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Memorial talk at IAVCEI 2013: Kelby Hicks

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

Rest In Peace, Kelby Hicks

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

Volcanoes and Society – AXA research day (3)

Volcanoes and Society – Part Three

Putting together the ideas about culture and risk that we’d discussed during the day, I started thinking about the elements that give a solid base from which to manage a volcanic crisis.


Pre-crisis steps

Baseline education

We talk about baseline monitoring for volcanoes, so that we know what’s ‘normal’ for a particular volcano and what’s not, and can tell when something unusual is happening. However, we also need baseline public education while things are still ‘normal’ – of course, this will help later in managing a crisis. However, equally significantly, it will mean affected populations become accustomed to living with uncertainty– whether that’s not knowing when or what the crisis will be, or whether that’s not knowing how the crisis will proceed.

One thing I often point out when speaking about my work is that the problem isn’t just ‘an erupting volcano’ – if a volcano was erupting violently all the time, we could avoid it. It’s the transition – when and how volcanic behaviour will change – that causes the problem (as well as its effects on the local population, of course). ‘When’ and ‘how’ are difficult to forecast accurately – so perhaps we should consider it the right of affected populations to have access to information that conveys this uncertainty.

Baseline relationships

Another element to establish before a volcanic event is a baseline of relationships to build up trust between the media, scientists, policy makers and the public. As I consider later (and as may seem obvious!) the media can have a strong positive or negative role in how people perceive a hazard and its management. If the media have established contacts they can speak with during a crisis, and if the scientists concerned have experience in communication via the media, then the roles of both are likely to be more positive. From the scientists’ perspective, the media, when taking on this role, would have much to contribute.

Baseline effective policy

There’s an obvious need for government and policymakers to communicate with scientists, in order to (1) have management systems in place for when a crisis occurs, and (2) have reliable, mutually trusting relationships established to support them in working together effectively during the crisis. It is also important to know that the systems that are in place for managing a crisis are effective – and this brings me to the example of Exercise Ruaumoko. This was a program run in Auckland, NZ, about four years ago, to simulate a volcanic eruption. With the exception of the general public – and the lack of an actual volcano – the procedures followed and the parties involved were as they would be in the event of an eruption. Where resources are available, this seems to me the ideal way to ensure that systems would cope. If the general population could be involved, so much the better.


Syn-crisis steps

Science-media relationships: does a unified front amongst scientists give the impression of excluding the public?

Among the set readings for the masterclass was a paper describing two different responses to volcanic crises in the 1970s. Without going into the details for each case, one was a response that was less coordinated, with multiple scientific parties disagreeing very publicly. The end result of such a scenario could be that the scientists appear unprofessional and lose the public trust – not to mention that the issue at hand, the volcanic risk, is overshadowed by the media spectacle. The second instance, when I initially read about it, sounded ideal – a unified front presented by scientists, with very limited channels of information going to the public. But the potential for conspiracy theories is huge and no doubt this would lead to much speculation about information being hidden.

Duties of ‘visitors’ vs. local scientists

Another interesting point not discussed in detail during the day, but that was mentioned in the IAVCEI protocols was that of the responsibilities of scientists from different groups working together during a crisis. These include guidelines for visiting scientists during a crisis, such as that they should be there by invitation only, and leave public statements to the local scientists.



Final thoughts

As a graduate student in volcanology, I found it valuable to participate in these discussions and consider some of the ideas surrounding crisis management early on. At the very least, they are a reminder that our science is very relevant to society.

Volcanoes and Society – AXA research day (2)

Volcanoes and Society – Part Two

Risk and probabilities

In my last post, I wrote about two aspects of culture and natural hazards – about cultural knowledge of hazards, and about the culture surrounding the way we deal with hazards. I mentioned how we may perceive what is ‘acceptable risk’ differently for individuals and groups. In this post, I want to focus on the idea of communicating and determining acceptable risks and probabilities.

Probabilistic risk maps

One of the recurring themes of the Research Day was that scientists are reluctant to give probabilities; to me, Jonty Rougier‘s talk was particularly eye-opening. He proposed an approach of ‘time integrated risk maps’, rather than hazard maps. He argued that risk managers don’t want to know whether a village is in an area that could be affected by pyroclastic flows – they want to know what the probability is that the village will be inundated by a flow within the next five years, the next ten years, and the next thirty years. They can then consider what they could do to mitigate the risk, and see how those actions in turn affect the probability of risk.

Our ‘risk memory’

While talking about various natural disasters, I started to wonder: how long does our ‘risk memory’ last? Someone pointed out that following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, building construction was kept to rigorous standards for about twenty years – after which it was dropped due to the expense. I wonder how long the new building standards in Christchurch – and those reviewed around New Zealand following the Christchurch earthquakes – will last.

What is the largest risk we can plan for? Can we take largest historical event we know of as the largest possible future event, and how feasible is this? And what if such an event is so large that we don’t know how to plan for it? One speaker told us how, prior to the Tohoku/Sendai earthquake and tsunami last year, despite some evidence of previous tsunami of similar size along the eastern coast, building standards were matched to something smaller – the largest recorded events. But is planning for the largest historic event always feasible? Another disconcerting possibility – what if the largest possible event is a ‘black swan’ event – something so big that it’s beyond our comprehension?

