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Awesome Jobs: Meet Kayla Iacovino, Trekker Volcanologist

By Erin Biba

Kayla Iacovino has been to North Korea to study its volcano. Yes, North Korea has a volcano. We chatted with her about how North Korean scientists differ from their Western counterparts and what it was like to be the only American--and the only woman--trekking through the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korea has a volcano. About a millennium ago it had one of the largest eruptions in Earth’s history. You probably didn’t know. And that’s OK. Because North Korea is so closed off to outsiders, most people (even some scientists) had no idea. But science is really good at overcoming political roadblocks and recently a team of researchers made their way into the country to get a closer look at their active volcanic peak. Kayla Iacovino, a volcanologist and experimental petrologist on the team, chatted with us about how North Korean scientists differ from their Western counterparts and it was like to be the only American--and the only woman--trekking through the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

First of all, what the heck is an experimental petrologist?

A petrologist is a type of geologist that looks at the origins of rocks. Petra means rock. I specifically study the origins of volcanic rocks. I take rocks that I find in the field and I recreate the conditions in which they were formed. So essentially I make mini-magma chambers in the lab.

How do you do that?

I take rocks that I find in the field and I recreate the conditions in which they were formed. So essentially I make mini-magma chambers in the lab.

So, we have these big machines that essentially take a rock and put it under very high pressure and high temperature, which simulates the conditions in a magma chamber. Bubbles form and crystals grow. By looking at the chemistry we can understand the processes that happen in magma chambers to cause eruptions. It’s a field of research most people don’t know exist.

In order to say something about the real volcanic system, a specific one, we have to be able to have some kind of basic understanding of the volcano before starting the experiments. We have to go to the field and look at the rocks. The techniques are similar to structural geology. We look at the geometry of the rocks and how they’re related spatially and we can make hypotheses about the chemistry and then we can test them in the lab.

What exactly do you learn from reverse engineering the lava?

That part comes when we’re analyzing the rocks. We see what crystals are there and its chemical composition. We can make a hypothesis about the conditions under which it formed. And then we test the hypothesis by putting it under those conditions to see if what comes out looks like the rock we started with.

We can say: These are the conditions that it must have been under when it was in the volcano.

What does that teach you about volcanoes themselves?

One of the things that’s very interesting about volcanoes is that they erupt magma and gases. If we can understand where they’re coming from and what gasses had to exist with the magma before the eruption, we can say things about what to expect from future eruptions. That’s a very difficult thing to do because there’s such few data. Volcanoes don’t erupt often enough. So we have to look to the past and understand what drives eruptions from within.

So why was it so important to go to North Korea to study their volcano?

At Paektu in particular (it actually has many names, that’s the Korean name -- it’s on the border with China, they call it Baitoushan or Changbaishan) i’m very interested in understanding volcanic gasses and what happens to them before eruption.

A lot of volcanologists don’t even know there’s a volcano in North Korea because it’s so poorly studied.

A lot of volcanologists don’t even know there’s a volcano in North Korea because it’s so poorly studied. About 1,000 years ago it had one of the biggest erruptions of the last few thousand years. It covered the entire Korean penninsula in ash. Even in Hokkaido, Japan there was a few centimeters of ash on the ground. There were volcanic deposits all over the region. We know it put out a lot of gasses into the atmosphere. A similar eruption called Tambora in 1816 created what was known as the year without summer. I’ve compared Paektu to it, because it was of the same magnitude. But even though Korea was very populated at the time there are only a few mentions of something that might have been the eruption. People have been looking for historic mentions but they haven’t found any.

Even if you look at ice cores, there’s no record of the North Korean eruption. But we have the physical evidence of the deposits themselves. The eruption consumed an entire forest and the conditions were right that the pyroclastic flows, clouds of ash and gas coming down the mountain at high speed, knocked down all the trees and the volcanic material deposited on top acted like a preservation agent. When we were there we dug up the trees and people have also dated the trees.

Why is the North Korean volcano so unknown?

Most of the deposits are in North Korea. The Chinese have studied it a bit, but they don’t have access to the majority of the Millennium Eruption sites. Our team was the first collaboration between North Korea and anyone regarding this particular volcano.

