In 1979, Jimmy Buffet released Volcano, an album (yes, a vinyl album, ask your parents) recorded on the island of Montserrat in the British West Indies. Inside it had a pic of Buffet seated by a steaming fumarole with the caption, “Ain’t Life Grand?”
I don’t know that the fumarole is there any longer. More than likely, it has been blown away or buried. Half of the island has been buried by ash from the Soufriere Hills volcano. For fifteen years now, the volcano has been erupting. It has settled down into cycles of dome building, with intermittent dome collapse accompanied by pyroclastic flows. During that time, the Montserrat Volcano Observatory has been in the forefront of protecting the rest of the island from the whims of the volcano. In the meantime, they have done excellent science in geochemistry, geophysics, hazard assessment, and volcano monitoring.
So why am I going there?
I’m a mineralogist. I describe my specialty to my undergrads as IBS, the science of Itty Bitty Stuff. In the big words, microanalysis. My career has been driven by the conviction that if you don’t understand the minerals, you’ll never understand the rocks.
I work on apatite group minerals, a mineral that you find in a lot of igneous environments, in your teeth and bones, and in sedimentary deposits mined for fertilizer. Apatites incorporate fluorine, chlorine, OH, carbonate and sulfate. Through the mundane magic of chemistry, these can be related to the volcanic gases that drive catastrophic volcanic eruptions. I want to get my hands on some of the apatites from the ongoing eruption. I’m lucky enough to be the guy who is developing new methods of measuring OH and carbonate (CO3) in apatite. Luckier still, I’ve found a couple of scientists at the University of Cambridge who are interested in collaborating.
I’m also going down to Montserrat to get a good look at an island arc volcano. The Carolina Terrane, home to Roanoke Rapids, Raleigh, Charlotte and Chapel Hill, was an island arc more than 540 million years ago. I want a good educational look at the the fresh volcanic rocks before they get cooked into another Carolina Terrane.