We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

The Changing Face of Volcanology

It used to be "volcano cowboys", but more women in volcanology has changed the face ... and the priorities ... of the field.

Rocky Planet iconRocky Planet
By Erik Klemetti
Mar 27, 2023 12:25 PMMar 27, 2023 12:27 PM
Hawaii Eruption
USGS volcanologist Carolyn Parcheta checking on the 2018 eruption of the Lower East Rift Zone of Kīlauea. Credit: HVO/USGS.


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Everything in the fire station parking lot was bathed in a red glow. Although this is Hawaii, the air felt especially steamy and warm. Nearby, lava fountains up to 150 feet (60 meters) tall were blasting from fissures. The scene was vaguely apocalyptic, beautiful but terrifying. Kīlauea had started to erupt from the lower East Rift Zone for the first time in over 50 years, right in the middle of the Leilani Estates subdivision, pouring lava into people’s backyards.

For U.S. Geological Survey volcanologists from all over the country, this was an “all-hands-on-deck” and possibly once-in-a-lifetime event to monitor the lava flows that were endangering people and property across the eastern tip of the island.

One of these volcanologists was Alexa Van Eaton, research geologist for the USGS. Normally stationed at the Cascade Volcano Observatory, she found herself in Hawai’i, mapping lava flows in a place she had never been. She’s a self-described “Florida girl” who was walking near active lava flows for the first.

In fact, she had never really worked on lava flows at all. Her specialties are explosive eruptions, ash, and volcanic lightning at places like Mount St. Helens, New Zealand or Japan. However, this was a volcanic crisis where people’s lives and homes are at stake. She was ready to go. Little did she know the realization soon to come in a dark parking lot ... and the long path that was taken to get to there.

Hawaii is the home of the oldest volcano observatory in the United States. The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, or HVO as it is known across volcanology, was established by Thomas Jaggar in 1912 and he was the director for 28 years. Four more volcano observatories followed, the Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO, opened in 1980), the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO, opened in 1988), the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO, opened in 2001) and the newest, the California Volcano Observatory (CalVO, opened in 2012, taking over for the Long Valley Volcano Observatory). Yet it wasn’t until 1994 that a woman was put in charge of one of these volcano observatories.

A Pioneer in Volcanology

Terry Keith, a retired USGS geologist, has always been a pioneer in volcanology and petrology. She was asked by her classmates to march first across the stage to acknowledge her achievement as the first women to graduate from the then-University of Arizona College of Mines. After working in Alaska with another pioneer, the USGS’ Helen Foster, she became a lab assistant in the USGS, working on the forefront of mineralogy.

Terry Keith (left), Judy Fierstein (middle) and Wes Hildreth (right) near the Valley of 10,000 Smokes in Alaska in 1982. Credit: Tina Neal, USGS.

By the early 1980’s, she was one of the first people to explore the devastation in the wake of Mount St. Helens’ climactic 1980 eruption, burning her feet through her boots in the process of sampling gases percolating from fresh deposits. Her work and dedication helped establish the igneous petrology (the study of magma) and geothermal branch of the USGS.

However, this trail blazing wasn’t without consequence. Keith remembers that she and her husband ran opposite day and night shifts to handle the care of their sons. She was a consummate scientist, and her colleagues were supportive of her work. Self-described as “more comfortable hiding in a lab”, she was also willing to talk to anyone respectfully. These traits meant she found herself in a growing number of leadership roles across the USGS.

Tom Miller, the first scientist-in-charge (SIC) of the Alaska Volcano Observatory, recognized Keith’s skills as both as an excellent geologist and understanding leader. He asked her to come back to Alaska after her family returned to the lower 48 states to lead AVO.

Terry Keith collecting ask from the 1992 eruption of Mt. Spurr. Credit: R.G. McGimsey/AVO/USGS

Keith thought the gig was going to be a 3-year sojourn to Fairbanks, but it ended up being 8 years in the country’s most active volcanic region. When she took the reins of AVO, she became the first woman to be put in charge of an American volcano observatory, a full 82 years after Thomas Jaggar founded HVO. Keith remained SIC from 1994 to 1999.

As the head of AVO, Keith knew that communication and respect were vital for making a productive work environment, “we would talk things over and find a consensus. Science is science,” she said, “but it requires working together and discussion.” It wouldn't long until another woman was thrust into the leadership of a second volcano observatory.

In the days before the 2018 Kīlauea eruption began, volcanologists from across the USGS had been working around the clock to understand what was happening on the giant shield volcano. Then, they would need to turn around and make sure that information got shared with emergency managers and the general public who were focused on the dramatic change in the country’s most active volcano. There wasn’t a lot of time to get to know the crew beyond shift changes.

Back in the fire station parking lot, Van Eaton was only a few nights into her time at Kīlauea. Three other USGS volcanologists were coming off the flows and three, including Van Eaton, arrived to take over for them. The six scientists exchanged notes, checked safety gear and discussed conditions on the volcano.

On that stifling May evening, fissure 17 was blasting like a cannon. The night was filled with that eerie light that only molten rock can produce. Sweaty and gritty from the ash and sulfur in the air, they went about their jobs hauling equipment and pouring over maps in that empty parking lot. Then someone noticed: all six of them were women.

Unexpectedly in the Middle of a Volcanic Crisis

Cynthia Gardner, scientist emerita in the USGS, never really thought she was going to become a career geologist. Even after completing a geology degree and, in 1980, taking a job in the USGS, she thought this was something she’d try for six months before graduate school in law or history; however, after entering volcanology, she found herself in the Survey for 40 years. In 1987, Gardner was transferred to the nascent Cascades Volcano Observatory, just as the modern field of volcanology and volcano monitoring was being born from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

Cynthia Gardner examining rock samples from the 2004 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Credit: USGS.

