Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
SAF Archives  search ask the scientists in the classroom cool science
David J. Anderson

Linda Bartoshuk

Malcolm Cohen

Jim Cordes

Bernd Heinrich

Richard Herd

Clément Imbert

Maja Mataric

Roger Quinn

Zandy Hillis-Starr

Sherri Steward

Manuela Veloso

Roy Walford

Rick West

Back to Cool Careers in Science
cool science

Photo of Richard Herd Meet Richard Herd.

He's a volcanologist, which is a geologist specializing in volcanoes. Richard's cool career in science involves taking an up-close look at active volcanoes. How cool is that?!
Question Why did you decide to study volcanoes?
Answer I began by studying geology at university. Volcanology is a fascinating part of the science, and an area in which scientists can assist in dealing with an extremely relevant problem. I went with a friend to southern Italy and we went up Mt. Etna on Sicily. Etna was extremely active at the time, with explosions occurring from one of its summit craters every few minutes. It was an excellent experience and I decided then that's what I wanted to pursue.
Question What do you do during a typical day at work?
Answer I don't think I have a "typical day." The work is very varied and you never quite know what you may get involved with. Much of the work is dictated by conditions on the volcano, both its activity and weather conditions. When the weather is good and we can clearly see the lava dome, we perform surveys from the helicopter. These are done so we can map out its shape and work out how quickly it is growing. We also perform very detailed survey measurements from stations on the ground. (You see these techniques on Science in Paradise.) One of the main areas of my work is GPS surveying. This technique uses a number of satellites to allow us to tell our position on the ground to a few mm in accuracy. It has revolutionized surveying, and we use GPS to see how the flanks of the volcano deform during the eruption. The crater wall and flanks are put under stress because lava is erupting at the surface under pressure. The sheer weight of lava deforms the rocks -- the new lava dome at Montserrat weighs over 200 million tons.

Whenever we are out in the field, we make observations of the volcano -- where the lava dome is growing, where rock fall activity is occurring, any new fractures or gas vents that have developed. We do this from the ground and the helicopter. We also do a lot of office work. None of the data we collect is of much use until it is processed and compared to earlier measurements we have made. So we spend a lot of time working up our data, plotting graphs and drawing maps. Some of our most valuable data is "real-time." This is information that is continuously recorded by instruments installed over the volcano (principally seismometers and tiltmeters) and transmitted back to the observatory. These provide an immediate view of earthquake activity and deformation. We also have to relate our monitoring information to the public and the authorities in terms of advice about hazards from the volcano. We have meetings with senior people from the government to keep them abreast of developments on the volcano and our monitoring work. The Chief Scientist has more frequent meetings to keep them fully appraised of the volcano's status.
Question What do you enjoy most about your work? Is there anything about it you don't like?
Answer I like all the work I'm involved with, largely speaking. There are difficulties and problems at various times, and I hate night duty. It is an amazing experience to fly around the lava dome high up on a clear day, and I feel really privileged to have seen and done many of the things I have over the last two years. At the same time though, we are all very aware that, while this is something in our scientific work that will not be repeated, it is an appalling tragedy for the people of Montserrat. That is the human reality of a volcanic eruption. They have lost a huge amount -- probably the best part of the island, their capital town and many other villages, their airport and golf course. Worst of all, over twenty people were killed by volcanic activity last year. That is what we were most desperate to avoid.
Question If I'm a student thinking about a career in geology, what can I do now to prepare?
Answer Geology is so broad that it is very difficult to prepare specifically, but you need all the science and mathematics you can get -- and English, so you can tell people about your work. I suffered personally because my mathematics wasn't as strong as needed.

If you would like to know more about Richard Herd, you can read his biography and check out the questions he answered for Science in Paradise (Show 901) in the Ask the Scientists section.


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.