#IAVCEI2013 – The second best volcanology conference in Kagoshima

It may come as no surprise that Kagoshima – home to the most active volcano in one of the most volcanically active countries in the world – has played host to more than this years IAVCEI meeting when it comes to getting volcanologists into town. You might guess from the spectacular way in which they play host; notices, flags and IAVCEI branded fans and accessories adorn much of the town. The conference goody bag bears not just the usual USB stick, local promotional material and a notebook, but full geological maps and hazard maps of Sakurajima and a variety of other volcanoes in Japan. In fact, one outstanding full map showing Japan in its complete volcanological beauty. Oh, and a 3D plastic map of Sakurajima. And tickets to a festival of music and fireworks. And an invitation to go and watch the ’round volcano yacht race’ and complimentary tour cruise.

The reason I feel IAVCEI may be playing second fiddle to another conference is that both these events – the festival and boat race – are held to commemorate the 1988 Kagoshima International Conference on Volcanoes. I’ve never heard of an event being staged to commemorate the anniversary of a conference before, let alone two. It must have been one hell of a conference. My mind can’t decide whether it should be picturing volcanological luminaries dangling from light fittings, dripping sake from their over-gorged throats, or some kind of terrible boating disaster with fireworks.

Anyway, this evening was the festival, so I took the opportunity to skip out of the conference early (5.30 start time for the event was not handy for the 6.30 finish of seminars – fortunately nothing took my fancy this afternoon anyway). Grabbed the complimentary ferry across to Sakurajima, and went and sat in a field. I will say this for the Japanese – they do events in a unique and special way. After finding a spot that was just about in the shade, and occasionally catching the dregs of a breeze to take the edge off the 34 degree heat, I sat down, and relaxed. Camera in hand, I was determined to get a good sunset shot of Sakurajima if nothing else. She did not disappoint, and photo will be forthcoming just as soon as I have a USB cable.

However, it would be doing the festival a disservice if I didn’t recount some of my favourite moments here. Billed as offering a Hinoshima drum performance, I was looking forward to some tubthumping music. The “6000 vigorous fireworks” also sounded appealing. The build up to these, however, was sublime. First up, we had some kind of stage play featuring what I can only describe as a guy dressed as a Power Ranger, another as a teddy bear, and a couple of guys dressed in form-fitting white lycra bodysuits having sword fights. Not knowing the language I was free to make up my own story in my head, and completely failed to come up with anything coherent. So I assume it was an actual episode of Power Rangers.

Next up, we had the local choir doing their thing. Very choral, but the crowd weren’t interested. After that we had a couple of ladies doing a fan dance, followed by another dance troupe with ribbons or scarves (I was too far away to tell). After that we had a rather bizarre karate act who sang. She would do a few karate moves, sing a song, then smash a bit of wood, another song, smash a brick, etc. With no clear idea of what was going on I decided it was some kind of superhero or videogame character, and she could only do 30 seconds of karate after a 2 minute power-up period of singing.

Next up the drums, which were excellent. However, at this point I was aware that last up were the fireworks, then there were going to be about 10,000 people or more crowding back to the ferries, so I wound my way back down the hill to try and catch the firework display from the water, with Sakurajima in the background. On my way back I took the opportunity to grab some dinner. Japanese festivals it turns out have an impressive array of Things On Sticks. Sweet things on sticks, savoury things on sticks, miscellaneous things on sticks. I treated myself to the squid-on-a-stick, although opted for the body portion rather than the Lovecraftian tentacles-on-a-stick.

And here we are back in the hotel, 9.30 pm, aiming to kill the last of the jet lag in the hope I don’t fall asleep tomorrow, particularly as I’m presenting. 3pm session in A4 for anyone here.

Some great science today – some lovely experiments looking at magma chamber dynamics, and gas-slug growth through conduits. I love me a good experiment, and Ed Llewellin and others at Durham have a 13 m monster conduit they’ve produced some fascinating results in. Also some really interesting work on the effects of melting the roof of magma chambers, although with so few variables investigated it felt a bit like a spherical cow at the moment – clearly more work to be done.

Right – off to wash the volcanic ash from my grubby feet, and rest my weary head. More updates to follow.

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#IAVCEI2013 – The land of the rising sun

Japan is bloody hot and humid. Stepping off the plane was more like walking into a well-prepped sauna.

Just thought I’d get that out of the way.

After three flights, no sleep, and 3 hours in a park twiddling my thumbs before being able to check in to the hotel I’ve finally managed to have a shower, put on some clean clothes and get over here to internet land.  I just thought I would share with you some cool things and observations from the last day or so of travel.

