23 March 2015 11:32

An environmental scientist at Lancaster University has published a book about his career as part of the "Coolest Jobs on the Planet" book series.

Dr Hugh Tuffen of the Lancaster Environment Centre describes the incredible life of a volcanologist in the book which is aimed at young people who are looking for interesting and adventurous careers.

Full of red-hot lava explosions, terrifying noise and shaking earth, the book ‘Volcanologist’ by Hugh Tuffen and Melanie Waldron is designed to get a new generation hooked on science. But Dr Tuffen’s taste for adventure began in a far quieter place - Cumbria.

He said: “My fascination with rocks - and volcanoes - started early. I grew up in Cockermouth, Cumbria. I loved to go walking and climbing on the nearby hills and was amazed to learn that many of them were actually extinct volcanoes.”

After studying geology as an undergraduate, and then volcanology at Masters level, Hugh applied to Lancaster University to do a PhD, working alongside top volcanologists studying the Icelandic volcano Torfajökull.

“We discovered some extraordinary cracks inside lava flows that nobody had ever described before. I remember getting goosebumps when I realised that these cracks could explain a long-standing mystery - exactly how earthquakes can be triggered inside volcanoes.”

Hugh was well and truly hooked and has been travelling the world ever since, researching what happens inside volcanoes before they erupt.

“Eruptions start when cracks form in the rocks inside volcanoes and magma starts to rise through these cracks to the surface. We are trying to figure out how much pressure is needed for rocks to break and how this links to the earthquakes that occur just before rocks break.”

He’s also been studying why volcanoes change from being explosive, with ash blasted high into the air, to become more gentle, where lava slowly oozes out, and the behaviour of volcanoes under ice caps, where eruptions can cause devastating floods.

“I’ve come to realise that this knowledge can save lives, if we monitor volcanoes for the warning signs, and then let people living nearby know when they become dangerous.”

Hugh conveys his love of fieldwork in the book, published by Heinemann Raintree, and explains how to collect lava and ash samples safely, and the best places to set up camp near an erupting volcano.  

Hugh also writes about the strong friendship he develops with fellow researchers, and the recreational side of field trips - bathing in natural hot pools or tobogganing down ice slopes.

But not all the excitement is in the field. Many of the breakthroughs are made working with colleagues and research students, back in the labs at the Lancaster Environment Centre.

He said: “We have amazing equipment, some unique to Lancaster. We use it to measure gases within volcanic rocks to test ideas about what controls eruptions. Being a volcanologist is a cool job, but you do have to be prepared to study hard and train.  And you do need a good pair of hiking boots.”