Volcanologist at CU offers expertise on eruptions

By CHARLES BOOTHE, Bluefield Daily Telegraph
ATHENS, W.Va. (AP) — When Dr. Janine Krippner was 13 years old she watched the film “Dante’s Peak” about a fictional volcanic eruption set in Idaho, and it changed her life.
“That was when I decided I was going to be volcanologist,” she said Wednesday from her office at Concord University, where she is a research professor working on a one-year project.
For the last three weeks she not only has been busy with her research on volcanic ash, she has also been talking to media representatives from around the country and the world.
Krippner has been working literally night and day taking those calls, providing her expertise to make sure their stories are correct about the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii.
An expert volcanologist, the New Zealand native had no intention of becoming a media specialist related to her field, but in 2013 during a volcanic eruption in Bali in Indonesia she noticed much of the information on social media relating to the event was “grossly exaggerated.”
“I have worked really hard on twitter and social media since 2013 just to communicate what is really going on, translating what the information meant,” she said. “I just did that (talk to the media) on the side and had no idea what was about to happen.”
What happened was building a reputation for being an expert source for media outlets, providing the facts clearly.
“I’ve done 42 interviews since the Kilauea eruption in Hawaii three weeks ago,” she said, from all around the United States as well as from countries like the United Kingdom, Australia and Turkey.
Krippner, who has her doctorate in volcanology (explosive volcanism) from the University of Pittsburgh, said she realized during the Bali incident that misinformation can create needless worry among resident as well as hurt tourism.
The information is “pretty clear” from official sources, like civil defense groups and the geological services, she said. But correct information can be easily distorted and exaggerated.
“We live in a world of 24-hour media and social media rumors take hold quickly and they can be damaging,” she said. “A lot of it (news about volcanic eruptions) is pretty good. Some of it is absolutely awful. The UK (United Kingdom) tabloids are the worst.”
Krippner said the news being aired and published related to Kilauea activity has overall been correct, and she emphasized the volcano has been very active since 1983 and is different from other, more potentially explosive volcanoes, like the Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington State in 1980 that killed 57 people and devastated a huge area of land.
That eruption was the result of pressurized magma beneath the surface that held gas and steam until it literally exploded.
Kilauea is much different, she said, because the magma is a different type.
The magma at Mount St. Helens was evolving and full of silica, which has a similar effect as glue, making it thicker and preventing the release of gases and steam. Over time, that buildup can be released dramatically in a massive eruption.
But the magma, which is actually called lava once it surfaces, at Kilauea has far less silica and allows the release of gases and steam much easier, so a huge pressure buildup does not occur.
Krippner uses an analogy of a bottle of carbonated soda which, if shaken, can erupt (spew) when opened as the shaking releases carbon dioxide.
However, if the soda has lost much of its carbonation (flat), shaking will produce little if any spewing.
The problem at Kilauea began when a lake of active lava in a crater, a tourist attraction, inexplicably drained, dropping over 300 meters, she said, sending the “fresh new magma (the hot lava as it moves beneath the surface) down underneath the East Rift Zone.
As the magma moves, it pushes its way through rock, she said, and as the rock breaks it forms seismic activity.
“So you have cracks (fissures) open,” she said, and older magma sitting for decades pushes out. “Initially, it was a little splatter of the older magma, but this hotter, fresher magma has a lot of gas in it.”
That creates the lava fountains, with the lava reaching as much as 2,000 degrees.
One of the dangers, she said, is sulfur dioxide gas, which is tripled in the fresh lava. “That can be deadly.”
Krippner said the volcano changes with time as different areas of magma shift.
“This is a new phase of the evolution,” she said, adding it is impossible to predict how long it will last because there is no way to know how much magma will come up to the surface.
Why the crater of lava drained is not known, she said, but it was probably a way to reduce the pressure under the surface.
Explosions can happen at the crater, she said, because as the lava drained below the water table, the rock and soil is saturated with water and the lava then heats the water up creating steam. The rock around the crater also collapses, and gases and steam are trapped.
The pressure from the trapped gas and steam can create the ash and gas plumes.
“That is what is happening now,” she said, adding that rocks from the collapsed crater walls can also be included in the eruptions.
But Kilauea presents no catastrophic danger, she added, and involves only a small portion of the volcano.
However, several thousand residents have been evacuated and about two dozen homes have been destroyed by the lava flow with more possibly in danger.
Krippner said volcanoes are “wonderful, amazing things but they do have an awful impact on people living around them.”
Ironically enough, the Hawaiian Islands were created by volcanic activity and the current lava flow from Kilauea is actually going into the ocean and creating land mass as it cools.
In the United States, there are 169 potential volcanoes, she said, with most being in Hawaii, Alaska and the western states.
Although Yellowstone receives some attention as being dangerous, Krippner said that is not the case at all since the magma underneath the national park is too thick and not evolving.
However, the most dangerous volcano is Mt. Rainier, just south of Tacoma, Washington, she said.
“Mt. Rainier is one of the most dangerous in the world,” she said, adding that it’s so dangerous because of the number of people who would be impacted since it is close to both Tacoma and Seattle.
One of the dangers would be flooding, she said, because of the accumulated snow and ice on the mountain that would melt quickly if covered with hot lava, sending catastrophic amounts of water down the mountain on all directions.
A 1985 eruption of a snow-capped volcano in Colombia created floods of water and mud that killed 23,000 people, she said.
Krippner has visited two active volcanoes, one in Japan and another in Russia, and said she would love to be in Hawaii. She watches the lava fountains from the fissures on a live feed on her computer.
But one of her career goals now is to improve media communications.
In fact, she is going to a conference in Italy in September for a presentation on using social media to communicate information about volcanoes.
Krippner, whose home town is Te Awamutu, which means “the river cut short” in Maori, said she has always had an interest in volcanoes and Dante’s Peak inspired her to seek a career in the field, but now the communications part is important to her.
“It (news) spreads to much faster and so much wider,” she said. “I want to improve it (accuracy). I want to help people.”
Krippner, 32, has been in the U.S. for over five years and will be at Concord until next January. After that, she is not sure where her career will take her but she wants to stay in this country.
In the meantime, she has high praise for the people at the university.
“They have been incredibly supportive,” she said.
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Information from: Bluefield Daily Telegraph, http://www.bdtonline.com