Kilauea visit

I recently got surprised by my mother with a surprise trip to Hawaii. Aside from this being an utterly stellar gift, I can now say I personally witnessed  two erupting volcanoes and visited 3 hot spots. I definitely have a mother who knows me, and does more than she needs to support my passions and interests. She showed endless patience watching me scramble around the volcanic park on the Big Island

I’m not sure where my love of geology came from. My mother says when I was little, shiny little rocks used to utterly fascinate me. I remember finding a block of pumice in the forest behind my house, dusty and full of holes. I took it home and placed it on the window sill in the kitchen. It was my rock, and I liked to look at it and handle it, feeling the strange texture. I also remember getting panicked, because people always told you about erosion and weathering, but I don’t remember hearing about lithification. I thought we were going to run out of rocks. I was so terrified of running out of rocks, I wondered where would we all stand?

What a weird fear for a child to have.

In my teenage years, I collected rocks. Particularly the shiny ones. I still do that, if I’m honest. It wasn’t until I went on my first field trip, in Antrim, that geology really caught me though. A part of me keeps waiting for that interest to run out. I keep wondering how much passion for rocks can a person really have? I’ve made my entire life about geology. It’s my career path and one of my favourite hobbies. When I go on holidays, I always look up the geology of the area in advance. That initial joy has never died down or been diluted. In geology I learnt a whole new way of seeing the world. When you can read a landscape, you can learn the story of a region. Not everyone in life gets to find their passion. I often pinch myself, hoping that I never lose it. Like I had to do recently in Hawaii.

To Kilauea:

I went on the lavaone boat tour. On the one hand I actually try to avoid going on geological guided tours. I usually know more than the tour guides, because I’ll read up on the area before I go ( I have the research bug). I generally don’t have much patience to stand around and listen to stuff that has become quite basic to me, after years of study. On the other hand, on an active volcano I would choose a guide with a park ranger just for safety reasons. They have up to date information on where is safe to go, and that sort of information is really important.

I didn’t choose the hiking option. Since I was surprised with the trip, I had a winter wardrobe and no hiking gear to handle the hike. Forcing me into either buying hiking gear or the boat option. That and we were somewhat pressed for time. The entire experience was surreal. My mother dropped me off at the meeting spot. After listening to the safety talk I got on the boat and sat on my own a few rows from the front. You could see the cloud of steam from quite far away.


At this point I was pretty excited. I had previously seen the Copahue eruption in 2014, but I didn’t see any lava in that eruption. I vaguely listened in to the explanation the tour guides were giving, and aside from calling the lava pouring out ‘magma’ (which I guess can be forgiven, since correct terminology isn’t as important to them as it is to scientists), their information was correct.

Coming up close to the lava, it got quite warm. Seeing steam rise up off the heated water was beautiful. Overall there was only a very light sulphur smell. But maybe I compare everything to Fogo in Cape Verde, where my lips prickled with all of the Sulphur Dioxide in the air, and it’s all mild after that. I got my first sighting of lava when I viewed the crater from the Jaggar Museum (best seen at night for taking photographs). It doesn’t photograph all that well (with my lack of talent as a photographer, and the fact that I was using an iPhone to take the pictures) but I could see some of the lava bubbling when I went during the day.

I may have teared up a little. I can’t help it. I love geology. I spent a full year of my life working just on research in igneous petrology and geochemistry. I got attached.

Since I had already seen the little fountains of lava from the lava lake in the crater, I felt a little bit more prepared to see the lava tunnel pouring out of the cliff side. A little.

It was such a surreal experience. I did not take a photo that does it justice. It was so much more dramatic in person. I’ll attach two youtube links to videos I took for anyone interested. What was particularly cool was the fact that the steam cloud coming off the ocean was twisting in a helix shape (look at the second link I attach to see that). It was so beautiful.

If you want to look at some of the geology behind it all, or more scientific background, I definitely can’t do it better justice than the USGS:

On a final note, I can’t recommend visiting the volcano park enough. Just make sure you do it with a park ranger if you’re doing any hikes close to hot lava. They know what’s safe to do or not! I highly recommend the lava tour, I am so glad I did it. Though as a geologist I would have preferred to do the hike.

There’s always next time…

Close up of lava coming out. These videos were taken on a much fancier camera than my phone, so they are quite good quality aside from my not so steady hands. The black flecks are cooled lava. You could see quite a few large chunks of the stuff floating for a while:

This video shows the twisting cloud. Really awesome to look up at that:



Cape Verde

I meant to write this ages ago, but life got away from me. Better late than never. In may we went on a 10 day island hopping field trip in the Cape Verde Islands, which were created by hot spot volcanism. There is still a mantle plume down there, and it sits under the islands of Fogo & Brava.

