« Previous | Main | Next »

Volcano Live: Why I changed my day job for volcanology

Post categories:

Lorraine Field Lorraine Field | 11:00 UK time, Monday, 9 July 2012

So, what makes a middle-aged office worker up-sticks, give up seven years of her life to return to university as a mouldy-oldie student, travel half-way across the world to go and see volcanoes in the middle of nowhere and pursue a career trying to fathom out how the rocks of this planet formed?

I used to be a contracts manager in a telecoms infrastructure company - a good job but not one which really got me fired up.

If someone had told me then that 10 years in the future I would be working at the British Geological Survey as a mineralogist and petrologist (ie I look at crystals and minerals in rocks and determine their origin and history), that I would be involved with the BBC's Volcano Live series and that I would have witnessed first-hand an amazing eruption... I would never have believed them.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions

Lorraine witnesses a nighttime eruption at Nyiragongo

In my early thirties I travelled to Antarctica where I met the late Jon Stephenson who had been the geologist in the 1957 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His passion for his subject made a lasting impression.

Following redundancy I was accepted at Durham University to study geology full-time (a brilliant experience!).

I fell in love with all things volcanic - particularly igneous rocks under a microscope.
Igneous rocks are those which have formed from magma (molten rock). They can form from lava flows such as basalt or can crystallise and cool before they reach the surface such as granites (intrusive).

I found that tiny crystals in the rocks hide a myriad of secrets - some can tell you what the pre-eruptive temperature of the magma was, whether there have been changes in the magma chamber during their lifetime or how long they have existed before being erupted.

I learned about different types of volcanoes and eruptions while nurturing a dream that one day I would see an eruption for myself.

After my PhD at Bristol University on the magmatic history of a volcano in Afar, Ethiopia, I decided to visit the largest lava lake in the world, Nyiragongo, in the Congo.
This is a unique volcano, one of only a few in the world which has a long-lived lake of molten lava in its crater.

Nyiragongo is also special as it has a very low silica content which makes its lava very runny. I hoped to bring back samples of historical lava flows.

Going to these remote places is not possible for everyone and so the BBC asked me to film this trip for Volcano Live.

Lorraine Field at Nyiragongo volcano

Filming was exciting but I was also a little apprehensive as I didn't know what we were going to see - this was new territory for me.

I really wanted to get some good footage to be able to share the experience.

The Congo unfortunately has had a difficult recent history and can be a tricky place to visit, although the Virunga Park Rangers do a tremendous job in trying to make the area safe for both humans and wildlife.

Common sense planning means checking for updates on the safety situation before travelling, taking the minimum of stuff with you and preparing as much as possible.

The easiest way to get into the Congo is to go as part of a travel group. I went with a diverse German-speaking group who had one thing in common: they were all regular travellers with a passion for volcanoes, and were very understanding about my complete lack of German!

We knew that Nyiragongo's sister volcano Nyamuragira had begun erupting a couple of months before our visit but had no idea what the current state of play was.

A few days before we left for the Congo Nasa published a satellite image suggesting there was still some activity.

We took a chance and trekked to the eruption site through the rain forest. That first view of the active volcano, after emerging from the dense rain-forest was magical!

Seeing a volcano in full-eruptive state is an assault on the senses which is impossible to describe. The noise is incredible. We could feel the heat, despite being around 550m away. And the blood red lava shooting 200m into the air was mesmerising.

All the textbook theory was coming to life and we knew we were watching something very special: a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And I collected some great samples!

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions

Kate Humble sees Eyjafjallajökull from above

When I've told people that I was studying volcanoes they have often pointed out that there are no active volcanoes in the UK. This is true. But we have had: our granite tors are a legacy left by our volcanic past.

We can also be affected by active volcanoes in other countries as we were in 2010 when Eyjafjallajӧkull erupted - 'THAT Icelandic volcano'.

We need to study volcanoes, both active and extinct, in order to work out what makes them tick.

Volcanoes are like people: each has its own unique personality.

I consider myself very lucky to have been able to change careers and fulfil a dream. It was hard work, but worth it. My advice to anyone considering doing the same is to believe in yourself and go do it!

Lorraine Field is a volcanologist on Volcano Live.

