Boise State Professor Gets Fiery Wake Up Call When Volcano Erupts In Chile

Mar 4, 2015

Jeffrey Johnson got quite a wakeup call this week. The assistant professor of geosciences at Boise State University is working in Pucon, Chile on a Fulbright grant to study volcanoes. He was just ten miles away when the Villarrica volcano had a large eruption Tuesday morning.

Johnson's work includes listening to low frequency sounds that volcanoes make. Here’s the low-frequency sound his sensors recorded during this week's eruption; the sound is normally too low for us to hear, so it's been sped up:

It was 3 a.m. Tuesday morning when Johnson sleepily got out of bed and looked outside his door to see Villarrica erupting before his eyes. He woke up his family and they watched the eruption from his garden patio.

“When I climbed out of bed and went to my window," Johnson says. "I saw a large fire fountain being emitted from the [volcano's] central vent and estimates of the column of fire were on the order of 1,000 feet.”

He says it was quite a sight.

“Lava flows pouring down various flanks [of Villarrica], large incandescent blocks -- and by large I mean the size of small houses -- rolling down the flanks.”

Johnson says he was worried for a time as the eruption continued, but in the end it only lasted a half-hour.

“What I can tell you is that stress aside, it was a spectacular fireworks show. It was not an enormous, enormous eruption -- but big enough any sane person would be impressed," says the professor. "Had it lasted much longer or become more intense, we might have decided to move to some of these evacuation zones which are in Pucon.”

The glacier is covered with volcanic debris on the morning of March 3rd, several hours after the main fire fountain.
Credit Jeffrey Johnson / Boise State University

He says when they woke up the next day, things were much different.

“The explosive activity had ended and the volcano, previously covered in snow, was now black. Only a few small snow patches are evident.”

Johnson got back to work, monitoring 30 sensors distributed around the volcano. Six of those were burned to a crisp in the eruption, but the others were still working. He says the sensors in his garden recorded sounds from the volcano that were louder than 120 decibels, similar to the noise of a jet engine at a few hundred feet.

Here Johnson sets up a camera on a boom near the inner crater, before the eruption.
Credit Jeffrey Johnson / Boise State University

Johnson says he still feels pretty comfortable living 10 miles away from an active volcano. But he says the people in the Chilean town are a bit nervous.

“Most of the stores were closed, school opening was delayed," says Johnson. "But I think of it like a snow day in Boise; this is a lava day in Chile.”

Johnson plans to stay in Chile until June or as long as the volcano continues to remain active. In a couple of weeks, 16 Boise State students will join him as he continues his work on the sounds volcanoes make.

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