Richard Fiske's 50-year career as a volcanologist includes 13 years with the United States Geological Survey, stints in California's Sierra Nevada, the islands of St. Vincent and Guadalupe, Japan and Hawaii and 30 years with Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Now a year and a half into retirement, Fiske continues to spend five to six weeks per year in the field, collecting enough data and samples to keep him clocking a normal schedule as a geologist emeritus in the museum's Division of Petrology and Volcanology. Fiske's work has helped people understand how and why volcanoes erupt, and now he helps Smithsonian.com understand just what it takes to be a groundbreaking volcanologist.
How did you get into this line of work?
It was just a lucky accident in graduate school. I went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and my professor there received a research grant to study Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state and prepare a geologic map of the entire park, including the big volcano, Mount Rainier. This work involved tracing layers of different types of rock from place to place and collecting lots of samples and bringing them back to the laboratory where we would study them in great detail. Once you work on a volcano, speaking for myself, you become hooked for life.
What sort of training or background is required?
To be a research scientist of any type these days you have to have a PhD and, better yet, have a few years of post-doctoral experience in your chosen field. After getting a PhD in geology at Johns Hopkins, I spent one year in Japan on a postdoc and two additional years back at Johns Hopkins.
What's an average day like in the field?
I'm either working on the active volcano in Hawaii, Kilauea volcano, or I go to Japan and join Japanese research scientists on cruises to submarine volcanoes south of Japan. In Hawaii, we're looking for thin deposits of ash made of particles that erupted violently out of the volcano. These thin layers of ash are often very difficult to see, and in many places they've been covered by younger lava flows. So we have to find places where we can look under a young lava flow to see the ash that is covered by it. Generally, this is done in wide cracks maybe three or four feet wide that we're able to climb down into. Sometimes we go as deep as 40 or 50 feet down to see the ash that is preserved there.
On a research ship, we are mostly asking the crew of the ship to launch an ROV, a remotely operated vehicle. It's a small submarine that's tethered to the ship by a long cable and lowered down to the sea floor. While we're up on the ship we can see exactly what is located on the sea floor, and the submarine has mechanical arms that can be used to reach out, pick up samples and put them in a little basket on the front of the submersible.
Any exciting discoveries?
In Japan, I was a member of the team that discovered an actively growing mineral deposit on the ocean floor—a huge deposit of sulfide minerals very rich in gold and silver. This deposit is about as big as the Pentagon and about twice as high, and it's growing. Basically, we discovered an ore deposit that in today's market might be worth several billion dollars. The problem is that it's located at a depth of about 4,000 feet below sea level. So no attempt has been made thus far to mine it. But maybe someday people will figure out ways to do this that are environmentally acceptable.
What is the biggest misconception about your work?
The biggest misconception in Hawaii is that the volcanoes are gentle in their activity. There have been many instances in the past 20 years when tourists have been able to walk right up to the edge of actively flowing lava, so that conveys the impression that the volcano is always gentle and safe to be around. But our research has shown that this is not necessarily the case. [On Kilauea volcano], we've found evidence that rocks the size of grapefruits have been hurled for six or seven miles distance, and rocks the size of golf balls have gone all the way down to the south shore of the island, which is a distance of about ten miles from the summit.
How risky is the job?
You have to be careful. I've had friends that have been killed or injured by volcanic eruptions, but they made the mistake of going too close. If the volcano is acting strangely or erupting violently, you have to stay away because it can suddenly get more dangerous than it was before. It's very easy to be killed by falling debris or hot gases that come surging out of volcanoes.
What advice do you have for someone just entering this field?
The first thing anybody would have to understand is that the field of volcanology is a very small field. Although there are hundreds of volcanoes on the earth, there are not that many people studying them. I would say just get a good, solid geological background, take as much math and physics as you can and try to go to a good graduate school. If you're going to specialize in volcanoes, choose a graduate school where one or more of the professors is also a specialist in volcanoes. That's the way you can be helped to become viable in the marketplace.
What's the most interesting part of the job?
The fieldwork. It's like a mystery novel. We're uncovering clues. It's been very exciting.