Firstly, Charles De gaulle is a sprawling mess of an airport. I know this is hardly a controversial opinion, but I’ve flown through that place probably 2 dozen times in the last year and I just wanted to take this opportunity to express my loathing.

Secondly, the Paris-Tokyo flight route is fascinating for a number of reasons:

  • You get some great views over Holland and Scandinavia (pics to follow).
  • Your sense of scale also gets a life-changing smack around the face when you spend the best part of 9 hours flying over the completely unpopulated expanse of Northern Russia. I’ve flown over Canada before, but there’s always a few roads or settlements or whatever. There is a wild untamed beauty to the forests and tundra of Northern Russia that is really quite breathtaking.
  • During the summer, if you leave at about mid-day, you experience an interesting phenomenon; the sun never sets, which seems to somewhat steal Japan’s thunder, given what the name literally translates to (see title of post if you’re not sure). I had the sun coming in through my window for 10 of the 12 hours – the only reason I didn’t for the first two hours was that we were pointing in the wrong direction. It was my first experience of an arctic circle night, and it was quite bizarre – particularly as at both the departure and destination locations the sun was high in the sky and blazing a fierce heat.

Japan’s topography is amazing. As well as a great view over Mt Fuji (again, photos to follow once I have access to an appropriate USB cable), the terrain is utterly ‘ruffled’. Everywhere you look the land is carved up into inhabited and farmed floodplains along narrow river valleys (itself broken up into impossibly regular and bizarrely small field systems), fingering between wooded ridges and hills which Slartibartfast himself might have said were going a bit overboard with the detail work. Take this perfectly standard example:

The trip from Kagoshima Airport to the city centre was made vastly more enjoyable by the conversation with the young lady completely astounded that so many Westerners would want to all go to Kagoshima. Her parents run a hotel on nearby Yakoshima (a world heritage site), and she was going back for the weekend. On asking what she would recommend to do on any free days the best she could manage was ‘there’s probably some old buildings? Personally I would go shopping’. Then she recommended that I had to try the local speciality of ‘Black Pork’. She had no idea why it’s black but apparently it’s delicious.

Right, off to rest my weary head and make a vague attempt at avoiding jet lag. Last time I flew out in this direction for a conference was IUGG in Melbourne a couple of years ago. I went straight over to see a friend in Tasmania before the conference, had a lovely first day, then sabotaged the second by somehow falling asleep for 18 hours. For someone who normally lives on 6-7 hours a night it came as a bit of a surprise. Fingers crossed I can make it up in time to get a sunrise shot of Sakurajima out in the bay.

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Sunday sees the start of the biggest gathering of volcanologists in a specialist conference. The International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI) General Assembly is only held every 4 years, each occasion at a different place.

Last time it was Reykjavik (excellent science, superlative rollmops). I was presenting the analyses coming out of my PhD, and had my first proper opportunity to meet the key players in my field. I was also a broke student, and spent the week camping. My lasting memories of it as my first international conference are ones of being a bit shy, not really knowing anyone, and utterly loving every minute of seeing what was going on at the cutting edge in the field.

This year we’re in Kagoshima, Japan. Now I’m a broke postdoc staying in the cheapest hotel we could find. As well as some top science (and hopefully some top seafood and sushi) I also have a visit to Sakurajima to look forward to. It’s a fascinating volcano, not just in terms of it’s activity but also in terms of the defence engineering that has gone on there. The Japanese have had fantastic success diverting lava using purpose-built culverts. Can’t wait to see it all.

This will also be my first time in a country where I speak not one jot of the language. The Kindle phrasebook will be keeping me company on the flight. I also spent an hour earlier putting bookmarks into a mapping app on my phone so I can find everywhere easily without resorting to gazing at unintelligible signs. Note for others – Google Maps doesn’t work in offline mode in Japan.

I’m presenting twice at the conference – once on the Sunday in the 3pm session in room A4, on the outcomes of my recent experimental work (“Experimental investigation of pyroclastic flows generated by continuous supply of material”). Lots of fluidised granular flows doing cool things as analogues for pyroclastic density currents.  The second is a poster on Tuesday the 23rd which is a project I’ve been putting together in my spare time with a whole bunch of collaborators looking at whether turbidity current models can help explain what happens when a pyroclastic flow enters water (“What happens when a pyroclastic flow enters the water  – numerical modelling of an offshore pyroclastic turbidite”).

Very much looking forward to seeing a few of the GeoTweeps there, and I’ll b e attempting to do some updating both here and on Twitter during the week – the hashtag seems to be #IAVCEI2013. Fingers crossed for a spectacular and safe display from Sakurajima over the next week.

