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Interview with a Volcanologist: Prof. Stephen Sparks
Interview with a Volcanologist: Rosie Smith

Interview with a Volcanologist

Download the MP3 here

Interviewer: Sarah Bucknall (SB) National Space Centre

Interviewee: Professor Stephen Sparks (PS) University of Bristol

SB:    Hi, my name is Sarah Bucknall from the National Space Centre. I’m here with Professor Stephen Sparks, a Volcanologist at the University of Bristol. So Professor, please tell us about your job and a little bit about what you do.

PS:    I’m an academic Volcanologist. I teach geology at the university of Bristol and I specialise in teaching about volcanic rocks and volcanoes. I also do a lot of research into how volcanoes work and I travel around the world looking at active volcanoes and also very old volcanoes to try to understand what’s happened in the past history of the earth.
SB:    So how did you get started in Volcanology, have you always been interested in volcanoes?
PS:    When I was a child I was brought up in Chester and then Birkenhead. I used to do a lot of potholing and climbing in the mountains of Snowdonia and used to pick up minerals and got interested in geology in that way. So I went to university at Imperial College in London and I was lucky enough that the professor there, Professor George Walker, was an expert in volcanoes and I became under his influence and I started getting interested in volcanoes while I was a student.
SB:    What qualifications are needed to become a volcanologist?

PS:    The best qualifications are to start off by doing science A-levels at school. Mathematics, physics, and chemistry are particularly useful. Although other subjects like geography and geology of course would be all right as well. Then go to a good university that does a degree in earth sciences or geology. When you’ve got a degree then if you wanted to really become a volcanologist the likelihood is you would do a PhD of research in volcanoes or on volcanic rocks and then you could become a volcanologist.

I know a lot of school kids will find maths quite difficult or perhaps not particularly interesting, they don’t see how it relates to the real world. But when you come into practical science, and volcanology and geology are both very practical sciences, mathematics is really very important. If you’re going to be able to help people, for example if they’re threatened by a lava flow or a volcanic explosion, then you want to know how close you’re going to be to the volcano and be safe. And the only way to do that is to estimate the strength of the explosions or the speed of the lava flow and understand something about the physical processes that control these hazardous phenomena. So there’s very little alternative but to be able to do some sums, some mathematics, on the processes in order to help understand them. Will the lava stop before it reaches the village? Will the volcano be able to throw a large block of rock to the village or not? There you need some physics and you need some mathematics so I would strongly emphasise the importance of students wishing to go into any science subject, including geology, to keep their mathematics up.  

SB:    Are there many job opportunities for a volcanologist?
PS:    It’s a fairly specialised area and of course Britain doesn’t have any active volcanoes on the mainland. It has some territories like Montserrat in the West Indies and Tristan De Cuna in the Atlantic which are active volcanoes so Britain does have an interest. But there aren’t very many jobs in the specialist area of working on active volcanoes. On the other hand there are a lot of jobs in geology, which relate to volcanoes and volcanic rocks. Just to give you one example, diamonds are mined from old volcanoes and there’s a lot of need in the mining industry for people who know about volcanic processes and volcanic rocks. To give you another example, at the moment nuclear waste is a big issue throughout the world and volcanic areas are often places where the rocks are hosts to places where you might want to bury nuclear waste so strangely that issue requires people with knowledge about volcanic rocks and volcanic geology.
SB:    During your role as a volcanologist, what would you rate as the best experience you’ve ever had so far?
PS:    I think the best experience for me was being involved in the eruption of the Soufriere hills volcano in Montserrat in the West Indies, which started to erupt in 1995. It’s a British dependent territory so Montserrations are British citizens. I got involved in monitoring the volcano and advising the British government about the hazards from the volcano. At the time it was a very dangerous situation, on the other hand it was very exhilarating working on an active volcano and also doing my science in a way that was going to be a very practical benefit to people.

