Spring 2017 Distinguished Lecturer—Dr. Simon Carn

Dr. Simon Carn

Dr. Simon Carn was nominated by Dr. John Gierke and selected from a highly competitive pool of candidates as the Spring 2017 Distinguished Lecturer. His lecture, about Satellite Remote Sensing of Active Volcanism, was presented in April 2017.

Volcanology – the study of volcanoes – is a truly multidisciplinary endeavor that encompasses numerous fields including geology, physics, chemistry, material science and social science. Arguably, Michigan Tech owes its very existence to volcanic activity, which is ultimately responsible for the area’s rich copper deposits and the development of mining in the Keweenaw. There is a long history of volcanological research at Michigan Tech, and in particular in pioneering work on the application of satellite remote sensing to studies of volcanic ash and gas emissions. In this presentation I will highlight some of the latest results of this work, including a new global inventory of volcanic gas emissions. Such measurements of natural emissions are becoming increasingly relevant in the current era of climate change denialism. Although volcanic eruptions have impacted Earth’s climate in the past, and will do so in the future, recent global warming is still falsely attributed to volcanic activity by many prominent public figures. Our work provides a compelling argument for continuing global satellite measurements of Earth’s atmosphere by NASA and NOAA, which are under threat from the new administration. On a more positive note, I will also highlight the multidisciplinary nature of volcano science and some outstanding scientific questions and grand challenges that could potentially be explored with the array of expertise on campus. These include the properties of volcanic ash and its effects on jet engines, sensor and autonomous vehicle design for data collection in extreme environments, mining of large volumes of satellite data to extract information, and visualization of large, multidimensional datasets. Learn more at: www.volcarno.com.

Dr. Simon Carn on Yasur volcano, Vanatu in August 2014
Dr. Simon Carn on Yasur volcano, Vanatu in August 2014
"We were measuring the volcanic gas emissions from Yasur, one of the biggest sources of volcanic gas on Earth We were specifically interested in measuring the emissions of carbon dioxide from the volcano, to improve estimates of global volcanic CO2 emissions."Dr. Simon Carn

Simon Carn sits down for a Q&A


Q: When was the moment you knew volcanology was for you?

A: The first active volcano I encountered was Arenal in Costa Rica during my travels after finishing high school. However, I think the point that I first seriously considered volcanology as a career was during my MS degree in Clermont-Ferrand, France. The first field trip of that course was to Italy to see the spectacular active volcanoes Etna, Stromboli and Vesuvius.

Q: What do you like most about volcanology?

A: Studying volcanoes is undeniably exciting and exotic, and we are lucky to visit some spectacular locations for fieldwork and conferences. New eruptions can occur at any time, so there’s always something new and exciting to study. We are also fortunate in that it is relatively easy to justify studying volcanoes (e.g., to funding agencies), given their potentially significant impacts on climate, the environment and society.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in this field?

A: Accurate prediction of volcanic eruptions is a significant challenge, and will remain so until we can increase the number of global volcanoes that are intensively monitored.

Q: What has changed the most in volcanology over the past decade (or two)?

A: The amount of geophysical data collected from the ground and space has increased exponentially, along with the computational capacity to process the data and construct numerical models of volcanic processes. This has significantly advanced our understanding of the potential impacts of volcanoes.

Q: How do your two specialties—volcanology and teaching—complement each other?

A: I think volcanoes are a very effective tool for recruiting and engaging students, e.g., by using some dramatic eruption footage to pique their interest in the underlying physical processes. There are many different aspects of volcanic activity, ranging from the geological origins of volcanoes to their impacts on the atmosphere, so effective teaching of volcanology requires some expertise in multiple fields of science. Gathering the relevant information is personally very rewarding and frequently opens up new avenues for research.

Q: You studied and worked in England, France and Europe. How did you come to Michigan Tech, and how does it work as a home base?

A: After finishing my PhD in the UK, I worked on the island of Montserrat (West Indies) for several months monitoring the active Soufriere Hills volcano. This got me interested in the use of remote sensing techniques for monitoring volcanic gas emissions. I then moved to the US for a postdoc at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, using satellite data to measure volcanic emissions, and whilst there I started collaborating with the Michigan Tech volcanology group. Michigan Tech has been highly regarded for its volcanology program, and in particular for remote sensing of volcanoes, for many years and so it was an ideal fit for me when I was looking for a faculty position.

Q: I noticed the photo your grandfather took of a smoking Mt. Vesuvius during WWII. Was he a volcanologist, as well? How did you come across that photo?

Photo taken by my grandfather (John Gale) of a smoking Vesuvius in late 1943, following the Allied invasion of Italy during World War II
Photo taken by my grandfather (John Gale) of a smoking Vesuvius in late 1943, following the Allied invasion of Italy during World War II

A: He wasn’t a volcanologist, though he was a high school science teacher and a conservationist. The photo of Vesuvius was always one of his favorites, from a time when photographs were quite rare, and he often showed it to me in my youth.

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