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Centres of mass and another reason to love Photoshop

With the experimental work on this project pretty much wrapped up I’ve been spending a large amount of time playing with spreadsheets, making frame-by-frame measurements from high-speed video files, and plotting data up as I start to draw together a paper. With hundreds of experiments completed the real task is identifying those which demonstrate the results in the best way, without displaying so much data that the whole thing becomes unmanageable.

Part of this process is deciding which types of results show things best. For example, if I am trying to demonstrate the effect of mass flux (how much material is put into the experiments per second), am I best showing the effect on the speed that the flow moves, or  in how far the flow finally reaches? Should I be plotting mass flux at all, or should I actually be plotting things in terms of the concentration of the flow (which varies as a function of mass flux)? Should I describe the deposit rather than the flow?

Because different types of flow form different shaped deposits one of the ways of describing the deposit is by its centre of mass; how far down the flume is the midpoint of the resting mass? A long flat deposit will have a midpoint much further away then a simple wedge, where much of the material as not travelled far at all. This is a really useful way of describing how mobile the flow must have been which formed the deposit, but it’s a non-trivial thing to measure.

Today, I worked out a solution and I’m going to put it up here in case a) anyone else finds it useful, and b) I forget how I did it.

All you need is a copy of Photoshop. I’m guessing GIMP might do it as well, but it’s a long time since I’ve used it.

So, we start off with an image of a deposit.

Deposit 1Next up we simply mask out the face of the deposit on a new layer.

MaskWith that done, we get to the clever bit. You need a simple black-to-white gradient (there’s one as default in the gradient tool), and apply it over the masked shape.

gradientYou’ll notice that in the Histogram tool it gives us a total pixel count in the shape of 31,125 pixels. The histogram demonstrates how many pixels of each shade are in the image.

Now, you move your cursor across the histogram window, looking for the point which represents the 50th percentile (you could equally do this for any other percentile you’re interested in). Note it also gives you the colour level (in this case 76):

50th percentileThis level represents where on the scale of 0 – 255 levels of grey the midpoint lies. So in our case 50% of the pixels have shades between 0-75, and the other 50% of the pixels have shades between 77-255. It’s also worth remembering that level 0 is black (no brightness) while 255 is white (full brightness).

So now we simply open the info panel, and move our cursor over the image itself to identify whereabouts along it we get level 76 (you might have to ensure the image is in RGB). That’s our mid point. The image below shows a selection which divides the left 50% of deposit from the right 50%. We can verify the result by looking at the pixel count in the histogram window which is showing the number of pixels within the selection in the gradient layer (should be half that we started with – in this case 31125 / 15560 = 2).

Complete2So there we go. We now can use the scale on the background image (checkerboard grid at the bottom is 1cm, the lined grid is 2cm) to identify the centre of mass in the deposit at about 25.5 cm.

Hopefully this may be of use to someone somewhere.

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Today is the day that Expedition 35 return from the International Space Station. Later tonight they will climb into the docked Soyuz capsule, and perform a re-entry back to Earth, bringing to an end a truly phenomenal period of public engagement with the ISS, driven largely by the incredible content provided by Commander Chris Hadfield via his Twitter stream.

Clouds demonstrating the very British art of queuing over Hull, 12 May 2013. C. Hadfield.

Slinging aside the (often justified) criticism that Twitter is mostly banal we’ve been treated to months of photos and commentary, giving a more humanised view of our planet than could ever be achieved by even the Blue Marble image taken by the Apollo 17 crew. Tonight that stops, and the world is a poorer place for it.

I struggle to think of a single science engagement activity which has had anything like the success that Commander Hadfield achieved on this expedition. The Twitter posts and images caught peoples imagination, and the numerous videos and broadcasts that he has since been involved with draw people into contact with day-to-day life on the ISS like nothing else.

In my free time I help moderate the reddit forum /r/Askscience – a place where experts from across the spheres of science can answer any question that any user cares to ask. As a result of Hadfields work, the subreddit has seen an unprecedented number of questions regarding life in space, space engineering, and similar themes. There’s been loads. He has generated the kind of outreach which rather than just being passive listening, has genuinely peaked peoples curiosity and interest. It’s the kind of outcome that every teacher in every classroom in the world aims and hopes for. It’s the kind of engagement that encourages people to pursue and kindle an interest in science and technology that leads to new scientists, and a wider public understanding of science.

