Hot Science

On Cordón Caulle, a volcano high up in the Chilean wilderness, researchers document an evolving landscape.

Photo by Brandon Martin

Two weeks shrouded in ash and steam served as the “experience of a lifetime” for Rice Ph.D. student and volcanologist Patrick Phelps. Phelps, armed with burning questions that could only be answered by a real volcano, was able to take his research abroad after being awarded an Expanding Horizons Fellowship, made possible by Walter Loewenstern ’58.

Phelps, along with his research partners, were dropped off by helicopter near the smoldering caldera of Cordón Caulle, an active volcano located in the south-central Andes. The site was chosen because no other place could provide near real-time knowledge about the types of large, explosive eruptions the volcano is known for. Its 2011 eruption was one of the largest of the 21st century.

“This specific type of eruption hasn’t happened in recent human memory, where we could actually walk on the volcano and see just how this type of system has evolved over 10 years,” Phelps said. “We really wanted to take some samples and assess where this volcano is going to be in the next 10 years.”

The opportunity to be on-site included two weeks of tent camping without access to showers or real bathrooms, 4 a.m. wake-ups — and ubiquitous dust, steam and heat. The team cobbled together a group shelter on a massive lava field with a tarp and some paracord, rocks and sticks. Their individual tents would serve as their only protection against the elements, which included falling ash and snow. The team learned that in this geothermal environment some rocks were hot enough to use for cooking meals.

Acutely aware that their feet might puncture the lava field’s fragile crust, Phelps and his team worked carefully to measure temperatures, ash layers and gas emissions to create a “snapshot” of the volcano’s present state. They used a drone equipped with a thermal-imaging tool and another equipped with a regular camera to assist their efforts. Phelps recalled, “There were otherworldly cracks and crevices, some extending down to what seemed like the bowels of the Earth, emitting noxious gases that had to be measured without falling in.

“Every night I went to sleep not knowing if the slumbering beast would awaken, but I couldn’t let that bother me for want of a good night’s rest. Many people spend their entire lives within the shadow of an active volcano never considering the hazard,” Phelps said.



— Jade Boyd