Following on from the idea of using previous historical events to plan the future, how does this change with the human landscape – for example, can a historical record centuries old be reliably applied to the present day?  I’m inclined to say yes, given that matching of observational data and accounts of historical eruptions have been used to estimate the magnitudes of historical events – the impacts of which can be extrapolated to the modern day.

Acceptable risk

I touched on this earlier when I mentioned ‘personally acceptable’ levels of risk, versus what is acceptable when that risk is integrated over a whole group. How can we quantify risk to human life, and determine what is an acceptable level? Perhaps this is not the role of scientists, but it is worth consideration all the same. At the research day, I was intrigued by one speaker’s cost-benefit evaluation for introducing vertical evacuation structures in Japan to mitigate tsunami risk; essentially, what was the cost of the structures compared to the impact of the loss of life in a tsunami, based on the productivity of the individuals concerned? Perhaps it’s ultimately the economics that determine what risk we can prepare for.

Volcanoes and Society – AXA research day (1)

Volcanoes and Society

A masterclass on Volcanoes and Society is exactly the sort of thing I would like, as a student, to have access to – but until May this year, I hadn’t encountered such an event. The AXA– and Cabot Institute-hosted class produced a great discussion about many aspects of how volcanoes and people interact, and made me aware that this issue needs more widespread, public conversation within the volcanology community. Below, and in the next couple of posts, I’ll consider some of the points brought up at the meeting, and hopefully continue the discussion with all of you!

AXA’s fellowships

The AXA insurance group awards fellowships under three categories, one of which is Environmental Risk. Awards are at levels ranging from PhD studentships to AXA Chair positions. Most of my PhD funding at Cambridge is through an AXA studentship, so I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Volcanoes and Society Research Day and masterclass. This event was tied in with the launch of Professor Kathy Cashman’s AXA chair position at Bristol. It was co-hosted by AXA, Bristol’s Cabot Institute – which conducts research on the theme of ‘Living with environmental uncertainty’ – and the School of Earth Sciences at Bristol.

The reading we were sent as preparation, the discussions during Kathy’s masterclass, and the presentations in the afternoon brought up a lot of topics, so I’ll focus on those I found particularly interesting. Please do comment, as I’d love for this to stimulate further discussion!


Volcanoes and Society – Part 1

Cultural knowledge

One of the first ideas to come up during the Research Day was that of cultural knowledge. To me, this is an understanding of the environment acquired by peoples who have been exposed to a risk for many generations. We discussed how this knowledge may not be accessible to newcomers, and how the advent of modern communications and science is happening at the same time as much of this knowledge is being lost. A couple of completely different examples came to my mind.

Ethiopia – 1969 Serdo earthquake

During our field trip in Ethiopia with the Afar Rift Consortium conference this year, we visited the village of Serdo, which had been seriously damaged by earthquakes in 1969. As we looked around the site, some of the locals came and spoke to us – and it turned out that one of them, an elderly man, had been present during the main earthquake.

In Serdo. Those in front, from left: Frances, her interviewee (whose name I unfortunately don't know!), and Jamal. January 2012

Although it was a few months ago now, one of the things he told us stuck in my mind – that the casualties of the earthquake were from the more recent immigrants to the area, who had built out of stone – whereas the inhabitants of the traditional Afari houses were relatively unharmed.

Although I don’t know for sure that the building style is related to a cultural knowledge of historic earthquakes, I’d love to find out whether any link has been shown.

Ruins of buildings destroyed in the Serdo earthquake

Aotearoa-NZ and Maori mythology

A similar example mentioned by Professor Cashman was that of tapu ground in New Zealand – in particular, a possible link between much of the high ground that was tapu and in volcanic areas.  This wasn’t something I’d considered before, and another Kiwi in my office points out that tapu land is often in areas that would normally not be habitable or suitable for farming – such as steeper ground – so there may be many factors influencing tapu. However, thinking of home led me to the oral traditions surrounding volcanoes in New Zealand. In particular, I remembered an example I’d come across long before I became interested in volcanology – that of the 1886 Tarawera eruption.

The ghost waka (canoe) seen on Lake Tarawera, days preceding its eruption, along with a change in water levels of the lake, was a warning of impending danger to local Maori.  As with other volcanoes of Aotearoa, there were legends surrounding Tarawera that clearly indicated the local iwi had long been aware of the hazards it posed – but particularly interesting to me is how the sighting of the waka wairua demonstrates how the events of that time were also being mythologised. We’re now used to thinking of myths as things of a far more distant past. ­­

I wonder whether such traditions have been lost altogether now – either lost with the arrival of newcomers (for example the arrival of Pakeha traditions in New Zealand) or considered less valuable thanks to competing ideas from science. Or have they just evolved? Will we have myths explaining the Christchurch earthquakes, for example, in a few hundred years?


My final question on this topic is whether we can still use cultural knowledge as protection from natural hazards. Could preserving traditions, myths, or ways of communicating help to pass on knowledge of the land that was acquired over centuries? My instinct is to say yes – but if a conscious attempt is made to do so, does that increase the risk of those traditions being suffocated by science?