Volcano Live starts on Monday, 9 July at 8pm on BBC Two and BBC HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Share your images and send your questions for the presenters and experts on Volcano Live. You can read the executive producer's story on the About The BBC blog on the making of the series.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    if all the lava is coming out of the earth... where does the earth collapse tofill what came out or is this what causes earthquakes and tremors?

  • Comment number 2.

    With thousands of tons of lava over hundreds of years, coupled with the oil.coal,iron gas and the general mining that is constantly being taken out of the planet, how long can this go on, before some catastrophe happens, maybe implodes and causes all the hollowness to join up, and maybe collapse????

  • Comment number 3.

    Valli, have a look at plate tectonics... The planets crust is made of large plates which move over the surface very slowly... new magma is being created as plates slide under each other and are forced back into the mantle, causing them to melt.

  • Comment number 4.

    Just like to say well done to Dr Field for her clear and precise narrative. Even tho she is my sister and I am proud of her, I would still say the same even if it she wasn't! Makes a change from mumblings.

  • Comment number 5.

    It's inspiring to read this post and see Dr Field on Volcano Live. As a mature student, I find Dr Field's success to be an inspiration and gives me hope that I can make a change to a scientific career as well.

  • Comment number 6.

    During the process of subduction oceanic tectonic plates are forced back into the Earth under less dense continental plates. This rock is then melted and the process continues; this is why we tend to find volcanoes along subduction zones, like the Cascades in the United States.

    I was particularly interested to learn about Dr Field as I've recently returned to university to study geology. As a mature student it's heartening to learn I'm not too old!

  • Comment number 7.

    To Lorraine Field : delighted to see your volcano programme. Sorry to have lost touch, We would be pleased to hear from you again. John & Vicki Sargent

  • Comment number 8.

    Great if you are there in person but generally episode one was boring. Not sure what Kate Humble adds to the programme superficial comments and interviewing. Disappointing after all the hype.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hi why is it that there are different types of lava? I thought that all magma originated at the mantle which was of a conctant constituence so why in some parts of the world do volcano explode and lava is viscous whereas in others the lava flows reasonably quietly and is fluid

  • Comment number 10.

    Alison, magma can be derived from a lot of different things. A truly mantle derived magma contains a lot of magnesium and iron-rich minerals, whereas a magma that came from the melting of crustal material will have a whole lot less magnesium and a whole lot more silica (SiO2). This silica content is a big part of why some magmas are runny and some aren't...silica molecules tend to stick together in clumps which makes for a really viscous magma, while the magnesium minerals have less tendency to polymerize and make runny magma. Also, the gas content is a player. Despite how hot it is, all magma contains some amount of water, and it also contains carbon dioxide. While these gases are under pressure, they're in solution and "happy". Once they start to head towards the surface, the pressure drops and they come out of solution and explode towards the surface. If you get lucky and have a low-silica magma (like Hawaii, which is coincidentally also low in gas), you get a gloopy sort of bubble burst, like bubbles popping in mud. If you are unlucky, and have a thick, sticky, high-silica magma with a lot of gas (like Mt. St. Helens) you get a big, violent explosion.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 12.

    I appreciate your work, I love the volcano programs, its a real inspirational stuff. Some of the contents are unbelievable. Loved it.
    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi Valli #1, a balance is maintained between the lava which erupts, and old crust which goes back down into the earth in a process called subduction – so don’t worry, the Earth is not going to collapse if a lot of volcanoes erupt at the same time! The earth’s crust is made up of what are called ‘tectonic plates’ which are large areas of crust which fit together like a giant jig-saw puzzle. These are slowly moving e.g. the north American plate is moving away from Europe at roughly the rate at which your fingernails are growing (about 19 mm per year), and it is the movement of these plates which cause earthquakes as one subducts under another (for example, the earthquake in the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004 was caused by plate movement on a subduction zone), or move alongside one another (for example, the San-Andreas fault line in California). Earthquakes are also caused by other means, e.g. the movement of magma through the crust at a volcano, or reactivation of an old fault. I hope this helps.

  • Comment number 14.

