8 December, 2001
Yesterday the idea of using the sense of sight was considered as one avenue by which this research team is attempting to understand the volcano. Before we consider the sense of smell, I would like to establish a few basic ideas that might help to make clear what we're doing here.
First, therre is no single hypothesis--no overriding thesis that is being tried. Mt. Erebus is a "well-behaved" (yet far >from asleep) volcano that offers a relatively unique window of opportunity for all kinds of vulcanological research. There is certainly the idea that a volcano like this allows geologists to see into the earth--a rare opportunity--but the questions being asked are varied. In some ways, this is not a team. It will generate several papers, not one integrated work. In other ways--the work ways--it is definitely a team, with everyone helping someone else many different times.
One more thing to keep in mind as we proceed, is that there is a student/teacher relationship going on here. Graduate and undergraduate students working with University professors to establish their own cache of data, ideas for publishing, and a sense of "how-to" when it comes to actually doing research in this harsh place.
Smell can send a powerful signal. I won't go on about how repugnant, overwhelming, beautiful, or confusing a smell can be--we all know. But what about "smelling" a volcano? I can say at the outset that it stinks! Smelling involves making sense of molecules that are dispersed into the air. If Mt.Erebus can be smelled, than it must be emitting gases into the air, and indeed it is. Some of the gases are perhaps easily guessed. Let's start with water vapor. It is the "big boy" of gases emitted in the plume. If you are following me so far, then you are probably familiar with the water cycle. The water you pour into a glass might contain molecules from ocean waves, icicles hanging from roofs, and the vapor from the breath of your cat. The water vapor coming from Mt. Erebus is brand new to the cycle! It has been "locked up" in the earth from its formation, so Happy Birthday to this new water.
Second in line comes carbon dioxide. Tina Calvin hopes to measure carbon dioxide during this field season. This is a chemical that interests scientists for one overriding reason--global warming. Carbon dioxide appears to help the earth hold its heat, thus changing its climate. Vulcanologists would like to compare the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by volcanoes to the carbon dioxide given off by people in all their many activities (burning, driving, etc.).
Next comes a compound called sulfur dioxide. Sulfur appears leaching out of the sides of the volcano, it can be found in pure lumps, it combines in the atmosphere to form sulphuric acid--it does all sorts of things. (It's the reason I said that the volcano can stink.) The way that it gets measured as a gas is unique. For every other parameter, we are driving snowmobiles all over the place, carting solar panels up hills, mailing filters off to Paris....sheesh. Measuring sulphur dioxide is done >from the hut. Dr. Philip Kyle aims his Correlation Spectrometer (COSPEC) at the plume of the volcano on a "good day." It sweeps back and forth through the plume telescopically. It is amazing to me that TONS of sulphur are emitted into the atmosphere by this volcano every day. And this volcano pales in comparison to others.
The idea that this volcano pales in comparison to other volcanoes is an interesting story. It is not as big as other volcanoes. It doesn't "blow up" quite as hugely as volcanoes in history have done. But here it sits in such a pristine place bubbling and fuming away. A perfect specimen for the vulcanologist.
This brings us to the last ingredients blasted into the atmosphere by this hole in the earth. Elements like chlorine, fluorine, and then the metals--lead, selenium, and others. Scientists are looking at levels of lead found in the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Minute levels, but the question is, "Does this come from humans?" Maybe it comes from Mt. Erebus? There are so many questions.
Personal log: Beautiful day. Twenty degrees below zero, but calm and sunny. I made a run back to Fang Glacier to look for the big snow crystals, but no luck. I also joined our visitors from the Exploratorium for a brief descent into one of the ice fumeroles behind our camp. Tomorrow: A trip to CONZ.
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