11 Secrets of Volcanologists

United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.
United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Image cropped.

Around the world, over 600 million people live near one of 1500 active terrestrial volcanoes. Who's keeping them safe from potential future eruptions? The women and men who study these gas-and-ash-and-lava belching windows into the center of the earth: volcanologists.

You might not be sure what volcanologists do or why they matter—especially if you live thousands of miles away from one of these fiery mountains. So, Mental Floss went searching for answers from four volcanologists working in various capacities around the country, who shared their experiences in the field, under the ocean, and gazing far out into space.

1. THEY STUDY EVERYTHING FROM MAGMA COMPOSITION TO VOLCANIC GASSES AND BEYOND.

United Nations Photo, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

"When I tell people what I do, 95 percent of the time they ask, 'What is that?'" says Arianna Soldati of the University of Missouri, who researches lava flows.

Volcanology is the study of how volcanoes form, what they're made of, and what they eject, among other areas of research. Many volcanologists have degrees in geology; some, like Soldati, are physical geologists, collecting samples on site and then analyzing them to figure out their composition. Others are geophysicists who study tectonic plates and their role in volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Geochemists and petrologists study volcanic gasses and minerals, and geodesists look at deformations on and around volcanoes to figure out if magma is pooling up underneath them. All these disparate disciplines work together, Soldati says, to "understand how the planet works, so we can understand how eruptions work."

2. THEY WORK WITH OTHER VOLCANOLOGISTS AROUND THE GLOBE IN THE NAME OF SAFETY.

Jacob Lowenstern is Chief of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program at the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a government agency that monitors our country's 169 active land volcanoes, largely via observatories in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. But it also offers assistance and training to volcanologists in other countries because, as Lowenstern points out, an active volcano system respects no human borders. The program helps keep people and animals safe from the destruction wrought by lava flows, mudslides, and gas: When eruptions happen, localities issue alerts based on data from USGS.

Underwater volcanoes can create shipping hazards, like floating chunks of pumice, but a land-based volcano can create serious chaos worldwide. When Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010, its miles-high ash cloud grounded aircraft to and from Europe and Britain for about a week. "We didn't even know what concentration of ash it was safe to fly through, because no one had studied it before," Soldati says. (They do know now, although the answer depends on how long the aircraft is aloft [PDF]). Back when Tambora erupted in Indonesia in 1815, it kicked off the Year Without a Summer, as ash circled the globe and blocked out the Sun, resulting in crop failures, famine, and a total of 100,000 human deaths. "At some point, something truly global [like that] is going to happen again," Lowenstern says. Volcanologists aim to be prepared.

3. SOME OF THEM WORK UNDERWATER ...

An estimated 80 percent of eruptions happen beneath the oceans' waves. It hasn't been easy for volcanologists to research them—for starters, there was no comprehensive map of the ocean floor until just a few years ago. And not being able to see a volcano that's 3000 feet underwater makes observation … challenging. Historically, scientists mostly monitored underwater volcano activity using fickle, battery-operated equipment installed on the seafloor, which could only store (rather than transmit) data. The first complete footage of an underwater eruption wasn't captured till 2009.

William Wilcock says technology has finally caught up to the thirst for information. He studies the Pacific Ocean's Axial Seamount—the most active volcano in the Northeast Pacific—via the Cabled Array ocean observatory, 550 miles of fiber-optic cable equipped with sensors that allow scientists to to monitor the Juan de Fuca ridge off of Oregon's coast. Using the array, they can monitor the chemicals and temperature in the water column, measure the volcano's magma chamber, and keep tabs on earthquakes, which could signify an eruption.

The array sends underwater volcanologists data in real time—fast enough that they can sometimes deploy autonomous vehicles for a closer look at eruptions as they happen. In April 2015, the project's team was able to witness an entire eruption of Axial Seamount from start to finish, leading to “the most detailed observations ever made” of an undersea volcano, as Wilcock told The Washington Post. The data they gleaned helped them understand how the seamount's caldera falls during eruptions and then reinflates with gases and magma before reaching a particular threshold, at which it erupts. Understanding how that inflation works is important for land volcanoes too, which is part of why data from the array is posted on the internet for scientists around the world to use.