20 years ago I was able to participate in a conference video call with the JASON Project as they explored part of the ocean – we were able to hear directly from the crew and science team, and pose questions to them. It was a fantastic experience, but available to a lucky few – approximately 100 or so of us drawn from dozens of schools in the area, crammed into a small lecture hall at the nearby US Airbase at Mildenhall. That is now an experience which millions have been able to share. The opportunity to directly connect with an individual or team doing something amazing.

The tragedy really is that Hadfield is the first to really take this potential so firmly to hand. That he is personable, funny, and an excellent communicator helps enormously. A guitar-playing photojournalist astronaut I think possibly confounds many of the assumptions the general public can hold about the people, while the content he’s provided has enabled a discussion that communicates the mission far more broadly than has been achieved before.

With this high profile mission coming to a close, there are now a number of opinion pieces appearing – some of which ask the question “but what is it good for“. It’s a question that is always worth asking – my only hope is that the scientific and science-supporting community can step up to the plate and vocally provide the broadside which Hadfield himself is championing: “We’re not going to do it tomorrow and we’re not going to do it because it titillates the nerve endings. We’re going to do it because it’s a natural human progression.”

The ISS suffers the same problem that impacts much of science, and that is one of voice. The real power in democratic systems is held by politicians, and the voices they listen to. The voices they listen to are frequently driven by the journalists and editors prominent in that society. And as Mark Henderson pointed out in his excellent book The Geek Manifesto, the overwhelmingly vast majority of politicians and journalists have absolutely no science training whatsoever. They are simply not trained to grasp the incremental and long term development that cutting edge science so often requires. Couple this with the short-term nature of political career interests, significant sustained projects like space exploration and large scale blue-sky research will find themselves in the same cross-hair.

The solution is simple. Be vocal about how important we think these things are. Get your friends to be vocal about it. Help politicians and journalists, and the rest of the public understand *why* it’s important.

That’s why Expedition 35 has been so brilliant – Hadfield has provided an astonishing role-model in (among many, many other things) how you go about making *everyone* understand how amazing the ISS is, and how important the work there is to pushing forward any kind of future manned space travel. So thank you Commander Hadfield, I will miss being reminded several times a day that a group of human beings are flying at 7.7km a second over our heads, and are enthusiastic in communicating directly with any member of the public about what they do, how they do it, and why we should keep on doing it.

I’ll leave you with the already widely circulated but nonetheless brilliant farewell to the ISS Hadfield posted this morning.


Posted in Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Education, Geology, News, Physics, Science, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mayon kills 5

Mayon. Copyright Tomas Tam, Wikimedia commons

Mt Mayon is a beautiful volcano.  The only work I’ve done on it was some years ago during my PhD, when I was doing a little analysis on volcano profiles. I was struck by its incredible symmetry.  So I can understand the mentality of those wanting to climb it. However, it’s also worth noting that Mayon has what is described as a ‘Permanent Danger Zone’ – a 6km circle of constant hazard. Yet still, regular tours up the volcano bring dozens of people to its summit every day. 3 seperate tours were on the volcano when it erupted, killing 5 people including one guide.

The eruption today was phreatomagmatic – that is it was driven by steam. Groundwater circulates and gets heated by the magma, steam gets trapped, pressure builds up, and the overlying rock is blasted into the air. It’s important to note that at this point there are no reports of any kind of magmatic activity. There would have been no precursor seismic warning, just a blast, and a rain of boulders.

I think what this demonstrates beautifully is the hazard volcanoes pose which people get complacent about.  As volcanologists we look at sites like Naples and Yogjakarta – cities adjacent to very dangerous and active volcanoes – with an expression something like that of a person watching a car go out of control in slow motion. Yet as individuals we will happily go and climb up Vesuvius or Merapi because the chances of it doing anything on a particular day are so tiny.

There is always a risk something might happen on an active volcano. But as volcanologists I think we sometimes forget how used we are to that uncertainty. In a world where weather forecasts are becoming almost reliable, and people are used to having huge amounts of data about everything around them, I think there’s a genuine concern to be had that the general public have little idea how little we know about when an eruption might occur. We can cover them in instruments and we still might get no warning. There’s no doubt we’re getting better, and we can put exclusion zones around things to our hearts content, but as numerous cases have shown -the ‘it won’t happen to me’ mentality gets people killed.  In 1991 Unzen in Japan  claimed the lives of 43 scientists and journalists who got caught out by a pyroclastic flow that flowed where they didn’t expect it to. The eruption at Tongariro last year (which I wrote about here), with the very popular walking route across it could easily have seen the same outcome that Mayon produced today.

