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Mt. St. Helens Eruption

Eruption of Mt. St. Helens on May 18, 1980. Photo: USGS

Volcanoes are one of the most beautiful and powerful geologic processes that shape the face of the Earth. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, a minor affair when put into a geologic perspective, released the energy of about 24 megatons of TNT – equivalent to the energy needed to circumnavigate the Earth in a car well over half a million times. Volcanic recycling of water has filled our oceans. Volcanoes have given birth to our continents. Every atom of carbon and hydrogen in your body (roughly 5 x 10^27, or 5 octillion, atoms, which is equivalent to 28% of our body by mass) has likely been erupted from volcano, perhaps several times, before becoming a building block of your body. Volcanoes are truly a source of intellectual inspiration, but they also have very tangible relevance. Volcanic hazards threaten over 500 million people worldwide, and eruptions are commonplace. At any given time, about 15 volcanoes are erupting*. Gaining a better understanding of how volcanoes operate is undeniably one of our most fundamental endeavors.

This blog is about discovering volcanoes. It’s about what volcanoes are, how they work, and why we study them. It’s my goal to explore volcanoes from the ground up. No background in geology will be required for the journey, but a healthy aptitude for science will be an asset. I hope to provide casual discussion on many fascinating aspects of the inner workings of volcanoes, which are informed by the most current, most cutting-edge research in the field.

A different, perhaps subsidiary, goal is to use this website as a platform for sharing Earth science educational resources. I have taught several geology labs and, as a result, have several teaching aids that I’d like to share.

Rasmussen_Lava

Me and some lava erupting from Kilauea volcano in Hawaii.

And you might be wondering about me, the author. Volcanoes have been the object of my research, excitement, and deepest curiosity for the last several years of my life. Currently, I’m pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia University and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. I research the transportation and storage of magma, the fuel for volcanoes, in the Aleutian Volcanic Arc, an archipelago of volcanic islands that stretches from Alaska to the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia, and it is for this reason – and my demonstrable claim that this is one of the most fascinating, most volcanically active regions on Earth – that I will commonly use Aleutian volcanoes as examples. Prior to my arrival at Columbia, I was an undergraduate at University of Oregon. I studied processes that generate magmas in the Lassen Peak area of the California Cascades. As a master’s student at New Mexico Tech, I worked on Antarctic volcanoes. I worked on understanding the pre-eruptive behavior of magmatic volatiles (a fundamental component of magma that controls many aspects of the volcanic process). My goal for this project is to share with you my enthusiasm for and knowledge of volcanoes.

Rasmussen_ORCascades

Me collecting explosively-erupted “tephra” near the summit of North Sister volcano in Oregon. Mt. Bachelor, South Sister, and Middle Sister (all volcanoes) look on.

*In future posts, I will return to many of the assertions in the first paragraph and explain them in more detail, but now, I wanted to have a quick discussion on what it means for a volcano to be “erupting”. You might think: erupting? Lava oozing? Ash clouds billowing? It’s true. Those processes can accompany eruptions, but here I define “eruption” as a volcano in a non-normal state. For example, earthquakes might be occurring at the volcano (potential signals of the underground movement of magma) or the volcano might have an abnormally high heat flow (possibly indicating the recent arrival of a shallow magma body). For more, look forward to posts on the volcanic process, the scale and style of volcanic eruptions, volatiles and volcanoes, and volcanoes through time.

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