Boom! Boom! Explosions!


Mission: See a Real Volcanic Eruption

Country: Vanuatu

Island: Tanna

Volcano: Yasur

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.

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.

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!

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.

And then we got to the top and got to see the fun explosions! Yaaaaay!

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.

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!

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!

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.

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.

…but now you’ve been patient, waiting for the pretty pictures. So here they are.

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.

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.

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.