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Iona McIntosh: Keep calm about volcanoes

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Name: Iona McIntosh
Age: 30
Nationality: British
Occupation: Volcanologist
Likes: Singing, island hopping
Dislikes: Yama imo, summer humidity


1. When did you know you wanted to be a volcanologist? I’ve always been interested in volcanoes. As a child I loved the film “Dante’s Peak” (now it’s more of a guilty pleasure!), but it wasn’t until I went to university and attended lectures by volcanologists that I realized that I, too, could follow that career path.

2. As a submarine volcanologist, what do you research? I collect lava and pumice from the seafloor and use the amount of water and carbon dioxide that remains dissolved in their volcanic glasses to investigate how they were erupted. This can tell us whether an eruption reached the sea surface and what hazards future submarine eruptions might pose for nearby people and ships.

3. Why is Japan a good place to study volcanoes? Japan has a wonderful variety of volcanoes, including 110 that are considered active. There is a very strong community of volcanologists here, determined to understand how they form and affect us.

4. Describe an average day on an extended research trip. On a drilling cruise, scientists work busy 12-hour shifts examining the core as it arrives on deck. Everyone has a different task, from identifying minerals to looking for tiny fossils that tell us the age of the sediments and ultimately reveal the geological history of that part of the seafloor. Then people can relax — big boats may have a gym, a place for watching movies, table football or even a nice spot for sunbathing.

5. What’s your best strategy for living with people in such close quarters? To respect people’s personal space and to bring plenty of coffee and snacks to share around.

6. Have you made any exciting discoveries in Japan? On my first research cruise, we discovered that a shallow volcano near Izu Oshima island is in fact active. I was hooked as soon as I saw the bubbling hydrothermal chimneys — when it comes to the seafloor, we really are still in the age of exploration.

7. What’s one thing everyone should know about volcanoes? When they erupt, they produce ash (pulverized rock) not smoke!

8. Have you ever conducted some really dangerous research? I once made some gas measurements at the active vent of a Russian volcano. You can take sensible precautions but in the end you just have to hope a volcano doesn’t decide to clear its throat while you’re nearby.

9. What do disaster movies and TV shows get wrong about volcanic eruptions? They often mix together every possible kind of eruption style from different volcano types — one eruption isn’t going to produce a Hawaiian-style river of lava and a huge pyroclastic flow.

10. The floor has suddenly become a bed of molten lava! How do you escape? With great difficulty! Maybe with a heat-resistant suit and boots I could try to surf a solid lava crust out of there.

11. Is there one trait you think every good scientist should have and why? Perseverance. It can take a lot of time and effort to make new discoveries, but if the answer is easy to find it probably isn’t a very interesting question.

12. What do you always have in your fridge? Plain yogurt to go with my breakfast cereal.

13. Scones or crumpets? Scones, with jam first then clotted cream on top! (That’s something of a national debate.)

14. Name a Japanese custom that you think is odd. All the different categories for counting objects! I like to quiz people to find their thresholds — how do they count penguins, for example, and does it change if the penguins are big or small?

15. Have you picked up any habits from living in Tokyo? I wait for the green man when I’m crossing the street — even when there’s nothing coming.

16. What should be included as a new Olympic sport for Tokyo 2020? Competitive seat-grabbing on the subway.

17. Who — living or deceased — would you invite along for a bender? I reckon Hokusai would make a great drinking buddy. He saw everything.

18. What book would you recommend to an aspiring scientist? “How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming” by Mike Brown, the astronomer who downgraded Pluto to a dwarf planet. It’s a great look at an interesting scientific story and the life of the scientist behind it.

19. If you were sitting for a portrait, what symbolic object must be included in the painting? Definitely a volcano in the background, perhaps steaming ominously.

20. We all want to know — what would happen to Kanto if Mount Fuji actually erupted? An eruption that caused significant ash fall would disrupt transport networks, so we should make sure we have emergency supplies in our homes and be prepared to follow official advice. Keep calm and carry on!