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Study of volcanoes a high-risk venture

Sunday, August 27, 2000

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

Most geologists study rocks that are ancient, that may have been in place for millions of years. But volcanologists see rocks that are living things, that are being born.

For a scientist, that's exciting. For populations threatened by volcanic eruptions, it's important work. And it can be dangerous. What is alive also is hard to predict, said Stan Williams, a volcanologist at Arizona State University in Tempe.

By his count, volcanoes have claimed 23 volcanologists in the past 20 years -- a high mortality rate for a tiny discipline numbering just 200 to 300 scientists worldwide.

Williams himself almost became a statistic in January 1993. He was part of a team investigating the Galeras volcano in Columbia, which officials feared was ready to erupt, threatening the city of Pasto just a few miles away.

It's a role with which he is familiar -- the expert called in to assess danger as crisis looms. At age 48, he's visited at least 125 active volcanoes, often when they are angry and threatening. At Galeras, he and his colleagues needed to get inside the crater to make measurements and observations.

It was their luck that they were at the crater when Galeras blew, a tiny eruption compared to Mount St. Helens but the largest at Galeras in five years. Six of his colleagues were instantly killed, along with three local residents who had hiked up to watch the action.

Large blocks of rock flying at 100 miles an hour knocked Williams to the ground, breaking his back and both his legs and leaving a hole in his skull and causing major burns. "I was extremely lucky to survive," he said, though he spent the next month hospitalized and eventually required 17 surgeries.

Such experiences are a shock to volcanologists, Williams said, but the pressure on scientists to learn enough about volcanoes to predict their behavior is growing as the threats volcanoes pose to people are increasingly recognized.

In one of the worst volcanic disasters of the 20th century, 25,000 people were killed in 1985 when Nevado del Ruiz, a Colombian volcano, erupted. The eruption itself was small, but when the hot gases and particles released hit the volcano's glacial ice cap, it triggered a surge of meltwater that sent massive mudflows down the nearby canyons.

Williams said about half a billion people today are threatened by 1,500 active volcanoes. In Italy, for instance, Mt. Vesuvius is overdue for an eruption. Its infamous eruption of AD 79 buried the city of Pompeii, but that hasn't stopped a million people from taking up residence within the volcano's danger zone.

Williams said he is cautious -- "I have a wife and two kids" -- but he keeps going back to volcanoes, including Galeras. "Many times I've turned back and just decided, 'Today's not a good day.'" On his first return to Galeras, for instance, he was greeted with an ominous earthquake.

"It was basically telling me, Get the hell out of here, Mr. Williams."

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