4. ... AND SOME STUDY VOLCANOES IN SPACE.

ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images

The only scientist NASA sent to the moon was geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who flew on Apollo 17. (All of the other astronauts were military men-turned-NASA test pilots.) Schmitt—who was actually allergic to regolith, a.k.a. moon dust—helped prove that the moon was once volcanically active. This fact makes NASA's Alex Sehlke incredibly proud—and envious. He's a volcanologist who conducts research in Idaho's Craters of the Moon National Monument in preparation for the agency's planned return there in a few years. Craters of the Moon is geologically similar to our actual moon, in part because it was formed by lava erupting from the middle of the continent, not a juncture where two plates meet; moon volcanos were likely formed in a similar fashion, since the moon is covered, basically, by a single giant plate.

Volcanologists like Sehlke usually play supporting roles in space exploration. They test equipment and speculate about how, say, Craters of the Moon's lava tubes are like those under the surface of the actual moon and might make for a good base of operations. "Imagine looking at the surface of the moon [from Earth] when you're planning a mission and saying, ‘Hmm, looks alright,'" Sehlke says. "But there are questions we need to answer before we go—maybe the terrain is treacherous."

They may also offer guidance from mission control to astronauts (often about areas that look like they might be interesting to explore), and analyze data from probes—like the first images of an ice volcano erupting on Saturn's moon Enceladus, captured by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005.

5. SOME OF THEM ARE LOOKING FOR THE BEGINNINGS OF LIFE.

NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Hydrothermal vents—openings in the seafloor where water enters, becomes heated, then spurts back out—support a lot of weird microbes that Wilcock says may be similar to the first organisms that ever existed on our planet. Studying them and the conditions that created them may help us understand how to look for life on other planets and moons—one of NASA's primary objectives. But Sehlke and others are also looking for life by scanning data from probes exploring our solar system: "Wherever volcanoes sit, on Enceladus or elsewhere, there is heat or fluids that maybe provide the necessary environment for microorganisms like the ones we know on Earth," Sehlke says. Volcanoes like these "give us the highest chance of finding life" out in space.

6. THEY ALSO WANT TO UNDERSTAND HOW TO SUSTAIN THE LIFE WE ALREADY HAVE.

While volcanoes created Earth's original atmosphere by emitting the carbon dioxide and nitrogen necessary for life, other volcanic gasses, like sulfur dioxide, increase the ability of our current atmosphere to retain heat [PDF]. "Learning how these things balance out is hugely important to understanding our future" on the planet, Soldati says. That's why new studies are looking at the links between volcanic activity and climate change, and how they may exacerbate each other.

Some volcanologists are particularly concerned about Iceland, where melting ice caps may be releasing pressure on magma chambers, contributing to more—and more explosive—volcanic eruptions in the future. The effect of the reduced pressure is similar to how “the cork of a champagne bottle flies into the air when it has loosened sufficiently,” geophysicist Magnus Guðmundsson told Hakai magazine. Another new study urged those making models of our climate future to include volcanic eruptions as a variable, which they find are under-sampled in such models but can have big effects on temperatures, sea levels, global radiation, and ocean circulation, among other key elements of the climate.

7. THEY GET TO USE A LOT OF COOL EQUIPMENT ...

Ulet Ifansasti, Getty Images

Volcanologists use a lot of very high-tech equipment in their line of work. Seismometers measure earthquakes on volcanic slopes. Infrared cameras measure the heat of lava flows. Correlation spectrometers measure the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air, which is released when magma is rising to the surface (and so can signal when a volcano might be ready to erupt). Tiltmeters measure, literally, the tilt of the land around a volcano. If instruments like these, having been mounted on a volcano, fall apart during an eruption, "we sometimes use helicopter drops to put new equipment on the ground," Lowenstern says. More and more, though, volcanologists monitoring land volcanoes rely on equipment mounted on aerial or space-based unmanned craft, "so we don't put people in harm's way." This includes technology called InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar), which, from a satellite in space, can measure a volcano stretching and contracting. That helps scientists keep tabs on just what the magma inside a volcano is doing—and whether it's about to come up.

