by Thomas Guengerich

SOCORRO, N.M., June 26, 2008 – New Mexico Tech geophysics professor Jeffrey Johnson is leading a field trip to view and measure geology in action.

Jeffrey Johnson

Left: Tech geophysics professor Jeffrey Johnson on a research trip to Chile.

The Tech professor is leading a 10-day graduate level course at the active volcano Kilauea in Hawaii. The 10 students enrolled in the course will place seismic sensors at the volcano, collect data and analyze the information, under Johnson’s tutelage. The sensors detect movements of the earth – earthquakes and tremors that are too small to be sensed by humans.

Johnson is teaching in conjunction with the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes, which is based in Hawaii. The 10 students enrolled in the class include three Tech students. The other seven participants are all international students – from Peru, Ecuador, Philippines, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Vanuatu.

“These students are all from countries that have active volcanoes,” Johnson said. “They are all interested in eruption monitoring and learning tools to better understand eruption physics. There aren’t a lot of institutions that do geophysical volcanology field courses, so this class should serve as a great recruiting tool for New Mexico Tech.”

The title of the graduate level class is Geophysical Field Volcanology School and Digital Sound Processing. Johnson will teach the students everything about digital sensing – beginning with digging holes and burying seismometers and finishing with analyzing the data and writing scientific reports.

“Volcanology is a great opportunity to excite students,” Johnson said. “They get to see geophysics in action in a custom-built laboratory. You plop down your sensors and you get data. We can pull this off in a week because volcanoes are so dynamic. At Kilauea we will directly observe the eruption of lava with our sensors and with our eyes”

Kilauea has been active since 1983, creating new coastline and destroying everything in the path of its lava flows. In recent months, a new vent has opened near the summit and the lava flows entering the ocean are spectacular, Johnson said.

“I’m very excited because Kilauea has been especially active lately,” he said. “This is a very exciting opportunity for students and I fully expect it to be great publicity for the university, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to do real science too.”

Using seismometers, Johnson and the students will gather valuable information about fluid movement and rock fracturing inside volcanoes. Volcanoes like Kilauea produce copious earthquakes. Johnson’s array of sensing equipment will track the location of these earthquakes and the types of seismic waves that are generated. By combining the data from several sensing locations, he and the students will be able to produce images of underground structures and to map the locations and movements of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Ultimately this work helps to facilitate better understanding of eruptive processes and eruption prediction.

New Mexico Tech vice president of research and economic development Van Romero said the university has a long history of cutting-edge research in volcanology and geoscience.

“When I was a student at New Mexico Tech in the 1970s, I had the opportunity to participate in research that focused on volcanic activity in Hawaii,” said Romero, who earned his doctorate in physics. “It was a great experience. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot.”

This is the first planned annual field geophysics class Johnson will teach at volcanoes. Next year’s field study will be at the active Tungurahua Volcano in Ecuador in conjunction with the Instituto Geofisico of the Escuela Politecnica Nacional in Quito.

Students interested in geophysics can visit the page or contact Jeffrey Johnson at or (575) 835-6398.

– NMT –