From May 13, 2005 Tech Topics

As an expert on the dangers of volcanoes, Bill Rose has done pretty well. He's a go-to guy for the likes of National Geographic and the top PBS science series Nova. He no longer worries about getting the next big grant or making the next big discovery.

With the scramble to establish himself long past, he has found a way to keep a research program he loves while bypassing the usual frenzy involved in an active academic career.

"I have an appointment that's ideal for a senior professor," says Rose, a professor in the Department of Geological and Mining Engineering and Sciences. "This is such a good deal, I don't know why more of us don't do it."

Rose works only one semester a year on campus. In the spring, he's out in the field, traveling to volcanic hot spots or visiting colleagues at universities and institutes around the world. It amounts to an unpaid sabbatical every year.

"I'm doing what I want to do, and it's good for my department," he says. "They get half my salary back."

Grants make up some of his lost salary, but not all of it. That's just fine with Rose, who points out that with the kids out of college and the mortgage paid off, he doesn't need as much money as he used to, either.

Also, he notes candidly, while wisdom may accompany age, energy may not. "This is good for my health," says Rose. "I don't have the same faculties as I did when I was young, and a professor should be at the cutting edge."

That said, Rose's new career tack has made him a pioneer in a nearly empty field. "I call it social geology," he says.

It came about when he and his fellow geologists tried to warn populations living in the shadow of volcanos. "We'd work hard and make these elegant communications with the latest technology," he recalls. "We'd have maps with red areas generated by fancy computerized methods and based on the best scientific models of volcano behaviors.

"We'd think these things were wonderful, but we found out that the people living on the volcano didn't think they were wonderful at all. They didn't believe them."

What the scientists and the people had was a failure to communicate. Social geology is an attempt to remedy that failure.

"We need to listen to what those people say about the volcano and develop information with them, so they'll believe us and benefit from it," says Rose. This is not rhetorical exercise. Disbelieving geologists' warnings about volcanic behavior can have serious consequences.

To address the issue, Rose is taking on a project he never would have considered as an assistant professor. He has developed the nation's first Peace Corps Master's International Program in Mitigation of Natural Geological Hazards.

"I've worked on volcanos for 40 years with numbers of grad students. They go to the site for two or four weeks and then come home. Now we'll have students there for the long term, and they won't just do geology. They'll also work with the people in the community."

"This is pretty neat," he adds. "I couldn't have done it when I was a young guy building a resume. NSF is supporting it for one year; they think social geology is where geology should be."

Popular skepticism about science is not limited to farmers tilling mountainsides in Indonesia. "A big problem we have in this country is that most people don't believe the things we in academia take for granted," Rose says. "People don't think the earth is four billion years old. They don't think evolution or global warming exist.

"If people are skeptical about stuff like that, how skeptical will they be when they ask 'Should I build my house here? Will it be safe for 50 years?' and we can't give them an answer."

On another front, Rose continues to investigate a virtually unknown (and potentially deadly) volcanic hazard: clouds of ash that float 35,000 to 50,000 feet up in the atmosphere.

"Volcanos are a serious threat to jets," he explains. "When they erupt explosively, they put lots of ash into the atmosphere. And if it happens at night, you can't see it. Jets fly into it and their engines can stop."

The ash melts inside the turbines, causing them to seize up. "Nobody's crashed yet," Rose notes. "But several have lost all their engines before they were able to restart and make emergency landings."

Ironically, if there were a crash, Rose and the handful of scientists doing volcanic cloud mitigation research would probably reap the benefits.

"The dark side of hazard work is that there isn't much money to fund it till there's a disaster," he says. "We say that if we had the money before the disaster, it would make more sense."

Sometimes a near-miss is enough. In December 1989, a KLM jet flew through a volcanic cloud while attempting to land in Anchorage. "The pilot lost all four engines," Rose remembers. Though she did manage to land safely, the aircraft sustained $80 million in damage and the airport had to be closed.

For hazard mitigation experts, the timing couldn't have been better. A number of Alaska politicians were flying home from Washington, DC, for Christmas and got stranded in Seattle. Suddenly, there was lots of funding to study volcanic clouds.

"It's good that the money comes in, but it's bad that it comes in such a herky-jerky fashion," Rose sighs.

For example, it took him five years to study a mother lode of data on volcanic clouds that's just been sitting there in a hard-to-find place.

Back in February 2000, a plane fully outfitted to collect pollution samples in the Arctic inadvertently flew through an ash cloud. Pilots are loathe to fly through ash clouds on purpose, what with the risk of catastrophe and all, so the odds that an aircraft would fly into a cloud are pretty slim.

Add to that the chance that the plane would be on a scientific mission with all its sampling instruments running, and the probability is so low as to inspire awe. But indeed, that is what happened.

"It was a bonanza," says Rose. Unfortunately, the scientists who design and operate all the air pollution instruments weren’t funded to study volcanic clouds, so those data have sat lifeless in a computer for years.

This summer, however, on his own time, and with the help of a dozen colleagues all over the world, Rose has finally worked up an analysis of those numbers. So the work proceeds, albeit in the usual sporadic fashion. That's far better than nothing. As Rose observes, "You never know where the next eruptions will be."

Volcanic Clouds Research Group

More on 'Volcanic Ash Clouds and Aircraft Safety'

Why You Need to Know About Volcanic Ash and Aircraft Safety

Peace Corps Master's International Program in Mitigation of Natural Geological Hazards

Department of Geological & Mining Engineering & Sciences
Michigan Technological University
1400 Townsend Drive - Houghton, MI 49931-1295
(906) 487-2531