8. ... BUT ONE OF A VOLCANOLOGIST'S MOST IMPORTANT TOOLS IS A ROCK HAMMER.

Out in the field, Soldati says, her most important tools are her notebook, for jotting observations, and her steel rock hammer, which she uses both to chip away at rock and to gather samples of molten lava. To grab a sample, she swings into the lava with the pointed end of the hammer, then drops the molten material—which is around 2000°F—into a pail of water; quickly cooling the lava in this way turns it to glass (slow cool it, and it becomes rock), which she transports back to the lab.

Once there, Soldati relies on machines like a concentric cylinder viscometer, which melts lava samples so she can measure their viscosity—which tells her how explosive a volcano's eruptions are. Less viscous lava trickles out of a volcano, while more viscous, and hence more explosive, lava can blow out the whole side of a mountain, sending burning lava, rocks, and other debris flying.

9. IT DOESN'T LOOK LIKE THE MOVIES.

Yortw, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

One thing field volcanologists almost never use: those clichéd silver flame-proof proximity suits. "They're heavy, and since you usually have to walk hours to get to your field site, no one wants to carry all that weight," Soldati says. Besides, "heat is almost never the hazard that matters in the situations in which we work," writes Aaron Curtis, a volcanologist working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (You have a greater chance of "being hit by ballistics, or getting gassed," he notes.) "The reason you see those suits so often is that they look really cool on TV."

So what do they wear? Jessica Ball, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the U.S. Geological Survey, writes that "sturdy boots, hard hats, work gloves, rip-resistant clothing with long sleeves, and sunglasses or safety goggles are pretty standard, and I will add a gas mask if I’m going to be in an area with lots of fumes. Also, sunscreen is always important, because I’m often out in the sun all day."

10. SOME OF THEIR WORK IS DANGEROUS IN UNEXPECTED WAYS.

Lava and flying debris aren’t the only hazards during fieldwork. Tina Neal, a volcanologist with the USGS, has reported that she’s had several encounters with bears while working at Ukinrek Maars in Alaska. She also says, "I think the aircraft work of volcanologists is as dangerous if not more so than the active volcanoes we visit and study." Geologist Christina Heliker has described the most fearful moments during her time on staff at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory as being those that involved flying in a helicopter over continuously active Pu`u `O`o. Once, while trying to return to camp after mapping lava flows, “It was almost dark, and we were sandwiched between an incandescent field of `a`a [lava] and this thick layer of clouds that were glowing orange from the reflected light of the lava,” she told an interviewer. “I was plenty relieved when the pilot decided to give it up and fly out to somewhere else.”

11. THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW: VOLCANOES AREN'T ALL BAD.

Volcanologists aren't drawn to their work only because of the destructive power of their research subjects. "[Volcanoes] also have a positive impact on our life," Soldati says. She points out that volcanoes fertilize the soil—some of the most productive crops on our planet are grown in mineral-rich volcanic ash. They also create new land; the Hawaiian volcano Kilauea has added 500 acres to the Big Island since 1983. So don't say volcanoes never give back.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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12 Secrets of Spirit Halloween Employees

Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Spirit Halloween stores are a sign Halloween has arrived.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Joe Marver founded Spirit Halloween in 1983, he probably didn’t have any idea his seasonal Halloween store would eventually grow to over 1300 locations in the United States and Canada. But now, seeing a Spirit pop-up materialize in a vacant building has become as much of a Halloween tradition as pumpkin carving.

