Atmospheric Sciences' George Bergantz
Earth and Space Sciences’ George Bergantz

The University of Washington’s College of the Environment and its faculty members are no strangers to ground-breaking and important research on volcanoes and magma—from a land-sea experiment tracking earthquakes and volcanoes along the Alaska Peninsula to publishing an atlas of seafloor volcanoes and deep-ocean life.

George Bergantz, a professor in the College’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences, is a geologist who studies the physics of magma. As part of the physical petrology group at UW, he uses a diverse set of tools—numerical modeling, lab experiments and fieldwork—to study volcanoes. In recent years, he and his team were the first to simulate the individual crystals’ movement in magma chambers to better understand the motion of the magma and buildup of pressure.

Coinciding with the anniversary of the devastating 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption that killed 57 people and as Kilauea ash clouds threaten Hawaii’s Big Island, we caught up with George to see how both events have informed and will continue to inform the study of volcanoes and how we prepare and respond to them.

Where were you when Mount St. Helens erupted?

“I was an undergraduate at the Mackay School of Mines at the University of Nevada, Reno when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980. I was a faculty member here when it erupted again in 2004.”

What did you and other volcanologists learn from the event itself?

“The lessons from 1980 were many and are ongoing! Perhaps one of the most central and lasting lessons was about the lateral blast that blew out the side of the volcano northward, forming the horseshoe crater. In 1980 the hazard from a process like this was not adequately anticipated and with tragic results. After the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, these kinds of things, called a “sector collapse” were recognized as a common process at volcanoes like Mount St. Helens worldwide. Other lessons pertain to the importance of having a decision-making protocol in place at the start of unrest, to adequately inform the public and guide multi-agency decision making. Lastly, the importance and utility of geophysical monitoring techniques such as volcano seismology and ground deformation were demonstrated.”

What scientific insight have you gained from studying the volcano in the years since its eruption?

“I don’t work specifically on Mount St. Helens—my research interests pertain mostly to understanding the “architecture” or plumbing systems that produce volcanoes like Mount St. Helens. Active volcanoes don’t reveal much about the inner workings, so it can be hard to interpret and understand the complex geological and geophysical signals of unrest. Hence I have worked primarily on older volcanoes where erosion and geological tilting has revealed a significant portion of what is actually underneath an active volcano. From this, we have learned where in the Earth’s crust the most significant chemical changes take place and the timescales involved. For example, a volcano like Mount St. Helens is part of a process that can completely form and rebuild the Earth’s crust below it in less than 4 million years. That’s rapid geologically speaking!”

UW doctoral student Jillian Schleicher and UW professor of Earth and space sciences George Bergantz with a Mauna Loa basalt samples they will compare with the simulation results.
Dennis Wise/UW
Jillian Schleicher, former UW doctoral student and post-doctoral scholar, and UW professor of Earth and space sciences George Bergantz with a Mauna Loa basalt samples they will compare with the simulation results.

With volcanos in the news here and in Hawaii, are there key lessons from science for policymakers and communities who want to be prepared for future volcanic events?

“One guidepost in volcanic hazard assessment is that the eruptive history of a volcano is a reasonable expression of what it might do in the future. To that end, every volcano should be as completely mapped and dated as possible, to develop a portfolio of possible eruptive behavior so that land managers and public officials have something to work from at the start of volcanic unrest. Secondly, geophysical monitoring like seismology and deformation, are essential tools to get a warning as to the movement of magma in the crust. In terms of having some personal resilience, having a 72-hour “survival kit” with adequate water and supplies for the family is a practical way to provide for any natural disaster. And lastly, heed the advice of the authorities, especially the spokespeople at the USGS where there is a staff of trained volcanic hazard professionals.”

To dive deeper into George Bergantz’s research on volcanoes, their plumbing and magma, see also: