Headed for the volcanoes of Ethiopia

by Nicola Temple | February 26, 2013

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to go to Africa. I am drawn to the diverse landscapes, the rich culture and without a doubt, the wildlife. In my naive view it seems like a continent where you are very much at the mercy of the land and it can pick you up and spit you out if you’re not careful. I find something very appealing about that.

So, when I interviewed Dr. Juliet Biggs, a Geophysicist in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, late last year and heard about her research in Africa, I was intrigued. Four months, a few meetings, a failed journalism award application and a few generous people at the University of Bristol later…and I’m headed to Ethiopia.

Monitoring volcanoes from space

Juliet Biggs monitors volcanoes from space. She uses radar satellite imagery to look for deformations in the Earth’s crust caused by gas, lava movement and other geophysical burps and gurgles that are signs of volcanic unrest, and that are potential precursors to an eruption.

There are 1,500 volcanoes in the world and only about 100 volcano observatories, so the vast majority of volcanoes are left unmonitored. Juliet is trying to change that.  She has looked at a number of unmonitored volcanoes around the world and her research has shown that many of them are not sitting as peacefully as we think. There are signs of volcanic unrest around the world, including in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley.

One of the volcanoes, Alutu, is located between Lake Zway and Lake Langano and it last erupted approximately 2,000 years ago.  Having seen signs of unrest, Juliet’s next step is to get onto location and put some ground-based monitoring equipment in place so she can begin to understand the processes that are causing the deformation signals she’s picking up from space.

Her goal is to use the new Sentinel satellites being launched by Europe later this year to put in place a system for monitoring volcanoes at a global scale – even if only to help identify areas where some ground monitoring efforts should be focused.

Following the researchers into the field

On March 17th, I will follow Juliet into the field as she lays out her ground-based monitoring equipment. Last week was the first time I had a chance to really chat to Juliet about what to expect and what we’ll be doing, and I have to admit it wasn’t exactly what I had envisioned.

We fly into Addis Ababa and will have to extract the equipment, hopefully without too much hassle, from customs. From there we will meet up with Juliet’s Ethiopian colleagues and potentially meet up with a few folks from the energy industry as they are very interested in Juliet’s work in terms of identifying potential sites for geothermal power production.

Then, we load the equipment up into two 4×4 vehicles and hit the road, which is where we will be for most of the ten days we are there. It seems as though we will be doing quite a bit of driving. The equipment Juliet uses is very large and heavy and the only way to get it into the location is by vehicle. It will be a lot of bumpy off-road driving, but luckily we will have drivers with us that know the area.

I had also envisioned camping off the side of the volcano, but I gather we will be returning to hotels each night – pretty swank fieldwork conditions if you ask me.

My job, of course, will be to tell the story. I will have cameras and microphones in hand and pen and paper at the ready at all times. I will be the annoying journalist that is sticking a camera in Juliet’s face asking her to ‘just do that thing you just did with that instrument again, but this time look up a bit’. I’ll be shoving a microphone in front of her PhD student, Matt, asking him to ‘describe what you’re doing again, but this time in simpler terms’. They’re going to hate me aren’t they?!

Hopefully at the end of the ten days, I will have a thorough understanding of what these scientists are doing. But beyond that, I hope to have captured the sounds and the sites of them doing it – real people doing real science in an interesting landscape. I can’t wait.

I wrote a blurb for the University of Bristol’s research website on Juliet’s work – have a read if you want to learn more about what she does.