Wednesday 30 May 2018

Escape From The Deadly Ring Of Fire

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 Pacific plate.

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 their lives.

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.

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