    PS100 #2, an interesting question. As I’ve explained to Valli above, the lava coming out of the Earth gets replaced by subducting crust which then melts for form new magma. The Earth has this balancing act down to a fine art. Mining is a different issue, and yes, there are large areas of very shallow crust which are hollowed out. There are lots of regulations which govern mining, particularly in this country to guard against collapse. However, unfortunately sometime there are collapses in mine tunnels, just as there are in natural caverns e.g. in limestone, but these are rare, and generally affect a small area of a tunnel, not necessarily affecting the surface landscape above.

  • Comment number 15.

    JohnTweedie #5, Many thanks for your kind comments John. Best of luck with the studies!

  • Comment number 16.

    Error_Gorilla #6. One of the nicest things about being involved in this programme is the number of mature students I have heard from. I hope all the studies go well, and you continue to enjoy the geology.

  • Comment number 17.

    alisonbeverley #9, Becky #10 has given you a good answer as to why some magmas are sticky (or viscous) and some are very runny. Magmas can vary for a number of reasons: the starting composition can vary as because the mantle is not homogenous to start with – there are subtle differences in the geochemistry. Some magmas are not purely mantle in origin – continental crust can be melted which is like adding another ingredient. There are also processes such as crystallisation which affect the magma. Imagine you have a big pot of magma, in which some crystals form as it cools. You remove the crystals as they form. The last bit of magma remaining, will have a different composition from the magma at the start as you have removed the crystals. It can be similar in a magma chamber – crystals can form, but can remain in the system, whilst the liquid can be erupted. Its quite a complicated process, but I hope this helps.

  • Comment number 18.

    Hullo Ameteor #8. I’m sorry the program did not live up to your expectations, as it is always disappointing to hear that someone did not enjoy it. It was a very ambitious concept trying to do a live program involving something as unreliable as a volcano! The program also has to appeal to all ages and all levels of knowledge, so it is never possible to completely meet everyone’s requirements. There has been some positive feedback, so we certainly managed to spark some people’s interest. I hope you’re own curiosity in volcanoes and the natural world will continue.

  • Comment number 19.

    Hi Andrea Peter #12. Glad you enjoyed the program! It was certainly a lot of fun being involved with it.

  • Comment number 20.

    Hello Lorraine, I was just trolling through the BBC blogs - then I saw yours and read it. I have to tell you, this is strange. Your life journey might be the total reverse of mine!
    I did Geophysics at Durham Uni, and now I am studying Natural Hazards (Masters) at Bristol Uni!!! Thus, the program featured a lot of my lecturers. However, I don't think I want to do it (geology) anymore. I won't be surprise if someone tell me I am going to work in a technology consulting company in 10 years time!
    I do like what I learnt at university and still fascinated about the natural sciences.

    However, I just don't enjoy researching anymore. You don't really have your hands on things (apart from computers). People tell me it is a shame that I have already determined to put an end to it (Yes, I am still doing my Masters). But I guess if this is not what I thoroughly enjoy, I should not stick with it? I think I ultimately like to help people out with their lives rather than looking at rocks.

    Dr Field, I believe you are a very brilliant, experience and wise lady. Would you have a word, a piece of advice for me? Please? As I finish my study very soon and will need to start pathing my future?

    p.s. We took the BBC camera with us to Guatemala fieldtrip as well. But BBC didn't use our footage at all! It was a great disappointment.
    But Volcano Live was brilliant in general.

  • Comment number 21.

    Hi kingkarina, many thanks for the email and your kind complements. Its a difficult one - many people get fed up with the course they are on and lose sight of why they were doing it in the first place, so before you jump ship, try to work out if it is the course and the studying you are fed up with, or whether you really have had enough of geology. What I would say is, that you do not have to stay in research in order to still do very useful geology, and provide essential assistance to people - there are exploration companies and hydrology companies, amongst others, which provide an essential service. It might be worth having a chat to the careers office (I found them quite useful on occassion) who might give you some pointers as to how to decide what to do next. The other thing to do is make the most of the careers fairs - go and chat to the different companies to find out what they do, how you could adapt your skill sets and whether the work appeals to you. Most of all - good luck!
    So sorry your footage didnt get used! We needed a few more episodes to cover everything I think!


More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.