Mission: See a Real Volcanic Eruption
Last August, I was presented with a can’t-miss opportunity. My officemate, Ben, who shares a supervisor with me, has an awesome PhD project working in Vanuatu. As the main part of his project, he planned to live at the base of the volcano, collecting a whole series of measurements, for three months. This includes stuff like seismic (earthquake) data, thermal (infrared) images of eruptions, gas measurements, and physical observations. For details on the project, watch the video above.
As you might expect, a project with this many facets is too big for one person to do alone. Ben (along with his supervisors) planned the project and held the responsibility of keeping things up and running the whole time, but he needed some help setting things up at the beginning and doing the work all along. To do this, my supervisor sent several of us in the department out to help over the course of the trip. I was offered the chance to go at the very start and help things set up.
Did I mention Yasur is basically the most consistently active volcano in the world? It’s been erupting more or less constantly for over 1000 years. As a volcanologist who’d never seen a live eruption before, do you think I could pass that up? Not a chance!
We spent the first couple of days in Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital on the island of Efate (Vanuatu is made up of around 80 islands). It has about 40,000 people, and, while maybe not as “modern” as you’d get in New Zealand, it’s as urban as you’re going to get in Vanuatu (and many things we had access to there would’ve been the height of luxury during the fieldwork). We had to sort the logistics of getting all of Ben’s scientific equipment from there over to Tanna, one of the outer islands where Yasur volcano is located. Luckily, in between running back and forth between shipping agencies, we also had a bit of time to explore.
Bislama is pretty awesome. Read it out loud. You understand it, don’t you?
A little bit of luxury to make up for hard times to come.
The harbor in Port Vila
Important shipping logistics to take care of.
The best water in Vanuatu. See, makes sense!
The market, apparently open 24/7.
Stuff and stuff and stuff and more stuff.
View of Port Vila centre from across the harbor.
The national museum.
Sandroing, a type of kustom art. We got lots of demonstrations from a friendly museum volunteer.
I also got my first taste of Bislama, the local language. Vanuatu has over 100 different indigenous languages, the most per capita of any country in the world. There’s a decent amount of English and French spoken (they are both official languages along with Bislama) in addition to the indigenous ones, but Bislama is the one that brings everyone together. It’s a creole of French and English, with a bit of grammar and vocabulary from each. While confusing at first, it actually makes a lot of sense when you read the sentences out loud, and it’s a lot of fun to try to understand.
From Vila, we took a little Twin Otter plane (you could look right into the cockpit) over to Tanna to start our real work.
“Please look after the plane, it belongs to you all. If someone breaks something on the plan they will answer to God.”
Watching the pilots in action.
Compare the English and the Bislama, it’s fun!
First views of Tanna.
Ben disembarking out little plane.
Map of Tanna island.
The volcano is in the southeastern part of the island, so we took a slow pickup truck ride over there from the airport (on the west coast near Lenakel, the largest town on the island…which is so small I can’t even find a population estimate on the internet). To get a good start, we quickly headed up the volcano that evening to get a first view of the fireworks…unfortunately, it took a bit to figure out how to take good pictures of the explosions, so you’ll just have to be patient (or scroll down if you can’t wait!). In the meantime we settled into our lodging at Jungle Oasis Bungalows.
It’s a nice place, but pretty basic. Don’t come out here expecting modern amenities. No hot water, electricity on generator power for just a few hours every evening, pretty simple food, lots of pretty large insects. For a week and a half, it made the fieldwork that much more involved, and even a bit fun. For three months? Let’s just say I’m not jealous of Ben on that front. Still, it was great to have real beds and a (mostly) stable roof over our heads, and Kelson, the owner, is super ambitious and entrepreneurial, so improvements are constantly being made–he apparently built a restaurant in the couple months after I left, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find things completely different if I ever go out there again!
Sitting around the kitchen table in our living room, also where we did most of our evening work.
The equipment room–storage, charging station, etc.
The assistant’s room, where I stayed.
Our house from the outside, complete with volcanoboards!
The regional flag for the area we were staying in, personally designed by Kelson, owner of Jungle Oasis and self-styled regional tourism manager.
The most adorable and tiniest cat ever, our pet during our stay. The locals weren’t interested in naming it…hence, meet Microkitty. That’s what happens when you give too much power to geologists.
It’s just so fucking adorable! 🙂
The amazing treehouse! We didn’t stay here, but we were allowed to come out here to hang out and watch the volcano at night.
But you want science and volcanoes, don’t you? So did we! We started right into it the next day, hiking all around the volcano to set up some equipment and scope out sites for other bits.
Setting out across the ash plain. And there’s Yasur in the background.
Setting up the FLYSPEC sensor to measure gas particles in the air. Everything is stored in these plastic briefcases to protect it from the constant rain of volcanic ash and lapilli (the name for slightly bigger pieces of ash).
Examples of ash and lapilli that fall from the volcano every day. Ash is basically just lava that explodes into tiny bits coming out of the volcano and rains down wherever the wind is blowing.
