New Faculty: Jeffrey Johnson, Geophysicist, Jan. 16, 2008

Dr. Jeffrey Johnson by Valerie Kimble

SOCORRO -- Dr. Jeffrey Johnson records the sounds volcanoes make before and during eruption. The integrated study of volcanic earthquakes and inaudible low-frequency sounds is an emerging form of geophysical research that has potential for scientific study of volcano physics and predictive applications.

Johnson, a new assistant professor of geophysics with the New Mexico Tech Department of Earth and Environmental Science (E&ES) will be offering a first-of-its kind class in volcanic geophysics this Spring.

“We have big plans to grow the volcanic geophysics program at Tech for both undergraduate and graduate students,” said Johnson, whose research has taken him from the ice of Antarctica to the Andes Mountains of Ecuador; and, now, from New Hampshire to Socorro.

Johnson at Santa Maria Volcano, Guatemala

Left: Jeffrey Johnson making observations of the erupting Santiaguito dome of Santa Maria Volcano, Guatemala. More from this experiment at

His interest in volcanoes dates back to his early years, when, as a 17-year-old high school exchange student, Johnson lived at the base of volcanoes common to Ecuador.

Johnson grew up in Massachusetts, but doesn’t consider the Bay State “home.” He spent five years in northern California as an undergraduate and graduate student at Stanford, and another five years at the University of Washington where in 2000 he earned a Ph.D. in geophysics.

Johnson accepted a research faculty position with the University of New Hampshire in Durham, where he spent a total of four years teaching and running a research program. “It was a good home and nice to be near family, but I missed the more exciting geology.”

That excitement centers on the geophysical characteristics of active volcanoes, or what Johnson calls the earthquake studies of volcanoes.

“I study the sounds produced by volcanoes, such as what’s happening at the vent; the chemical and physical properties of the erupted magma, and the geometry of the volcanic systems themselves,” he said.

“At this point, the idea is to have a better understanding of volcanic systems, and to track eruptive behavior, which often can lead to larger eruptions,” said Johnson.

Planet Earth has its share of experimental sites, as it were. “You can find a dozen or more volcanoes erupting around the world at any given time,” said the geophysicist, adding that in a few cases, he has plugged permanent sensors at the volcanic craters to track their activities over long periods of time.

The opportunity to work at the Mt. Erebus Volcano Observatory (MEVO), the southern-most active volcano in the world, was one of the attractions which drew Johnson to New Mexico Tech.

Research at Mt. Erebus is conducted primarily by scientists in the university’s E&ES department and the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, following early studies in the 1970s sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Johnson first met Dr. Philip Kyle, an associate professor with E&ES and a name long linked with the Antarctic volcano on Ross Island, in 1999 as a graduate student, helping to develop instrumentation, such as sound microphones, at the site.

Tech, he said, has a great core faculty in volcanic research, including Kyle and Dr. Rick Aster, both professors of geophysicists; and Dr. Nelia Dunbar and Dr. William McIntosh of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.

“They’re all experts,” Johnson said. “My job is to complement them from a geophysics angle.”

On tap for his spring semester course are field trips to conduct research with volcanic geophysical sensors. “We’ll be deploying monitoring instruments both domestically and internationally as part of the growing curriculum in volcano studies,” he said.

As such, students will “get their hands dirty” out in the field collecting data from active volcanoes.

Mt. Erebus is not the sole focus of Johnson’s research. “I’m very fond of working in Latin America, specifically Ecuador, one of the places where volcanoes actually affect people,” he said. “I get to see how technology may have a human application.”

That application centers on predictive factors that have the potential to save lives through an early warning process.

Having spent the past two years studying volcanoes in Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico, Johnson is conversant in Spanish. He’s also worked in Russia, Chile and Italy, “but my major focus is in Latin America,” he said.

Johnson has long-standing relationships with scientists affiliated with the Geophysical Institute of the Escuela Politecnica Nacional headquartered in Quito, Ecuador. “They’re a great group of people to work for,” he said.

Johnson described the developing Third World nation as a lovely country, very poor, but also very motivated in terms of education and other self-improvement, as evidenced by the Geophysical Institute itself.

Joining the geophysicist at New Mexico Tech are Omar Marcillo, a Ph.D. student from Ecuador who arrives next week; and two other grad students, one British and one American, who have already settled into their new community.

Johnson, too, is making himself at home in Socorro with his family – wife, Liz, whom he met at Stanford, and their two young children, three-year-old Charlie and Ella, two months.

Enjoyment in and appreciation for the outdoors are things Johnson hopes to pass on to his children. Liz has already been indoctrinated.

“Liz is a super, gung-ho traveler,” said Johnson, adding that field work is physically intensive, often involving carrying heavy batteries up a tall mountainside. Liz, he said, has carried her share at his side.

She is a registered nurse who plans to return to work once the children are older.
An avid mountain climber, Johnson said he is excited to be back in the Rocky Mountains. “I feel challenged to get back to the wilderness – and I do love the big mountains,” he said.

Johnson also voiced an appreciation for the ethnic makeup of his new community, adding, “And I do like the food here!”

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