Under the Volcanoes

“If we connect compositions and combinations [of pressure and temperature] to what happens inside the Earth, that might be able to help predict eruptions.”

Shuo Ding Kalbfleisch Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences


Exploring Eruptions

Two volcanoes loom large in Jim Webster’s research. Webster, the Museum’s curator of mineral deposits, studies both Mount Vesuvius, Italy—the site of one of the world’s most famous eruptions—and the lesser-known Mount Saint Augustine in Alaska. In 2006, only a few months after an eruption of Augustine, he flew with a small team of geologists to this remote volcanic island in the Aleutian chain. Every morning, they would load into a helicopter and be dropped off at a location on the volcano’s slopes. They’d work their way down, collecting samples along the way. “Hot rocks would occasionally come tumbling down the side of the volcano,” says Webster.

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Charlie Mandeville, a research associate of the Museum, and Kate Bull of the USGS / Alaska Volcano Observatory collect samples on the still-smoking slopes of Alaska’s Mount Augustine volcano in 2006.

Credit:  J. Webster / © AMNH

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Curator Jim Webster stands next to a large volcanic boulder that rolled down the slope of Augustine, and broke open.  

Credit: J. Webster / © AMNH

Webster brought some of those rocks back to New York, where he compares them to samples collected at Vesuvius and to artificial materials he synthesizes in his experimental petrology lab. Mt. Saint Augustine and Mt. Vesuvius have several things in common: they’re both young in geologic terms—less than 200,000 years old; they both have magmas rich in volatiles like water, carbon dioxide, sulfur, and chlorine; and both erupt gases that are highly charged with carbon dioxide and water. But, the two volcanoes have very different eruptive cycles. Webster and Kalbfleisch Postdoctoral Fellow Shuo Ding are re-creating pre-eruptive conditions inside the lab and comparing their results to the natural volcanic samples in the hopes that one day we may understand how the different “ingredients” in magma can make one volcano more explosive than another.




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Shelf Life is a collection for curious minds—opening doors, pulling out drawers, and taking the lids off some of the incredible, rarely-seen items in the American Museum of Natural History.