"Some of the 1000-year-old trees sticking up through a thick layer of pumice that was deposited during the Millennium Eruption."

How did you get them to agree to do this?

It was interesting field work because we were met with challenges you wouldn’t experience anywhere else. I came into the project after the problems had been settled. James Hammond at Imperial College in London spent about two years working with North Korean, US, and UK governments to get to work with the scientists there.

It’s against the law for North Korean people to speak with foreigners, but the scientists were given permission to interact with us through a third party.

We worked directly with North Korean scientists. Normally as a foreigner that wouldn’t be possible. It’s against the law for North Korean people to speak with foreigners, but the scientists were given permission to interact with us through a third party. It was funny because many of the North Koreans could speak English, but the policy was that you go through the interpreter anyway. (The third party is an NGO based in North Korea and their job is to facilitate these transactions between North Koreans and foreigners.)

What was it like just getting into North Korea?

To get there you have to go through Beijing. We flew into Beijing and got a visa that lasted long enough to get a flight out to Pyongyang. You fly there on this tiny little aircraft. I knew I didn’t want to say anything wrong since I was the only American in my group. I remember being on the plane and they’re playing videos of North Koreans singing and dancing. And one of the stewardesses came and sat down and talked to me. I should have just said I’m British and left it at that. I said I’m an American coming to study the volcano. She started talking about the history of her country and apologizing that America is a big problem for her country.

Later we had this meeting after the fieldwork was completed. We came back to the capital city. We were brought into this big hall and there was a big table with North Koreans on one side and us on the other. This very senior guy started speaking and the first half hour of the meeting was the guy talking about the history of his country and the wars and involvement of the US. I was told after the meeting that in North Korean culture it’s considered respectful to talk about those things. The longer they talk about it the more respectful it is.

Were you able to get past the politics when you were out in the field?

A lot of the actual field work, when we were out there talking about the rocks, it was like any geology field trip. The scientists were really knowledgeable and took us to the best places and shared information very openly.

How much do the North Korean scientists know about the science of volcanoes?

Their fundamental understanding of volcanology was on par with the outside world. But it’s very obvious they are disconnected from the outside community. Some of their interpretations were not so traditional. They were different from ours. Some of the techniques they didn’t know existed -- things that are very tried and true for us.

For example mapping techniques, lab techniques, and what is possible to do. They might have looked at a group of rocks and had a completely different interpretation because they don’t know how to look at it in the same way that we do.

But for the fundamental stuff they were very good and you could tell they knew the place.

Modern academics are downloading papers whenever we need them. But not only do they not have subscriptions to articles they don’t even have the internet. In their libraries they have whatever they can get their hands on, which is not much.

We would go out to a site, my supervisor and I would look at the deposits and we would say what we thought about them, and they would say what they thought about them. Clive, my supervisor, is pretty well known volcanologist and they had a lot of questions. They would ask what he thought about their theories. Things like looking at pyroclastic flow deposits, clouds of volcanic gas, and dust that flows down the mountains and lahar flows. One of the most dangerous things about volcanoes, which can bury an entire town, is after you have a big eruption you get lots of ash and then if you get rain it turns into mud. We found evidence of those mud flows, lahar flows, all over the place.

The North Korean scientists might not have realized they were looking at a lahar flow, when to my supervisor Clive it was very obvious. It’s not a new thing, it’s just that having a textbook understanding of something versus having an actual scientific journal articles that are case studies. They have only seen one volcano. This is the volcano in their country.

Did you teach them anything?

We didn’t get to do too much specific exchange but we gave ideas to each other. What we’d like to do is invite their scientists and students to the UK in the next couple of years and send them back with those ideas and give them access they need.

My field of experimental petrology was unknown to them.

"A potato party! The Koreans cooked all of these potatoes for us in a big fire. It was really great and very tasty after a hard day of fieldwork!"

What was a typical day in the field like?

It was interesting because every day was very different. We’d wake up in the morning and have breakfast in a separate room from the Koreans because we weren’t allowed to eat together. They had planned all the places we were going to go, the places they thought were best.

