spectrometers to the rim of Turrialba to learn about the flux and composition of the gasses from this new, very active fumarole.

You can get a great (Live!) view of Turrialba from OVSICORI’s webcam (see the top of this post).

Volcán Poás will be yet another stop in our journey through Costa Rica and is the most accessible of all of the volcanoes. A big tourist attraction in Costa Rica, there are roads right up to the rim of the crater after which a short hike into the crater down to its crater lake is possible with special permission. Poas always seems to be actively churning out gasses through its crater lake, which is lined at its bottom by a layer of molten sulfur.

Rincón de la Vieja
As is typical when working in this part of the world, we tend to play scheduling by ear. Because of our short time here and the ever-changing weather conditions, it makes it imperative that we spend more days than typical at the volcanoes where we think we can get the most data. We’ve decided to cut our trip to the north short and just visit the Arenal area (more as a touristic and recon trip for future field seasons).

Rincón de la Vieja is located in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica to visit Rincón de la Vieja (in Spanish, “The Old Woman’s Corner”). The name comes from an old Costa Rican legend in which a young woman’s father murdered her lover by throwing him into the crater of the volcano. The young woman then lived her life out on the volcano, gaining magical healing powers.

This February, the country’s observatory OVSICORI-UNA reported a number of eruptions from Rincón’s active crater. This could be a good site for future field seasons.

Stay tuned for more live updates from the field throughout our two-week stay here in Costa Rica! Pura Vida!

The ‘Volcanocopter’: Quadcopters at Villarrica

Kayla Iacovino

This year, the Volcanofiles are bringing an instrument into the field that’s not on the typical list of field gear for volcanologists: a remote controlled helicopter. Well, a quadcopter to be exact. And we couldn’t be more excited. Aaron Curtis, PhD student at New Mexico Tech, will be joining us in the field at Villarrica, Chile and will be flying his copters around on the crater of the volcano. We hope to get some good glimpses of the lava lake via the on-board video camera.

Here’s a look at Aaron’s test flights of the quadcopters at Erebus volcano last field season:

Chile/Costa Rica Expedition 2013 LIVE Tracking

Kayla Iacovino

These maps will be updated live throughout the duration of our trip! Watch this space and see below for location, photo, and info updates!

LIVE Map of the Expedition


SPOT Adventures Map w/Photos (not live)
Click on the map to go to our SPOT Adventures page.


Live Webcams: Villarrica
The view of Villarrica from the Centro Volcánico Villarrica (CVV) house that the crew is staying at during fieldwork.

Follow The Volcanofiles on our adventure through Chile and Costa Rica! Using a handy device known as a SPOT Connect, we will be able to send Tweets and Facebook updates as well as update the maps shown above.

The first map will be automatically updated, live, from our SPOT Connect in the field. It will track our location throughout the expedition as well as display any messages we sent through the device (geo-tagged, of course, so you can see where the messages were sent). The second map above also tracks our progress during the expedition and will also feature images that we upload. We will only be able to upload photos when we have access to internet, so it will be updated less frequently.

Some Photos:

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A Late Update: Winding Down at Erebus

Kayla Iacovino

Somehow, the end-of-the-season post from Nial on Erebus was shoved under a pile of papers on our desk. But now, and not too late we hope, it’s resurfaced. Here is a belated update (from a few weeks ago) detailing the end of the field season on Erebus for 2012-2013. Everyone’s off the ice now and on their way to their respective homes. Here’s how the last few weeks went for Nial:

The season is starting to wind down now with only six of us left up on the volcano. I only have until the 8th January up on Erebus, so it is now a last minute rush to get everything finished off! The new power system has been working flawlessly (well pretty much!) for a few weeks now, and today the last of the old system got removed. The thermal camera system has a few strange bugs in it, which I have so far failed to track down. It is working reliably enough though, and I’m confident that it will continue to record images until the power runs out (or all year, if the wind generators survive).

Laying Cable: Aaron and Kevin spooling the new power cable out from the crater rim. We ended up using 8 of these drums to get from the crater down to Nausea Knob where the batteries and solar panels are. Each drum weighed 95 lbs!

Laying Cable: Aaron and Kevin spooling the new power cable out from the crater rim. We ended up using 8 of these drums to get from the crater down to Nausea Knob where the batteries and solar panels are. Each drum weighed 95 lbs!

Nial splicing two of the sections of cable together

Nial splicing two of the sections of cable together

We have bad weather for the past week, so not much work outside has got done. Yesterday it cleared though, and now it is glorious! The list of things to do has been drawn up, and now that the good weather has arrived everyone is rushing around trying to get things finished. Yeti (a ground penetrating radar robot – see this link) finally arrived yesterday after being delayed for 5 weeks! So the cave team is out late tonight taking radar data at Warren Cave.

One of the AvoScanners at the crater rim. I was using it to look for SO2 in the fumerole field you can see in the background.....there wasn't any.

One of the AvoScanners at the crater rim. I was using it to look for SO2 in the fumerole field you can see in the background…..there wasn’t any.