Hunting For The Crystalline Clues Of A Volcano’s Eruption

17:11 minutes

This story is a part of Breakthrough, a short film anthology from Science Friday and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) that follows women working at the forefront of their fields. Learn more and watch the films on our Breakthrough spotlight.

We notice volcanoes when they erupt. It’s hard to miss the huge, dramatic plumes of ash, or red glowing lava spewing high into the air. 

But the geologic precursors of these giant eruptions are less obvious. To learn more about when and why these catastrophic events occur, scientists study the gases and rocks inside of volcanoes. Volcanologist Kayla Iacovino, for example, conducts research on volcanoes from Costa Rica to Antarctica—and now, is even looking to other planets. 

Iacovino is featured in our second season of Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science, a video series profiling scientists and how their lives and work intersect. Here, she explains how the gases and crystals released by volcanoes provide important clues into why volcanoes erupt.

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Segment Guests

Kayla Iacovino

Kayla Iacovino is an experimental petrologist with Jacobs at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We notice volcanoes when they erupt– huge, dramatic plumes of ash, glowing lava, spewing high into the air.


Those volcanoes know how to make an entrance, don’t they? That was the sound of an eruption from inside of Mt. Redoubt in Alaska, collected by researchers at the Alaska Volcano Observatory and the University of Washington.

But the geologic precursors of these giant eruptions, well, they are less obvious. And scientists are studying the gases and the rocks inside of volcanoes, to piece together answers to this question, “How will we know when they erupt?”

And they hope to understand what volcanoes can tell us about the impacts they have on the planet’s climate, atmosphere, and geology. My next guest is one of those scientists. She’s studied volcanoes from Costa Rica to Antarctica and is even looking to other planets.

Kayla Iacovino is an experimental petrologist for Jacobs at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. She’s featured in our second season of “Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science,” a video-series that profiles scientists and gets a closer look at how their lives and work intersect.

Welcome back to Science Friday, Kayla.

KAYLA IACOVINO: Hi Ira, great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s nice to have you back. You were out in the field staring at a gaping hole in a volcano, in previous discussions that we had.

KAYLA IACOVINO: Yeah, I think it was– the first time we talked was, what, 10 years ago? And I was on the flanks of Erebus Volcano down in Antarctica, speaking to you via sat-phone.

IRA FLATOW: Now I’ve heard from you, and from studying your biography, that you started out as a different kind of vulcan fan, a big Star Trek fan.

KAYLA IACOVINO: That’s right, yeah, born and raised.

IRA FLATOW: Did Star Trek– did it influence your career at all and what you’re studying?

KAYLA IACOVINO: Yeah, I think it definitely did. I’m a huge Star Trek fan, huge sci-fi fan to this day, and it takes up a lot of my free time. And I think what influenced me was the spirit of exploration, not only of the natural world– which started my interest in science in general– but also the study of the human condition.

In my studies, some of the most rewarding things about what I get to do is to meet people from all over the world, people who are living with volcanoes right on their doorsteps and really dealing with the actual hazards of them on a day-to-day basis.

And that’s the part of my job, really, that I love the most, is the human element.

IRA FLATOW: Not only that but volcanoes fascinate you themselves. I was watching you in the video that we have done here, in our “Breakthrough” series, lovingly touching the side of some sediment that you were collecting.

KAYLA IACOVINO: It’s funny, you know, because, for me, I feel that joy. And I feel that excitement. And I actually– I love hearing that other people can see that, as well. What can I say, I’m a nerd. I get a kick out of rocks.

IRA FLATOW: I do to, to tell you the truth. We won’t tell anybody. You mentioned 10 years ago– when you called into this show live from Antarctica, while you were in the middle of an expedition to Mount Erebus. Take us back there. What did you find out from that trip?

KAYLA IACOVINO: Yeah, so that was during my PhD studies, when I was a PhD student. The work I did there set the tone for a lot of the work that I’ve done throughout my career. And what we did there was to look at the entire system of the volcano, and that means from the surface– even from the atmosphere– to the surface, all the way down, into the guts of the volcano, which sit miles beneath the surface.

And the way that I do that– and the way that I investigate volcanoes– is to look at the volcanic gases that come out at the top. And I like to say that volcanic gases are like the messengers of a volcanic system. They can travel kind of anywhere they want, moving in and out of different parts of the volcanic system. And they record their journeys. So, when they reach the surface, they have a composition or a chemical fingerprint, if you will, that gives us some information about what they’ve been through to get to the surface.

And combining those measurements of the gases themselves, along with measurements of the rocks that have been belched up from within the belly of the volcano, we can build this really unique and whole-scale picture of a volcano. So we can say oh the gases are doing this or they’re changing to do that. That indicates that the volcano is doing something different at depth.