Now, I’m not saying that we should stop climbing volcanoes and I’m certainly not suggesting that exclusion zones should be enforced for every potentially active site in the world. But I am suggesting that perhaps this event should serve as a reminder to people to ensure they are informed about the realities of risks when you’re in any volcanic zone.

Posted in Geology, Hazard Assessment, News, Science, Volcanism | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments


I apologise for things being a bit quiet around here recently – I can only blame my shonky time planning in failing to fit new posts in. I’ve actually started penning 3 or 4 over the last couple of months, then something has got in the way and by the time I got back to the post it seemed a little old and irrelevant.

The major reason it’s been so quiet is that I’ve been solidly ensconced down in the modelling lab since January making headway on the project work which I aim to have finished by the end of May.  That I’m writing a post now is largely because after a smooth start, some unexpected observations, a detour, and most recently a proper pause while I stopped to try and figure out a problem, I’ve been reflecting on the nature of experimental work, and how we go about navigating these little issues.

I’ve been assured by colleagues that it’s not just me that hits these speedbumps – they are a natural part of experimental work. So I write this post for new researchers who perhaps have not found their first hurdle yet, or perhaps those of you who are just interested in how experimental science jogs along in between those times we’re excited about a new project and publishing the resulting papers. And for those of you who know this all too well, maybe it will at least be a comfort to know that everyone else has the same problems.

Unless of course it is just me who has these moments, in which case I guess you can just all point and laugh 🙂

Snapshot from one of this mornings runs. That big plume of pale material growing through the left side of the image was a bit of a surprise.

Snapshot from one of this mornings runs. That big plume of pale material growing through the left side of the image was a bit of a surprise.

Any experimental research project begins with either a hypothesis, or at least a series of behaviours that you want to investigate. While conceptually this idea might be simple (“see  how fluidised grainflows deposit”) all sorts of interesting phenomena and experimental obstacles can get in your way. For example, after I analysed the first months worth of experiments I realised that the material was behaving strangely when it was in a particlar configuration. It’s an interesting physical phenomenon which had been seen before by a colleague in the lab, but as far as we’re aware not published on. So, at this point, do you try to find a work around for the issue, or do you divert and investigate this new problem? The answer will depend on your funding and your timescales. But consider there’s also the possibility you might not find a workaround. In the words of Tolkien:

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

Sometimes these things can open new avenues, sometimes you’re presented with something which makes your work more difficult to interpret or less valid for the case you had hoped to compare it to. Sometimes you just hit a dead-end and you realise your line of enquiry is going nowhere.  And sometimes you hit upon something and you can’t necessarily tell which of those many things it is.

So it was that I was stood in the lab this morning resting my head on the handle of a broom, staring into the middle distance trying to work out a chewy problem with regard to how to get the information I wanted under the conditions imposed by the equipment, and considering a number of little hurdles which have been identified in the last 4 months.

The original research project had been to see how flow and deposition occurred in granular flows which have a high gas flux passing through them, and when their material supply lasts longer than the timescale it takes for the front of the flow to come to a halt. These fluidised sustained currents are how we believe the largest ignimbrite-forming pyroclastic flows behave. Particularly vexing for me is the attempt to get a long deposit profile, without getting drawn into a messy problem involving the rate we inject gas at a particular point (which seems to have a weird control on the flow, but we can’t understand why, so we’ve put it to one side to deal with in a future dedicated project).

At the end of the day dealing with these problems is part of the fun of experimental work – finding where the obstacles are and then navigating them is what the research is all about. But sometimes you end up leaning on a broomstick staring into the middle distance on a stinker of a problem you can’t wrap your head around.

When I find myself doing this (and it happens quite a bit more than I think people realise) I have a very simple way of moving forward*. Sit down, grab the lab notebook, draw a line under the last entry and start writing down what I’m trying to do, what the problem is, and write down every idea that comes to me about working around it.  I don’t know why, but for some reason writing it down in this way helps incredibly. Next time you have your chin on a broom handle and are trying to stare-out a wall, give it a go**.

Within a 20 minutes I had settled on an approach to work around the problem that will get the results I need in a meaningful way. Much success!

And so it was that 1 run later I discovered a whole new ‘feature’ of the experiments we had no idea was happening. Back to the broom it is.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Feynman that I love and think sums up the whole thing rather nicely.

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

*One successful method at least. The fall back I rely on is to go and find somewhere to have a few beers in the sun and hope the problem goes away. Not yet successful, but a pleasant way to spend a day.

** May work for other postures.

Posted in Experimental, Geology, Physics, Science, Sedimentology, Volcanism | Tagged , | Leave a comment