During the Montserrat crisis we were based on the island. It’s a small island, it measures about 16km by about 8km and the active volcano occupies about half the island. The Montserrat government wanted to keep the island going, they didn’t want everybody to be evacuated. So it was very important to know which parts of the island were safe and which parts were not safe. So as a scientist your job is to look at the volcano, understand the processes, and in particular understand them in a quantitative way. So that you know that one village is unlikely to be affected but another village is and then on that basis you can advise the government of the island, which is what we did, about whether they should evacuate particular places or not. And these are very important decisions because they affect people’s lives. Obviously if they have to leave their home that disrupts their lives severely, and if they have to leave the island for another country that also is very serious for them. So it’s very important as a scientist to understand the volcano properly so that you can give very good advice about whether it’s safe or not.
SB:    What was the worst experience, have you ever been in danger?
PS:    Not on an active volcano, I think my most dangerous experience was actually working down a mine. I went to Western Australia and I was looking at some very old lava that formed in the very early period of the Earth’s history. These very old lavas are where you find nickel ores so they’re of great economic interest. I went down a nickel mine and while I was down the nickel mine I was in a tunnel, which was supposed to be deserted, and a very large mining truck came down the tunnel and nearly squashed us! It was a very close call and I think that’s the closet I’ve been to being in danger of my life.
SB:    Do you have to go down a lot of mines?

PS:    When you work in volcanology you can find yourselves in all sorts of situations. A lot of economic raw materials; gold, platinum, diamonds, copper are associated with what we call igneous processes or volcanic processes. So I’ve often been involved in looking at volcanic rocks associated with ore deposits down mines so again it’s something where someone going into geology could make a very good career.

SB:    What does it feel like to see a volcano erupt?

PS:    It’s very spectacular. I’ve been on a number of active volcanoes and of course it’s always a very awe-inspiring business to watch a volcano erupt. I suppose your first reaction is probably one of a little bit of fear because they are very dangerous if you get close to them. But overall, the spectacle of nature is what really inspires you.

SB:    Studying volcanoes must involve a lot of travelling. Where are you based most of the time? And where is the most exciting place you’ve travelled to?

PS:    I’m based most of the time in Bristol, teaching and doing research. Probably something like two months of the year I will be on fieldwork in various parts of the world working on either active volcanoes or ancient volcanic rocks. I think the most beautiful place I’ve been to is Chile in the Andes where we’ve been working on some of the big volcanoes in the high Andes and that’s spectacularly beautiful countryside and also very remote. So sometimes your fieldwork has to involve sort of expedition style trips. I suppose the most exciting place is still Montserrat because that was a dramatic volcanic eruption.

SB:    Which do you prefer, being based here in Bristol or out in the field?

PS:    I enjoy being out in the field a lot but on the other hand I also enjoy the discovery that comes from the research in the laboratory and from working with students. So I don’t think I really have a preference. Variety is the spice of life so doing both is fine.

SB:    What kind of person would make a good volcanologist?
PS:    I think volcanology in general requires people with good science backgrounds. I would strongly recommend to anyone going into geology or volcanology to take mathematics at A-Level because it’s a science and it’s a quantitative science and you often can’t understand how a volcano works unless you can do the sums, which help you understand the physics of the processes. How a volcano explodes involves some quite complicated physics. And you have to know the mathematics and physics behind that. Chemistry is also useful, as is physics. So starting with a very good science background at school is, I think, the best initial approach.
When you become a geologist then you can often be in remote parts of the world or in difficult circumstances during a volcanic crisis where there’s a lot of stress around so I think it’s a job that suits certain personalities better than others. It can mean that you might be out in the desert and your tyre blows up and you have to find a way of repairing it in soft sand. So there are a lot of practical skills unrelated to science, which are very helpful.

SB:    If a student were keen on pursuing volcanology, is there anywhere they could go to get some kind of experience?
PS:    It is possible to get experience at volcano observatories. Anyone asking for work experience should bear in mind that often people at observatories are very busy and actually you being there takes time out of their important work so if you do volunteer then it’s important to volunteer for a sufficiently long time that you can be of use to them as well as them teaching you something.
There’s a summer school, which I believe is run by the University of Hawaii, on volcanolgy for students. And students from Britain have gone out there and had a great time. Also it might be possible to volunteer for other kinds of geological organisations like mining companies or consultancies. There’s also a scheme with the British geological survey for sampling rocks which many students go on. So there are opportunities for work placement.

SB:    Are there many Earth Science places in universities? Do many universities do that?

PS:    Yes, there are a lot of universities which run Geology degrees. They’re usually departments of Earth Science or Environmental Sciences. There are probably about 30 throughout the country to choose from. The strong universities in Earth Sciences are Oxford and Cambridge. Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool and Edinburgh would be the ones that immediately come to mind. If you want an Oceanographic flavour then the University of Southampton and the University of Plymouth are both good places. So there’s a lot of choice out there of different sorts of degrees. If you’re interested more in the environmental aspects of volcanoes then the University of Lancaster and the University of East Anglia are good places to look at.




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