Even before setting her feet down in geology, Gardner in the middle of radical change in the sciences. The expansion of college education in STEM fields for women in the 1960’s and 70’s, access to birth control, the establishment of Title IX and the women’s movement had all begun to change the landscape. Yet, the field of volcanology that Gardner found herself in was still male-dominated, full of “swagger”, plenty of sexist jokes and critique, mostly negative, on every woman’s professional talks and papers.

Still, more and more women were entering the profession. Some of Gardner’s colleagues continued to suggest that women “had it easier” even though, at the time, fewer opportunities of women existed and most men didn’t need to try balancing family and work.

As the 21st century arrived, there still weren’t many role models worldwide of women leading volcano observatories. In 2004, Gardner “accidently” oversaw the reawakening of Mount St. Helens. She was named the Acting Scientist in Charge (ASIC) of Cascades Volcano Observatory the day before the volcano reawakened, making her the first (albeit temporary) female SIC of CVO. The transition wasn’t easy for an introvert thrust into the limelight, but it was highly rewarding.

Cynthia Gardner talking to a group of GeoGirls about Mount St. Helens. Credit: USGS

The non-stop work during the first week that the volcano rumbled left her little time for much else. As she grabbed a shower in preparation for then-Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton’s visit to CVO, the permanent SIC returned from vacation. Secretary Norton met with him and several senior male geologists at CVO, but Gardner didn’t end up being introduced to Norton at all, “I wasn’t given a seat at the table.”

As it turns out, Gardner became the Mount St. Helens eruption coordinator and then, the first female SIC at CVO from 2005-2010. She has seen many positive changes in the volcanology culture across her career. Most of the overt “BS” is gone, although hostile work situations still sometimes exist. More women with advanced degrees that are doing cutting edge research have silenced the question of whether women belong in the field. Gardner thinks women “bring a different perspectives and approaches to scientific questions and that collective thinking with both men and women result in better research.”

However, she recognizes that many communities are still under-represented in volcanology and sees the need for more diverse role models in academia and the USGS as vital. “People need to see themselves in a field and not feel like a token,” Gardner remarked, “we need to reach out to people with different backgrounds and recognize their pathways will be different than our own.”

Prior to World War 2, most women in the U.S. Geological Survey were confined to desk jobs. Even after the war, if women were permitted in the field, they were often accompanying their geologist husbands. Often, women weren’t included because it was assumed that they should stay home with children, or they couldn’t carry enough weight on their backs to be useful. Field geology and volcanology were seen as the realm for the “rough and ready,” which meant not women.

These long-standing attitudes makes the recent landscape in volcanology stand out. From 2016-2019, three of the five USGS Volcano Observatories were led by women. This was the first time that a majority of the observatories had women as their SIC and only the second time ever that more than one observatory was led by a woman. It was a true turning point in the field.

Looking Into the Earth Instead of Into Space

Christina "Tina" Neal, the current director of the USGS Volcano Science Center, always wanted to be an astronaut. After seeing Sally Ride become the nation’s first female astronaut in 1978, Neal thought that was the career for her. “You can’t underestimate how powerful it is to see a person like you doing a job that excites you,” Neal said. Although her eyes were on space, she ended up studying the Earth with female mentors like Jan Tullis at Brown University as well as Sue Keiffer and Terry Keith at the USGS.

Tina Neal in the field. Credit: Tina Neal, USGS.

Neal recalls being welcomed as a junior scientist at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in 1983. “As a young, white, not-quite-out-of-the-closet gay woman, I was treated warmly with encouraging mentors and colleagues.” Some of this support could be seen as almost comical, with attempts to helicopter portable bathroom facilities to the field for Neal (she refused).

People quickly responded to her requests to remove the “pin up girls” posted around HVO. However, all of this was under the unofficial veil from the USGS that actively discouraged women from leadership positions. Like Terry Keith, Tina points to people like AVO’s Tom Miller as a force for change inside the USGS. He hired a cadre of eight women geologists into the USGS Alaska Branch in Anchorage that changed the landscape. The USGS was still very male in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, so Keith becoming SIC at AVO in 1994 was a “dramatic event that broke the ceiling” for many women in USGS volcanology.

Tom Miller (second from the right) with the AVO staff in 1991, including Tina Neal (far right). Credit: Tina Neal/USGS

In 2015, Neal became the second female SIC at HVO in its’ 110-year history, following a brief stint from 1996-97 where Margaret Mangan filled the role. Neal oversaw HVO during the massive 2018 Kīlauea eruption and was universally praised within the Survey for her handling of the crisis (even as she and her partner searched for a new home after her old one – just 2 miles from the collapsing Halema’uma’u Crater - was evacuated when the National Park closed). However, she remembers negative comments online based on her gender and sexuality, showing how far we are from accepting women as leaders.

Looking towards the future, Neal sees a different volcanological community and USGS. “The younger generation is much more diverse,” noting that hiring from scientists to tech positions are reflecting a different eligible and interested population.

Tina Neal in an airplane near Redoubt in Alaska. Credit: Tina Neal.

“Diverse research teams produce a richer variety of hypotheses and perspectives on a problem” said Neal, “and it can produce science that is better received by indigenous and local communities.” Yet, “Biased attitudes are still there,” she adds. Even in recent interactions she was described as “pushy” based on her responses, a word that usually get translated to “strong and confident” when the same behavior is attributed to men. Many things have changed, but some things have remained the same.

Come back Wednesday for the second half of this story ...

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.