My favorite days were when we went up to the rim and then down into the volcano. There’s a huge lake in the crater, Lake Chon, about two miles wide. The first day we went there we took a funicular, a cable car, down to the lake. It my first experience with the North Korean field geologists and one of my first insights into women in North Korea.

Women are in the military, they have jobs, but when we were going down in this cable car the geologist says to me through the translator: “Normally we could walk down but since you’re here we’re taking the the cable car.”

They were impressed during strenuous parts of the hike. By the end of the trip they were treating me like an equal.

Later I asked him if there are any women geologists. He said: “Yes, but they stay at the lab because women are too weak to do field work.” I was really shocked. I think I probably pointed to myself and said do you feel that way about me? He said: “No. You’re a strong woman.” But I could tell it was like...but you’re a woman.

By the end of the trip I think I had proven myself to them. They were impressed during strenuous parts of the hike. By the end of the trip they were treating me like an equal.

What exactly were you studying about the volcano?

One of the main reasons for the trip was to put in seismometers. In 2005 there was a seismic swarm, which is a lot of small earthquakes located in one area. In this case it was right under the volcano. All we know about the volcano is that it exploded very violently about 1,000 years ago. That event started this whole project. We went and installed a bunch of seismometers. They’re going to be collecting data for a full year. Now we can image the surface under the volcano and say something about where the magma chamber is and assess the current state of the volcano.

Are you able to collect that data regularly?

The data is all put onto hard drives and a couple times throughout the year they’re going to ship them to us. But James did go back a few months ago when the whole mountain was covered in snow, it was 10 degrees F. One of the challenges is hoping the seismometers will survive the harsh winter conditions.

Were you able to take anything home with you?

They allowed us to take our samples back with us to the UK. We wanted to get them out right away instead of shipping them later. They looked at them in customs and weren’t really sure but we got them through.

Have you started reverse engineering them yet?

The next biggest step is to get funding for all the analysis to be done. I’m finishing my PhD on a different volcano, but I will be working on Paektu rocks for my postdoctoral work. I’m going to be starting that in a few months.

It’s funny because the volcano I worked on for my PhD is in Antarctica, Mount Erebus. That volcano is easier for us to get to then to get to Paektu.

Mount Erebus is awesome. What’s it like getting to go out there?

I love Erebus. It’s one of the most interesting volcanoes. It has a very rare feature which is a lava lake. You can look down and see the magma moving around and throwing stuff out. And it’s in such a gorgeous setting, the contrast of fire and ice is fascinating. People often ask if the lava is effected because it’s in a cold climate? Not really, the difference in temperature between ambient air and lava is so great, if you lower the temperature a bit the lava doesn’t even notice.

What’s the process of getting there?

We go through New Zealand, fly out of Christchurch into McMurdo station, which is the largest American base in Antarctica. We spend a week or two there getting ready, getting our food, and then we take a helicopter most of the way up the volcano. We have a camp on the side of the volcano. We have to stop at 9000 feet to acclimatize, the camp is at 12,000 feet. You have to get used to breathing with so little oxygen. The conditions are really great there. We have two little huts the size of a garage, one houses the snowmobiles and one is the kitchen and then we sleep in tents.

In TENTS?!?! How do you not freeze to death?

We go in summer. There’s 24 hours of daylight, which is nice. I like it. I just feel more energetic when the sun is up all the time.

What’s the temperature in the summer?

It depends a lot on the weather. It can get down to -20 or -40 F and it never gets above freezing.

Ok, but how do you sleep in a tent?

It’s surprisingly warm. I think it has to do with the fact that it’s sunny all day. It gets so warm in there that in the morning I would have to open the vents to let some the heat out because it was too warm.

How long do you stay?

A couple of months in total. I was there once in 2010, I was on the volcano for a little over a month. With no showers, no flushing toilets, no running water. That was my favorite shower ever when I got back.

Photos courtesy Kayla Iacovino

Not all science is done in a lab by guys in white coats staring into microscopes. Lots of discoveries require brave men and women to put their boots on the ground and get down and dirty in dangerous environments. Every month we’ll profile one of these field scientists, tell you how they do their job, and explain the science behind what they do. If there’s a scientist or field of science you’re dying to hear more about shoot us an email or a tweet: erin at erinbiba dot com, @erinbiba