I’m a research geophysicist studying volcanic activity at the Cascades Volcano Observatory. What I do depends on the time of year, but it boils down to three main duties: Researching, crisis response, and training with foreign counterparts.
I look at fundamental questions, such as why volcanoes erupt and what signals might forecast an eruption. I use data from volcanoes in Alaska, because there’s a long history of seismographic monitoring there. I can see what happened before an eruption, when it happened, and what followed.
I might see a “swarm” of earthquakes, a series of 10 to 100 quakes, and find out whether nearby volcanoes erupted after such a swarm in the past. We have catalogs of these swarms, so we can compare patterns in different locations to make predictions. For example, did the swarm come 1 or 2 weeks before an eruption? And if the swarm is of a specific magnitude, what’s the chance that a volcano might erupt afterward?
If there’s a volcano that’s showing signs of an eruption, the local observatory might call us in. As part of our crisis response duties, we stream and analyze data in real time so we can forecast what might happen. Usually, we don’t have much time once signs of eruption have started.
I spend several days or weeks at a time working at foreign observatories and training with their staff. We study their data, run simulations, give presentations, share techniques, and more.
Working with teams abroad gives us a wider perspective on the many scenarios that might lead to an eruption. Each person specializes in a particular type of volcano, so we benefit from everyone’s experience.
There’s always some kind of volcanic activity happening somewhere in the world, so we work around the clock. After an eruption, we try to determine if we missed a signal. And we discuss what we learned with local and foreign teams so we can all improve.
As an undergraduate, I studied geology. A lot of people study mathematics or physics.
As part of my master’s program, I also worked at an Indonesian observatory while serving in the Peace Corps. That gave me an intuition about the limitations of the data because a lot of times you can’t answer questions unless you have really good data. It also forced me to work with scientists in other fields, such as geochemists. Talking to them helped me narrow down the possibilities of what might happen even if I don’t have good data.
Computer skills are essential. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a volcanologist or an IT specialist. I do a lot of programming and troubleshooting because different teams use different types of software, and we end up hitting a lot of snags that we have to solve.
Most of the people on my team, including me, speak a second language. Communicating well with our foreign counterparts is a very important part of the job. It’s also important to be sensitive to cultural differences, such as communication styles and expectations.
I like that my job is not a science experiment. It’s nice to see the immediate application of the work. These are real physical events that affect people. We have tools that help us to understand the data, but because these events aren’t happening in the vacuum of a laboratory, there are many ways to interpret the data. The challenge of figuring out the puzzle keeps me interested. Otherwise, it’d just be a lot of math and programming.
I also enjoy my colleagues. My local team is really great, and I get to work with a lot of people from different countries. Communicating in a foreign language gives me a broader set of experiences than if I were, say, studying volcanoes as an academic.
The hardest part is that you never know your schedule. You can try to plan out your week, month, or year, but you never know when a volcano will start erupting. It can be difficult to get into the flow of work because things crop up without warning. Other times, there is no crisis happening, and you have all this time with nothing planned.
It’s also hard to coordinate and synthesize complex data into something people can understand. Lots of people are involved, and we might have many different opinions about what might happen, but we can’t tell the media a whole lot of conflicting information. As a group, we have to speak with one voice, so it’s a challenge to make sure that every voice is heard. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to do that better.
Trust your gut. Study whatever specialty you really like, and find a related project so you can gain experience. If you’re interested in the crisis response part, for example, identify useful problems to answer while you’re still in school.
The Alaska Volcano Observatory publishes a really big book with all the data from the previous year, which can give you ideas for collaborative or research projects. These projects are really cool, and observatories are always looking for help from students, so you can get involved early.
But not every observatory has the technical ability and instruments to do the kind of work you’re interested in. If you know what you want to do, you can hone in on the observatories that offer the best fit and start getting the skills you’ll need to get you there.
Dennis Vilorio, "Geophysicist," Career Outlook, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2016.