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Starting the Science of Volcanoes



Rob Hardy


We live in a dangerous world, with natural disasters looming anywhere you might choose to live. Among the most terrifying of such threats are volcanoes, which have delivered catastrophe regularly since long before the famous explosion at Pompeii. It was not until the twentieth century that we began to understand how the huge plates bearing Earth's surface are colliding or grinding under or against each other, and how some of the resultant tears might bring magma in eruption. That we have gotten some scientific understanding of volcanoes is due in no small part to a man whom you probably never heard of, Thomas Jaggar. He deserves the tribute paid in The Last Volcano: A Man, a Romance, and the Quest to Understand Nature's Most Magnificent Fury (Pegasus Books) by John Dvorak, a scientist who has studied earthquakes and volcanoes for the United States Geological Survey. Jaggar's life story is the center of this book, but our current understanding of what volcanoes do was a global scientific effort, and Dvorak has encompassed smaller portraits of other scientists, accounts of experiments, and descriptions of travel to distant eruptions. It is an illuminating view of how science works. 




Pompeii was destroyed in AD 79. The explosion of Krakatoa in 1883 killed 35,000 people due to tsunamis. In 1902, Martinique's Mount Pelee exploded killing 26,000 in the town of St. Pierre. Jaggar was among the scientists rushed to study the effects of the explosion, although "rushed" at the time was a shipboard cruise of several days. When he got there, Jaggar was reminded of Pompeii, which he had visited as a child. The citizens of Pompeii had had no warning, and neither had those of St. Pierre. Jaggar wondered why human knowledge of volcanoes had not advanced to a capacity of warning about explosions. One scientist at the beginning of the twentieth century minimized the need for studying volcanoes, which he said were "local and occasional, not perpetual and worldwide." Jaggar disagreed. It was a matter of getting fundamental and basic data about volcanoes, and he thereupon devoted his life to doing it. 




Jaggar had been born in Philadelphia in 1871, and was educated at Harvard. He was an average student, but became enthusiastic with his introduction to geology. Upon graduation, he began his pattern of field work, first within Yellowstone National Park. Early in his career, he realized that he had a choice of how to conduct himself professionally, as he said, "Between museums and field, between the easy thing of collections, fine microscopes and scientific societies, and the hard thing of exploring the globe." He chose the latter, for the prospects of travel; some of his explorations were dangerous, exhausting, and lacking in comforts. He loved the field work, but found it was not the rigors and accomplishments that inspired him to do it. Looking back years later on his interview with a victim of the Martinique explosion, he wrote, "It was the human contacts, not field adventures which inspired me. Gradually I realized that the killing of thousands of persons by subterranean machinery totally unknown to geologists and then unexplainable was worthy of a life's work." 




This makes him sound saintly, and he did have some altruism, but he was also stubborn and selfish. He had been raised in a loving family, but his first marriage was a failure. It was simply that he was well suited to take off on the next expedition and was ill suited for life as a husband and father. An eruption at Vesuvius or an earthquake in Costa Rica meant that he would catch the next ship to be on the scene. He got an inheritance, and instead of buying a home as his wife would have liked, he spent it on his next travels. The marriage ended in divorce, but Jaggar was much happier when he married the second time (and this marriage, not the first, was the "romance" referred to in the book's subtitle). The lady was Isabel Maydwell, a widowed schoolteacher whom he met during his work at the volcano observatory in Hawaii, and as you can guess, what made her a success as a wife was that she had just as much enthusiasm about his volcanological pursuits as he did. She was a superb helper and enjoyed being out in the wilds or rambling over dangerous craters just as much as Jaggar did. Many of the descriptions here of their exploits are quotations from her letters or diaries. 




Jaggar spent his professional life chasing after eruptions and earthquakes all over the world, but he had a stable base in Hawaii. He settled for life in a volcanologist's dream locale, close to the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, which had a crater and a lake of lava whose changes he could monitor daily. He was able to wrangle funding from universities and donors; the difficulty of doing so even after his research efforts had proved to be effective is a big theme here. No one, at the beginning, was doing his sort of work, and his accomplishments and innovations were considerable. He fought the notion that science could be best advanced by rushing geologists to volcanoes already in eruption; what was needed was regular observation during quieter times to monitor what was going on beneath the surface. People had known that sometimes big earthquakes preceded a volcano's eruption, but Jaggar was the first to show that seismographs could detect smaller shakings and be used for better predictions. He also used instruments to show changes in tilt of the ground around a volcano, indicating movement below. He pioneered the collection of gas samples over a volcano, risking his safety to do so, and some of his samples are still the best ever collected. He worked out how earthquakes precede tsunamis and was the first to use a seismometer to warn people to get upland from an approaching wave. He was effective in inspiring Congress to create what was to become Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  




Dvorak tells us that Jaggar was responsible for laying "the foundation of almost every aspect of volcano research today," so this book is a fitting tribute to a scientist who did mighty work but remains obscure. There are plenty of explanations of volcanology here, and examinations of the often roundabout and infuriatingly slow way that science sometimes gets done. And throughout there are field anecdotes from Jaggar or his wife. For instance, in investigating a eruption in Japan, Jaggar and his companions rowed out in a small boat to see where the lava was flowing into the sea. The thermometer trailing behind them showed that the water was at the boiling point. "It was a singular experience," he wrote. "With steaming water all around us, we had the unpleasant thought that if we should capsize we would be cooked."



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