Volcanic eruptions open lecture series

14 April 2014

Scientists cannot predict exactly when and how a volcano will erupt, but they are getting closer to understanding the factors that drive eruptions, Prof. Heidy Mader told a lecture audience at the IOP’s London centre on 10 April.

Volcanic eruptions open lecture series

Her lecture on “The Physics of Volcanic Eruptions” explained how volcanologists are combining increased knowledge of lava flow, bubble formation, the material properties of magmas and explosivity to build models that attempt to describe eruption processes.

Using field observations, numerical methods and large-scale experiments, scientists have been able to build quantitative models. These led to multi-phase equations with many parameters and simplifying assumptions, she said, but they have enabled volcanologists to get a handle on processes such as switching between explosions and slow extrusions.

Observers would like to know not only when a volcano is likely to erupt, but what kind of eruption it will be, she explained, as eruption styles vary enormously between slow extrusions and sudden and violent explosions and pyroclastic flows that can travel at 70 mph.

Taking questions after the lecture, Prof. Mader said that there had been suggestions of trying to alleviate the pressure inside volcanoes by initiating controlled eruptions, but no-one had yet dared to try the experiment. Asked whether volcanic eruptions had increased in recent decades and whether this was associated with global warming, Prof. Mader said she did not think eruptions were increasing. The likelihood was that the rising population and hence numbers of people living near volcanoes, and improved communications, had combined to give this impression.

Prof. Mader, a research fellow in earth sciences at the University of Bristol, told the audience that physics had been a passion for her from early in her life and that her physics degree had given her the opportunity to have an exciting career. “I think it is very important for more girls to have that opportunity,” she said.

Her talk was the first in a series of public lectures being held in 2014 in support of the IOP’s fundraising campaign, Opportunity Physics. Speaking before the lecture, the IOP’s chief executive, Prof. Paul Hardaker, said this year’s lectures would all be given by leading female physicists, balancing a series of lectures by male physicists in 2013. He also previewed the announcement of a pilot programme by the IOP to address the gender imbalance in progression to A-level physics, funded by a donation from the Drayson Foundation.