Geology That's Alive

Volcanologist Richard Fiske loves fieldwork most of all--when he's on the job, the Earth moves

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Fiske has never seen a volcano aborning, like Paricutín, which in 1943 grew out of a Mexican farmer's cornfield much to the farmer's irritation. But he has seen a lot of sudden activity. He has been lucky, too. "I was in a helicopter crash in the eastern Caribbean, which I regard as a close call. The helicopter was destroyed. I was so thoroughly strapped in that I wouldn't have made it out if the fuel tank had exploded. Other than that I've never been endangered by working on volcanoes." A number of Fiske's colleagues and friends have been killed, including the famous French husband-wife team of volcano cinematographers, Maurice and Katia Krafft, who traveled the world filming eruptions. "I met them 30 years ago and got to know them very well. They were good friends of the Smithsonian's Global Volcanism Program and were also good personal friends. Wonderful people. Very gregarious. They were serious volcanologists and knew the dangers--they just became a little too careless. In 1991 while filming a Japanese volcano called Unzen, they and 40 others were caught in an avalanche of ash and hot gas. Gas masks or fire suits wouldn't have protected them. They were just too close at the wrong time. It would be an awful death--being baked in the extreme heat. Generally, you can move out of the way in time. Lava flows slowly. But an explosion or an avalanche of hot gas can engulf you in an instant."

When we met, Fiske was mourning the tragedy on Montserrat in the Caribbean. "The southern two-thirds of the island is just devastated, everybody's left, 20 or so people killed and no end in sight. This can go on for two or three years. It's terrible: people have lost their property, their houses; people are still paying mortgages on property covered by ash." Everything was covered by inches and feet of gray mud, the result of dozens of pyroclastic flows. Buildings were buried to the rooftops.

Fiske got into his work by luck: he had an uncle who was a geologist for an oil company in Venezuela, and at age 10 he decided to do the same. "As a kid growing up in Baltimore it seemed really romantic." For a while he had summer jobs for oil firms. Petroleum geologists lead fairly eventful lives. Lots of travel.

But there was more than that. While getting his doctorate at Johns Hopkins, Fiske joined forces with two of his favorite professors studying Mount Rainier. Like Mount St. Helens, Rainier will doubtless erupt in the future (Smithsonian, July 1996) and could send an enormous river of mud and debris, called a "lahar," straight down upon densely populated areas. From then on, for Dick Fiske, it was volcanoes.

I forgot to mention that Fiske was the director of the National Museum of Natural History for five years. "I enjoyed most of it but yearned to get back to research. Mount St. Helens erupted while I was director. It pained me not to be scientifically involved." Fiske had a major role in organizing the museum's magnificent new Janet Annenberg Hooker Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals, including its dramatic Plate Tectonics Gallery. He was also chief curator for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service show "Inside Active Volcanoes" and spearheaded a video production, Inside Hawaiian Volcanoes. "It's a splendid video, produced and directed by Maurice Krafft," Fiske noted. "It's for sale down in the shop and by mail order."

"I do like the fieldwork best, though," he said. "I sometimes take my family to Hawaii on vacations, but when I'm there to work there's little time for anything else. Once you get started in volcanoes you become a junkie, I guess. The earth is always changing, and you're trying to outfox it, understand its past activity and predict what it's likely to do in the future. Volcanoes are exciting, and for me they have made for a wonderfully fulfilling career."

By Michael Kernan


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