In order to assist shoppers with Halloween costumes, decorations, and animatronic creatures, Spirit employs a small army of seasonal workers. To get a better feel for what goes into this spooky vocation, Mental Floss reached out to several current Spirit Halloween team members. Here’s what they had to say about everything from customers making a mess to the hazards of trying on a mask during this pandemic-heavy Halloween.

1. Most Spirit Halloween employees really, really love Halloween.

Why take on a seasonal job with no potential for year-round work? If you love Halloween and the macabre, it’s a dream job. “I've never once worked with an employee that didn't love Halloween,” Kota, a five-year veteran of Spirit Halloween in Kentucky, tells Mental Floss. “It's something that all employees have in common from my experience … It's a perfect place to meet people with the same interests.”

2. Spirit Halloween employees are supposed to open costume packages for customers.

Spirit Halloween employees are happy to help with your costume selection.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

If a Spirit Halloween employee is eyeing you with a little bit of consternation, it might be because you ripped open a costume package. Owing to issues of loss prevention and hygiene—even before COVID-19 struck—Spirit’s policy is to let employees open items and then package them back up. But not every customer is willing to wait.

“Our employees are supposed to deal with opening and closing each and every package,” Kota says. “This way we don't have to worry about things coming out or going into the packages that aren't supposed to. Although we try hard to make it as easy and friendly as possible, some customers would rather do it themselves wherever they may be standing in the store.”

3. Spirit Halloween employees can’t keep astronaut helmets in stock.

Every season brings a different phenomenon to Halloween shopping. In 2018, it was the popular video game Fortnite. This year, it’s an astronaut helmet. Not the suit, just the helmet. The trend is due to the popularity of a smartphone game titled Among Us, which puts the player in the role of a space explorer.

“Despite what you might think, the suits themselves seem significantly less popular than the helmets themselves for reasons beyond my comprehension,” Derek, a Spirit Halloween employee in New Jersey for the past three years, tells Mental Floss. “It's still just a bit too early to say, but if the helmets keep shipping out at the rate they are, in-store stock will probably remain at a near-constant zero. If I'm recalling it right, all of the stores in my area currently have one helmet if any, and no more than five are being shipped to each store.”

4. Spirit Halloween employees can’t believe customers are still trying on masks.

It's probably not a good idea to try on Halloween masks this year.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Despite newfound concerns over touching surfaces or being exposed to infectious particles, customers are still willing to try on masks in the store, even though someone else may have already been wearing it. “Ultimately the pandemic hasn't affected my store, aside from everyone needing to wear face masks while they're inside,” Jayme, a Spirit Halloween employee in Florida who’s worked there for four years, tells Mental Floss. “But people still ask to try things on and … they do still put masks on despite orange signs everywhere saying not to.”

Derek agrees. “If you've bought a mask from Spirit in any of the past seasons, there's a very high chance you're one of at least five people who’s worn that mask, and that's a conservative estimate for some of the masks. Despite the rule, I think I've seen that many people trying on [fictional creepypasta internet character] Jeff the Killer masks just in this past week.”

5. Spirit Halloween employees have seen some spooky things.

While a store full of scary costumes and props is a Halloween lover’s dream, some Spirit Halloween employees say it can also be the site of some spooky events. “An associate and I have both seen things swaying on the shelves as if someone walked by it, though nobody else is in the store,” Jayme says. “We've seen a few shadow movements as if people were hiding behind [a] corner. The funniest one [was] at closing time. One of my associates yelled ‘whoo’ and we heard a guy's voice say something in response. It totally freaked him out. It was one of our sound-activated hanging [animatronics].”

But not all employees get creeped out. “As much as I want to say that I've experienced anything creepy or paranormal, the store's about as creepy as a former Circuit City can be,” Derek says. Still, he's seen some strange things. “The lights used to turn off at the exact same time every day for about a month, there's always been the occasional inexplicable bang or creak, and some of the aisles do get messy a bit too quickly. One time, I was working at the fitting room. I sent a kid back with a previously unopened, dry Morphsuit costume [a full-body spandex outfit] and it came back warm and moist.”

