Volcanic Vacations

UNC Professor of Earth Sciences Steven Anderson, an internationally renowned volcanologist, shares a first-hand account and photos from his summer "vacation" to a remote part of Russia where the active volcanoes, bears and mosquitoes made for a memorable experience.

He also shared memories and images of his trip in July to an active Hawaiian volcano where he and other researchers faced a different kind of danger.

I spent nearly three weeks in August on Russia's Kamchatka Peninusla doing research at two active volcanoes with two researchers from the Kamchatkan Volcano Observatory and another from the University of Pittsburgh.

We used thermal cameras to study the amount of heat being put out by these volcanoes cameras and collected samples of the new lava flow. We scheduled the trip so that we could be in the field when a satellite carrying a thermal camera (called ASTER) flew over and imaged the volcanoes. We want to better understand what the satellites are sensitive to and what they can and cannot detect from space so we can assess whether they are providing reliable data that we can use to monitor these remote volcanoes.

We spent one day at Shiveluch volcano and also camped for a week at Kizimen volcano, the most remote volcano in Kamchatka.

This is one of the coolest photos I've ever taken. It's an eruption of Kizimen, and that gray cloud is a pyroclastic flow. It's an avalanche of hot ash, gas and rocks that moves over 100 miles an hour and has internal temperatures of nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. If you get caught in one, it is instant death. Probably the most deadly natural phenomena in all of nature. It stopped about 2 miles from our camp. Unfortunately, my main job was to climb on and sample this part of the volcano. I was not happy about it, but did it as quickly as I could two days later. Scariest, and dumbest, thing I've ever done.

This photo is Kizimen, and the big formation that looks like two giant rock tongues is actually a huge active lava flow that has been moving downhill slowly for the past 18 months or so. You can see our small tents in the grass on the left side of the photo.

This is my Usain Bolt impersonation in front of the helicopter we used to fly over both volcanoes.

Here's the helicopter landing at Kizimen at our campsite, which is covered in fresh volcanic ash.

Here we are sticking our instruments out the bottom of the helicopter as we fly over Kizimen. Scary, but oh so cool.

This is a visitor we had to camp - a 1,000-pound Kamchatkan brown bear. We were above treeline, so could see them from a long way out, which means they could see us too.

Me working with the thermal camera near my tent, and other various cameras at my disposal. Besides the volcano and the bears, the bugs were relentless so I wore a bug suit nonstop for a week. I also had a bad cold and was on antibiotics for an unrelated problem, so I was completely miserable, but yet it was among the coolest trips I've ever done.

- Professor Steven Anderson

In early July, Anderson and UNC graduate student Adam Lewinter met up with other researchers on the island of Hawaii to continue fieldwork started in February on Kilauea volcano, one of the most active volcanoes on the planet. The BBC featured Anderson and the team in a series called Volcano Live.

The project involves scanning topography using a laser to image the Halemaumau crater and active lava lake. The results will aid monitoring efforts associated with hazards from the lava lake and further the understanding of how the Kilauea volcano works.

Located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Kilauea is visited by millions of tourists each year, making it the most visited attraction in Hawaii. The tourists aren't able to get as close to the crater as researchers are.

Sulfur dioxide-laden gas rises from the crater. The LiDAR (light detection and ranging) laser system being used can penetrate the thick steam and gas so the researchers can see how quickly the level of the lava lake changes and how fast the walls of the crater are eroding. The eroding walls are a danger because when rocks fall into the lava lake, they create large explosions. View video taken in 2011.

The highly toxic gases required the researchers to wear gas masks much of the time while conducting their research.

Among the many images captured by the researchers was this geyser of hot lava exploding when a section of the crater's wall fell into the lava lake.

- UNC News Service