Though Island hopping sounds exciting and very holiday-esque, it was a really exhausting trip. We would spent on average 2 days on one Island, travelling to another island every second day, before or after a full day of hiking. Though a beautiful and fascinating field trip, I was so exhausted by the time I got to Lisbon I spent most of my weekend there reading in the botanical gardens.

I became the designated translator on the trip. Since I speak French and some Spanish and the locals spoke a mixture of French, Portuguese and Creole, we managed to communicate in some shape or form on each Island. Which was important when it comes to telling the drivers not to drive off and leave us stranded in the middle of nowhere.

The hiking itself was rarely all that bad but the heat was intense on some days. Hiking, working & thinking in plus 30 degrees with a heavy bag on your back gets exhausting. So, lots of snacks and sneaky lunch naps.

The islands consist of beaches and Volcanos. My kinda place. Those two pimples there are Volcanos. If you had any doubts.


High lights of the trip involved a half day at the beach, where we went swimming in the Atlantic for a few hours, followed by unintentionally hiking a volcano in flip flops. Our professor kept saying ‘we’re just going over there, you don’t need to put your hiking boots on’.


Managed to get to the top, spot a couple of hauyne (enjoy trying to pronounce that) crystals and then back down without breaking anything. I don’t advise hiking a volcano in flip flops. It’s a really stupid idea.

On Santa Antao we saw some really exciting dykes. To those not familiar with certain geological terms, the dykes I am referring to are igneous intrusions. In the first photo you can see how the dykes that feed volcanos from a magma chamber behave. Almost like fingers, that are reaching out along the planes of weakness. When things go well, one (or more) of the feeder channels can reach the surface, resulting in a volcano erupting on the surface.

The edges of these ‘channels’ are solid, and they behave as a conduit for the magma to travel. Like liquid through a straw. You can really see that in the second photo.

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Now that dyke is pretty freaking exciting to me. You can see the walls of the dyke in contact with the country rock (surrounding stuff). From what we could see, the magma eventually stopped feeding the dyke, so there was just a cavity. Later pyroclastic eruptions then filled up the cavity in successive layers.

As dykes go. Yowza.

We got to see the famous ‘Darwins Profile’. I forgive you if you haven’t heard of it. I can’t say that I found the profile itself excessively exciting, however I got to see a side of pillow basalts that I had not seen before. The beaches were nice too. DSC03312DSC03302DSC03321DSC03324

Pillow basalts don’t look like pillows, as the name implies. rather they are tubes. At Darwins profile we got to see the pillows in 3D. Pretty perfect rocks right there.

However, the best part of the whole trip was definitely when we visited the Pico do Fogo on Fogo Island. This was our first view of the Pico.


All that broken up land you see if lava. At this point we were standing within a Caldera which had formed about 10,000 years ago. Then over the last 250 years that pico formed in the middle. Within the Caldera, there was a town called Portello. It was entirely covered in lava over a period of 2 days, during a recent eruption on December 5th & 6th, 2014. The eruption continued from November 2014 until February 2015.

Our driver used to live in Portello. Since I was one of the only ones who understood him, he kept on saying to me how terrible and horrible it was. Repeatedly. Every once in a while he would call my professor over to show him something. He spent most of the time looking at the town with his hand over his mouth, shaking his head. Eventually he pointed down into a valley and said ‘that is my house’.

We couldn’t actually see anything more than the roofs of the houses. The lava covered everything but the tops of the taller buildings.

Over the years I have had people tell me so many times how my degree is boring, merely an ‘arts’ degree, not a science. How on earth could rocks be interesting? Well, in this case, geologists saved lives. A group of geologists had been monitoring the volcano for some years, and before the eruption occurred they managed to warn the entire village and evacuate so that no one was hurt. There are volcanic observatories around the world monitoring volcanos in case they might erupt.

The more we understand about natural hazards, the more deaths caused by them can be prevented. Right now, what we know is a drop in the ocean. There is just so much work to do.

When I heard about the eruption initially I was so excited. I hoped that it was  still erupting when I got out there. I had read that a village had been destroyed, but all I could think about was seeing my subject in action. I found it difficult to reconcile my excitement of the eruption with what I saw in that village. I love what I do, and when I see my subject in action I get so excited. It’s a puzzle I need to figure out. In the face of that destroyed village, my excitement felt almost crass. At the same time, when I got into the field work for the day I cannot say that my excitement was in any way diminished. So, I hope that the work I will do in the future might contribute to our understanding of igneous activity. The more we understand, the more deaths can be prevented.