Culture, responsibility, and hazard management

Culture surrounding natural hazards can be thought of in another way. One of the papers we were assigned to read compared Icelandic and British responses to the Eyjafjallajokul eruption of 2010, when fine ash in European airspace held up flights for weeks. While large numbers of travellers were affected around Europe, one of the less publicised impacts was on Icelandic farmers – the population of Iceland have also been living with volcanic hazards for centuries, and from my (admittedly limited) reading it sounds like there is a culture of self evacuation and self responsibility rather than an expectation that the authorities will ‘take care of us’.


Isn’t there a risk, though, that this could go wrong if people are given personal responsibility but don’t take account of hazard warnings? One of the issues raised during talks by Jonty Rougier was that, for an individual, a high level of risk may remain personally acceptable – but when integrated over a whole population, (hundreds or thousands of people who each feel they are taking an acceptable risk), the overall risk may not be acceptable for the group. Perhaps that’s where one of the tasks I see as central to volcanology comes in – giving people the knowledge to make informed choices and understand why warnings are issued. This means not just expecting a population to heed all warnings from the authorities but also ensuring people have access to information about the hazards and why the warnings are issued.


So…over to you! What do you think?


Photos from Popocatépetl (2001-2002)

A friend of mine in Mexico, currently working on Popocatéptl volcano, just sent me these stunning photos of dome growth in the volcano’s crater. The images are not super recent, the first one’s from August, 2001 and the second from January, 2002, but boy are they pretty!

This is a great example of a volcanic dome. I love that the ropey texture of the lava that makes up the dome is even visible from such a distance. It really illustrates what is going on in the crater when a dome forms — i.e. mushy, viscous lava extrudes from the central crater and forms a plug as it hardens. Sometimes domes can just look like a pile of rocks, but these really show volcanism in action.

The first image was taken by Mexico’s Secretary of Comunnication and Transport, and the second by Prof. Servando de la Cruz. Muchas gracias to Alex Onar González Mellado for sending these over!

About Popocatépetl from the Global Volcanism Program

Volcán Popocatépetl, whose name is the Aztec word for smoking mountain, towers to 5426 m 70 km SE of Mexico City to form North America’s 2nd-highest volcano. The glacier-clad stratovolcano contains a steep-walled, 400 x 600 m wide crater. The generally symmetrical volcano is modified by the sharp-peaked Ventorrillo on the NW, a remnant of an earlier volcano. At least three previous major cones were destroyed by gravitational failure during the Pleistocene, producing massive debris-avalanche deposits covering broad areas south of the volcano. The modern volcano was constructed to the south of the late-Pleistocene to Holocene El Fraile cone. Three major plinian eruptions, the most recent of which took place about 800 AD, have occurred from Popocatépetl since the mid Holocene, accompanied by pyroclastic flows and voluminous lahars that swept basins below the volcano. Frequent historical eruptions, first recorded in Aztec codices, have occurred since precolumbian time.

Popocatépetl lies just SE of Mexico City, Mexico

Volcano High Command: The New Office

We’ve only just started going through the massive amount of data we got from our Chile expedition. Now that we are (almost) all back in Cambridge, we are going to start powering through spectrometer and UV camera data from Villarrica and Lascar. Just in time for our data crunching sessions to begin, we’ve been moved into a new office (which I am now calling “Volcano High Command”) in the Geography Department.

Our glorious new office

It may look barren and deserted now, but hopefully it’ll be a hustling and bustling center for volcanologic research here in no time!

Update from Ethiopia

Some of you may have heard about the sad events on Erta ‘Ale early on Tuesday morning, when a party of tourists was attacked. We were due to get up there that night but have cancelled the Erta ‘Ale and Dallol section of the trip and are now in Mekele to the north.

The MRAV conference field trip participants, as well as a group who had attended the conference but were on Erta ‘Ale the previous day, are safe and have left the Afar region. Keep checking our twitter and facebook pages for more frequent updates – and we should be blogging again next week. Our thoughts are with those affected by the incident.

All the best,

Afar and Erta ‘Ale: about to leave!

A quick update before we head north today. We’ve spent the last three days in Addis Ababa, attending the Magmatic Rifting and Active Volcanism conference. It is a milestone for the Afar Rift consortium, of which the Volcanofiles’ fellow PhD student and officemate, Talfan Barnie, is a member. We’ll be posting more on his work later. For the Volcanofiles, it has been exciting to hear so much about a region in which none of us have worked previously.

In between conference events and travelling around the city, we have been getting together our equipment for the fieldwork on Erta ‘Ale. We’ll go into more detail on the instruments in later posts, but they include a thermal and a video camera, both of which will be pointed at the lava lake; a filter pack for capturing gas and particle information; and a UV spectrometer which is primarily for sulphur dioxide measurements. The field trip schedule gives us two nights and a day at the top of the volcano, so we are more likely to run out of batteries than to run out of time!

We are unlikely to have any internet access for the next nine days, but will be putting up photos and blog posts when we get back.