So it’s like giving us this glimpse into the normally-unseen parts of the volcanic system. And really that’s important because the inside of a volcano is really the volcano’s heart. It’s where all of the things that are happening down in the guts of the volcano– are what’s driving the system. So all that energy that comes out the top. You know, rocks exploding into the air– ash, gas– that all starts deep down inside the volcano.

And it’s all driven by energy that comes from that point. So understanding that part of the system is really important if we want to say why does this volcano erupt or will it erupt again. And, if it does, what will that eruption look like?

IRA FLATOW: In the “Breakthrough” video, we followed you to a volcano in Costa Rica. And the landscape there is very stark, you know, it’s covered in ash. It’s all gray. What does it feel like to walk through there?

KAYLA IACOVINO: It’s really other-worldly. Harkening back to the Star Trek thing, I think that is part of also what drives me, is this idea of exploring strange, new worlds right here on Earth. So, on the site of this volcano, Turrialba, in Costa Rica, there’s a dead forest that used to be a thriving rainforest and covered in green and lush. And because of the volcanic activity– not only the ash fall, but also gases that seep out the side of the volcano, toxic gases rich in carbon dioxide– they just flood and choke all the vegetation there. And so that whole side of the mountain has died off. And you’re left with this scar of the activity.

And it’s– when the weather rolls in, and the rainy season, and it gets foggy, and you’re walking through this mist surrounded by just greys everywhere around you, and the earth underneath your feet is, sort of, gray and ashy– it’s really just a stark reminder of the power of that volcano. And that’s when it’s just sitting there happily, doing nothing. That’s not a serious danger. So you know you can imagine when it– if it does decide to erupt in a more explosive way, it could have a much bigger impact on areas much more far-reaching than just right on the flanks.

IRA FLATOW: And give me an idea of, exactly, what you were trying to find out about that volcano.

KAYLA IACOVINO: In Costa Rica, we were working on an active volcano called Volcan Turrialba. So one of the questions we want to be able to answer is, why do volcanoes erupt? And when might they erupt in the future? And, to understand that, we look to the volcanoes past, to the geologic record that shows us a history of what kinds of events– such as changes in chemistry, changes in the magma system– had to have occurred before an eruption took place.

And at Turrialba, for this particular aspect of the project, we were looking at– not of the gases themselves– but as a tracer of those gases that get locked up in the rocks. So there are these things called melt inclusions, which are little blobs of liquid magma. So you can imagine, inside of a magma chamber, deep within the Earth, there is a liquid molten vat of magma and crystals. And, as those crystals grow within the manga chamber, they sometimes trap a little piece of liquid magma.

You can imagine like trapping a fly in amber, for example. And, when that happens, when that crystal traps that piece of magma, it gets locked in time. So what we end up with, at the surface, these rocks come to the surface carrying these crystals, they erupt, and we can pick them up. And now we have a record of these snapshots of the magmatic system throughout its life, leading up to the time at which that rock erupted.

And so we can look back and have this whole history of what was going on deep inside the volcano before it erupted.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, one of the big questions is, why do volcanoes erupt? Do these crystals reveal any of those reasons? And what do we know so far about what might cause or lead up to an eruption?

KAYLA IACOVINO: Yes, so these crystals do reveal that sort of information. And what we’ve learned is that volcanoes tend to erupt when certain thresholds are breached, if you will. So, for example, when too much gas accumulates within the magma chamber– such that the pressure grows and grows and grows until it breaches the rocks at the surface– and then you can have an explosive eruption.

If new magma is emplaced from great depths– so you have a magma chamber sitting in the crust but maybe some new magma from beneath intrudes into that, enters into that space, increases the pressure, causes chemical reactions to occur within the magma chamber– that can also lead to an eruption.

But, really, what we need to be able to do is to take all of this information and create some sort of a generic model to say, OK, if x happens, the volcano will erupt because the tricky part about predicting volcanic eruptions is that every volcano is unique. So, by doing more and more studies of individual volcanoes, we can start to build a generic picture to say something about volcanoes in general.

IRA FLATOW: I know you’ve traveled to volcanoes all over the world and stared into these lakes of magma. You must be able to feel the heat. What’s it like to stare down there? You must have some sort of fear, I would imagine.

KAYLA IACOVINO: It’s funny, I can’t really say that I feel fear in that situation. I won’t say that I’ve never felt fear in a volcano because that wouldn’t be true. But when I look at a lava lake– and I do– by the way, to answer your question, yes, you can– if the lava lake is large enough or close enough to you– feel the heat from the lava itself. And you can smell the gases. You can feel it in your face and in your lungs.

And, if those are tolerable levels, then what I feel when I look at that is more of a sense of awe, rather than fear. It’s just this amazing natural phenomenon that we get to behold.

IRA FLATOW: But I know you’ve had a close encounter with a lava bomb. Tell us about that.