Wet costumes aside, Derek won’t declare any paranormal activity just yet. “If I see a kid go flying across the store, I'll let you know.”

6. Spirit Halloween employees wish customers would stop making a huge mess.

Spirit Halloween employees like to keep stores neat.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Owing to the nature of pop-up stores or the excitement over the holiday, customers at Spirit Halloween stores tend to make messes. Big ones. “You could've just finished putting every mask neatly back on the racks, and half of them will be back on the floor before you've caught your breath,” Derek says. “It seems like everyone takes a little pride in the sections they helped set up and the animatronics they built, and that definitely manifests in how we feel about customers messing with those things.”

7. Spirit Halloween employees would prefer you not use the aisle as a dressing room.

Some customers like to try on outfits in the aisle instead of the dressing room, a habit that predated the current pandemic. (Spirit Halloween fitting rooms are closed this season.) Employees would still prefer you not try to dress—or undress—in the middle of the store. “It's very common to find people, mostly kids, trying on costumes in aisles,” Kota says. “We [did] have multiple fitting rooms to try to stop this from happening, but once again, people would rather do things themselves sometimes.”

8. Spirit Halloween employees move a lot of licensed animatronics.

Animatronics are a popular item at Spirit Halloween.Courtesy of Spirit Halloween

Among the most popular items in Spirit Halloween locations are the life-sized animatronics that provide a scary atmosphere for homes or parties. “Animatronics are one of our largest-selling items,” Kota says. “There's a certain group of people that love them and look forward to them annually. Some of our buyers buy them and use them for their haunted attractions. It's always nice to go to one and see a familiar face.”

While Spirit offers a number of original animatronic concepts—the Harvester of Souls being among the more popular—Kota says that customers usually gravitate toward licensed characters. “I've noticed that the most popular animatronics are our licensed ones. Pennywise [from 2017's It] and Sam [from 2007's Trick 'r Treat] have been huge sellers this year as was Michael Myers a few years ago. I've also noticed the ones that stay behind at the end of the season are almost always the swinging animatronics. I think they're interesting, but they don't sell as often as the others do.”

9. Spirit Halloween employees might sell you a used animatronic, but you need to get lucky.

Come the end of the season, Spirit Halloween locations often unload animatronics that were on display and no longer being manufactured. “Older animatronics, if I recall correctly, will stop being manufactured and then sold until it runs out,” Jayme says. “As for the displays, we do sell those at the end of the season. It's just a matter of putting your info on a waiting list.”

10. Spirit Halloween employees meet a lot of cosplayers.

Cosplayers are frequent shoppers at Spirit Halloween.Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It’s not just Halloween customers that Spirit Halloween stores service. According to Kota, cosplayers looking for that perfect accessory sometimes show up. “Spirit actually gets quite a bit of cosplayers and I personally think it's a great place to go for more specific items,” Kota says. “I'm sure we get even more cosplayers than I'm aware of since some customers like to talk about it and others don't say much about it.”

11. Spirit Halloween employees get a steep, steep discount once Halloween is over.

Between the standard employee discount and the after-Halloween fire sale available to customers, Derek says that he can go shopping in November and save a considerable amount of money. It’s one reason he keeps coming back. “It's hard to say no to an 80-percent discount during the November clearance sale,” he says. (The regular discount is 50 percent, and employees get an additional 30 percent.) “There's nothing like rewarding yourself after a busy season by spending $150 on, like, five or six things.”

12. Spirit Halloween employees sometimes get holiday shoppers.

Halloween means holiday shopping for some people.JJBers, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For some customers, a Spirit Halloween store is a perfect place to start their holiday gift shopping. “I made a friend last year with a kid who comes in weekly to see if we have anything new in yet,” Kota says. “He's maybe about 7 years old and [he] and I go around the store almost every time he comes in and talk about new things and animatronics we have. His parents then secretly go around and buy him animatronics and props as Christmas presents. It's so nice to see his love for Halloween all year round. It reminds me of myself when I was his age.”