The recent volcanic eruption of Kilauea on Hawaii reminds us all of the power of nature and the danger from natural forces which exist all the time. It has also reminded me of another volcanic eruption in which a prominent lgbt volcanologist, Dr. Michael S. Ramsey, was caught and which caused the death of two of his fellow scientists.
The Ring of Fire is the name given to
the almost unbroken line of volcanic and earthquake activity encircling the
Pacific Ocean. Hawaii lies above a volcanic hotspot in the centre of the
The Indonesian island of Java was
created by the formation of the Ring of Fire as one continental plate pushed
into another. Java is already famous in volcanic history for the massive
eruption in 1883 of Krakatoa which killed 36,000 people and had adverse effects
it had on the world’s climate that lasted for years.
At the other end of Java is Semeru, the
highest volcano on the island and one of its most active. Because of the almost
continuous activity on Semeru it has always been a place for volcanologists to
study up close.
During 1998 and 1999 Semeru displayed an
increase in activity. There were eruptions of volcanic plumes of ash and steam.
Frequent earth tremors, rock falls and lava flows were observed from March
2000. Scientists from the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia (VSI) made regular
monitoring trips up the volcano.
Dr. Michael S. Ramsey wasn’t part of the
VSI. He was a specialist in remote sensing of volcanic activity using
satellites. He became interested in volcanos during his studies in geology at
Arizona State University in Phoenix. Also in Phoenix he became involved in the
lgbt bear community, founding the Phoenix Bears and acting as a judge in two
International Mr Bear contests. He is even a member of organisations who
protect real bears in the wild.
In early 2000 Michael joined Pittsburgh
University as an Assistant Professor. He also became a team member of the
Earth-orbiting Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflective Radiometer
project (thankfully shortened to ASTER). This project uses data from a
satellite which carries instruments measuring Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land,
snow and ice. Not only do the instruments record the human impact on the
planet, such as global warming, but also records the activity and impact of
natural disasters on human settlements.
In mid-July 2000 Michael travelled to
Bali to present a paper on his work to the annual conference of the
International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior.
Also at the conference were two scientists from the Smithsonian Institution who
had been invited to join the VSI evaluation team on Semeru the following week.
They invited Michael Ramsey to join them.
And so it was that Michael was present
on that fateful day on the slopes Semeru on 27th July 2000 when two people lost
The day began early. The team set up
camp 1,000 feet below the summit of Semeru and rose at 2 a.m. to make the trek
up to the top in time for dawn. At dawn the group of about 20 scientists were
at the summit. Semeru isn’t like those stereotypical volcanos you see in
B-movies. Very few are. Semeru has several volcanic craters at the summit, each
one being the top of a volcanic pipe which delves deep into the magma chamber
many miles below sea level.
The day was a bit cloudy and there was a
mist around the crater which had been showing the greatest amount of activity
over the previous weeks. The scientists watched as several ash and steam
fountains erupted. As the scientists moved closer to take measurements, as
close as 100 feet from the crater’s edge, the mists suddenly evaporated.
Michael Ramsey, at the back of the group, scrambled into his bag for a
telephoto lens to put on his camera.
As he turned to take a photo he saw a
massive cloud of ash containing burning rocks envelope his colleagues near the
crater. Realising the danger he flung himself to the ground and protected his
head with his camera bag. Rocks rained down upon the whole area. They weren’t
rocks when they were spewed out of the volcano. They were lava drops, almost
1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. When they hit the ground as rocks they were still hot
enough to burn straight through you if you were too close to the crater. One
rock hit Michael’s foot and melted the rivets on his climbing boot.
The eruption lasted less than a minute.
After it subsided Michael rose to survey his surroundings. The two colleagues
nearest to the eruption, the team leader from the SVI and an observer, had been
killed instantly from head injuries. Other team members were in varying degrees
of injury, some very serious. Michael himself sustained a foot injury because
of the aforementioned hit on his boot.
The survivors staggered back down to
base camp and waited for medical assistance. No helicopter ambulance could
rescue them because of the ash clouds and bad weather. The group were sustained
by local villager bringing food and assistance. Two days after the eruption the
group were being treated in hospital.
It was a harrowing experience for
everyone. Semeru continued to erupt through the following weeks. Monitoring by
the VSI continued, and Michael returned to the USA to continue his research
into the prediction of volcanic activity. The Semeru incident wasn’t entirely
without result. As well as being recorded in distance laboratories one on-site
incident added to their knowledge.
Remember that mist that suddenly
evaporated just before the eruption? This was likely caused by the heat from
the underground magma as it rose through the vents to the crater.
Michael Ramsey is still a prominent
figure in volcanic research and runs courses at Pittsburgh University in
natural disasters caused by volcanos and earthquakes. He is also involved in NASA’s
research into volcanos on other planets in our solar system.
The work of Dr. Michael Ramsey and all
of the scientists who risk their lives to collect vital data which can save the
lives of millions in the future is something we should thank them all for.