Sunday, November 06, 2005

Experts to study volcano in Antarctica

Although most people probably associate volcanoes with intense heat, a New Mexico Tech student's passion for them is taking him to one of the coldest places on earth.

Kyle Jones, a geophysics major who will be a senior in the spring, said he plans to leave Nov. 25 to travel to Antarctica to help professors in the Earth and Environmental Science Department with research on the volcano Mount Erebus. He is scheduled to leave Antarctica on Jan. 5 to vacation in New Zealand for about 10 days.

The trip is set for Antarctica's summer, when weather is warmer with temperatures typically around 25 degrees below zero, said Tech Erebus Principal Investigator Philip Kyle.

Jones, 21, said he wants to take the trip because he loves volcanoes, especially Antarctic volcanoes.

"It's the reason I get up in the morning," he said.

Kyle, a professor of geochemistry, said Jones is the second undergraduate of 20 Tech students who have gone on Antarctic expeditions. Jones is going because of his passion for Erebus and his good job working with data on the volcano as a research assistant, he said.

Jones also helped develop a computer program for the study.

"So it's very appropriate for him to actually go into the field and actually see how everything works," Kyle said.

Tech operates the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory, which the National Science Foundation funds, to monitor Erebus' activity, seek to understand volcanic eruptions and look at Erebus' effect on the Antarctic environment, Kyle said.

Researchers use extremely sensitive infrasonic microphones to register sound of a pitch too low to hear from the volcano's eruptions. Jones said some have failed due to the harsh conditions, so he will work with Kyle and Associate Professor of Geochemistry Bill McIntosh to replace them and add more.

He also said he plans to help replace video-capture equipment with a digital system. The current facility records three videos in 24 hours. Researchers have to fast forward through them hoping to see an eruption, Jones said.

He said the digital system would save only that footage showing eruptions.

Kyle said Erebus, the world's southern-most active volcano, has the very rare characteristic of containing lava lakes, currently two. Researchers can see the process inside the volcano by using these lakes as windows to its interior, he said. They can apply knowledge of Erebus to similar volcanoes.

Tech scientists also test equipment in Antarctica because the conditions are the world's harshest, he said.

"If it can survive a winter in Antarctica, it can survive just about anything," he said.
Kyle said volcanoes in Antarctica are no different than volcanoes elsewhere around the world.
"Volcanoes are really just a surface expression of something going on deeper down," he said.
Erebus' heat is not enough to melt all the snow and glaciers on its sides and snow on parts of its crater, although its escaping steam forms ice towers and caves when it hits the cold air.
Jones said the eruptions Tech researchers see are gas bubbles rising to the surface and popping.
"With all of our sensors down there, we know when it does just about anything," he said.
Kyle said the biggest danger in the research is the small chance of being hit by molten rocks small eruptions throw out of the crater. This has never happened, he said.

Kyle also said the volcano's altitude of 12,500 feet above sea level could make some people sick.
Jones' association with Tech volcano research began in grade school when he heard Kyle give a presentation about Antarctica and Erebus at Alamogordo's IMAX Dome Theater.

Jones said he was captivated and spoke to Kyle afterward. The two kept in touch until Jones came to Tech.

"He was very enthusiastic, very interested," Kyle said. "And we always like to have enthusiastic students."

Professor of Geophysics Richard Aster created a job for Jones and became his adviser.
"He's doing very well, and he's learning the tools he needs to learn to be an independent researcher," Aster said.

He said Jones' work shows that undergraduates have ample opportunity for research at Tech.
Besides his upcoming trip, Jones manages the Erebus eruption database archive.
He wrote a computer program to show current eruptions, Aster said. Other organizations, including the National Science Foundation, downloaded the program.

Jones also helped pinpoint the location of Socorro's tremors last Saturday.

For his senior and his master's theses, Jones said, he hopes to locate the size and location of Erebus eruptions.

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