The 2014/15 eruption occurred on the flank of the volcano, as a parasitic vent. My partner and I hiked the volcano trying to access a fissure that formed in the 1995 eruption. In the lower photo, you can see a small scar on  the far left. That was the furthest we got. It was too dangerous to go any further towards the craters.


If you look closely you can see two craters, both with yellow colouring the rims. That yellow is native sulphur. We found some bombs covered in native sulphur around th 1995 vent and now I have a bunch of rocks covered in sulphur stored away at home. The dark brown/black stuff on the bottom of the vents is fresh lava flow, which covered an older lava flow from 1995 (the brown colour).

What I found unbearably awesome was the fact that the lava was still hot. it was deposited a few months before we got there, but it was too hot to sit on at times. the heat itself moved in waves. When eating our lunch, we were happily sitting on the lava when all of a sudden it got so hot I yelped and jumped up.


Not only was their a lot of heat, the craters themselves were still degassing. That was why we couldn’t approach any closer. Those gases were toxic, and we would have suffocated had we gone too close to the craters.

I learnt a lot on this trip. Getting to see such young lava alongside older eruptions taught me a lot. I’m pretty excited about it still. I think it made me better at what I do.


Canary Islands field trip

I never had any desire to visit these islands. My mental image has never been a complimentary one. I have to admit, after visiting: I was right. It is a tourist hell. Every single aspect of the towns seems to be directed at tourists.

But there is a single redeeming factor. If you like volcanology, like I do, it’s freaking awesome. Gran Canaria has the most awesome ignimbrites that I have ever seen or heard of. There was a time, where if you had been on that Island, you would have died. Melted down and formed part of an ignimbrite. The eruptions, in my imagination, are utterly epic and they probably don’t come close to the reality. Look at how happy I was studying those bad boys.2015-03-04 14.55.16

When a volcano erupts, there are two main (very broadly) types of eruptions: lava & pyroclastic. Lava, like we see in stromboli, Italy. Pyroclastic, like we see in Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland. On Gran Canaria, both have occured, but the pyroclastic eruptions are way way cooler in this situation.

Do you know what a Caldera is? It’s pretty sweet. It’s an eruption that is so strong, it has so much force, that it completely vacates it’s magma chamber and then it collapses in on itself, forming a crater. You get a series of ring faults along the margins of the Caldera where the collapse mainly occurs. In Gran Canaria, the ignimbrite has been hydrothermally altered around the caldera fault, resulting in some really beautiful views.


The red, is oxidised, whilst the green is reduced. You can see the ignimbrite on the next mountain side in the photo. This does not show you how big the Caldera was, if you’re starting to think: huh that’s big. This Caldera is 15 km in diameter. It is not close to the largest. In Indonesia, lake Toba, there is a caldera that is 100 km in diameter. That’s a super volcano.

You would not want to be there during a Caldera Collapse.

The ignimbrite on Gran Canaria, which occurred around the same time as this Caldera collapse is found all over the island. This thing went for km’s. Just imagine, this primordial hell. Hot, like nothing else, and turbulent forces that would rip everything apart in its path. Blobs & bombs of magma flying in the air, flung across the breadth of the island. Just utter incomprehensible, destructive insanity.

At the base of the ignimbrites, most of them are not oxidised. This tells us that there was no oxygen when they were deposited. These eruptions were so violent, so turbulent, that oxygen couldn’t get in.

If you don’t think that that is awesome, don’t tell me. I will merely send you videos of volcanic eruptions until you change your mind. If you want videos of volcanic eruptions, I can oblige.


You see in the above photo, there is a mouth shaped light coloured part, next to a tiny hammer? That hammer is about 30 cms. That shit was a bomb of magma during the eruption. Otherwise, that is called a fiamme. Beneath it, harder to see, is an 8 m long fiamme. What is fiamme you ask? Well! Fiamme is essentially collapsed pumice. What is pumice, say those who have never heard of volcanos? Pumice was lava, that cooled in the air. All the bubbles or vesicles in it are from gas escaping. After the ignimbrite gets deposited, sometimes they move afterwards. This stretches out and collapses the pumice.

So imagine a blob of gas rich lava, the size of a house, hurtling towards you.

Less educationally, here are some pretty pictures for you to look at:

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The gist of it all, is that I really truly love volcanoes. The more I learn about them, the cooler they are. If you ever visit this place; go inland. The inner sections of the island are absolutely gorgeous. The coast is pretty much horrendous and tacky.