Adjunct Professor Climbs Volcanoes In the Name of Research
May 04, 2012
Rock climbing can be described as intense and challenging under most circumstances. But add in boiling hot temperatures, a nearby lake filled with bubbling lava, and a film crew documenting it all, and it gets even more intense and challenging.
“The first time I was actually ever in a harness was on an active volcano in Africa,” said Thomas Darrah, an adjunct research assistant professor for UMass Boston’s Department of Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Sciences (EEOS). Darrah climbed up to the Nyiragongo Crater in the Democratic Republic of Congo in June 2010 to research the volcano and its surroundings.
Then a post-doctoral researcher working with EEOS Chair Robyn Hannigan, Darrah was joined on the crater by a scientific team consisting of EEOS Scientist Ellen Campbell and Professor Dario Tedesco from the University of Naples and UNOPS, as well as climbing experts and a camera crew.
The journey was being filmed for an international documentary that is part of Richard Hammond’s BBC series “Journey to the Center of the Planet,” which focuses on geology around the world and how it has shaped the Earth.
After hiking across lava fields from the volcano’s two most recent major eruptions, in 1977 and 2002, and ascending the mountain, the team set up camp at the top of the volcano. Each day they hiked and repelled in and out of the volcano, exploring three volcanic platforms surrounding the crater. Within the volcano, they collected gas samples and lava while measuring temperature and gas flux.
With temperatures in many locations above boiling point, Darrah described the work as grueling, but exciting, especially climbing in and out of the platforms. At one point, the heat was so hot that it melted the plastic zippers on the pants he was wearing, turning his pants into shorts.
But the heat wasn’t the only safety concern the team had to worry about, Darrah said. Due to high levels of carbon dioxide in fumaroles around the crater, they also had to be aware of asphyxiation. Steam flowed through cracks in the soil and, occasionally, rock slides would send debris cascading down the side of the crater. “It’s funny, once you have been there a little while you tend to get a lot more comfortable with it. But initially it was sort of nerve wracking,” Darrah said, adding “It was incredibly beautiful.”
In addition to conducting research in such a severe environment, Darrah said he was also aware of the film crew that was following them around.
“It was an interesting place on its own and at times it was sort of daunting to think about the fact that everything was being recorded.” He said that the crew quickly picked up the science and “essentially became part of the team.”
They spent a total of ten days on the volcano, plus another ten days taking samples from the surrounding area of hazardous gas discharges that the locals call mazukus, Swahili for “evil winds,” which can fill low lying areas with nearly pure carbon dioxide.
By sampling gas emissions, Darrah explained, the researchers can evaluate potential geological hazards. “Part of the goal is to determine the risk of eruption but also to get an understanding of longer term potential geological processes occurring in this very active geological area.”
Because of its globally unique chemistry, the lava in the Nyiragongo Crater is extremely quick moving, sometimes traveling up to 60 kilometers per hour, Darrah said. When the volcano erupted in 2002, lava flowed into the streets of the nearby city, Goma, completely draining the crater, killing about 150 people and leaving another 120,000 homeless. When the research team visited the site in 2010, Darrah said the lava was back up to about three-quarters of its pre-2002 levels and has since stayed at about the same levels over the last two years.
During their trip, Darrah and Campbell visited a school that had been impacted by the recent eruptions of Mount Nyamuragira, Nyiragongo’s sister volcano, to distribute toys, clothing, and educational items that they had collected from members of Hannigan’s lab and partners from the Venture Development Center. Darrah said all the gifts were appreciated but the “tie-dyed and brightly colored Jimmy Buffet T-shirts, Slinkies, and hacky sacks were the immediate crowd favorites.”
The Nyiragongo Crater is the largest and highest of the three standing lava lakes in the world, and the second that Darrah has visited. In 2006 and 2007, he travelled to Ethiopia as part of a long-term study on magmatic activity along the East African Rift. He went shortly after an intense period of seismic activity that included an eruption in order to look at how gas and chemistry of the area changed and if it interacts with the Ethiopian plume.
Darrah, who is also a research scientist at Duke University, has recently submitted papers on both journeys. Research from the Nyiragongo Crater shows how dynamic the geological system there is and outlines the changes that have occurred in the past 10 years, including the amount and chemistry of the lava.
Darrah earned his PhD in Medical Geochemistry from the University of Rochester before coming to UMass Boston for two years as a post-doc working with Hannigan. His research focuses on medical and environmental applications of geochemistry and he has received funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.
The documentary on the team’s adventure on the Nyiragongo Crater has already been released in Europe and is slated to air in the U.S. on the Discovery Channel. Darrah said he hopes its release will demonstrate the value of scientific research and “maybe inspire some little kid to pursue a career in the sciences.”