Looking at lake sediments that show thousands of years of volcanic history.
More work in the ancient drained lake.
Scoping out locations for seismic sensors.
Back and forth and all around.
Just one example of the infinite number of “bombs” or “ballistics” that are chucked out of the volcano every day. This one is pretty small!
And then we got to the top and got to see the fun explosions! Yaaaaay!
All those black specks are blobs of lava!
Ben testing out the thermal camera.
Now THAT is a bomb. Shows what Yasur is capable of at its most active.
We took advantage of the presence of Shane and Jen, Ben’s supervisors at University of Auckland, to set up all our equipment over the next few days. That involved a trip to grab all our gear that had come over on a ferry and trekking more around the volcano to get the best spots for everything. It also involved a shovel, lots and lots of duct tape, some ants, and a lot of witty scientific banter.
Lenakel town centre. Huge, eh?
Getting our stuff from the ferry.
Our outdoor work station loaded up with all our shipped gear.
Helping calibrate the FLYSPECs.
Just a friendly pet chicken.
I love the ridge running down the side of Yasur. And we got to drive past it almost every day.
Sometimes we hitched a ride across the ash plain. But other times we had to do it on foot.
Installing a seismic station. We had a few at several different locations so we could compare the data from each.
Proud of our solar-powered seismic installation.
As a reward for our hard work, we decided to go watch the fireworks again. This time I had my shit together so I could provide you with pretty pictures!
The local ni-Vanuatu did some kustom dances for us.
Watching the sunset from the crater rim.
As it gets darker, you can start to see the orange glow of the bombs.
See all the tourists? That’s one of the reasons learning about the hazards at Yasur is so important.
Not all fun, we also set up a weather station.
Tourists watching the eruptions.
And when it gets really dark, that’s when things get spectacular.
We also had to set up the thermal cameras. Since these see infrared light, they can see the eruption’s heat signal even if it is too cloudy or ashy to see with a normal camera or a human eye. It was pretty crazy working right on the volcano’s edge with the eruptions going on. Someone definitely always had an eye on the ballistics and the plume for safety!
Setting up all the angles just right to face down into the different erupting vents.
With the plume looming behind us the whole time…
The cameras are actually pretty small and fragile, they go inside the giant metal casings to protect them from the elements.
Taking advantage of solar power to keep the cameras running constantly.
Pretty ominous. Ben never did learn to control the eruptions with his magic staff.
Another important part of our job was the gas measurements. To do this, we have to travel back and forth underneath the ash plume to measure how much of certain volcanic gases are in it. On lucky days I got to sit on the back of Kelson’s pickup truck and drive back and forth quickly multiple times to get measurements while Ben operated it from inside. On not so lucky days, we had to walk back and forth across the ash plain on foot, one of us holding the computer while the other held the FLYSPEC.
Sitting in the gunner’s position, firing the FLYSPEC’s eye up into the sky.
Not so lucky today, so we’re preparing to walk instead.
Made it all the way to the far end of our walk, now we just need to trek all the way back home, measuring along the way.
Analysing the measurements live as they come in.
After Shane and Jen left, it was just Ben and me for the next week. We continued all of our measurements and observations daily. As exciting as it was, it was also routine. Every morning, climb the volcano, sit and observe for two hours while taking notes, check the thermal cameras. Then head back down, out to the ash plain to do gas measurements and collect ash samples. It was really cool to see the volcano change in behavior over the course of the week, sometimes explosive, sometimes more ashy.
Checking up on the thermal camera computers, and offloading the data. Round the clock operation takes up a lot of digital space!
Very serious about our daily observations.
Me and my best friend.
On days where it was super gassy we had masks to wear for safety.
…but now you’ve been patient, waiting for the pretty pictures. So here they are.
The skylight on the left grew during my time there.
It never had a full eruption like the one to the right, but gas flare would come out of it, which was cool.
Taking long exposure photos from up in the treehouse was super fun.
It was incredible to be able to see the ballistics flying up and out of the crater from so far away.
And the glow on the clouds produced by the volcano was pretty insane (though to be honest it didn’t look nearly as bright in person as it appears here)
We didn’t go up to the summit every night, but definitely did a few more times, because it was just too good opportunity to miss.
Mesmerizing, you could just watch it endlessly.
The bright, gassy glow of the skylight.
Finally, at the end of the last night, I found the perfect location for a photo. The activity had died down quite a bit, so I had to be patient, but eventually it paid off.
Pretty, but not nearly explody enough…
Nailed it! 🙂
And with that, my two weeks of service were done! I left Ben to stick it out for another 10. Luckily he had some great helpers take my place.
Another fun part of the trip was making the movie at the beginning of this post. I spent a lot of the trip filming everything I thought might be interesting (and probably annoying the crap out of everybody else). Then, toward the end of my stay, I made Ben sit for some formal interviews that turned into the narration of the video. Editing it all together at the end was a good excuse to continue watching explosions for some time even after I’d returned!
Note: All photos with me in them were taken by Ben, all photos with me not in them were taken by me.