KAYLA IACOVINO: I was walking with a friend, just for fun, we were walking around the crater rim, circumnavigating the crater. And we’re just walking and chatting and having a good time. And we’re just down far enough on the flank that we can’t quite see to the lava lake. We can just see the rim right above us. And we’re walking along, we hear this boom, this just guttural deep boom.

And we both looked at each other. And I think– I imagine she was thinking the same thing that I was thinking, which for the first split second was, “What was that?” And then, immediately, after that it was like “Oh, of course, I’m on a volcano. It’s the volcano.” And so we’re looking at each other, and then we turn, and we both run towards the flank of the volcano, so we can see what’s happening.

And we get there just in time to see this red-hot, glowing hot, balls of magma flying straight up into the air and then reaching the peak of their arc, slowing, turning around, stopping in midair as they reach the peak of their arc, and then gracefully falling back down into the crater. And it was just magnificent to see.

IRA FLATOW: You’re now working for NASA. And you’re looking at rocks from other planets. Tell us how this is connected to volcanoes.

KAYLA IACOVINO: Yeah, so one of the things I’ve been able to do– I’ve been working for Jacobs at NASA for the last couple of years now. And it’s been really an opportunity for me to stretch my skill-set beyond our planet. And the reason we can do that is because the processes that we study here on Earth– that fundamental geologic processes– are the same ones that are happening on other planets, on other rocky bodies, so Venus, Mars, Mercury, asteroids and even planets outside of our solar system.

And so what we want to understand is how did these planets form? How did they evolve to the point where they’re at today? And what does that mean for our planet? Everything we learn about other planets puts Earth into context.

For example, one of the questions that– the research group that I’m in that we study is understanding water on Earth. Where did it come from? And we have these clues from very, very ancient meteorites and samples that we have from other planetary bodies.

They give us clues as to which of these groups of meteorites may have been the messengers to deliver water and other things like sulfur, fluorine, chlorine, phosphorous, all these things that we need for life to exist on Earth. How did they get here? And why is Earth so unique in the way that it looks, in terms of these elements?

So, yeah, it’s a very exciting field to be a part of. And learning how to work with these different data sets and doing really– working with exotic rocks has just been a blast.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. And this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

In case you’re just joining us, talking with Kayla Iacovino, who’s a volcanologist talking about her adventures studying volcanoes. Scientists, this week, talk about having detected a giant gas cloud on Venus that they suspect– if they look at what it’s made of– could have been created by living things.

What’s your take on that, as a volcanologist?

KAYLA IACOVINO: This is something that’s so exciting. I have to admit, I am hashtag Team Venus. I’m a huge Venus fan. They’ve detected phosphene in the clouds on Venus which is a really promising bio-signature, meaning that it may have been put there by life. And the authors of the work are saying that they feel this is a strong possibility.

It could have been generated in some non-biological process, like some high-heat reaction. But we just don’t know. But, as a volcanologist, the thing that really gets me is– this blows my mind every time– we do not know if Venus is volcanically-active.

Like, it’s 2020, and we don’t know if Venus is volcanically-active because we haven’t sent the right instruments to make those measurements. And we have some clues telling us that it might be– if I had to guess, if I were a betting woman, I would say– I would guess that Venus is volcanically-active.

NASA has been very focused on the search for life, so the whole, like, follow-the-water mnemonic and has led them on a lot of places to Mars and other– looking towards other places like Europa and Titan.

But, yeah, Venus gets discounted for life. And so people tend to overlook it. So I’m hopeful that this discovery will help open that up. And the public will get interested in it. And that’ll drum up some more support for good, old Venus, our sister-planet.

IRA FLATOW: One last question for you, which I ask a lot of scientists, and that is, if you had a blank check– I don’t have it in my back pocket– what would you use it for? What do you want to know that you don’t know now about volcanoes or the makeup of our planet or other planets?

KAYLA IACOVINO: First of all, send some instruments to Venus. But, really, the heart of what I would love to do is to create models and systems that can tell us about when a volcano is going to erupt and give us predictive capabilities, something that can really make an impact in the world.

And it warms my heart when there’s part of my research that can really have a direct impact on other people on the planet. It would be some money well-spent there.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s time well-spent with you, Kayla. I want to thank you for taking your time to be with us today.

KAYLA IACOVINO: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Kelly Iacovino is an experimental petrologist for Jacobs at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

She’s featured in our second season of “Breakthrough: Portraits of Women in Science” video-series.

We’ll be premiering a new episode every Friday, through October, and we’re partnering with Alamo Drafthouse, where you can watch all the videos and listen to panels with the filmmakers and scientists.

And you can watch the video, yeah, you can watch the video and learn more at breakthroughfilms.org. And it’s a beautiful, beautiful video. I think you really will enjoy it. Luke Groskin put it all together– fantastic stuff.

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