A volcano observatory is not a place for the faint of heart. My introduction to observatory life was an assignment to ‘man the drums’. As a teenaged cadet, I would spend a few nights at *Belmont helping the scientists keep an eye on the instruments (drum recorders) used in monitoring Soufriere. By then, the mountain had been exploding for about a week and the scientists needed fresh eyes to help out…at least for a couple hours. In 1979 those eyes provided some reprieve for those on the frontline, in 2021 those same eyes would again come in handy.
When a volcano blows, you need experienced people; people who can think on their feet. These people are as dynamic as they are hardcore. It calls for a varied team of earth scientists; the kind that are hands-on and practical. It requires people that can remain rooted when all else loses its mooring. You see the thing is, in volcanology, you use techniques that at best can only provide an obscured view of something happening deep beneath the surface of the Earth. Whatever we see is filtered by everything it has to pass through. That journey makes a world of difference. The data we collect is as much the result of the source as it is of the route taken. A good volcano scientist tries to re-trace the steps to the beginning. He (or she) must pay attention to signboards along the way. At times there will be forks in the road; this is where your gut and experience come in. With the right team and some luck, you will find your way and be able to say something about what the volcano is doing and likely to do. It is nearly impossible to get the full picture, so the job of an observatory scientist is rife with uncertainty. It makes sense then that the people who man an observatory are all “characters”. People who must not only put themselves in harm’s way to do their job, but also shoulder the burden of protecting the lives of others. Working conditions are often extremely stressful. This assignment requires a particular kind of mindset but more importantly a steely character. People who can be calm in distress, who can function in the chaos, are the people you want around. Relationships are important, otherwise you may not make it out alive. When this many ‘ologists’ get together there are bound to be sharp edges.
In an observatory one must be ready to respond, to act, to do whatever it takes to give the best scientific advice possible. You are always aware that the advice you offer helps to save lives. Still, to make decisions one must objectively look at data and allow thoughts of the implications to take a back seat.
Observatory life can be challenging, difficult, stressful, but strangely peaceful. You may ask “What mindset is best?” “What kind of people do you require?” Good questions. My sense is that it may have something to do with your path to the observatory.
Author: Richard E.A. Robertson
Richie Robertson is a Vincie geologist working at The UWI-SRC on geo-hazards including risk, raising hazard awareness and building community resilience.